The Best in the Business: Dragon Age II Composer Inon Zur

Inon Zur is an immensely talented man. Recipient of a number of awards, including a Hollywood Music in Media Award in 2009 for Best Original Video Game Song (Dragon Age: Origins – "I Am the One"), Zur is one of the best composers in the video game industry. His sweeping scores have graced dozens of games, including Dragon Age: Origins, Crysis, Fallout 3, Prince of Persia and many more. With his latest project (Dragon Age II) hitting store shelves today, I checked in with Zur to gain some insight into his composition process. You can see our entire conversation transcribed below. As you read, be sure to listen to the music embedded throughout the piece.

Eric Blattberg: Tell me a bit about yourself. How did your interest in music composition begin, and how did you arrive where you are today?

Inon Zur: I was born in Israel, and since a very early age I showed everybody how much I loved music. My parents got it, and put me through a lot of music [training]. I’ve been studying piano and French horn from an early age, and I attended a lot of classical music classes. By the time that I was 18, I was very informed about everything that had to do with (mainly classical) music. And then I had to be recruited to the Israeli army, and I served four years, so I got disconnected from the whole field.

After I was released, I really wanted to continue my music adventure. After taking some courses at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, I realized, “I’m not sure this is for me,” and decided to move to the United States. I studied here at a very, very good school called the Grove School of Music. It doesn’t exist anymore, but in the 90s it was extremely strong. It was really was of the stronger building blocks of my career. I attended for one year, then I studied more at UCLA, and damn, here I am.

Dragon Age II – Main Theme

So, now that you’re here, tell me what you do on a day-to-day basis. What’s a day in the life of Inon Zur like?

It’s a fair amount of picking up the older kid, and the middle kid, then helping my wife with the smaller kid — and then I can start working. Work is a lot of composition. I’m engaged usually with at least three to four projects on a regular basis, so it’s a lot of delegating. Every day I’m targeting how many minutes I’m going to compose today, and I have to meet this challenge, otherwise I’ll fall behind and I don’t want to. It’s also a lot of studio work, sometimes it’s traveling, but mainly it’s me and myself here.

Dragon Age: Origins – I Am The One

After composing Dragon Age: Origins’ award-winning score, did you feel pressured to produce an even more brilliant soundtrack for the sequel? How did you approach that challenge?

The challenge is always there whether it’s award-winning or not. The pressure is always on to produce something… well, I always want to produce something better, but I realize this is not always totally up to me. I mean, it sort of is, but I don’t have much control of this, it depends how it comes out. I do my best.

But every new project presents a huge amount of challenge. You know, when people see my name they have certain expectations, and I’m trying to live up to them and it’s not easy.

Dragon Age II – Qunari On The Rise

Did you work with the Northwest Sinfonia orchestra for Dragon Age II?

No, I actually worked with the Hollywood orchestra here in Los Angeles, the same people that are recording all the movie scores. This time we’ve chosen to do it here for a few reasons, and I think it came out very special.

And you conduct the orchestra yourself, correct?

Oh yeah, I conduct the orchestra all of the time.

What’s it like working with them, hearing your music really come to life around you?

This is pretty much as good as it gets when it comes to music. Of course, the composing part is really enjoyable and satisfying, but the moment when you’re waving your baton and the real thing starts to happen — another 60 people are sharing the thing that you have in your mind — it’s quite a powerful notion, and I must say that it really brings me up every time it happens.

Dragon Age II – Rogue Heart

So I was listening to the Dragon Age II soundtrack recently and I heard a lot of emphasis on string instruments. In songs like Hawke Family Theme, for example, there’s a very somber use of strings. What emotions are strings able to evoke that other instruments can’t?

This time, since it’s a very personal story, we decided to go with something that is more personal. So for the Hawke family, their instrument and theme is the string quartet. For Dragon Age II, I’m using the Lyris String Quartet. They are very known right here in southern California, but they are growing into an internationally acclaimed string quartet. They’re really great players. I use them to converse with the orchestra, almost. The dialogue between the string quartet and the whole orchestra really created this relationship between this small family and the whole world that surrounds it.

Dragon Age II – Hawke Family Theme

Tell me about Florence + the Machine’s contribution to Dragon Age II. How did that collaboration come about, what was it like working with them, and why did you choose “I’m Not Calling You A Liar” for Varric’s theme?

We really loved Florence’s voice, and we though that it really empowered the whole Dragon Age world. Mike Laidlaw, the executive producer on Dragon Age II, felt “I’m Not Calling You A Liar” conveyed more than her other songs. Have you already played the demo of the game?

I have, yes.

So you know in the beginning, Varric is basically just telling Cassandra bullsh*t, you know? And Cassandra says something like, “Stop lying to me, why don’t you just tell me exactly what happened.” And the whole thing is between truth and falsehood throughout the whole game; what really happened versus what people are saying happened. So Mike thought [“I’m Not Calling You A Liar”] was a good text for that.

Now, regarding Florence, that is a great story. Steven Schnur, president of music at EA worldwide, heard about her about her and said, “Let’s use Florence.” And I said, “Suuure? What do you want to do?” He replied, “Oh, she’s just going to send us a track, and we’re going to send it to BioWare to make sure it’s ok.” So she sent over the track, “I’m Not Calling You A Liar,” and we loved the song but we really didn’t think that the whole arrangement around the songs fit. So since they sent it over with everything broken down, I started to eliminate more and more and more components out of the arrangement. Eventually, I decided to go with just the vocals and dropped everything else.

Dragon Age II – I’m Not Calling You A Liar

And she was alright with those drastic edits?

Well, you know, what remained was just her vocal, a cappella vocal. And it was on Sunday, and I had to turn in the complete version on Thursday. So I sat in my studio and basically composed a completely different arrangement for that. On Sunday night I sent it to her, and I didn’t know how long it would take her to respond, but she responded very fast. She and her label really liked the new arrangement.

So from there it was like a big rollercoaster because we had to record everything in the best possible quality. So first I chose the musicians: a base player, a very known guy; and also a percussionist, who is playing all over Hollywood right now. We recorded on Monday and Tuesday, but during this I had already sent my orchestrator all the arrangements, and he arranged it for strings only. So on Wednesday I get to the studio and there are 42 musicians waiting for me there. So again we recorded the song, and then the day after Jack Joseph Puig, who is a really well-known mixer, mixed it in OceanWave. So that’s it! It was a done deal. It was very fast and it was very involved, but it was an amazing experience.

Dragon Age II – Fenris Theme

What’s it like to compose a character theme? Tell me a bit about that process of examining a character and turning their very essence into music.

You need to know really who the character is — well, not only who he is, but also what he really wants. What is his nature? How does he look? How does he walk? How does he converse with people? Is he malicious, is he a more shady kind of a guy, is he straightforward? All of this is information that you have to have before composing music or thematic arrangements for this character.

When during a game’s development do you compose its music? For example, when did you compose the score for Dragon Age II? When did you begin and how long did that process take?

I think I began at the beginning of last year, or even a little bit earlier. The whole thing took roughly a year of composing, maybe a little bit more. The previous Dragon Age took closer to two years, because it took them a much longer time to put together the game. So, it really depends on when you’re being brought to the project.

For example, there were a few games where I was brought to the project really late in the process, when the games were almost finished. In a case like that, usually you have somewhere around two to three months to compose at the most. If you’re brought on in the early stages, though, then you’re just along for the ride. You don’t have to write every day, but you definitely need to follow up on what’s going on, how the game is evolving and so on.

Dragon Age II – Love Scene

What is it about video games that inspires you more than other media? Or is this industry simply where you found the most success professionally?

Composing for games is extremely challenging. On top of the music that you need to write which has to convey all the emotion of the dramatic events, video game music also needs to adjust itself to the environment from a ‘play’ point of view. So you have to really build the music so that it can loop, it can be broken into stems, it can work as a number of variations, etcetera. You have to write three queues in one queue, basically; one of them very low intensity, the other one mid intensity, and the last one with a very strong intensity. This way, you can jump from variation to variation without it feeling very abrupt. These kind of techniques are being developed every day, and each game calls for different kinds of techniques. It’s very challenging, but it’s very rewarding, and this notion does not exist when it comes to TV or movies.

Are you a gamer yourself? Do you play the games you work on?

I wouldn’t call myself a gamer, because I’m not good enough (laughs). I do play games, but I’m not a ‘gamer.’ Because I work with the people in the highest level of gaming, I know what ‘gamer’ is, and I’m nothing even close to it.

Do you have a favorite video game soundtrack, though? Actually, let me split this into two parts: what’s your favorite soundtrack that you’ve composed, and what’s your favorite soundtrack that you didn’t work on?

Huh, those are very difficult questions. They’re all my sons and I really love them all, and each one of them has sides that I like and the sides that I like less. Nothing is perfect, obviously. But even when I’m putting one next to the other, I cannot figure out which one my favorite is. It’s the same thing with other video game soundtracks that other people wrote. I like certain composers, but to pick an all-time favorite is really hard to say.

Yeah, that’s certainly a difficult question. So, what’s up next for you? With Dragon Age II out this week, what are you working on now?

Unfortunately, I cannot disclose specifically what I’m working on — I’m working on four new titles — but expect some exciting news that will come in the next month or so. One title is supposed to come out in May, another is coming in October, and the other two… probably end of this year, early next year.

Any last comments before we wrap up?

Well thank you very much for having me. It’s always a pleasure, and I’m happy and thankful that you guys pay attention to what’s going on, to consider me, and I just want to convey my appreciation.

Great, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We really appreciate it.


The official Dragon Age II soundtrack is available on iTunes and Amazon.