Exclusive Interviews

The Improbable Journey From Persian Classical Musician to Video Game Composer – An Interview with Nima Fakhrara

Nima Fakhrara interview

Quantic Dream’s latest game, Detroit: Become Human, has attracted headlines since it was announced way back in 2013. Boasting a budget rumoured at around $30 million and a unique gameplay vision to go with the studio’s usual penchant for dramatic storytelling, the title released earlier this year after a four-year production period. Director and CEO of Quantic Dream David Cage has always polarised audiences and critics, but Detroit is definitely the product of his vision: a game where the player plays a pivotal role, but does not impinge on its cinematic nature, and one where choices truly have non-redeemable consequences.

But the focus here is not on the game itself, rather on another aspect where it is unique: its score. As a direct result of the game’s branching storylines and the varied stories of its three main protagonists—Markus, Connor, and Kara—Quantic Dream opted for three different composers to bring out each of their narratives. One of those composers is Nima Fakhrara, whose task was to tell Connor’s story through his music, and who recently spoke to OnlySP about not only the game, but also how he came to be involved in scoring video games and his journey to scoring Connor’s tale.

This first part of a two-part interview focuses on Fakhrara himself, addressing everything from his musical beginnings to how his style evolved and how he became involved in both films and games. Part two will then focus on his work on Detroit: Become Human and how Fakhrara put together the music for Connor’s storyline.

A Tehran native, Fakhrara’s story begins in Iran, when games were played to pass the time, not a potential career option. “I am a huge gamer,” Nima said. “I grew up playing Commodore 64 and IBM, when computers were coming out and they had 64-bit RAM in there, and you were running around and finding different cartridges for the Commodore 64Especially in Iran it was really fun, but yeah I mean I grew up as a gamer.”

Nima Fakhrara

The market for games in Iran at the time was truncated, not as diverse as in the West, but Fakhrara managed to play what was available. “I remember some of the games that I played, when I look back on them…I played Lemmings, that was one of those games that I played religiously. I also played Mortal Kombat, which I could still play you the theme for. I was one of those kids that just loved it… We didn’t have many video games in Iran, I didn’t actually play Zelda until I was in the US.

Mario was around but we called things by different names. I realised that Contra, the two-player shooting game, was called something completely different in Iran, and I loved those games and I still hum the themes, but I didn’t know how the whole industry worked. Especially because in Iran, you don’t talk about how you’re going to be a film composer or a video game composer, they’re like ‘who the hell do you think you are?’ There was no education about it. You didn’t know how to do it. So, for me, it was this far-fetched idea; I didn’t know it was possible to do something like that.”

Whether as a result of the narrowed horizons or out of a desire to follow other musical passions, Fakhrara’s musical journey began with a very traditional Iranian instrument. “I grew up playing Persian classical music,” he explained. “I played the santur, it was the first instrument that I learned. I was taught by some of the greatest masters of the instrument, people like Parviz Meshkatian, Faramarz Payvar, who have now both actually passed away, as well as Saeed Sabet. Music has always been in my blood.”

A santur

A santur

The santur is a Persian box-shaped dulcimer instrument, meaning it has many strings attached to its frame, which are played with two mallet-like accessories. The santur is a unique instrument with a distinctive sound that has great cultural significance, but Fakhrara has mixed feelings on it being his first instrument and, indeed, musical love. “I wish my parents gave me a guitar or a piano at first, but I mean I love the instrument—there are a few of them sitting at my studio. I play them once in a while, and actually I play them on Detroit, but it’s kind of like the inside of a piano. It’s difficult just because of the mechanism, the way you play it, makes it different to any other instrument. The weird part about it, if you want to get philosophical, is that there is no part of the instrument that is actually touching you. In the case of a piano, your fingers are physically touching the keys, so there’s this emotional connection you could technically have with the instrument. With the santur there is literally nothing, unless you want to say the hammers you use to play connect with your fingers, so the emotional connection is very difficult to make.”

Nevertheless, the instrument left an indelible mark, and Fakhrara is grateful for it. “I mean…once I have kids I would never have them play the santur first, but I am absolutely grateful that I played it, because of the way it has influenced my journey through the music industry. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do this. I think, with the limitations that the instrument has—like for example, there are no accidentals or modulations that you can do unless you retune the entire instrument as you’re playing—allowed me to think outside of the box. That meant that learning new instruments in order for me to be able to verbalise or express myself musically was one of those key moments where I considered what the santur couldn’t do, and considered what other instruments would be able to do. So, that opened up my eyes to other instruments.

“I like to say I make noise with other instruments. I can’t play them unless I sit there and figure out a tune. I’m not bagging on anybody playing the santur, it’s a fascinating instrument, but the limitations it has are physically demanding, it’s like, unless you’re just focused on one part of Iranian classical music, what are you going to do?”

When Fakhrara made the move from the Middle East to the United States, the love of those traditional instruments stayed with him. “I moved to the US from Iran in the summer of ’96. I lived in [Washington] D.C. for a while, before moving to L.A. about 12 years ago. Originally, just like any other Middle Easterner, I was a pre-Med major. Because of the oppressed regime over there, the education system doesn’t open your mind to new avenues and possibilities, and the thought was, ‘okay, I’m going to go to the US and study because I’m going to be be a doctor and just kind of do my santur playing on the side.’  Eventually though, and it was literally a one-night decision, I decided to pursue music.”

Even though he had returned to his passion, the move brought with it a dose of reality, one which he has touched on already. “Once I moved I knew I wanted to be a performer. I wanted to play dulcimer or santur, but I realised that there’s no money in it, and there was no way that I was going to become a master dulcimer player for orchestras.”

But as one dream may have fallen to the wayside, another sprouted, largely down to Fakhrara’s love of film: here was a way he could blend his two passions together. “There’s something musical about film, and there’s things that you can do with films as well, musically speaking.

“One of the scores that influenced a lot of this whole thing was Black Hawk Down. When I was listened to it, there were a lot of interesting textures that were very familiar. These Iranian textures persist throughout the entire score so I thought I could do something like that. I started doing a lot of short films and then realised that there’s more money to be made than becoming a master dulcimer player. I knew then that there was a beautiful world where I could combine film and music. From there, I was able to just stumble upon a bunch of composers to work with and intern with.”

These opportunities, however, did not come via pure chance. Fakhrara was tenacious in pursuing his goal. “Well I’m a very persistent person. In fact, … my wife calls me a persistent motherfucker,” he chuckled. “When I want something, I pursue it and I get it, so for me when I decided I wanted to do film music, I started working with a lot of amazing composers. I was able to work with Christophe Beck, Michael Levine, people like that. I probably scored about 35 short films within the span of about a year at that time.”

As a result of all that work, one thing indubitably led to another. “The first short film that I did, the director went on to do a feature film, which I then did too. Then I met a lot of people out of a lot of different schools—AFI,  USC, UCLA—and one of the film-makers that I worked with was called Bandar Albaliwi, who is actually doing another film now. I did his first short film while he was in AFI, and then he went on to teach in Florida and after all those times we’re working again on his feature film coming up. So it’s all about me making the connections and actually working with different people, and just trying to do everything and be able to just create musically.”

His work in films has led to Fakhrara working on projects that star the likes of Luke Hemsworth and Rita Wilson, establishing what is now a flourishing career in the medium. A connection to video games sprouted out of that hard work, resulting in an offer to work on a certain famous horror franchise. “One of my friends and previous agents, Koyo Sanae, brought a project over to me: a very tiny project by the name of Resident Evil Revelations 2,” Fakhrara joked. “It was a really cool moment for me where I realised that I could play a Resident Evil game and also actually do the music for it. I was approached was because of all the weird instruments that I create, and that was the first video game that I scored. I was an avid gamer as a kid in Iran so it was really cool to be able to work on that.”

With his foot in the video gaming door, events eventually led to him being able to work on 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, an indie adventure game set in the midst of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that resonates a lot, not only with Iranians living out of the country, but also with its audience in general. “Doing 1979 with Navid Khonsari [the game’s director] was pretty crazy. It was a battle to get Navid to call me back, but eventually he did. I feel like I heard about it maybe two years prior to him getting back to me. Eventually though, I met with him and we kind of clicked. The dude is talented.”

1979 Revolution: Black Friday

1979 was, to say the least, one of my toughest projects I was actually involved with,” he elaborated. “I always wanted to do something that played a little bit with the old Iranian stuff I used to do, and just to combine the worlds that I was a part of. When I moved to LA and started composing music, especially at the beginning, I just didn’t tell anybody that I was Iranian. It was just one of those things, I mean, we see it every day. We see it that people don’t want to associate themselves with Middle Eastern cultures or whatever it is. So, for me, I always try to sneak in some Middle Eastern ideas, even if it’s an instrument played in an unusual way, like on Detroit when I played the santur.

For 1979 I wanted to just be head-on. I wanted to be super Middle Eastern, write Iranian stuff. But then once I started writing for it, Navid wrote me a really nice e-mail saying ‘we’re not telling an Iranian story per se. It has to resonate internationally, it’s not just our story.’ And we like to say it in the game, that this is ‘your story’, you as a character are making choices in order for those choices to affect the game later on.”

1979 also contained a personal angle that made it tough to work on. “It was a monster,” Fakhrara admitted. “Detroit is as well, but 1979 was so familiar to me that I had to step back and have it not be so familiar to me. The amount of shit that we took from Iran because of doing that project was crazy, but I don’t think androids are going to be mad at me after Detroit!”

While Fakhrara’s desire was obviously to make 1979 as authentic as possible, he is also an avid experimenter in regard to finding ways to create unique and individual sounds, which means he regularly commissions and uses instruments of his own design in his scores, some of which he has showcased on his YouTube channel. This singular approach to composition obviously helps him stand out, but are the instruments created before approaching a score or are they purposefully built with a score in mind?

“It’s one of those things,” Fakhrara explained, “which goes back to the whole Persian classical music aspect of my background. In the Persian classical world, there are no bass notes, unless you change the instrument or play a non-Iranian instrument, so from an early age I always wanted to modify instruments in order for me to achieve a specific colour that I’m trying to approach.

“When I moved to the US, I was introduced to this idea by one of my teachers, John Schnyder. He learned a lot of stuff from this gentleman named Harry Partch [a composer who was famous for his custom-made instruments]. The idea behind what he was going for was that within a 12-note octave, there are way more notes in his mind. So he created instruments in order for him to be able to convey his musical palettes. For me it’s the same thing. Because of studying under John and my background, I took Partch’s idea and built instruments to be able to convey a musical colour palette that I want to convey. My ideas come before the score, to say it in a short form.”

Fakhrara used Detroit as an example to illustrate this. “For Connor’s story, it was the same thing. I wanted to create something that was in my head. This idea of a sub-harmonic guitar. When I talked to my welder for it, we kind of had a really long conversation so we came up with the idea of a twenty-foot guitar that, when you play it, it sounds a certain way. So once it came back to the studio, and I played it, it literally made no noise, and I was like ‘oh shit, we made a mistake.’ But once I got back to the birth of my idea which was sub-harmonics, we applied contact microphones to the thing and then added that to the amplifier to amplify the sound, and it became a sub-harmonic guitar that you hear throughout the score.”

To read more about how Fakhrara put together Connor’s score for Detroit: Become Human, tune in for part 2 of the interview.

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