When composer John Williams in February told KUSC that 2019’s Star Wars: Episode IX is the last entry in the fabled franchise he plans to score, it triggered an industry guessing game as to whom the legendary maestro would pass the baton. If quantity factors with quality, game composer Gordy Haab may have an edge. Haab has created more than 15 hours of music for nine Star Wars games. The most recent — Electronic Arts’ Star Wars: Battlefront II — was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, earning him the video game score of the year at May 23’s ASCAP Screen Music Awards.
“I got very nervous when I heard your stuff,” Solo: A Star Wars Story composer John Powell was overheard telling Haab at the ASCAP event. And while it was mentioned from the stage that Powell was the first composer to write a theme for Chewbacca, Haab had actually written a theme for the furry Wookie as part of his 2015 Battlefront chores. “I also wrote the theme for [Rodian bounty hunter] Greedo, and to my knowledge no other theme for Greedo has ever been written,” says Haab.
“Gordy is one of the few composers in the world on [Star Wars creator George] Lucas’ short list,” says Steve Schnur, worldwide executive and president of music for Electronic Arts. Marquee characters created by Lucas for the films appear in the games accompanied by their original themes and about 120 minutes of Williams’ music is featured on each of the Battlefronts, with credits reading “Original Star Wars film music by John Williams. Original music composed and orchestrated by Gordy Haab.” It presented an interesting challenge for Haab, who, for the Battlefront games and expansion packs, created about three hours of music that must live alongside that of the maestro without feeling derivative.
Haab, 42, grew up in Virginia, outside of Richmond. His parents took him to see Star Wars in the theater when it was released in 1977 and, although he was only 1 years old and too young to remember, he cites this as the first in a string of events that had “the music of John Williams becoming part of my DNA before I knew anything about composing music.” It wasn’t until Haab was 6 when he saw another film with a Williams score, Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, that he began to act on his musical passions. “I picked up my dad’s guitar and started plucking out the melody to E.T., trying to figure it out. So my dad said, ‘Let’s get this kid guitar lessons!’” As a teen he wore out three copies of the score to The Empire Strikes Back but also loved everything from Led Zeppelin to Duke Ellington.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in jazz composition at Virginia Commonwealth University where he learned to write music the old fashioned way, by hand. “A lot of people fought it, because technology obviously makes the process a lot easier,” he says. “Notation software, sequencers, synthesizers, samplers — all of that allows you to hear your music almost immediately, but in order to hear the music in your head you have to get away from something that can play it back to you and give you that immediate trial-and-error feedback. It really teaches your brain to craft music.”
While the video game industry demands use of the latest technologies to deliver quick mock-ups for publisher approvals, and he learned all about digital gadgetry while earning his master’s degree in scoring at University of Southern California, he says, “I still write with a pencil and paper, sitting at the piano, with no computer screen staring me in the face. Then I give my manuscript sketches to my assistants to do synthesized mock-ups. Once they’re approved I orchestrate everything by hand.”
One can’t help but feel Williams would approve. Although the 86-year-old legend peppers his interviews with wistful remarks about how he wishes he’d take the time to learn more about technology, it’s lip service given the results. Williams has won 24 Grammys and five Academy Awards, with his 51 nominations making him the second-most nominated individual after Walt Disney with 59.
It was Schnur who plucked Haab from a chorus line of eight composers on 2011’s Star Wars: The Old Republic and made him sole music man on the 2013 Xbox follow-up Star Wars Kinect. Battlefront was to be the first Star Wars release under an exclusive deal with Lucasfilm’s new owner, Disney, and there was a lot riding on it. Schnur recalls a 2014 meeting with developers at EA’s DICE studio in Stockholm, Sweden, where they were evaluating music from about 100 composers auditioning for the gig: “We got down to two — one was a guy that constantly writes with John Williams and the other was Gordy Haab.”
Analyzing Haab’s tracks, Schnur says he “didn’t believe Gordy actually wrote it. I couldn’t imagine anybody was that good.” Back in Los Angeles, he arranged an interrogation session. “We met at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Santa Monica [Boulevard] and in walks this 40-something, unassuming guy and the first thing I said to him — and I didn’t mean to be rude — was ‘there’s no way you wrote this! I don’t believe it.’ And he kind of smirked, and he said, ‘Well, I really did.’”
Schnur says, “My first thought was John Williams needs to know who this guy is, immediately.” Although the two have yet to meet, Haab is — at least insofar as EA’s global enterprise is concerned — Williams’ heir apparent and “a world class composer at an unprecedented level.”
Among Haab’s main challenges in Battlefront II was writing a theme for a new central character, Imperial fighter pilot Iden Versio. “We wanted to have a theme for her that was rooted in that Empire darker sound but also have a grandeur, since the gamer is potentially playing as Iden. We needed a theme that could easily translate from one mood or emotional standpoint to the next. We wanted to have something singable and recognizable — as iconic as the ‘Imperial March’ is to Darth Vader.” (Hear the Iden Versio Extended Suite exclusively here.)
Halo Wars 2 also had a strong female lead. “I getting asked a lot as to ‘how do you approach that? Do you write a feminine theme?’” says Haab. “And the answer is, no, I write a hero’s theme and it doesn’t matter if the hero is male or female. The arc is the same: someone has to go through a major story change and come out strong and heroic. That translates gender quite easily.”
Whether Haab’s video game career will translate to film scoring remains to be seen. Schnur, for one, is optimistic.
“The first composer EA hired for original music was Michael Giacchino, who did [1999’s] Medal of Honor,” he says. “Michael went on to win the Academy Award for Up and he became the first person other than John Williams to score a Star Wars movie, with [2016’s] Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Gordy is the next generation.”