I recently had the pleasure of interviewing an indie icon I truly admire. Joseph Toscano, better known by the moniker ZhayTee, is a computer programmer and musician. Having already worked on the soundtrack for free game projects, his involvement with the MOD community stood out with the track “Absconditus” for Minerva: Metastasis (listen to it below). Now, having recently released the game “Luchi Garage Sale”, ZhayTee sheds light on his thoughts on inspiration, licensing, MODs, and future projects.
Arthur Protasio: So, for starters: name, age, nationality, and profession?
ZhayTee: Joseph Toscano, 26, American, Computer Programmer.
AP: I got to know your work, musical works to be more specific, through the HL2 MOD Minerva. How does that fit into your history and the “Computer Programmer” classification?
ZT: Actually, the history there is quite short and simple: I was browsing the Internet several years ago for nice-looking Half-Life 2 mods, and I stumbled across the work-in-progress that is now known as Minerva: Metastasis. I thought it looked quite professional, so I promptly e-mailed Adam Foster (the author of the mod). He was very receptive to the idea of original music for his mod, and so I went to work. The first song I produced is called “Absconditus”, and it was included in the game shortly after I finished it. After that, Adam Foster and I kept in touch and I produced several more works for Minerva during its final years of development. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but Absconditus became well-liked by many fans of Minerva.
AP: Consider me one of those fans. Two things impressed me on Minerva. The game design as a whole, not to mention the fact of having such a large and well done mod by one person, and the music. The greatest experience created by a game is the sum of its parts, if not greater, and music definitely makes the player “feel” the mood.
ZT: I’m glad you enjoyed it!
AP: Since music is part of the game experience, it could be said narrative is as well. What’s your opinion on the importance of game story and how it relates to you?
ZT: Game story is very important, because it gives the music composer an idea of what to compose; the mood, the timing, the instruments to choose, etc. All of that comes from having a good deal of source material to work with.
AP: And how does the music-creation role relate to programming?
ZT: Only tangentially. My interest in computer programming and music creation only intersect in one way: being a computer enthusiast has made me a game-playing enthusiast, and for most of my life I have greatly admired the work of certain composers of game music. Although I will submit that I did write a custom piece of software (called “Gaffe”) to aid my music creation with a couple specific songs. It was an interesting challenge.
AP: Composers such as?
ZT: Some names include Michael Land (of Lucasarts fame), Nobuo Uematsu (of Final Fantasy fame), and several lesser-known game music composers who emerged from the demo scene of the late 80s and early 90s, such as Jeroen Tel (Wave) Olof Gustaffson (Blazier), and Raphael Gesqua (Audiomonster).
AP: Could you explain a bit more about Gaffe?
ZT: Gaffe is a small utility I wrote in C to modify a stream of audio in various ways and then write the result to disk. It allowed for the creation of some interesting and eclectic sound effects which were used in my album “Everyone is an Artist” under the band moniker “Vir Heroicus”.
AP: Nice to know about. How did you release this album?
ZT: I wrote a small website at http://virheroicus.com/ using Ruby on Rails. That is its primary distribution point, although I also submitted the entire album to last.fm, jamendo.com, and soundcloud.com.
AP: So your history starts back at college were you learned programming and took part in a crazy electro band?
ZT: Oh, no! Those are recent developments. I began writing music on the piano in the mid 90s, and soon discovered the demo and mod music scene on the Internet at the time. I learned how to make music using impressive multitracking software (simply called “trackers”), which opened up a new world of composition possibilities to me. Since then, I have been doing much of the same: writing songs on the piano, and then fully realizing them with the help of multitracking software. As a frame of reference, “Everyone is an Artist” was published on July 3rd, 2008.
AP: But I got the “went to college to learn programming” part right. Yes?
ZT: I went to college to get a degree in computer science and mathematics. I already knew how to program. I have been programming for as long as I have been writing music.
AP: Interesting. Then why don’t you identify yourself as Computer Programer and Composer?
ZT: I don’t make much money by composing. I have always felt somewhat private about my music. Only lately have I begun actively soliciting licensing contracts for my music (as you can see on the most recent incarnation of my website).
AP: Since you mentioned licensing, your current website is under a “Attribution-Noncommercial” Creative Commons license. Why did you opt for that license?
ZT: The reasons are enumerated in the name of the license itself: 1) I want my name to be attached to my music when it is distributed and used, and 2) I don’t want my music used in a commercial product unless a specific contract is drawn up. I welcome the use of my music in free projects, though!
AP: But your work is always your property, even if you didn’t choose a Creative Commons license, people would still have to give you credit and ask for any kind of authorization. Creative Commons facilitates this “search and asking” process because what you have is a pre-made contract. Why do you think this approach is better than having people always contact you?
ZT: Two major reasons: 1) I feel that the Creative Commons licenses are gaining more and more respect as time goes on, and more and more artists are using them to legally describe their works, and 2) I find the presentation of the Creative Commons licenses (on the website) to be very clear, concise, and understandable. Hence, I include a link to the CC website on my own site, because it doesn’t take a lawyer to decipher the abridged descriptions of the licenses! Anyone can read them and understand the situation.
AP: One of the things I like best are the “Human readable” and “Lawyer readable” descriptions.
AP: By facilitating the comprehension of what is allowed to do with your works you aim for greater publicity, correct? How has that worked out until now?
ZT: No problems so far! I don’t know that it has increased the visibility of my music, but I feel confident that if legal issues crop up, the fact that I’ve attached a CC license to my music will help (rather than hinder) me.
AP: Interesting. And you mentioned free projects as well. What is your view and involvement with those?
ZT: I greatly enjoy free projects, particularly game projects. My music has been included in several free game projects (and one, Tux Racer, has even gone commercial). Aside from Tux Racer, my music has been included in Battle for Wesnoth, Nexuiz, Adonthell: Waste’s Edge, and Pingus. An amusing aside: one night I was out to dinner with some friends, and we paid a visit to the local arcade just for kicks. As it happens, Tux Racer was turned into an arcade cabinet, and my music was coming out of the speakers.
AP: That must be extremely satisfying. And you said being a composer didn’t lead to much profit.
ZT: I didn’t get paid much for that gig, but it was, as you say, quite satisfying.
AP: I probably felt the same way, when I heard the NPCs in 7th Serpent, a Max Payne 2 mod, speak the lines I had written. This feeling of nurturing and creating a certain work. How would feel if someone remixed it? Your CC license allows it, as long as it’s not for commercial purposes.
ZT: I’m fine with that, and it was definitely a conscious decision to allow it via the CC license. As long as I get due credit for being the original composer (as mandated by the CC license), then I say: remix away! It’s interesting to see what people can derive from one of my songs. Sometimes they even make them better.
AP: Have you identified any remixes?
ZT: I occasionally get an e-mail from a person who has made a remix of one of my songs and wants my permission to publish it. For some reason, my Tux Racer songs have been a popular target for remixers. Go figure.
AP: And have these remixes been used in other game projects?
ZT: Not as far as I am aware.
AP: I take it your “remix” statement manifests itself through your songs that use Half-Life and Day of the Tentacle samples, right?
ZT: Perhaps! I love taking small samples of spoken dialogue and building songs around them, which I suppose could be called a remix of sorts. Anyway I see no harm in it, and it has made for some amusing end results.
AP: Agreed. This is the kind of thing you’re seeing presently. The traditional copyright structure is having trouble in controlling all sorts of relationships regarding varied works in this digital age. Girl Talk lives off the remixing of about 30 artists per track, Stephen Colbert’s show was remixed when he interviewed Lawrence Lessig, and Nine Inch Nails (among other artists) would rather license their works under a CC license. From what I see, the licenses are better adapted to times where virtually anything can be acquired and toyed with.
ZT: Old habits die hard, though: many recording labels (and artists) are still clinging to very restrictive licenses in order to turn a profit. And they are certainly free to do so, but there’s definitely a war going on between the two philosophies. I prefer to keep things open and free when it comes to my music.
AP: From and ideology standpoint do you believe by keeping things free you have a better chance of maintaining a good standing with the community or making profit? Or both?
ZT: That’s a difficult question to answer. I’ll say this: I like to keep an idealist mind set when it comes to the topic of licensing my works. I hope that by making use of an open/free license such as a CC license, my standing will be moral and I will make a profit. However, the realist in me says that due to my adoption of such an ideology, I won’t be able to make a living of making music. In order to do that, I’ll have to adopt a more conservative model of licensing and distribution. For now, though, I am not relying on my music as a source of income, so I am able to keep things free!
AP: On the other hand, what has garnered more attention? Your music or your programming?
ZT: My music has garnered more attention than my personal programming projects (such as Luchi Garage Sale @ http://luchigaragesale.com).
AP: But Luchi is your most recent Game Programming endeavor. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
ZT: It’s just a simple arcade-style game. I designed, programmed, and musically-scored it over a period of several weeks. A friend of mine did all of the graphics. It was a fun challenge, and it’s an interesting little game. The most difficult (but ultimately the most rewarding) part was coordinating its release across 3 different Operating System platforms (Mac OS X, Linux (32 and 64 bits), and Windows).
AP: It’s very nice to know that the game is available for all three platforms. As a game related project, this isn’t your first involvement, but regarding a released project in which you played a role other than musically scoring, is it the first?
AP: And what are your plans for Luchi Garage Sale?
ZT: I’m going to release a small update in the near future which will add support for submitting high scores to a web-based leaderboard. Other than that: I’m done with it, and I wish it all the best in the future.
AP: Nice. If Luchi is already done with, what other projects are waiting in line?
ZT: I’m currently working on another small arcade game which will feature a different artistic approach: less textural, more geometric. This time I’m using OpenGL and I will be writing one or two custom shaders. It should be pretty neat!
AP: How do you plan on applying all this work? Any career aspirations?
ZT: For now I create these works for my own personal enjoyment, and with the hope that others, too, will enjoy them. Whether or not I push them into the commercial realm remains to be seen.
AP: So working in the games industry isn’t your goal, but you’re not crossing it off?
AP: And even if working isn’t part of your plans, you’ve been a gamer since…?
ZT: As early as I can remember.
AP: And what games have you recently been tackling?
ZT: I occasionally dive into Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3 these days.
AP: Then what would be your greatest game making inspirations?
ZT: I’ve always been a great fan of Blizzard games due to the amount of effort they put into their products. Never will you see a Blizzard game that is half-assed.
AP: Well, lastly, why “ZhayTee”?
ZT: My initials are “JT”. A friend of mine took to calling me “ZhayTee”, i.e. my initials with a sort of french accent thrown into the mix. I thought it was funny, and I’ve been using that moniker ever since.
AP: Nice, it makes a lot more sense now. So if anyone wants to be in touch with your games and music, where should they go?
ZT: They should always go to http://zhaymusic.com/
AP: Is there anything you’d like to say to wrap this up?
ZT: Thanks for the interview! And I hope to keep working with CC licenses as long as they keep on the excellent course they’ve so far been on.
AP: Joseph, thank you very much for your time. I’ll be looking forward to future collaborations!