Interview: ‘Journey’ composer Austin Wintory
When videogames first emerged from the primordial entertainment soup, their music was constrained by limited technology and consisted of little more than (sometimes insidiously catchy) 8-bit bleeps and blips. As the tech evolved, so did the music, and in recent years it certainly hasn’t been uncommon for games to feature epic scores on par with anything backing a Hollywood blockbuster, and indeed, penned by many of same composers that work in the film industry. Lately, it seems, game music has taken another creative leap forward in the scores for indie games like Dear Esther (music by Jessica Curry) and now, Journey. In both of these critically-praised titles, the music functions not simply descriptively, but as a distinct character in its own right. The score is anything but evocative window dressing; it is integral to the game’s ultimate meaning and player experience.
Although his most recent project has been composing the music for Journey, composer Austin Wintory has been extremely active in the film, television, and videogame industries. Austin has already scored over twenty five feature films, most notably the 2009 Sundance hit Grace, as well as the 2008 Sundance Audience Award winner Captain Abu Raed.. His score for the former garnered many horror film genre accolades, including a nomination at the 2010 Fangoria Chainsaw Awards for ‘Best Original Score,’ and Vision in Sound’s Top Ten Scores for 2009. Wintory has a “tremendous passion for the world of game scoring.” His first major game score flOw in 2006 earned Austin a British Academy Award nomination and triple nominations at the Game Audio Network Guild awards. Clearly, he is at home in all forms of digital media, as well as in many musical genres. His score for The River Why is largely acoustic and folky, while the music for Grace bristles with tension and dissonance.
Just having returned from this year’s GDC, Austin was gracious enough to answer a few questions about Journey and his work in videogame music.
No doubt, the medium of videogames continues to mature and is able to tell more nuanced and emotionally complex stories; game music must share at least some credit for this. What do you think will be the “next big leap” in videogame-related music or storytelling? If you prefer not to prognosticate, what would you like to see develop?
My ultimate dream game score is one which seamlessly blends the interactive potential of the medium with the narrative and emotive potential of music in its highest form. That sounds sort of lofty, but what I really mean is something which is highly musical, from a great performer, but magically somehow deeply interactive with the player. Journey was my big stab at making that happen, though I’m sure there is much progress still to be made!
One of the things I loved about the “Journey” score was that you were able to subtlety suggest world cultural influences without over using specific ethnic instruments (such as duduk) or exotic samples. How conscious was this decision and was there ever a version where you used more world instrument colors?
It was definitely a conscious choice and one I made pretty early on. The heavy use of solo cello as a core aspect of the score was a Day 1 idea, and the rest tended to emerge gradually. The bass flute is the other color I gravitated heavily towards. Duduk or otherwise “desert evoking” cliches were definitely something to avoid. I didn’t want the music to be about the location so much as about the spiritual progression. And in the end, a spiritual journey knows no cultural references since that’s a fundamentally universal concept. Pegging the score with any particular ethnic instruments or vocabularies would have taken away from the archetypal, symbolic nature of the game’s true meaning. Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t occasionally experiment with things!
Many young film composers (yourself included, if your website is to be believed!) were inspired early on by film composers such as Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams. Of course, they were influenced by the first generation of film composers (such as Rota and Korngold), as well as contemporary concert music. Who are some of your influences outside the world of film or game composers?
Jerry Goldsmith is my ultimate hero but it’s not so much because of his actual musical choices as it is the intelligent philosophy that underscored his decisions. WHY he wrote what he did always trumped what he actually wrote. Of course he also wrote brilliant music (‘The Wind and the Lion’ is my all-time favorite score of his). In purely musical terms, I would typically identify Bartok as my all-time favorite composer. I’ve had my world shattered and rebuilt during the course of a number of his works. Also, amongst our living colleagues (if I dare use such a word!), John Corigliano for me reigns supreme (along with his disciple, Elliot Goldenthal). I attended the Carnegie Hall premiere of Corigliano’s Symphony 3 “Circus Maximus” back in 2005 and was completely remade as a composer that day. Another composer I admire is Thomas Adès. Very different than Corigliano, but they have in common a very musical sense to their writing that I just love.
I know that the availability of technology and its influence on creativity has been a long-running subject for debate. Do you think young composers entering the business should be more conversant with technology or standard music compositional techniques?
It’s always great to make use of all the tools at your disposal. That said, I was very lucky growing up because when I went to high school I was able to learn composing, orchestration and conducting by putting parts in front of the student orchestra. I literally would write parts by hand (even though Finale was already widely available; I somehow never thought to seek out notation software until later) and then test it out with a live group, every day, for four years!! So my knowledge of orchestration comes from daily ‘trial by fire’ lessons. Actual acoustics of musicians in a room, on a stage. It also helped that as far as high school groups, my orchestra was quite excellent. This is actually one of the main reasons I’ve become so involved in music education non-profit work, because later I discovered how unusual and exceptional my experience was. And that’s wrong. Every aspiring composer should be able to do what I did, instead of having to wait until college or grad school and then fight for reading sessions.
But I’m going off-subject. Using East/West Symphonic Library or Vienna or whatever else to learn composing and orchestration is great, but it’s a classic mistake to assume that because the samples did it and sound good that it remotely translates to the real thing. I actually learned far more from listening to albums of Jerry Goldsmith, or John Williams, or Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony or Bernstein with the NY Phil than I ever did from technology, even though that’s a more ‘passive’ learning. Ultimately a combination of both is probably ideal.
Other than time and budget (the constants) what limits do you work against in writing game music?
The interactivity is the single biggest consideration, but I don’t see it as a limit to work against. It’s just another parameter like budget, time, aesthetics (both your own and your collaborators’), etc. But it’s probably the most easily perceived as a limit because it’s 100% foreign in the more traditional composer venues, like film or concert music. For me that’s what makes it thrilling though!
It’s interesting that both with Journey and Dear Esther, the music is a character in the story. Are there any videogame scores that you feel are particularly remarkable or innovative?
Bioshock was like that for me. The music added a dimension to the game that was otherwise less obvious, and that’s ultimately what the most exciting scores do. Think of Goldsmith’s ‘Basic Instinct.’ Before he got his hands on it, it was a violent thriller / detective story. Jerry turned it into a story about temptation and seduction. The music is the single biggest source of subtext in the film, to the point that it really isn’t the same film from what was filmed and edited. While Bioshock isn’t musically driven the way Journey is, it functions a lot like ‘Basic Instinct’ for me. It added a pathos and sense of tragedy to the game. It turned it from being any other shooter (though beautifully rendered), into something quite special. I actually felt like the people trying to kill me were victims of some bigger tragedy, and not just mindless enemies in my path. No game, especially an FPS, had made me feel that way before.
Are you a fan of orchestra events such as the “Videogames Live” concerts?
Oh absolutely. I don’t love the programming choices equally, but a lot of the music performed on that tour is great and more importantly, really engages an audience. The first time I ever heard “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV by Chris Tin was at the Hollywood Bowl VGL concert maybe 5 years ago, and it was a revelation. Plus I’ve been very fortunate and was able to write a mini cello concerto based on ‘Journey’ that I premiered at one of those concerts last year (a year before finishing the actual score!). It was wonderful because I was able to piggy-back a concert piece on a “game music” concert, and write something that could theoretically span both types of events (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMyBnokkqVc). But regardless of that, I definitely think they’re wonderful and not only serve to rile up an audience, but likely lots of young gamers in the audience who might go home and be inspired to pick up an instrument and start making music as a result.
One sentence: what is your take on the “meaning” of Journey?
Haha, well I hope this isn’t a cop-out but to me it’s a very personal experience, so I don’t want to offer up my own take on it. I would really rather people experience it on their own and come up with their own ideas. I think the music, in its own way, says what I think it all means!