Garry Schyman Interview: A Triumphant Return to the Game Industry (February 2010)
Garry Schyman is an American composer whose works range from television classics to viola concertos to epic game scores. Following a decade-long hiatus, he returned to the game industry in 2005 with the humorous pastiche score to Destroy All Humans and subsequently achieved worldwide recognition for the evocative yet apocalyptic soundtrack to BioShock. In 2010, his recognition looks set to multiply, with the successive releases of BioShock 2, Dante's Inferno, and Square Enix's Front Mission Evolved.
Schyman agreed to talk to us in detail about each of his 2010 works. He considers the paradox of the frightening yet fulfilling BioShock scores, discusses recording experimental voice techniques for Dante's Inferno, and reflects what it is like to inherit the music for a Japanese franchise on Front Mission Evolved.
Interview Subject: Garry Schyman
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Greg O'Connor-Read
Chris: Many thanks for talking to us today, Garry Schyman. First of all, could you introduce yourself to those who don't already know you and introduce your scores in the video game industry and beyond?
Garry Schyman: I write music for films, television and, of late, lots of video games. I am perhaps best known in video games for my dark orchestral score for BioShock, though others might be familiar with my pop song Praan for Matt Harding's dance video "Where The Hell Is Matt". Perhaps that makes me eclectic and, if so, I like that. I don't like doing the same thing over and over.
Chris: Your score for BioShock was widely acclaimed for its experimental orchestral writing. Could you elaborate on how you hybridised aleatoric, electro-acoustic, avant-garde, and romantic art music on this title? What did such elements bring to the often apocalyptic in-game experience?
Garry Schyman: I was asked to write something very different and unlike any game score (or film score for that matter) one had heard before — for a game that had a very interesting philosophical back-story. Of course, the game is set in the mythical undersea city of Rapture, a once magnificent place built by a genius for great thinkers in the early mid 20th Century. A sort of Ayn Rand utopia for amazing people that fails for a variety of reasons and becomes a nightmare. That was a pretty interesting request and the audio director and myself agreed that the classical music of the early and mid 20th Century was a fitting accompaniment.
I experimented quite a bit until I found that by mixing two and at times three styles that I could generate something that fit both the period and the eerie frightening world while still capturing something of its uniqueness and amazing qualities. So, for instance, I would generate a frightening atmosphere with aleatoric extended techniques and then over those effects, I would layer solo violins and celli that were more in the style of the serial composers of the early 20th Century.
While this all sounds very technical, the result was quite unique, being both frightening and interesting with a sense of the intellectual. It just felt right. The score even has profoundly sad moments, which, though the audio director did not initially think she could use, were nonetheless very useful for the project. Ultimately I combined a number of styles to create the BioShock score and they seem to have captured the zeitgeist of the place.
Chris: This year, you returned to score BioShock 2. How would you compare your portrayals of Rapture in BioShock and BioShock 2? Did you expand upon the aleatoric scoring techniques in BioShock 2 or did you introduce new elements instead?
Garry Schyman: I did not take a radical new approach to the score for BioShock 2, instead I refined it to meet the different requirements of a different game. For one thing there was a lot more combat music written for BioShock 2. While I was working on the first BioShock, they did not think that the combat would require music. But at the very end they brought me back in to write combat music (unfortunately without orchestra as I had already recorded). This time we knew we need a lot of strong combat cues and so that is one big differentiation. Another example was that, on one particular level, it seemed appropriate to have jazz and blues elements which were placed over the scary aleatoric orchestral effects that BioShock players will be familiar with.
Chris: You maintained many of the stylistic elements of BioShock in Resistance: Retribution, yet still individualized the score in a number of ways. Could you elaborate further on how you approached this work? Did the streaming technology of the PSP allow you to still be relatively liberated?
Garry Schyman: I wasn't thinking about the streaming technology to be honest. From a technical standpoint, working for Sony was great because they just asked me to write the best music I could and then deliver everything in stems. They then took those elements and made the score interactive by using both the overall mix I intended as well as deconstructed versions to extend the score and to generate interactivity.
Style-wise, the game is a shooter set in a imaginary parallel universe (circa 1960's) where history turns out differently then we know it because of a vicious alien attack which nearly destroys the earth. So I needed to create some frightening textures along with a military feel because as the main character is an ex military guy heroically fighting these monstrous aliens from another world. So run that through Garry Schyman's composer brain and you get my Resistance: Retribution score. I did not have a large orchestra for the project (though we did have a nice brass section to record live), so I had to make my samples sound as good as possible.
Chris: While dissonant and horrifying soundtracks often alienate and oppress listeners, many have still found your BioShock and Resistance soundtracks worthy of stand-alone listening. What do you make of this enigma? Did you intentionally compose the soundtracks so they would still be subtly attractive to listeners?
Garry Schyman: Hmm interesting question. I frankly never thought about this. I try to keep my music interesting both to me and to the listener. I remember one of my teachers years ago saying that good film music should have this quality that draws you in, that sort of mesmerizes you, and, if you permit your music to get too intellectually obsessive, it will not do the job that good film or video game music requires — which is to draw you in and permit you to willingly suspend disbelief. If you listen to Bernard Herrmann or Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams, their music always has that quality. No matter how complex their scores get, they never forget that for the music to work it has to have this magical quality that draws the listener in. I have always taken this advice to heart and perhaps that answers your question.
Chris: In addition to BioShock 2, your music has recently featured on Dante's Inferno. How did you portray the nine circles of hell and various sins featured in this video game?
Garry Schyman: You know, this score was one that perplexed me originally and greatly challenged me. I don't think you always need to do something different for each score in the sense of breaking new ground in some way. But, as in BioShock, I felt that Dante's Inferno had to be really unique and I challenged myself to accomplish this.
In the end, the approach to each level was dictated to a great extent by the visual images that the game's designers created as well as the situations that the player finds himself or herself in. The images that they created (of course much credit goes to Dante himself for writing such a graphic poem) were unimaginably beautiful and terrifying and it challenged me in a big way to try and match them musically. I will leave it to others as to whether I have succeeded or not, but I will say I am very happy with the results and feel it is some of my very best work.
Chris: Experimental and diverse use of vocals are a defining feature of the Dante's Inferno score, ranging from Gregorian chanting in "Dies Irae" to eerie sopranos in "Storms of Lust" to murderous screams in "Whores of Babylon". Could you elaborate further on how you composed, recorded, and manipulated the vocal component of this score?
Garry Schyman: Voices seemed obvious for Dante's Inferno. For one, it helped with the religious aspects of the narrative (bear in mind Dante intended this as a deeply religious story). When the voices are creating a religious atmosphere, the techniques I used were not unusual, but more what one might expect; there were Gregorian chants and ancient church sounds.
The other reason for using voices is that, frankly, nothing says suffering souls like they do! When I was emulating suffering souls, I wanted to do something truly otherworldly and so I asked the choir to do some very unusual things. We recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London and we contracted an amazing group of singers called the Metro Voices that really got into what we were doing and really nailed it. I wrote out all of the vocal effects, but sometimes the best thing to do while we were recording was just to describe what I wanted at any one moment and that helped them visualize how to accomplish that vocally.
The murderous screams were recorded as overdubs and took a lot of takes to properly get the effect. I added in some animal sounds to her voice (mostly a screeching Cheetah or some big cat sound I had gathered) and it worked perfectly in Lust when you are battling these particularly vicious looking (I can't even describe them) woman-like creatures.
Chris: The music for Dante's Inferno and BioShock 2 were recently released as albums. Could you elaborate on the distribution and content of these albums? Are these releases likely to satisfy as stand-alone listening experiences?
Garry Schyman: Only Dante's Inferno has a digital release, available through here. BioShock 2 is only available on CD when you purchase the special edition of the game. I think, for those who are interested in soundtracks, the score for Dante's Inferno is well worth the investment. You get a lot of music and it was recorded with amazing players.
Chris: Moving on to your other works, the light-hearted Destroy All Humans scores demonstrate a very different aspect of your musicality. How did you create the desired 1950s science-fiction influence for these projects? Did the musical direction evolve in the sequels?
Garry Schyman: I scored three Destroy All Humans games for THQ. I have a particular fondness for the series for a number of reasons. One is that the first one made my work known to the video game community and gave me opportunities that have been fantastic.
Stylistically one could almost say I was asked to do the opposite of what I have done for Dante's Inferno or the two BioShock scores. I was asked to compose a score of musical clichés. The whole idea, of course, was to provide music that evoked the film scores of the 1950's (Destroy All Humans 1), 1960's (Destroy All Humans 2) and 1970's (Destroy All Humans 3); not to do so trying to be consciously humorous, but to play it seriously using the techniques, orchestration, and, yes, clichés that were common in those periods. The humor comes from the absurd juxtaposition of the visuals and circumstances with the serious period film music of those times.
For me that was an absolute blast! Studying some of my favorite composers of those periods, like Bernard Herrmann for the 50's and Jerry Goldsmith for the 60's, and emulating their style and what are now the clichés of the period. It was fun beyond anything a composer could be asked to do. I loved scoring those games because I loved the music from those periods and because what appeals to me most is to be asked to do different things musically all the time. So being asked to write in styles of film scores I heard watching television growing up was too good to be true. I got orchestras to record the scores for all three games and I was very happy with the results. It garnered me a few award nominations as well.
Chris: Your work on the Destroy All Humans series actually marked your return to video game scoring after a ten-year absence following your work on the Voyeur series. What inspired your decision both to leave and return to the industries? How had the industry changed during your absence?
Garry Schyman: I happened to score Voyeur in 1994 because a friend became an executive at Philips Interactive and asked me to score the project. It seemed interesting and I had a small orchestra to record the music. As it turns out it, was one of the very first video games to employ an orchestra for a game. When Phillips left the business along with my friend, I did not seek more video game work because it was not a very interesting place for composers at that time; it was mostly low budgeted projects that only permitted MIDI scores triggering in-game synth engines.
I got involved again in 2004 when my agent at the time just happened to send my resume over to THQ and they requested a demo. They liked a cue or two on it and that eventually led to me scoring the first Destroy All Humans. As I wasn't really a gamer I was literally blown away by what was possible in games. The score they asked me to write was a total blast and I got an orchestra to do it. Everybody dug the score and so more opportunities kept coming.
Scoring video games is a great place for a composer right now. They want strong orchestral music that is iconic and interesting. Though not extravagant they can provide the budget to achieve really big sounding scores. Next to big film scores (especially as television music is fairly ambient these days and rarely provides an orchestra to record with), games are the most creative outlet for orchestral composers at the moment.
Chris: To finish, let's discuss your upcoming score to Front Mission Evolved. First of all, what resulted in your assignment to this project? Will you be scoring the project alone or will Square Enix's Hidenori Iwasaki also be involved?
Garry Schyman: I was hired by the audio director JP Walton who had been a fan of my music for a while. I think the success of BioShock clinched it for me, even though the style for Front Mission Evolved is very different. Mr. Iwasaki was not actually involved in the scoring of the game.
Chris: Many are intrigued to know how you will approach Front Mission Evolved. Could you give some insight into your overall direction and influences for the score? What will the recordings at Skywalker Sound bring to the experience?
Garry Schyman: First of all, we recorded the score at Capitol Studios in Hollywood. Capitol is one of the classic recording stages in Los Angeles and it has a particularly good sound when it comes to recording strings. I also recorded both BioShock scores there.
As far as the style on Front Mission Evolved, it's hard to describe precisely. It's sort of a hybrid of styles perhaps. It's orchestral and mostly tonal — almost no extended or aleatoric techniques were involved. I wrote a strong theme for the game that is motivic in structure. Nearly all of the score, except one or two cues are combat in nature and so are very intense.
It was a lot of work to write the score, because combat music is just so darn complex. I guess I would call it militaristic in style and it gets huge at times as you are fighting as these mechanized robots against gigantic robotic creatures. I'm not sure how well that describes the music, but then again it's hard to describe music with words alone.
Chris: Your assignment to Front Mission Evolved represents the first time a Western game music composer has been hired to compose for a major Square Enix franchise. Do you think this represents something wider for the recognition of Western game music? Could it become a growing trend for Western game composers to become involved in Japanese franchises?
Garry Schyman: In this case, Square Enix outsourced the game's development to Double Helix Games, based in Irvine, CA. But Square Enix was very involved in the music from the standpoint of approving my participation to approving every cue I wrote. So perhaps it is a bit of a breakthrough.
Chris: Thank you for talking to us today, Garry Schyman. Now that you have scored a string of smash hit video games, what lies ahead for you? Also, is there anything else you'd like to say to readers around the world?
Garry Schyman: I have two major projects coming up. One starting in a few weeks, but that said I am afraid I am not at liberty to discuss the specifics, as game companies are very secretive about such things. Hello to all of your readers and thanks to you for such interesting questions.
Many thanks to Greg O'Connor Read for coordinating this interview. Both BioShock 2 and Dante's Inferno are widely available in stores now. The Dante's Inferno Original Videogame Score can be digitally purchased here. Look for more coverage of Schyman's works imminently.