Austin Wintory Interview: The Beginning of Something Big (April 2012)
Developed by thatgamecompany and published by Sony, indie project Journey has received much attention. An exceptional visual style, meditative gameplay and a deeply emotional soundtrack are the keys to its success. Today, we speak with the creator of Journey's much acclaimed soundtrack, Austin Wintory.
Interview Subject: Austin Wintory
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Austin Wintory: You’re very kind to say that, first off. I was very lucky; I discovered music when I was pretty young, at about age 10. My piano teacher growing up (named Derry O’Leary) introduced me to the music of Jerry Goldsmith and I immediately wanted to be a composer. After teaching myself the basics and spending a lot of time in front of my high school orchestra, I went off to train classically at NYU and USC.
Michael: How did you get to score thatgamycompany’s flOw?
Austin Wintory: By luck of the draw. I was a student at USC at the same time as thatgamecompany’s two co-founders, Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago. flOw began as Jenova’s masters thesis and we were introduced to each other by a fellow student. Shortly after that, Sony picked the game up for full-scale production. I was lucky enough to stay attached and it went from there.
Michael: flOw’s music is more sound design than music in the classical sense. How deeply involved were you in the process of implementing your music in the game itself?
Austin Wintory: Yeah, flOw definitely is not ‘typical’ music, especially for video games. That was part of the joy of it, especially since I have a very classical, acoustically-oriented background. As far as the integration, I was heavily involved. I’m a gamer, so how the music is used is not separate from what I’m writing. I may not be writing lines of code, but I’m always deeply involved in that process.
Michael: Where do you find inspiration for the pieces you compose? Do you look to one composer in particular?
Austin Wintory: I don’t tend to draw inspiration from other works of music, but instead from more general notions of philosophy and literature. Of course, it goes without saying that there are many, many composers and musicians who have inspired me and who have influenced my writing. I don’t mean to say I compose in a vacuum. But when sitting down to compose, I don’t think “I want this to sound like Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra” or anything like that. I might say instead, “I want this to feel like the sense of calm I got from the end of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
Michael: On your website, you mentioned that you were given quite a bit of time to compose for Journey. How did this relative luxury come about?
Austin Wintory: Thatgamecompany really likes music to drive their games, so they tend to want to get started on it very early. In the case of both flOw and Journey, I was pretty much there from Day One. I definitely didn’t expect it go for three years, but in the end I’m very grateful for that because we really came up with some ideas together at the end that are important to what the final game turned out to be.
Michael: What was your inspiration behind using a full, live orchestra for Journey, rather than just using electronic sounds? What was it like to record the Macedonian Radio Symphonic Orchestra?
Austin Wintory: A game like Journey requires a lot of emotional strength and nothing can provide that like a live orchestra. Of course the soloists, like the cello and bass flute, are of tremendous importance in the score, but it had to culminate into something bigger. I don’t think doing that electronically would have had anywhere near the impact.
The orchestra was conducted by Oleg Kontradenko and contracted by Laurent Koppitz. Both were joys to work with. The musicians played with tremendous passion and great attitudes. Originally I had planned to fly out there and conduct myself, but our schedule got somewhat compressed, so I decided to stay in LA and monitor the sessions remotely from Sony’s San Diego music facility. To prepare for that, Oleg and I did a Skype chat a few days earlier and went through all the music in great detail, which was wonderful. The whole process ended up working beautifully!
Michael: Your album Sounds of Darkness is a meditative experience with a twist. You were the first person ever to use sacred Aztec chants on a commercial recording. Is there something as exotic on the Journey soundtrack?
Austin Wintory: Not quite! Though I learned a lot from doing that album and I always try to make everything I compose somehow the child of what I wrote before. So I think Sounds of Darkness (which itself was probably influenced by flOw) definitely offered guidance for Journey.
Michael: Whose idea was it to close Journey with the vocal track "I Was Born For This"?
Austin Wintory: That was my idea, though I waited a very long time before composing it because I wanted to be sure it had summarized Journey as well as possible. I really needed to wait until the entire score was basically done, but finally it came together at the end. Lisbeth Scott did a really beautiful job singing it, and my friend Jeremy Howard Beck (himself a very talented composer) helped me assemble the texts.
Michael: What are your favorite musical instruments to play? Any instruments you are interested in learning?
Austin Wintory: Oh, I’d love to learn them all because, frankly, I don’t play any of them! I’m a semi-ok pianist, but really, my main instrument is the orchestra itself, as a conductor.
Michael: Is there anyone in particular that you would like to collaborate with?
Austin Wintory: Not really, in that I love to work with all sorts of people! And the more different their personality is from mine, the more interesting it is!
Michael: Will Journey's soundtrack be released on album?
Austin Wintory: The album is out now on iTunes and PSN, and the physical CDs are coming soon! If you follow me on twitter (@Awintory) I’ll be posting details the instant I have them.
Michael: What are your upcoming projects?
Austin Wintory: My next video game project is called Monaco, produced by Andy Schatz and Pocket Watch Games. The game is totally different from Journey, as is the score. It’s all solo piano in a sort of ragtime / silent movie era style. I’ve also just been hired to do Stoic’s kickstarter-funded project The Banner Saga, which should be tons of fun.
Michael: Do you have any wisdom to pass on to composers beginning their young careers?
Austin Wintory: Be honest with yourself. Always listen to your heart because a lot of musicians get into games or film trying to chase down a paycheck. I urge against that, because the struggle of getting your foot in the door won’t feel worth it. But if you genuinely love games, you’ll love the struggle of pursuing them. It’s a very tough life with lots of uncertainty, but I personally really thrive on that. I like having no safety net. I often tell myself that the best part of my job is that I wake up every day fired. There is no tenure, no golden parachute. If I don’t do my best work TODAY, tomorrow is totally irrelevant. If that sounds good to you, you’ll be fine. If you enjoy the chase you’ll never back down, and that means you WILL find success.
Michael: Thank you for your time Austin.
Austin Wintory: It’s my pleasure to chat with you, and my immense apology for how long it took to get back to you!!!