BioShock Infinite

BioShock Infinite's composer Garry Schyman on making music for the Songbird

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Interview by David Valjalo

Garry Schyman's career has spanned film and television but it's his work in and with videogames that has brought him his widest acclaim, delivering complex, rich soundscapes in a body of work as remarkable for its variety as its pedigree. From Front Mission Evolved to Destroy All Humans and, not least, the original BioShock and its sequel, his work is adaptable but unique and always recognisable. I asked Schyman, ahead of BioShock Infinite's release and amidst the hype-fever spreading web-wide, how he's seen his specific corner of the industry mature and why working with Irrational is the best gig in game music.

How was the process working on BioShock Infinite compared to your experience on previous BioShock titles?

"Ken Levine approved every note - he's not a musician but he has incredible musical instincts."

Garry Schyman: It was different. The process was over an extended period of time and the game was evolving as I was writing. So it took longer to find the right approach to the score. Ken Levine was also more involved with the score and approved every note. Ken is not a musician but he has incredible musical instincts. He pushed and inspired me to find a new path for Infinite in a way that only a perfectionist and extraordinary leader can. It is always a great honor and pleasure working with him. Because the approach was so unique I was not able to mock things up using just samples so the approach we took was for me to write and record during the entire process.

Usually a composer writes all of the music and then records the live, often orchestral, elements at the end. Instead I hired and recorded small string ensembles as I wrote. This is really a wonderful way to work and was an inspiration to the process. It worked because we could apportion the budget to these small groups as we went. Because they weren’t terribly expensive sessions, as compared to orchestral sessions, it really worked well.

Schyman conducting at Abbey Road studios for the Dante's Inferno score.

What were your influences and inspirations while working on BioShock Infinite?

Without sounding flippant it was the game itself. The look and feel and characters. The story which is central to the gameplay. It’s so unique and interesting and, just like the first game, it invited a unique approach. The score can almost be deemed an “anti-score” in the sense that it avoids the cliches of most film and game soundtracks.

Of course the fact that the game is set in 1912 in a city that was born from America - though becomes the opposite of America - was very influential but not determinative. I did not wish to imitate the popular music of 1912 which is not particularly emotional to our ears in 2013.

You mention "cliches" in soundtracks. There's a feeling in the game community, particularly amongst fans, that game music is often a me-too imitation of Hollywood film scores, more generic than unique and memorable. What's your view and how do you keep your own work so fresh and outstanding?

"BioShock Infinite's score is almost an 'anti-score' in the sense that it avoids cliches."

I cannot vouch for all game music as I don’t have the time to listen to everything. But I think the me-too instinct is as rampant among film and television composers as it is in game music. So I think the premise is incorrect if it singles out only game music for being too generic. I think there are a lot of mediocre scores out there, in film, TV and games, and a few great ones. That has probably always been true. It reflects what is in one sense a positive thing in as much as it is really hard to write great music. If it were easy it would devalue what we do. Maybe that’s a strange argument but if you think it through it’s true of a lot of things in life from music, art, film, television, tablet computers...

I do my best to be as creative as I possibly can be. I have been fortunate enough to be working on some projects that have permitted me to do some really unusual and creative work. I have also had a lot of experience writing all kinds of music and it has paid off in spades with a lot of technique and creative ideas that may not be available to every composer.

But bear in mind that composers sometimes get hired by a development team that really wants you to sound like Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams or Trent Reznor and in the end you have to give them what they want or convince them you have a better idea. So it is not always the fault of the composer who, after all, is a hired gun to help fulfill the creative design of the developer.