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

PC Gamer


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.

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Schyman conducting at Abbey Road studios for the Dante's Inferno score.[/caption]

Have you seen the understanding, opinions of and respect for game music change over the course of your career?

Yes for sure. I think there are two main developments that have led to the increased respect for game music and composers. One is that the industry itself has become so large, popular and financially successful. That causes the media to take a more serious look at what we're creating. Second, the standards have been raised. The executives running the development teams are more experienced and realize that they have to raise their game - no pun intended - and keep improving the quality of every aspect of it. This in turn permits bigger budgets and better composers becoming interested in the work. That has certainly been true of myself who was not scoring video games, other than a few back in the mid-'90s for a friend, until 2005. I have said this before and I say it again - videogames have permitted me to write some of the most interesting music I have ever been asked to write in any medium. Period!

What do you believe is the key to delivering a great game score?

"Infinite stands in polar opposite to Bioshock the original game in that it glows in light and openness."

Well it really helps to have a great game to score. It's inspiring and brings out the best in a composer. Still, that said, a good composer will deliver a fine score even for mediocre material. Second, you need to have a receptive and very creative developer who truly wants something original and not the more recycled fair we are often asked to write. I would say it helps to have the resources to properly record the music with first class live musicians. And of course it takes an experienced, talented musician to really deliver first rate material. There's a lot of composers out there but it takes a lot of time and experience to get really good and that assumes you start with a modicum of talent to begin with.

It may seem easy to some but once you get deep into the production process, you realize just what an extraordinarily difficult challenge it is to devise and compose a great score to anything. Finally, it helps to have sufficient time to develop and write great music.

What can you tell us about BioShock Infinite, its soundscape and how it relates to and co-exists with its world? The distinct, anachronistic art design conjures very specific times and places, did that "box you in" in terms of what you could and couldn't do on the soundtrack?

I certainly can't add much to what Irrational Games has provided publicly. It is a gorgeous, amazing world that they have conjured up. It sort of stands in polar opposite to BioShock the original game in that it glows in light and openness. It is so different and yet it makes sense that it is a “BioShock” game. I did not feel boxed in at all. Every score has to have a point of view and an approach and you're going to use the project you're scoring as your source for inspiration. In fact without limitations we cannot begin to compose.

Stravinsky the great 20th century composer once said, “Give me the entire keyboard (referring to the piano) to compose and I am paralyzed by too much choice. But give me two notes and I can start composing immediately”. In other words, we need the restrictions to compose or to create anything for that matter.

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Schyman conducting at Abbey Road studios for the Dante's Inferno score.[/caption]

How do you work around an action game with music; Jack Wall recently told me it can be tricky knowing how to punctuate a game with so much peripheral noise like Call Of Duty, did you find the same issues with Bioshock?

No, that was not an issue on BioShock Infinite. I think a combat game like Call Of Duty may present a more complex set of issues for the composer. That said, a composer needs to always be aware of sound fx and dialogue while composing. That's just part of what we must do whether we're scoring a television series or a video game or a film. Infinite did not present any special problems as far as dealing with in-game sound.

What discussions did you have with the team and Ken Levine about the audio direction of the game?

"Understanding what was going on underneath the surface of Columbia was critical to how my music supported the story."

Most of my interactions with Irrational were with Jim Bonney, the music director. At one point I traveled to Boston to meet with the team and I had a few private meetings with Ken. He helped me understand what was going on underneath the surface of Columbia that was critical to understanding how my music needed to support the visual images and story. That, and meeting with various parts of the entire development team was very helpful to giving me the direction I needed to find the right style and temperament for the score. Once I established that I dealt day-to-day with Jim Bonney. He would relay what music was needed next and how it worked in the game. I would mock it up for him and once I found the direction I would record a grouping of cues with the small string ensembles that we used for the score. This music was then played for Ken for his final approval.

Every now and again Ken and I would speak on the phone about style or some upcoming music requirement. Working on a project like BioShock Infinite with designers like Ken are rare experiences, and I cherished this one as much as our previous work together on the original BioShock. Really the peak of creativity for a game composer.

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