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An Interview with Garry Schyman - February 2010

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Following our tour around the individual talents in the field of video game music, a booming parcel in audiovisual entertainment, we could not forget one of the most important composers who have revolutionized the most the way we understand this kind of music. It is not the first time we speak with Garry Schyman. The composer granted us a great interview on the occasion of the release of his hilarious and excellent soundtrack for the video game Destroy All Humans!

Now Garry is on the crest of the wave. He is the author of one of the most award-winning soundtracks in the world of music for the audiovisual medium, Bioshock. His name is linked to some of the hottest projects nowadays, combining a sense of commerciality with artistic quality.

Therefore, it is a real luxury to be able to talk with the composer that now introduces to the audience two masterful compositions, the music for the second installment of Bioshock and this year's big surprise, Dante's Inferno.

Ladies and gentleman give you Garry Schyman.

BSOSpirit: Hello again Garry. Since we interviewed you on the occasion of the release of Destroy all humans, many things have happened. A handful of awards, recognitions of your magnificent work as a composer for video games, high-level assignments, ... Do you think that after so many years working for television or cinema, you have managed to develop a second professional career in the gaming world?

Garry Schyman: First of all thank you for the very kind words! And yes it is nice to talk to you again. I am very happy to be working in video games and yes I think I have found an area that I would like to continue in for many years.  Unfortunately TV work (most of it anyways) is not all that interesting for a composer these days and you certainly don’t get an orchestra to do your work.  Films (the good ones anyways) are, as always, fantastic but there are so few opportunities to do something really different out there and with huge budgets on the line it seems that most film scores play it safe.  For me, at least, games have proved a bonanza as I have gotten to do some really interesting music that people have enjoyed so I am in a great place right now.

BS: Do you feel more comfortable in this videogame world than in that of television and movies?

Garry Schyman: I necessarily wouldn’t say that.  I would say that I am just as comfortable scoring a game as a movie or television show having worked extensively in all three mediums.  

BS: Well, let's review the work you've done since our last interview so far. Let's start with Bioshock, one of the best new generation video games. How did you get to be part of this project?

Garry Schyman: Interesting enough it was from my work on Destroy All Humans.  The audio director for DAH, Emily Ridgway, was hired by Irrational Games to supervise the sound for BioShock and she thought that I would be terrific for it.  Ken and the gang did not know me from adam (no pun intended) at that point but agreed to hire me on Emily's strong recommendation. 

BS: What attracted most your attention from Bioshock, which plot or visual element inspired you to set the base of your composition?

Garry Schyman: I guess it was the city of Rapture itself.  It was so beautiful and dark and scary and twisted.  It felt like a parable to so many of man's follies.  I really got into the whole philosophy of the place and the tragedy of it all.  It was an inspiring assignment for me.  I also sensed that the project had the possibility of being a very big deal and an important game because of the very unusual look and feel of it.  And that focused me to do something really special and unique. 

BS: It's a soundtrack with retro elements, that connects solidly with the images and history, but still includes modern elements. Was it difficult to achieve this balance?

Garry Schyman: I am at heart an intuitive composer.  I have certainly worked hard over the years to garner a lot of technique, which I think is important to composers, but the music came to me intuitively as I composed.   Game composers are given a list of music that the project needs (although the list often changes as you work). 

So once I found the style for the project I would write the music that felt right for each section as described by the audio director.  So I wasn't really thinking as globally as perhaps it would seem looking back at the score.  It all seems to have come out right in the end but I wasn't thinking of balance as I worked.  Sometimes, for mysterious reasons, things just come together in some magical manner.  BioShock did for me. 

BS: The score is surprisingly melodic, being the case of a game where the music would perfectly work being showy and little more, just enhancing the specific moments of terror. Was it a personal quest to provide the whole game experience with melodic themes or was it a suggestion of the Studio?

Garry Schyman: I think I will take full credit for the fact that the score has some very sad and mournful cues.  I was not asked to write any of that music but I kept insisting that the score needed those elements.  You know in the end I composed a lot more music for the game than I was contracted to write.  I loved the project and just wanted it to turn out as good as it could be. 

So I gave them a bunch of "bonus" cues which, as it turns out, got used over and over and helped define the game.  The more atonal or quasi tonal elements of the score also had melody and that was designed to give the environment depth and dark beauty.  I'm not sure if I have answered you here but those are my thoughts anyways.

BS: Tell us about the recording of the score.

Garry Schyman: I recorded here in Los Angeles at Capitol Studios.  A fine old studio that is particularly good for getting a great string sound.  There was one big session for a full string section made up of LA's fine pool of fantastic string players.

After they left we recorded soloists including solo violin with the amazing Martin Chalifour (concert master of the LA Philharmonic) and solo cello with Armen Ksakjikian one of the great studio cellists here in LA (he has great stories about working with John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith as well as a multitude of others).  Solo piano of course with Brian Pizzone and solo horn and tuba.  The live players added so much to the score and I am grateful to all of the amazing players here in LA.

BS: Also, with BioShock you picked up a handful of awards. Could we say that you are to video games what James Cameron is to film, an Oscar-winning man? Do you feel as the king of the world or do you very much remember the long way you had to endure in order to reach the top?

Garry Schyman: I am very much enjoying working on amazing projects that are requesting such interesting and iconic scores.  As I have said there's almost no television work like it and only a handful of films each year that really get something truly unique as scores.  I love what I do.

There is a character in a Thomas Mann novel who achieves a lot of success in his mid life and at some point when asked about it says something like 'you know it took so long and it was so hard to get here that I just don't feel the same excitement as it might have been'.  Sometimes I feel that way.  But really this is a fantastic business though you get beat up a lot during your career.  So many people say no to composers and it takes so long to get to yes that it is a hard career choice.  I admire my fellow composers as they have chosen the road less taken and the road less taken is not the easy road. 

But I really can't complain. I am honored that people appreciate my work and that I can make a living doing something I truly love to do.

BS: "Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon" was your next assignment. What can we find in this score that we didn’t find in the two previous installments?

Garry Schyman: I scored three Destroy All Humans games for THQ.  I have a particular fondness for the serious for a number of reasons.  One is that it made my work known to the community and gave me opportunities that have been wonderful. 

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 cliché's.  The whole idea, of course, was to provide music that evoked the film scores of the 1950's, 60's and 70's and not to do so trying to be humorous but to play it seriously using the techniques and orchestration and yes cliché's that were common in those periods.  

For me that was an absolute blast!  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 films I heard watching television growing up was too good to be true. 

BS: I'm surprised that you were the composer of "Resistance: Retribution", when you were not the composer of the previous two parts. How come you were called to create this score?

Garry Schyman: I got a call one day from Jonathan Mayer from Sony's music division asking me if I would be interested in scoring a Resistance: Retribution.  The timing was perfect as I had time at that moment and I would rather be working than sitting around driving my wife crazy. 

Jonathan and others at Sony had admired my work on BioShock and other projects and I had always wanted to work with Sony so it worked out well.  I didn't get a big orchestra but I did get a large brass section and I think my score turned out really nicely.   And I got to work with a fantastic and unique music department that Sony has assembled. 

BS: It is a magnificent score, with dense layers of sounds. A score of pure action, that this time does not feature musical elements from other time, something that has been your trademark. Are you happy with the result? What challenges were raised?

Garry Schyman: Thank you. Sony and I were very happy with the results!  The biggest challenge was that there was just so much combat music.  You know a few years ago, before I got involved in games, I was not so secure about my combat/action music.  But I will say that I have gotten pretty good at it (probably because I have been asked to do so much of it) and it does not freak me out any more to be asked to write combat cues.  That said they are, generally speaking, very labor intensive to do it right.  

BS: Well, it is the moment to speak of the two main dishes, perhaps two of the most anticipated games of the year: "Dante's Inferno" and "Bioshock 2". Let's talk first about "Dante's Inferno". It was developed by Visceral Game, the same team behind the excellent "Dead Space" which also featured a magnificent score by Jason Graves. Why did they decide to hire you? Were they looking for a specific sound and you were the ideal man for the job?

Garry Schyman: I think that BioShock was the reason they hired me.  They wanted something very dark and scary and the audio director Paul Gorman really liked what I had done for BioShock.  I am very glad that they did because next to BioShock I consider it my very best work. 

BS: I have played the Demo and I can say that I was truly shocked by the superb soundtrack that it features. It is a score where the chorus has a central role. Tell us about your experience with the choir. How many members had the choir? What kind of performance from the choir were you looking for?

Garry Schyman: Again thank you David!  I knew from the start that choir was going to play a big part in the score.  After all what could better communicate the sound of tortured souls than the human voice?  Additionally the choir was important to give a sense of religiosity to the score  -  remember that Dante's Inferno was a very religious work when the poem was written. 

Paul and I had, from the start, admired Penderecki's music St. Luke's Passion and thought it a model for some of the scores approach.  At first I thought it might be fantastic to go to Poland and record the choir there because there are some magnificent choir recordings of his and others' contemporary music that sound just otherworldly amazing.  So I felt they would really get it.  But in the end we were not so secure about the recording facilities and so we decided to record in London which has a reputation of having great choirs. 

We ended up using a 40 piece choir called Metro Voices and they were just extraordinarily good.  I had them doing everything from very traditional choral singing to many special and eerie FX.  They just nailed it all!

BS: The plot of the game is based in “The Divine Comedy” by Dante. Have you used different composition styles for the several levels of Hell?

Garry Schyman: Yes and no.  I have used different techniques to represent the various levels of hell. Lust for instance has two major cues that are in a late romantic style ala Mahler.  But I wasn't consciously changing styles to match each level.  I would say that mostly the style is consistent throughout.  It's just how I use it to portray what the viewer is seeing and experiencing in the game at any one time. 

BS: Did you use any atypical instrumentation to depict Hell?

Garry Schyman: I think perhaps the choir writing is the most unusual element of the score. I didn't invent all of the effects but I did request a number of vocal effects that I have never heard before. Some are very interesting and hair raising!  They definitely helped create a feeling of hell.   I tried to be creative with the orchestra as well and I think you find some unusual effects there as well.  Mostly I hope you will find a very intense and interesting score that does not quite sound like anything else out there.  Certainly not for games.  I think it is some of my best music ever and it is perhaps (technically speaking) the best quality recording of my music ever.  Abbey Road was a fantastic place to record.

BS: How much music did you compose for "Dante´s Inferno”?

Garry Schyman: If you count the two trailers and the commercial about 79 minutes of music. 

BS: The "Death Edition" contains, among other things, your soundtrack. How much and which music will it include?

Garry Schyman: 50 minutes of my score is on the soundtrack.  Also available for download on iTunes and Amazon MP3 etc.

BS: Let's move on to "Bioshock 2". Once lost the element of surprise, have you got a few new tricks to keep surprising the player with a score as unusual as the first part’s was?

Garry Schyman: Well I don't like to think of my music as tricks but I think what you are saying is that the original BioShock score was so different from what most people had heard in games (or even in most films) that the surprise is gone.  From that perspective it will not be as big a surprise as the first but it is certainly as interesting and in some ways more refined.   I will say that if you liked my original BioShock score you will be very happy with my BioShock 2 score and you will find some surprises there as well. 

BS: What are we going to find in "Bioshock 2" that was not already in the original score? Have there been changes regarding instrumentation in respect to the first installment?

Garry Schyman: For one thing there is a lot more combat music.   For the original BioShock the audio director did not initially think that the game would need combat music at all.  But at the very end (too late to add live orchestra) they asked me to come back and write some combat cues.  For BioShock 2 we knew from the start that we would need a lot of combat music and I had an orchestra including brass to make it very intense.   There's also some blues in the score for one of the levels - but of course a very twisted version of the blues.  I think you will find little surprises throughout the score. 

BS: Is there going to be a soundtrack CD realease?

Garry Schyman: There is a CD that accompanies the special edition of the game but as of now there is no physical or digital release of the score for the game.  I hope there will be in the future but I do not control that. 

BS: Have you participated in the selection of musical themes for the "Collector's Edition" that features the soundtrack to the second part and also to the first part, the latter in a 12 "vinyl LP?

Garry Schyman: Yes, I was very involved with that.  For those who want to hear more of the score than was released as a free digital offering when the first BioShock came out I would recommend getting a hold of that recording.  Assuming you have a turntable of course. 

BS: Your next project is "Front Mission Evolved" developed by a such a big studio as Square Enix. How did begin your collaboration with this big studio?

Garry Schyman: Though Square Enix owns the franchise they hired an American developer (Double Helix Games) to actually make the game.    The audio director, JP Walton, was also a fan of my work on BioShock and though the score is very different in approach he asked me to become involved. 

BS: “Front Mission Evolved "falls within the subgenre of “mecha” video games . Are we going to find a score quite different from what we've heard from you because it is a genre you have not been involved with so far? Can you anticipate something about your score?

Garry Schyman: I can't say too much because as you probably know the game industry is notoriously secretive.  I think I can promise you something very different than what you have heard heretofore. 

BS: That’s pretty much all. Thank you very much for the interview and we wish everything sorts out for you as well as until now, Garry.

Garry Schyman: Thank you David!

Interview by David Doncel

Translation by David Sáiz.

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