Over the course of the run of “High Scores”—three years and counting!—Austin Wintory’s name has come up time and time again. The Los Angeles-based artist is, as the saying goes, a composer’s composer: an industry darling who’s parlayed a deep passion for indie games into a resume over 300 projects deep, studded with several mainstream successes. His breakthrough score for the 2012 Playstation flagship title Journey, one of the most decorated and beloved games in the medium’s history, was a universally acclaimed, breathtaking achievement—the first video game music soundtrack ever to earn a Grammy nomination.
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Wintory is best known for his emotional, sweeping orchestral work: the fantasy-oriented The Banner Saga trilogy, the awe-inspiring ABZU, the otherworldly Absolver. But he can do quirky, as well. On Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, Wintory moonlights as a ragtime-style silent film piano player, while Soul Fjord offers his Nordic take on the epically funky Blaxploitation soundtracks of the 1970s. His soundtrack for Assasin’s Creed: Syndicate—a blockbuster release in one of the gaming world’s biggest franchises—is an exercise in doing a little of everything; Wintory decorates the game’s Victorian London with orchestral pieces, haunting minimal string arrangements, and some of the jauntiest murder ballads ever committed to tape.
Wintory’s latest project is the intimate and suspenseful score for the ambitious live-action Playstation 4 game Erica. Over the phone, he speaks about his process, philosophy, favorite childhood games, giving back to his community, and more.
I read somewhere—in your digital liner notes, I think—that you ‘compose music as an ode to the musicians.’ I thought that was a sweet sentiment. Your work really is supremely collaborative, isn’t it?
I’m thrilled that you picked up on that, because I think the performers often go unnoticed. It’s really easy to listen to a great performance and leap straight to ‘Wow, this is a great composer.’ It’s easy to skip the gatekeeper. One way I like to explain it is that I don’t think anybody in history has ever heard a Beethoven symphony, because the only true place those lived were in his mind. We’ve heard various musicians, conductors, and orchestras interpreting Beethoven’s instructions. There can be a lot of latitude there, a lot of variations.
With recorded music, the musicians’ performance and interpretation is a big part of what makes the music definitive. I try and write the music to leave space for them to bring themselves into the equation. Not that they’re improvising a lot—that’s rare for me. I tend to write out very specifically what I want. But then I put it in front of musicians and say, ‘What do you make of this?’ They’ll emphasize something I didn’t think they would, or a violinist might say ‘What if I bow these two notes together?’ And sometimes it’s far better than what I actually conceived of. Those distinctions can be subtle, but they can also be huge. There’s no greater joy than writing a piece of music, and putting it in front of a performer, and then hearing it back better than you ever thought it could be. That to me is the definitive moment of this job, the true peak of it.
Is that different when you’re working with a small band, versus trying to communicate with a large orchestra?
Yeah, there’s no question that everything scales in different ways. Different sessions with a single person are a different dynamic than a 100-piece orchestra, or a 50-piece or a 30-piece: I’ve worked the range. But it’s still humans in a room at the end of the day, and there are universal qualities to that. When the musicians can feel your excitement about what they do, they’ll continue to one-up themselves, and it becomes this awesome feedback loop. We push each other upwards. And that can happen with 100 people, or one person, and everything between.
I think of conducting the same way I think of, like, sword-swallowing.
It’s exactly like that!
What I mean is that at some point, you have to do it for the first time. And that first time just seems incredibly daunting. Your first time conducting was in high school, right?
I actually think the sword-swallowing analogy is pretty hilariously coherent. No orchestra wants you to be their guinea pig. If you’re hired to score a game or a movie, and you’re learning to conduct in the midst of it, chances are that that will be a woefully inefficient use of financial resources. So it can be a huge challenge to start a career. As a result, so many conducting careers start with students, where a lot of that anxiety is communal as opposed to one-directional.
I was very lucky. I went to a public high school in Denver with a shockingly robust music program. I started writing music by hand. I had no idea what I was doing. And it’s not like I grew up in the 1960s: there was software for this, I was just totally oblivious to it—even though I was interested in programming. I was 14 when the orchestra director gave me the reins. And you’re right, it was terrifying. You make incredibly stupid mistakes. But I’m also so grateful that I got to hear my music live almost immediately after writing it. The educational power of that is insane. It’s also practically unheard of in today’s world, because you can download a free app that will give you some semblance of playback. But when you write for a live orchestra there are definite do’s and don’ts. Learning things like balance: how loud the violins have to be to match one trumpet. You internalize that stuff insanely fast when you’re standing up in front of a group and doing it live. Especially when you just royally fuck up. Fortunately you don’t slice open your larynx in the process and hack out blood for a month. Terrifying? Yes. Death-defying? Happily not.
You were already in love with video games at that age, too. Were you paying attention to the music in them?
Yeah, definitely. I was big into strategy games. Warcraft, Starcraft, Command & Conquer. But my absolute pinnacle games were the point-and-click adventures from Lucasarts: The Monkey Island series, Loom, Full Throttle, Dig, and the grandaddy of them all, Grim Fandango—maybe my favorite game of all time. And the audio department for Lucasarts were my childhood heroes: Michael Land, who wrote the theme to Monkey Island, which is a timeless theme, Clint Bajakian, the lead composer on their amazing shooter Outlaws, another one I loved, and the third was Peter McConnell, who did the music for Grim Fandango. That hit me at the perfect time: I was already a gamer, but that was one of the first games I remember playing where the music was recorded almost entirely with live music. And the musicians bring so much to that performance. He got all these unique San Francisco musicians to play this score that was a mash-up between 1930s film noir and mariachi, and snarling nasty sexy saxophone and trumpet players. It’s just so goddamned brilliant. The writing is great and the performers add so much character. I was probably like 15, I heard that and I thought This is art. Peter has become a great friend and colleague, and it’s still incredible to me that I get to call him that, considering what a huge influence he was on me. His music is a big part of why I do what I do. And I got to work with Clint Bajakian on Journey, the defining game of my career. It was amazing.
I wonder if, when you met Jenova Chen [creator of Flow and Journey], you had any idea that he would become this visionary game creator?
From literally his first email to me, I saw somebody who looked at games in a way that I had never even imagined. He was looking for music for Flow, which at that point was his Master’s thesis. He described the way the game would react organically to the player, and he wanted music and sound that could do the same. Jenova felt passionately about expanding the emotional language of games. He wanted Flow to be a game that was relaxing in an almost transcendental meditation kind of way. I remember the way we talked about it was as a color wheel. Ninety percent of games fall on the red and orange: aggression and testosterone. And he said, ‘What’s a green game? What’s a blue game? What’s a deep violet game?’ Games were so narrow. They still are! But they’re 10 times wider than they were then. So I had no idea he was a revolutionary in the making, but I had never talked to anyone who talked about games like that. I was just like any other gamer. I was lucky that I was a malleable, open-minded age, because he broadened my horizons so dramatically. It changed me down to the genetic level.
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And then Journey happened. Your music is obviously a huge part of the experience—but what an incredible game to be a part of.
I’ll be declaring my gratitude for that for, truly, the rest of my life. You just don’t bank on something like that coming along. Still to this day I get daily tweets and emails, and the album still sells! I get to perform the music in concerts. I know a lot of composers that have absolutely extraordinary, venerated careers who have never had an experience like that. I make sure to remind myself, essentially every hour, that this is a fluke and this could very well never happen again. I just soak it up. I’m proud of the work we did, but mostly I appreciate how lucky we were. I’m so grateful that it came together, it clicked and actually worked.
You’ve said that your latest game, Erica, was a particularly challenging one. I know games and movies are very different to score, and this is a unique live-action game that feels a lot like a movie. What was unique about this challenge?
Well, it’s a lot of music and it’s very complicated. It’s like a house of cards: If you change one thing, everything else shifts. One thing is that gamers tend to let composers too easily off the hook with music. There’s a lot of bad implementation, where you’ll be in a dialogue scene and the scene ends and the music just yanks to an abrupt halt. I have a zero tolerance policy for shit like that. Elegantly implemented music is a top priority for me. But on a game like Erica it feels very much like you’re watching a movie, so there’s even less margin for error. And a single line of dialogue can alter the game’s whole psychological framework. The music had to be really interactive. It demanded a level of fidelity beyond the norm.
And then there’s the fact that there are human actors involved.
Yeah, we’re very keenly aware that Holly Earl’s character is this evolving, psychologically complex human. The music has to track with her, which is tough. She’s very nuanced, just a wonderful actor. But in some ways that makes my job infinitely easier, because I’m not making up for any deficits. I thought all ofthe acting, the filmmaking, and the game design, too, was just fantastic. I was just so happy to be a part of it. It damn near killed me, but I’d do it again, and I’m planning on doing it again.
You’re on the board of the nonprofit Education Through Music Los Angeles, and you donate at least a quarter of your Bandcamp album sales to that cause. Was it your experience in high school—having a great music program—that made you want to get involved in exposing underserved communities to music?
A hundred percent, yes. I was shocked to experience how abnormal my experience was. I shouldn’t have been exceptionally lucky to go to a school with a good music program, that should be the default. I do know the challenges schools face, and I’m empathetic to them, which is why I want to do my part to deal with them.
If you could go back and make the soundtrack for an existing game—not because you don’t like it, but because you think you might have something different to offer—what would you pick and why?
Like, hypothetically, Grim Fandango would be a dream job. But my love of Peter’s music is so intense that my own score would take away from it. It would make Grim Fandango less than what it is. Or Bioshock. To me Bioshock is one of the great games of all time. A perfect masterpiece. Could I go back and score Bioshock? I don’t want to live in a world without Gary Schyman’s Bioshock music! I do love the Mass Effect games. That might be my favorite series ever. And I would love to score a big sci-fi game. But I don’t sit around saying, ‘Why haven’t I scored sci-fi?’ like it’s some white whale. That would be a dream, but I’m focused on realizing the dream projects I’m working on now. I’m just so grateful that every project gives me a chance to flip over a fresh rock and do something I’ve never done before.