Monday, January 3, 2022

The Music Man: An Interview with Composer Garry Schyman

Video game music has the ability to drive our emotions.  It can make us happy, excited, frightened, or worried.  It sets the scene for whatever is happening onscreen.  With today's technology, video game music can be orchestral, done with a handful of instruments, or composed entirely on a computer.

It was during the mid-2000's that one Garry Schyman was offered to do the music for Destroy All Humans, a game where you played as an alien terrorizing 1950's America.  From there, Schyman went on to become one of the hardest-working composers in the gaming industry, doing music for the likes of the Bioshock series, Dante's Inferno, and more.

In this interview, I ask him about how he got his start in the industry, some of the games he's worked on, and how composing for music is both similar and different from film and television.  I want to thank Garry Schyman for taking time out of his schedule to do this interview.

1. What led you to pursue a career as a composer?

Growing up, I loved music, and when I was 12 or 13, I started taking piano, with the idea I would become a musician.  At Sonoma State, I majored in biology, even though my heart was always in music.  I took a lot of music classes before deciding to change majors.

I graduated from Sonoma then went on to get my master's at USC.  I became interested in composing while I was there and figured it would be a more viable option than teaching.  Afterwards, I began doing music for various film and television projects.

2. Who were your influences, musically speaking?

Early 20th century composers like Stravinsky and Kovitch were my biggest influences, plus classical ones like Beethoven.  The first scores I was ever aware of as a kid were Bernard Hermann scores like The Mysterious Island.  They were different.  They had a style to them I found intriguing, and it was my first awareness of the power of film music.

3. One of the first games you worked on was "Destroy All Humans." How did you get involved with that project?

I did a few games in the early 90's for Philipps Interactive but was not pursuing doing it actively.  It was pure serendipity where I had an agent at the time who sent my resume over to THQ, who was a big publisher at the time.

They had a game they were doing called Destroy All Humans and they wanted someone to do a score in the style of Bernard Hermann.  My girlfriend's best friend in college happened to be an executive there, she saw my name on a fax machine and recommended me.

I sent over a score I had composed for a game called Voyeur that was orchestral and Bernard Hermann-y to the tee, and they ended up hiring me.  I was utterly fascinated with the industry, and I enjoyed the process, working with the the people, and I decided I would absolutely pursue it.

The music of "Destroy All Humans" was praised for its authenticity to the decade.  Garry Schyman went on to do the music for the second game and Path of the Furon (Big Willy Unleashed re-uses Path of the Furon's score, ed.)

4. The "Destroy All Humans" series is set during different decades and in different locations around the world.  How did you approach composing music that not only reflected the era but also each level?

The first game was set in the 50's and their target was this tongue in cheek send-up of 1950's American sci-fi that used a lot of orchestral music and theremin a'la Bernard Hermann's work in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

That was their request and I told them, "Let me score it in that style."

When the game was successful, as is the case with movies, a sequel was announced.  The second game was set in the 60's so we just decided, I don't know by acclimatation or what the developer wanted, we did a score that sounded like a 60's score.  That became the modus operandi for the three games.

This was a great delight for me because I loved the music of the 50's, 60's, and 70's.  It was a blast to get in that mode and have fun.

Now, the music cues were based on what you were scoring.  If you were in Russia, it had a Russian vibe to it.  It was about taking it, cue by cue.

I used the same theme for all three games.  The theme I wrote in the original Destroy All Humans I repurposed for Destroy All Humans 2 and 3 (Path of the Furon, ed.) to reflect the time.

5. How collaborative is the composing process?  Do you work with the developers to figure out what kind of music they want in their game?

Absolutely.  You have an audio director, audio lead, or music director that you're dealing with.

I'm what's called a contracted composer meaning I'm not an employee for the company.  I'm working from my home studio and we're talking on the phone, Skype, or Zoom, sending files back and forth because the developers are often not in the same city I live in.

They send me gameplay videos to inspire me and there are discussions about what's going on.  They have a tighter, keener perspective because they are in all the meetings.  They'll say, "This has this and this going on."

Once you get into it, a lot of it is rinse and repeat to some extent because there are similar styles of combat or whatever.  Now, they do have the right to approve or don't approve or ask for changes in the music.  This has been the norm for movies, TV, and games.

I like to joke, "You can write anything you want, as long as they like it."  It's collaborative in that sense because I'm hired to produce an asset for their game.

6. What sets a good video game soundtrack apart from a bad one?

The quality of the composition has a lot to do with it, in my belief.  How good is the composer and have they done something that really works with the game because you can write something that's fantastic but doesn't fit the game or barely fits.

It's the same way with film scores because a film score can be brilliant but wrong for the picture.  It's got to fit, it's got to be well-written, and it's got to do with the creativity of the composer.

You're doing something within the limitations, meaning it's scored for a particular moment.  Take John Williams' scores, for example, when he does one of the Star Wars movies, he's doing something he did decades ago, but it's about the creativity, the melodies, the harmonies, and how beautifully it fits.

He's not doing something unique each time in the sense he's reinventing himself stylistically, but it's unique for the purpose of the specific music cues.  It's the same way with games.  You're working hard to do something that fits to the moment.

That doesn't mean you're breaking all the rules or trying to do something radically different.  Sometimes you do that, and I have with several of my scores, Bioshock especially.

"Bioshock's" score received critical acclaim and numerous awards.  Many still cite it as one of the best video game soundtracks of all time.

7. You've been composing music for video games for roughly 18 years now.  Are you surprised by the direction your career has gone?

I certainly started my career without any expectations for doing video games, but that's changed.  When I started in the 80's, video games didn't offer many opportunities for composers.  The early games were more about a composer writing something for a built-in synth, something that you could do with a mono sound.

From my perspective, they weren't interesting compositionally; now, I'm not saying they're bad, some of them were phenomenally clever, but it wasn't something I did.  The only reason I did a couple in the 90's was because they were done for Philipps Interactive, and they were doing the CD-I.

It wasn't until the late 90's when the PlayStation came out that there was radical rethinking about the technical elevation of what was possible.  I just happened to get in early on that.  The gaming industry was, at the time, maybe a pipsqueak compared to film and TV, but now outpaces both in value and how much money they make.

8. What do you do when you're stumped for ideas?

You got to keep pushing.  People say, "What inspires you?" and the answer is, and this isn't a joke, but a deadline.  If someone's writing songs for themselves, you may have to wait for inspiration, but in games, you got to keep going, you got to keep writing.

You're like a shark.  You can't stop swimming because if there's no oxygen to the gills, you're gonna die.  You must keep delivering.  It's not acceptable to be in a stillborn state for too long because you got to do something.

Generally, what happens for me is when you're pushing that hard, you're seeking out ideas and those ideas occur to you.  Sometimes, the first idea might be a bad idea but when you start working on it, it starts to improve, get better.  You get into the flow of writing and that produces good work, at least, that's how I look at it.

I don't have the luxury of taking time, but sometimes you do.  When I was working on Bioshock it was unique because it took me a month or two to experiment, but we had the time because I was hired early on by Emily Ridgway, who was previously the audio director on Destroy All Humans.

9. What are some projects you are currently working on?

Two projects I just finished that I can talk about are Forspoken for Square Enix, which I composed with Bear McCreary.  He did some themes; I did some themes and most of the in-game music.

The other was Open Roads for Annapurna.  One is a huge AAA game with an orchestra and the other is a small boutique game but an interesting one.  It's about a mother and daughter and has an ambient score.

"Forspoken" is set to release this year for the PS5 and Microsoft Windows.

10. How has the gaming industry changed since you started?

The technology pushes ahead; that said, a lot of the AAA games I work on don't feel too different from the ones I worked on in 2004 and 2005.  They just look a lot better and have a lot more technical sophistication.

The industry is much larger, the budgets have gone up.  There's a lot of competition for composers because a lot of new people have joined in.  It's changed but much like film scores, going back to John Williams, he composed the latest Star Wars and how was his music?  Not too different.

He's scoring the picture and writing music for woodwind, brass, etc. so while it's different in some ways, it's also similar.  With gaming, I think that because it's so more technically focused it makes all kinds of things that weren't possible back then.

It's revolutionized the look and feel, but is the game that different?  Not that much, so it's kind of a mixed bag.

11. What advice would you give to aspiring composers?

Be sure this is something you want to do.  This is a very competitive industry, and you need to be willing to devote a lot of yourself to it to be successful.  A lot of people think, "Oh, that'd be something interesting to do" don't understand how challenging it is to get work.

Also, develop your skills to the point you can do the work.  Make sure you're super-passionate about it achieve your goals, and then work your ass off.

When I started, you didn't need the technical skills, you just needed the writing and creativity.  Now, you need to be technically adept at using software and hardware, making sounds, and you also need to have the creative capacity.

To some extent, you're born with it, but to another extent, you write a lot of music and it's critical that you write all the time and improve your skillset, that way you can really do it.

A lot of people fantasize about it, but they really don't have the magic or skills.  That said, I think the most important thing is that if you're reasonably intelligent and musically desirable, you can find opportunities, but again, I think passion is central to it.

For more information and to listen to samples of Garry Schyman's work, visit his website here.

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