As I played The Banner Saga, I was swept away by its chilled tapestry of brass harmonies and meandering woodwind melodies. It was as if the musical score had been woven together of shimmering mithril, evoking both the bleakness of the frozen landscape and the stubbornness of the varl race. I was reminded of several composers, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius chief among them. The opening of Sibelius' fifth symphony captures a similar kind of comforting loneliness with its glowing French horn chords and frigid clarinets. Composers like Sibelius and Carl Nielsen have been often praised for capturing the essence of Scandinavia, but given his work on The Banner Saga's soundtrack, I could argue for composer Austin Wintory to be added to that short list.
The musically minded among you may balk at such high praise, but Wintory has already earned a place among the very best composers working in games. His Journey soundtrack is probably the most beloved, but I would argue that his work in Monaco: What's Yours is Mine and mobile game Horn is equally fantastic. Yet The Banner Saga's musical score is possibly Wintory's greatest victory to date. In the track called Walls no Man has Seen, a lonely bassoon seamlessly leads to a horn chord progression, then to a full brass section circling around the tonic chord--but the sequence never quite finds its way to full resolution. It's the perfect musical metaphor for a game that simulates the inherent thanklessness of leadership in arduous circumstances.
I caught up with Wintory recently in the hopes of picking his brain, to better understand his composition process, and to discover what lights his creative fires. It's difficult to analyze innate talent, but creativity involves more than just inspiration; it's not as if the muses upload everything you must know into your brain and all you need to do is spit forth the results. I asked him what musical ideas he conjured in order to communicate non-musical concepts like "cold" and "bleak," and his answer surprised me.
"It's never an overt process," he told me. "I didn't try to write 'cold' music; I just try to let the game crawl under my skin, and however it makes me feel is then what I try to write. Fortunately the game really made me feel cold and bleak, so channeling that was simple. As for orchestration, I started off writing in a vaguely orchestral way, but brass very quickly seemed to take center stage. Something about horn solos felt simultaneously regal and noble, but also lonesome and vulnerable. The game needed to have both. A warrior's saddest days. Not pitiful but definitely very introspective. Pretty shortly I realized I was practically ignoring the strings, so I decided it'd be interesting to cut them completely and go for wind ensemble. Doing that felt immediately right!"
It's this emphasis on brass and winds that makes tracks like A Long Walk Stills Our Hearts all the more poignant. The solo violin, often finishing phrases on open fifths, is the most heartbreaking sound in a score that already instills a sense of vulnerability. A vocal melody adds some warmth to the track, but when it's over, I feel lost. But I also note as I listen that these are live instruments. Just as I could hear the bassoon's physical keys as its player navigated Wintory's score, I could also hear the violinist's fingerings. This was not synthesized music. These were real instruments played by real people, not as common an occurrence in video game scores as you might suppose.
Wintory was pleased that Stoic Studio gave him the resources to hire such a talented group of musicians. "Not every game has a runaway Kickstarter like this one did, so there was no holding back," Wintory told me. "The recording budget actually exceeded Journey! The wind ensemble was over 50 players, and there were the soloists. 3 singers (two of which are YouTube stars Peter Hollens and Malukah), a violinist (Taylor Davis, also of YouTube fame), a Bukkehorn (an authentic viking horn made from a hollowed out lamb's horn!), small percussion, didgeridoo, accordion, etc. There is also a bit of electronics in there, though it's super subtle."
The music doesn't stop once the players pack up their instruments and go home, however. "The mixing and mastering was all done at the highest level," said Wintory. "In fact, our engineer with the orchestra in Dallas was Keith O. Johnson, a multi-Grammy winning engineer who works like a magician! And the score was mixed by Steve Kempster, who among a zillion other things has also engineered and mixed some of the biggest film scores of the last 15 years, like Armageddon and Twister. Obviously I work on a lot of smaller indies where I'm not able to bring this team to bear so it was an absolute dream to go all out for Banner Saga."
If you listen to the track called Of Our Bones, The Hills, you won't be struck so much by the music's evocation of solitude, but by the aggression of its staccato trumpets and the robust fanfare that French horns in unison call out behind them. By the time the trumpets had ended their phrase on a trill that shook the earth, the music had left Sibelius behind and landed somewhere near Gustav Mahler. And while more vocal melodies had arrived to soothe me, the trumpets remained busy in the background, seemingly oblivious to the world around them. The uneasy juxtaposition here is remarkable, and sparks rather different emotions than many of the other tracks.
Of course, Wintory is comfortable in a diverse set of musical idioms. After all, Monaco's piano noodling and Journey's swooning cello passages are quite different from each other. And this kind of diversity fuel's the composer's ambition. Said Wintory, "I absolutely love--and in fact live for!--exploring different musical idioms. They tend to come very naturally, but it's always through my filter. Doing a score like, say, Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded, is basically straight big band. Except I think you can probably tell it's not a classic big band arranger doing it. So the goal is to always dip into a genre, and swim around it and find a way to make it my own somehow. Or like Horn with its obvious celtic feel. Another game coming up, Soul Fjord, was a chance to tackle 70s funk head on, but I don't think (or at least, hope!) you would confuse it with Isaac Hayes! I'm not sure there is a genre I'm itching to dabble in. There are far more that I've not done than those that I have, so really I'm up for absolutely anything."
Given my own composition background, I wondered about the professional life of a games composer. I suspect if my time was dominated by game collaborations that I would miss creating for the sake of abstract expression. I asked Wintory if he struggled to find time to compose for the sake of composing. "I actually do a lot of writing entirely for its own sake, unattached to any game or film," he said. "Usually this is the form of concert music. I have been working with the Boulder Symphony in Colorado the last several years on a series of commissions, such as 'Gray Rain,' which I wrote while finishing Journey and sort of deliberately used as a chance to explore similar ideas as Journey but in a totally different way. About a month before The Banner Saga came out, Boulder Symphony premiered a new piece of mine, 'Convergence,' for soprano and orchestra. Now I'm working on some chamber and choral music. But also albums. The New York Times piece recently revealed that Chipzel (of Super Hexagon fame) and I are working on an album together."
Such are the wonders of having an amazing talent, and finding a way of expressing that talent to the world. I'm glad to see Wintory's work getting such broad recognition, but selfishly, I'm more glad for myself that I get to enjoy the fruits of his imagination. As I write this sentence, I am listening to Three Days to Cross from The Banner Saga soundtrack, musing over the English horn melody that winds its way through clarinets, flutes, and horns. And suddenly a desire to compose something right here, right now consumes me. None of the ideas rushing through my head sound very much like Wintory's musical musings, but I am grateful that he's planted the seed.