Sound Byte: Meet the Composer - Austin Wintory

We speak to the creator of Journey's music about the soundtrack and what the future holds.

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The last time we talked about Journey, we had a chat with director Jenova Chen to get his thoughts on how the game was received. But since a big part of Journey is its musical moods, we felt that it was appropriate to also talk to the man behind the game's music: Austin Wintory.

We previously talked to Austin Wintory back in July, but, with the game already out, we decided to revisit the game's music and let the esteemed composer share his thought process for the entire odyssey.

The musical process for Journey was all about experimentation and spontaneous inspiration.

GameSpot: Tell us about how you got started in the music-making business.

Austin Wintory: I got started at age 10, when my piano teacher exposed me to the film scores of Jerry Goldsmith (particularly for the films Patton, A Patch of Blue, and Papillon). I couldn't believe people made music like this, so it became instantly my goal to be a composer.

My entire life since then has been angled at making that a reality. Obviously then later came college, where I started on student films, student games, and so forth.

GS: What drew you to Flow and Journey in the first place?

AW: Well, Flow started as one of those aforementioned student games. It was Jenova Chen's USC master's thesis, and later was re-made into a full commercial-scale PS3 game. I wrote the music for both.

So I guess what drew me to Jenova initially was simply that he was looking for a composer and I was hungry to get my foot in the door in games. We immediately clicked, and I found his entire mission as a developer and designer to be deeply inspiring.

My collaboration with him, and Kellee Santiago later, literally changed me as a person and composer. So much of whom I am today is wrapped up in both Flow and Journey. When the latter was getting off the ground and they called me up, it was a no-brainer.

GS: In your experience, what are the key differences between making music for films and video games?

AW: They're probably more similar than different, since, for me, priority number one are my collaborators. I really like getting in deep with them, and so it doesn't really matter if it's a film, game, opera, concert, or whatever.

The obvious technical differences in games are rather unique, since interactivity is basically non-existent in any other medium. And I love to embrace that and make it part of my compositional process, so, in that sense, scoring games is more intensive and involved than any other.

GS: Could you tell us your research into Journey's musical style in detail?

AW: I wouldn't say I did much research per se, but rather saw it as more of an exploration. The very first piece I wrote, literally on the day Jenova called me about Journey, was the piece that ended up going into the trailer almost two years later!

From that point forward, it was simply a matter of experimenting, trying things, then getting rid of ideas we didn't like. I didn't research any specific musical cultures, for example, because we didn't want Journey to reflect any one in particular. It needed to feel reflective of the environment and the mythology, but not in a literal way. It also needed to feel totally universal, so over the course of three years, somehow, this is where we wound up!

GS: What instruments were primarily used in Journey's music?

AW: The cello, played gloriously by Tina Guo, forms the basis of the entire score. Equally important is the bass flute, which is sort of symbolic of the environment and the lost civilisation, which you're exploring. The harp also forms a core element.

I also programmed a lot of electronics, though, like Flow, they're meant to feel very organic and instrument-like. It's not really electronic in a chiptune or analog sort of sense.

Of course there is the orchestra, which emerges gradually as you make your way towards the mountain, so that by the end, it's essentially an orchestral score.

GS: Since all chapters in Journey come with their own flavour of sound, let's go through your music-making thought process for each chapter of the game.

AW: Because Journey is meant to be seen a single experience and ideally played in one sitting, I'd actually rather not segment it up too much. But you are correct that the music divides into major areas or chapters.

The first few chapters take place in the desert, and are the most recognisable and iconic to the game. These areas are heavily electronic, and meant to have a sort of alien, distant feel. Cello solos and bass flute solos form the centre of the music as you make your way through it. Even the harmonic language is very vague at first.

Once you encounter life, in the form of the little cloth creatures, the score becomes quite suddenly more "instrumental", with flute, harp, and viola solos jumping out of the electronic textures.

The next major part, the sand-surfing area, brings a lot more energy, obviously, and the cello once again really dominates. This was tremendous fun to work on, because Tina can do anything, and there are some parts in there that are quite virtuosic. This is also some of the first overt use of the orchestra, especially the gorgeous sunset tunnel.

The darker cave area is the next major section, and again the score reverts to a more electronic feel to mirror the alien-like environment. Obviously, it's totally different from the opening, and part of that is I layered in a lot of serpent solos, courtesy of a wonderful musician named Noah Gladstone. In some cases, it becomes a five-part chorales, which was so fun to lay down.

From there, you proceed into the large, temple-like area, and on to the mountain itself where the score resumes its trajectory of electronic-turned-orchestral. It grows in scope until the finale, which I'll leave at that to avoid spoilers.

For the end titles, I wrote an aria, featuring the vocal talents of my dear Lisbeth Scott. She sings in a variety of languages from texts I pulled together with the help of a fellow composer named Jeremy Howard Beck. It sort of summarises the entire thing, and brings it all back, eventually ending with the same sort of electronic quality that accompanied your awakening in the graveyard at the start. It's essentially one big circle when it comes down to it!

GS: What projects will you be doing in the future, now that Journey is done with?

AW: I have a few projects I'm lining up, I can't quite talk about, though before those I am finishing Andy Schatz's wonderful game Monaco, which was a previous winner of the Seamus McNally Grand Prize. The game will be out this year some time, and it's a lot of fun working with him.

He's just as inspiring as Jenova and Kellee, though in totally different ways. The game's score is the opposite of Journey; all ragtime and old-timey silent-era solo piano!

Journey's soundtrack is available now on the PlayStation Network and on iTunes.

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