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Gamasutra talks to BioShock composer Garry Schyman about his approach to making music for the two games in the series, and his influences in creating the franchise's evocative soundtrack.

February 9, 2010

8 Min Read

Author: by Jeriaska

[In this interview, Gamasutra talks to BioShock composer Garry Schyman about the new orchestral LP contained in the BioShock 2 special edition, his approach to making music for the two games in the series, and his influences in creating the franchise's evocative soundtrack.] The score for BioShock, composed by Garry Schyman, has reached an enormously wide audience for a videogame soundtrack. Not only was the title a popular console release, but its orchestral recordings were posted to the Irrational Games website as a free download, attracting listeners both close to and unfamiliar with the world of Rapture. Recognition of the album has led to the inclusion of the BioShock orchestral score on a heavyweight vinyl LP in the BioShock 2 Special Edition Set. The record will come with the game, a BioShock 2 orchestral score audio CD, three vintage posters and a 164-page art book. In this interview, the composer describes how his music was intended to deliver an entirely new kind of sound to the in-game environment. This entailed fusing styles of aleatoric music, early 20th century classical compositions and musique concrete into something altogether new. The music for the sequel aspires to expand upon this thematic foundation, introducing elements of blues. The orchestral score for BioShock was made available online for free. While this was not your decision, do you feel the free release may have worked out for the best? Garry Schyman, Composer for BioShock 1 & 2: I’ve told this story before, and it’s worth retelling. When I first heard they were releasing the score for free, I was taken aback because I had been pushing for a soundtrack release. I think they were feeling there was some disappointment in the “inspired by” BioShock song tracks that were released with the premium edition and so went ahead and put a portion of the score online. It’s always nice to have a soundtrack release, but in the end I think it really turned out to benefit me, as a lot of people downloaded and listen to it, and that may be why I won some awards. Though only a quarter of the score was actually release as a soundtrack at that time. They are now producing a much larger soundtrack album that will be released on an old fashioned LP and will come out as part of the premium edition of BioShock 2. There is also a CD of the BioShock 2 score included. What direction were you given upon beginning the process of scoring BioShock 2? 

I traveled up to 2K Marin to meet with audio director Michael Kamper and the game’s creative director Jordan Thomas. They were of the opinion that I’d done a great job on the first one and they didn’t want me to diverge dramatically from the style. 

I was really happy to be asked to do it again, and to hire some of the same people, like Martin Chalifour the principal concert master of the LA Phil, to do some solo violin playing. Armen Ksajikian played the cello. There also is new solo piano piece (though quite different in character) that was played by the same performer as “Cohen’s Masterpiece,” Bryan Pezzone. He’s a wonderful pianist and he really loved this piece and poured his heart into the performance. For those who play through the two BioShock games, will there be particular musical themes that are unique to the first title? I used almost no musique concrete on the Bioshock 2 score, though there’s a sound of electricity that I found that was really fantastic. Certain sounds just inspire me creatively, and this sound was evocative and eerie. BioShock takes place in a failed utopia, built undersea in the mid 20th century. What discussions with the audio director on the first BioShock helped discover a style for the fantasy period piece? Emily Ridgeway did not specify a style, though she said the game was really scary. We did talk about using early 20th century classical music. It’s a style that I love, that I’ve studied and enjoy writing in. Rapture was described to me as a place built especially for artists and great thinkers. It was a creative, artistic place that had become very scary and frightening. Rapture has since fallen into chaos and is in a state of war and decay. Were you looking to find a balance between the promise envisioned by Rapture’s architects and the reality of the chaos that ensued? Exactly. A cue like “Welcome to Rapture,” which plays as you are taking the bathysphere down, is more evocative than scary. There are a couple of sad pieces of music as well, that captured the sadness and tragedy of it all. A lot of 20th century music has elements that we perceive as scary, and it also served as the intellectual music that composers who came down to this utopia might have written. It was in the mid-20th century that the aleatoric style, or “chance” music, was developed by Penderecki and others. This style can be super creepy and eerie. I certainly did not invent that, but I think the thing that made this score unique was the combination of several styles of music. Some cues are just aleatoric, but the ones that are really unique take that dark, ambient style and then add some solo violin over that. The melodies were sometimes tonal, sometimes atonal, but they were not aleatoric. As soon as I started playing around with that I realized that it was a great sound. There is a randomized component to aleatoric music that could potentially be determined by a computer algorithm. Do you have any interest in this or other deployments of interactive music for games? I have some concerns about it. I don’t want interactivity to have a detrimental effect on the creativity of the composer. I always tell people when I’ve never worked with them before that I have nothing against the music being interactive, but I don’t want it to be so interactive that it’s not interesting or emotionally involving. I certainly do not have trouble with layering music so that what’s happening is based upon the player’s experience. The first game includes the track “Cohen’s Masterpiece,” a concert piece. Did you view this as a special request for the game? It was really fun to be challenged to write a serious classical piece of music that could stand on its own as a concert piece. I was asked to write a piece of piano music that Sander Cohen composed. In the game he is torturing some poor pianist to play it properly. To be honest, I didn’t really know a lot about who Sander Cohen was at the time. I just knew that they needed a piece of classical piano music for this level. The directors, when they heard it, felt it was almost too creative for Sander, but they dug it so much that it wasn’t an issue. Though it is not an easy piece to play a lot of people have enjoyed the piece and requested a pdf. I got so many requests that I put the sheet music on my website to download. A number of people have posted recordings on YouTube of themselves playing the piece. It’s struck a chord with some people—no pun intended—and it’s really a trip. You have mentioned on the ScoreNotes podcast that musique concrete was an important element of the score. How have you combined it with the improvisation within boundaries of the aleatoric orchestral style? Musique concrete is a French style from the late ‘40s, where they took found sounds from the real world and created sound montages made possible by the invention of the tape recorder. Though all of these styles had been done before — it was the combination that made it so interesting and unique and it fit with the game. 

 How did you find the recordings incorporated into the score for the game? From sounds I had collected or had been given to me over the years there are also really interesting websites like the Freesound Project, where amateurs and professionals put sounds up there and make them available to anyone who wants to use them. Every now and then I found really interesting sounds. There’s an old recording of a concertina that I found, and that’s used as an atmospheric component on the wharfs in the original BioShock. Sometimes these found sounds are used as percussive instruments, like the machinery sounds I edited together to create a groove for the engineering deck. Has having the chance to play BioShock informed the score for the sequel? Yes, I think it helped. It was not nearly as hard writing for the second one. Once I came up with the concept, I could run with it. The opening of the second game relates musically to “Ocean on His Shoulders” from the first BioShock, before veering off and doing its own thing. I’ve refined the style and the second game of course has different needs as well. I wrote a lot more combat music and could have an orchestra play it, which was very cool. I’ll let others be the judge of what they think of the second score, but I’m really pleased with both as creative opportunities. [To learn more about the music of Garry Schyman, visit the official website. Images courtesy of 2K Games and BioShock 2 senior character designer Colin Fix.]

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