From Hell to Rapture: Composer Garry Schyman and the Music of Dante's Inferno and BioShock 2


Posted February 20, 2010 - By Rick Damigella

Dantes Inferno

The Feed got a chance to speak with composer Garry Schyman, who created the music for both Dante's Inferno and BioShock 2 (along with the original BioShock). And to make things even more fun, we crowd sourced a bunch of our questions to YOU the faithful readers of The Feed, so read on to see if your question got asked. We also have a little gift for you hidden somewhere in the interview, in the form of a free download of Garry's music from BioShock, so what are you waiting for? Join the Feed as we take you from Hell to the city of Rapture.

The Feed: Congratulations on the release of both your soundtracks last week! How utterly strange is it that they came out simultaneously?

Garry Schyman: Yes strange indeed.  Same day even!  Oh well the universe works in mysterious ways!  I was actually scoring them both at the same time.  I'd spend a few days on one and a few on the other.  It was so perfect as both games had long lead times I would have time off from one when the other had a deadline or just required my attention.  It all worked out perfectly.

The Feed: Let’s talk about Dante’s Inferno first. How did you approach creating the music for this new game, with its very well known source material?

GS: Several things were in my mind when I went about scoring Dante's Inferno.  First, this was a religious work and I wanted that to come through.  Second, it is a very scary and frightening world in one sense and amazingly horrifyingly beautiful place as well.  EA created a visual masterpiece and then gave me the tools to score it.  So I wanted to capture the scary, grotesque, beautiful and tortured sounds of this world.  I tried to come up with something very unusual that captured these facets of hell and I had a blast doing it.  I was very lucky to be asked to score this project.  There are very few opportunities like it creatively other than BioShock of course!

The Feed: The soundtrack album for Dante’s Inferno is two discs worth of material, so obviously a lot went into its creation. What were the challenges in creating the music for this game?

GS: Just constantly trying to write fresh and different sounding music that captured the world the player is immersed in.  I went to bed overnight visualizing what I needed to do the next day.  I find that very useful.  There are a lot of combat tracks in Dante's Inferno and they are very complex pieces of music.  Not complex for the fun of it but necessarily complex to create the chaos and grotesque feel of the world.  So writing and recording that much complex music is quite a challenge as you can imagine.  

The Feed: You got to record Dante’s at Abbey Road studios. Had you recorded there before? What was that like for you as a composer?

GS: I had never recorded there before and it was one of the best experiences of my career.  Don’t get me wrong as there are equally amazing players in LA, but it was just so much fun and so exciting to go to London and record with the Philharmonia Orchestra (best horns in the world!) and then to work with this fantastic choir (Metro Voices) at one of the best studios in the world was amazing. 

From Hell to Rapture: Composer Garry Schyman and the Music of Dante's Inferno and BioShock 2
(Photo by Paul Gorman)

The acoustics of the big orchestral room are gorgeous.  It has its own natural reverb and it's a velvety transparent sound that permits complex musical textures to come through clearly and beautifully.  John Williams recorded some of his most famous scores there including all of the Star Wars films.  And there was this famous band from the 60's that recorded there as well!  :)

It's up for sale now and if I could I would buy it in a second!

The Feed: About the soundtrack album, obviously it would ideal if fans picked up the entire thing, but what about a new comer to listening to game music away from the game? What three pieces from Dante’s would you steer them towards?

GS: The theme entitled "Donasdogama Micma", "Storms of Lust" (my personal favorite) and "Redemption".  Maybe add in one of the combat cues as well like "Dante, Casarma Treloch".  That would give the listener a sense of the scope and style of the score. 

The Feed: Now on to BioShock 2. Obviously, once you are a part of a successful new franchise, certain music themes often make repeat performances in the sequels. How much of the original game’s themes found their way back in to BioShock 2?

GS: Not very much.  The main theme "Pairbond" starts out with some thematic material from the original BioShock theme, however quickly veers off in another direction.   Style-wise the score for BioShock 2 will feel familiar to those who have played the original BioShock.  But they truly are different games with different musical needs.  

The Feed: While this game is set in the late 60’s and the previous in the 50’s, with the whole of Rapture dating back further. Does this multi-era playground pose any challenges for you when creating its sound?

GS: To be honest I play fast and loose with the various eras musically speaking.  First and foremost the music has to create the mood and atmosphere the world in BioShock needs at any one moment.  Even the songs, which I had nothing to do with, were a mix of different eras and cannot be attributed to exact time periods.  But bear in mind,  if Rapture had actually existed it would have been isolated from the world topside.  So it is entirely dramatically consistent to mix up styles as Rapture would have evolved in its own unique way - while relating to music from the past in its own distinctive manner. 

The Feed: For the hardcore music fans out there, your original BioShock score being pressed on vinyl is a real treat. Did you do anything new for that release or is it the music we know and love just as it is?

GS: It is music from the first game entirely.  As you probably know 2K released 12 tracks from the original game as a free download.   But that was only 24 minutes of the score so we got to add a bunch of the cues that did not make that release.  The entire album is 40 minutes of the original score.  You just need to own a turntable to listen!

The Feed: For both BioShock 2 and Dante’s Inferno, we are dealing with some very dark game content which the music needs to support. Did you keep things on the dark side or were you able to weave in lighter music moments at any point in either game?

GS: Surprisingly both scores do have some non-scary music that is quite beautiful (if I can say that about my music).  Of course the original BioShock had a couple of very pretty pieces as well.  Dante's Inferno's "Storm of Lust" which I mentioned earlier is big and darkly romantic so yes both scores permitted me opportunities to be melodic and not always scary.  Though the bulk of the music is intended to be very scary and intense. 

From Hell to Rapture: Composer Garry Schyman and the Music of Dante's Inferno and BioShock 2
(Photo by Paul Gorman)

The Feed: Can you share with us what you are working on next?

GS: My score for Front Mission Evolved, though finished a few months ago, will come out sometime later this year.  I have two big projects coming up but the secrecy (and the non-disclosure agreements I have signed) of the industry prevents me from telling you more.  Sorry about that. 

And now some viewer questions:

Ed wants to know if you play any of the games you compose for?

GS: Yes!  I especially love BioShock and I am in the middle of playing BioShock 2 right now.  I don't play a lot of games nor do I watch a lot of television because I just don't have the time.   Though I did play and love Portal!!!  It's a fantastic medium.

Josh has an interesting one. Which of these two new games did you enjoy composing for more? And tied to that, Jake wants to know, which was the more challenging to write for?

GS: Well I very much enjoyed scoring both games.  The most difficult part of scoring a game for me is coming up with the theme and the style for the score.  In this case I had already established a style and approach to the original BioShock that we decided to keep for BioShock 2.  So perhaps Dante's Inferno was a bit more challenging as I had to design the approach for the music from scratch.   From the fun standpoint I got to go to London to record the score for Dante's Inferno at the famous and amazing Abbey Road Studios.  So that was just a blast because, as I mentioned, I had never done that before and because I love traveling.  The orchestral players are amazing in both LA and London.   

Kara would like to know is there a different mindset to creating music for cut scenes versus gameplay?

GS: Yes.  Scoring a cut scene  (really just a short movie that is almost always CGI) is exactly like writing for film or television.  You're locked to picture and the music needn't be interactive.  Game music (when it is not for cut scenes) is not written to locked images because no two players play the game exactly alike.  You have choices and the music has to reflect those choices or it will not enhance the experience.  You certainly are scoring for a specific part of the game and you have direction on what is happening when the music plays.  Additionally, depending on the game, there are implementation issues that can require you to write the music in a way that permits it to be played in layers - or other techniques to allow for customization.  So yes there are differences.

Alec wants to know what was it like bringing the now ten years older Rapture back to life through music compared to the first game?

GS: Well, first of all, it was great getting to write more BioShock music as I loved scoring the first game.   The two games are similar in some ways and quite different in other ways.  After all we are retuning to Rapture. 

In practical terms when I was writing the music I was responding to how the game's developers described what they needed for a specific place in the game.  Style-wise, as I mentioned earlier, the music was related.   But there is so much new material and differences in the way the game unfolds that the score does take some new and interesting turns.  

Dyllan asks how was BioShock 2's music used to ''scare'' the player? The first game's soundtrack freaked him out... in a good way!

GS: BioShock 2's music is just as scary.  It comes in during at various moments to enhance the eerie feel and mood or when in combat to increase your anxiety.  So in a sense I am hired to raise your blood pressure!!!  :) So I hope you're just as freaked out when you play BioShock 2! (editor’s note: Big Sister’s theme has done just that to me each time she has shown up as I’ve been playing!)

And a good follow up from KP is how much autonomy do you have in musically "setting the mood" of the games?

GS: That is a good question.  It is really a collaboration.  In the end I am hired to score their game and not mine so they have to approve everything.  However, I have found that developers love to be pleasantly surprised.  In other words what they originally thought would be a good direction for music can change if you come up with something they love.  This is true for films and television as well.  You can't just write whatever you please and expect them to drop it into their game if they don't really dig it.  But with that said I have found that I have a great deal of creative freedom. 

In a way, if they said "do anything" I would probably be creatively paralyzed.  We all need direction of some kind.  Even the famous composer Stravinsky said (and I am paraphrasing) "Show me the entire piano keyboard and ask me to write whatever I want and it is a paralyzing request.   But give me two notes and I can start writing immediately."  So too my creativity can be triggered and improved by the limits as much as by the freedom.  Am I getting too artsy fartsy here?  :)  What I am trying to say is though composers have to meet the creative and practical needs of the game we can still find a lot of freedom within those limits.  Make sense?

And one last one from me: Is there a game franchise out there that you would like to grace with your musical prowess?

GS: Not really.  I have been asked to score some of the most interesting games out there right now from a composers POV anyways.  Maybe Portal 2!!!  (if they allowed music in the game other than a singing computer).

Thanks to Garry Schyman for taking the time to answer ours and your questions. Now since you were clever and read this far here's a plasmid for you! No, not really, but you can have Garry's original BioShock score for free and be the first to know to come back here tomorrow to check out The Feed's review of Garry's soundtrack album for BioShock 2!

From Hell to Rapture: Composer Garry Schyman and the Music of Dante's Inferno and BioShock 2


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