Tuvan throat singers and scrapping scores: Austin Wintory on soundtracking The Pathless

The BAFTA-winning composer tells us how his latest game score was inspired by Mongolian falconry, a Tuvan jam and a 900-year-old Swedish harp.

However you choose to measure success, whether by the originality of musical thought, ambition of scale, or sheer volume of output, very few names in computer game audio match that of Austin Wintory. The BAFTA-winning composer has scored games ranging from adventure epic Journey to Assassins Creed Syndicate, and dozens of films.

His latest score is for The Pathless – a stylish indie game described as “quietly essential” – sees him continue his working relationship with developer Giant Squid. We catch up with him to talk about compositional approach, the difference between scoring games and film, and how making mock-ups can hinder creative expression.

Compared to TV shows and films, a game soundtrack’s gestation period is long and constantly evolving. How do you manage those differences, both compositionally and emotionally?

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Certainly, compared to episode-to-episode TV, games take much longer. The movie gestation period is actually not that much shorter than games – it’s just that the composer isn’t involved until near the end. What’s wonderful about games is getting involved early. Even as a composer, you’re able to be part of the development team, and I love that environment; it’s almost like being in a band. I think if you asked a runner, ‘what’s better, a marathon or a sprint?’, alternating between the two is perhaps the ideal.

I love scoring television and film for their short-term, hyper-focused nature. There’s a hard limit on the amount of music you might potentially be writing, whereas even small games can be nebulous. What might start with ‘45 minutes of music will do the trick’ becomes three hours of music. And The Pathless is a good example; over its development, the scope of the game expanded considerably, and I had to make sure the score could commensurately expand as well.

During a project, a gaming console’s hardware capabilities could be upgraded significantly. Does that impact you as a composer?

Most of the time, the really interesting advancements are only enjoyed on the next game, rather than applied to a project you’re writing currently. It can be frightening to implement unproven new tech in the middle of a game’s development, with all of its undiscovered bugs and instabilities. I’ve had that happen. On Journey, there was a major software upgrade to the primary music tool we were using two-thirds of the way through the project. And the upgrade broke all of the sound, which had to be rebuilt pretty frantically at the eleventh hour. But what’s possible has changed so much in such a short time.

Years ago, I did a game that was one of the first mobile games to record a live orchestra: Horn for Phosphor Games. It was limited to just three simultaneous audio channels: dialogue, sound effects and music. I was trying to write an interactive score with a lot of branching levels. So the music had to be pretty nimble, and it was a real challenge to figure out how to do that while relying on hard crossfades.

Now, The Pathless has shipped on PS5 and iOS. There are cues in the score with ten different audio streaming channels that move around and flip upside down in real-time, all handled by the middleware Wwise. I couldn’t have dreamt of that, even a few years ago. And of course, the new Playstation and Xbox are unbelievable pieces of machinery.

Austin Wintory and Kristin Naigus
Kristin Naigus, here playing a ney in Abbey Road Studio 2, is one of the score’s most featured musicians.

Does having multiple, overlapping music feeds make the composer’s job harder or easier, knowing that the technology can interact with your music in new ways?

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I think that it depends on the composer. I say this non-pejoratively, but some composers are very traditional in their thinking. They want to write a piece of music that has a beginning, middle and end. But games composers have become more granular. Our music has become less linear in ways that defy what music has traditionally been for several thousand years. For someone like me, who’s single-mindedly obsessed with that approach, the new technology just means I can run faster and jump higher. If you’re coming at it from a film or classical perspective, those possibilities might be intimidating. But there are amazing scores written in a more linear way, so there’s no inherently better approach.

Brain Eno once said he was convinced that his grandchildren would be stunned that we used to listen to the same piece of music repeatedly. Is game music doing more than any other musical form to break traditional listening patterns?

Absolutely. Having had a chance to conduct and attend concerts all over the world, I’ve noticed that the average gamer, who would not consider themselves a hardcore soundtrack nerd, will show up to a concert of video game music. They may only have played a game once, but if it’s a mainstream game, that’s still 20, 30, or 40 hours of their time. So it dawned on me that we have an unfair advantage as composers scoring games. It’s almost like Stockholm syndrome (or mere-exposure); a gamer might not like the music for the first few hours of playing but let’s talk again after 20 hours!

Gaming also offers a high degree of interactivity, so gamers are no longer audience members. They’re a co-author of the experience, which can be different every time. A gamer knows that when the strings come flooding in, they’ve been triggered by an in-game choice, for example. It’s a paradigm shift as significant as when radio and phonograph recordings conspired to create the idea of mass distribution of music for the first time about 100 years ago.

Austin Wintory's Nyckelharpa
The nyckelharpa, a 12th-century Swedish instrument, proved to be a challenging instrument to mix.

How did you choose instrument sounds for The Pathless, and how did your sonic palette evolve?

Three and a half years ago, Matt Nava (Creative Director of Giant Squid) showed me the first images of the game. Part of his inspiration was a Mongolian falconry hunting tradition, reflected in the main character and the eagle that she finds at the beginning of the game. So, I started thinking about that region’s music, but simultaneously, I had come across this 900-year old Swedish folk instrument called the nyckelharpa. The appeal of folk instruments is how much colour and expressiveness they get out of seemingly so little.

Some musical instruments have benefitted from hundreds of years of iteration, and others have remained relatively consistent for a thousand years. I love that second category: those instruments that are connected to a world that is hard to comprehend. I also loved the colour of throat-singing, and I’d been introduced to a Tuvan group called the Alash Ensemble.

Initially, I started to blend these elements with the orchestra. But over three years of development, I became obsessed with moving away from the traditional orchestra and asking, ‘what if this was a kind of non-existent folk tradition?’

I started jokingly calling it my global jam band with bamboo flute, nyckelharpa, Appalachian fiddle and central African percussion. I wanted it to feel more like a true alchemy of these instruments’ traditions and not just this appropriative, ‘I want the gesture of that sound alongside the gesture of this other sound’.

There’s a harmonic richness that comes from the tuning scales of these instruments, which is different from conventional western tuning, similar to scoring for baroque instruments.

Absolutely. Many folk traditions offer a very direct playing style, partly because the instruments didn’t have the physical ability to offer ‘finessed’ articulations like vibrato. So likening these instruments to the baroque period is right, particularly for instruments like the nyckelharpa with a huge number of high-end partials in the colour. In fact, the brightness means that sometimes it’s quite difficult to mix. I have a 100-piece orchestra and one nyckelharpa player, and it’s so there, you just can’t get rid of it! I wanted that quality because it’s like casting an actor who brings something you want; you don’t want to bury its sonic personality.

Austin Wintory
Austin recorded large parts of the score in January 2020 in Abbey Road Studio 2.

As with film and TV, do you record game music at the end of the process or at various points throughout development?

Generally speaking, I try to record at the last second possible. With The Pathless, we initially recorded at the beginning of 2020 because the game was scheduled for a summer-time release. But then the release was pushed back. At that point, the Abbey Road session was already booked, and I couldn’t reverse course. But we were lucky, as delaying those sessions into the Covid lockdown would have precluded the recordings, and I would have had to rethink the score. I don’t usually advocate for periodic recording sessions because then you’re locked in. And I’ve had projects where one week before a session, I had a sudden epiphany, and I went back and rewrote the main theme.

It must have been hard to put together mock-ups for The Pathless with such an unusual sonic palette. Does the trust which comes from having worked with a developer before help?

That trust is invaluable, and I’m lucky because Matt has discerning ears, particularly when deciding if something is a function of the mock-up or the composition. So I don’t have to spend lots of time making the mock-ups sound particularly good, which I’m grateful for as making mock-ups feels like time spent not composing. I’ve never really made discoveries that can influence the direction of a piece when creating a mock-up. If I’m frustrated that a legato patch doesn’t sound convincing, I’m not learning about the composition.

The best change in that situation is a bad outcome, which is that I modify the piece to make the mock-up sound better. And that’s one of the destructive things about sample libraries; they sometimes put the composition on rails to serve the mock-up. And on The Pathless, the one thing I could not mock-up, even crudely, was the [Tuvan throat-singing] Alash Ensemble.

Austin Wintory
Austin recorded a six-hour jam with Alash Ensemble in Washington DC, which formed the basis for his reworked score for The Pathless

On the subject of sample libraries and The Pathless’ musical palette, I guess it’s easy to invite criticisms of cultural appropriation by using a sample, or gestural phrase.
I’m sceptical about the whole notion of cultural appropriation in music because, to me, music is built around the very idea of cultural exchange. And so I find the idea of stealing culture sort of nonsensical because I’ve never known a musician who didn’t do it from a place of love; they’re doing it out of admiration. That said, I’m not a Tuvan musician and even though I was bingeing on the Alash Ensemble’s albums, I don’t want to pretend that I have absorbed their musical traditions down to the soles of my feet. So, a year into the project, I realised I couldn’t just record these guys at the end of the score. So I booked some studio time with them in Washington DC while they were on tour and we set up a jam session.

I put a digital piano in the middle of the room so they could only hear me in their headphones. And we just hit go in Pro Tools. I had made a list in my head of some of the musical starts I had made, but it was mostly an unguided jam. I’d start to play, and then they’d start to play, and then they’d then start to become purely themselves. Then I’d do things that are not part of their musical tradition, shifting by a half-step or something like that, and they’d roll with it, and it would be their music but also not their music. And so I had this six-hour Pro Tools session of free musical dialogue. After that, I ended up pretty much throwing out the score that I had written and started again with chunks of their performance. And what that meant was that the first mock-ups would be the real deal.

Do specific pieces of technology inspire you, or are the manuscript paper and pencil your primary tools?

Honestly, I like it all. For me, the goal is to vary the process so that I get drawn in different ways. When I started, I called a friend for a microphone recommendation, and he told me to get the Røde NT2. I recorded everything with that mic. I tend to use pieces of technology as tools towards a musical aim. Something occasionally comes along that’s intrinsically inspiring, but those are often musical instruments rather than pieces of technology.

There are exceptions. I’ll get a new plug-in and say, “this is a fascinating and weird colour, and it makes me want to do something different to what I was doing”. An example is Freakshow Industries, who have this wonderful reversal plug-in called Backmask. I was working on a project and didn’t want just to flip a bunch of samples around; I was looking for something more nuanced, and a friend recommended Freakshow.

I also don’t think I could exist without SoundToys’ Decapitator and Crystallizer; to me, they’re two of the most beautiful plug-ins ever made. But I don’t consider myself a die-hard technophile, endlessly obsessing over what’s the new toy. It’s more like “I’ve thought of a thing, how do I achieve that?” and I start there.

John Powell’s advice to would-be film composers was ‘stop listening to film music!’. Would that advice apply to games writers too?

In film music, there’s definitely a mainstream. But for the legions of people emulating Hans Zimmer or John Williams, there’s John Brion, Trent Reznor, Jonny Greenwood: people bringing something very different. A good friend of mine is composer Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace). When he wrote the score for the movie It Follows, he did this very lo-fi, 8-bit score for that horror film and a lot of people took notice. Of course, the games community has known about his brilliance for ages. I think that games are not quite as homogenous as films, as there’s less of a precisely defined mainstream, and it constantly changes. I think part of that is just the inherent youth of the industry itself. On top of that, I think one of the things that gaming has going for it is that if I say ‘movie’, it always means the same thing. You sit down and watch, and the bones of that experience have remained unchanged for a century because that’s what film music is.

Games, on the other hand, are hard to pin down, by definition. When I finished Journey, there was debate about whether that even qualifies as a game because it lacked the things which had traditionally defined games. Now, people make games that are even more radical than Journey was, so the debate has shifted again. My attitude is, “why are we bothering to draw fences around this term?”. Let’s just acknowledge that gaming is synonymous with an interactive experience. And the result of that definition is an insane diversity of what games are, which means a similarly insane diversity of music. That, I think, is baked in and I don’t see it changing.

The Pathless is out now for PS4, PS5, Windows, MacOS and iOS.

The Pathless OST is available now on Bandcamp and all major streaming platforms.

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