Having started in TV and film composing, Gary Schyman detailed his discovery of video game music.
Garry Schyman, a composer noted for his work on the “Bioshock” series, visited TU last week to speak about his experiences scoring video games in a lecture on Tuesday Oct. 30. He also worked with Josh Lowery, a cellist, to lead the the university orchestra in performing some of his compositions from the video game “Torn” at their Oct. 29 rehearsal.
Schyman started his lecture with a brief backstory. He grew up in Los Angeles and started playing the piano at a young age after his mother bought one for his older brother. After realizing that his declared biology major was completely wrong for him, Schyman switched to a music composition major at the University of Southern California. The school is home to the Thornton School of Music, one of the best in the country.
After graduating, Schyman found his way into the television scoring industry. One of his childhood friends was the son of Dennis Weaver, a famous actor, who was able to get Schyman into recording sessions for shows like “Magnum P.I.” and “The A-Team.” Schyman started working for composers at these studios by transcribing music so it could be performed by the orchestra.
At the time Schyman started working as a composer, television and film were his only options for work because video games were still in their primitive states. Around the late ‘90s and early 2000s, new consoles like PlayStation and Xbox presented opportunities in aesthetics as well as audio. Rather than synthetic sounds that were characteristic of early games, new consoles could support the more orchestral and cinematic music that Schyman liked to write. It was by chance that he stumbled into this new and innovative field of video game composition.
One of Schyman’s compositions was sitting on a fax machine at THQ, a video game company, when his college girlfriend’s roommate recognized his name and brought the score to an executive. The executive determined that some of his work fit with a new game called “Destroy All Humans.” A few months later, he was hired as a contracted composer.
Schyman decided that he enjoyed working in the video game industry more than in film, even though he started working as a composer before the marked for video game scoring even existed. He told the audience of current students, “There are new technologies that are being created and you may find your passion in your 40s,” just like he stumbled into video games at age 49.
Here, Schyman found he could reinvent himself and write more cutting-edge compositions.
When one of the directors at THQ started working on the first “Bioshock” game, she asked Schyman to compose for it. She told him, “I want this score to sound like no other film or game score that is out there,” offering him an opportunity to write experimental music.
After working through several ideas, Schyman found a style that would become characteristic of the Bioshock series. Playing some of his favorite pieces from the scores, “Welcome to Rapture” and “Pairbond,” Schyman described his use of a strong soloistic violin over dark, ambient background sounds. He discussed how much he enjoyed being able to write for an orchestra, what he called “real music,” as opposed to synthetic computer sounds. The recordings were performed by the concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra on a Stradivarius violin.
Video games present interesting challenges for composers. Films, Schyman said, are frozen in time. The director and composer choose where the music comes in and fades out. Whenever anyone watches the movie or show, the music is always the same. In video games, though, the freedom of the player means that the same area might need 10 seconds or 10 minutes worth of music. Because of this, most of Schyman’s compositions are about two minutes long and can be looped depending on the amount of time every individual chooses to stay in any given area.
During the Q&A section of his lecture, Schyman said that he finds inspiration for his compositions in the game itself. Rather than searching for outside sources of influence, he focuses on what the game and its players need instead of what he personally prefers.
Although Schyman admits he has just finished one project and been hired for another, he is blocked by a non-disclosure agreement to discuss his work for them. Listeners can find all of Schyman’s compositions on his website, garryschyman.com, under the “listen” tab. Some of his work, including the full “Dante’s Inferno” and “Torn” albums, are also available on Spotify.