Interview with Austin Wintory, composer for Journey and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
Austin Wintory is a Grammy-nominated music composer for games, film, and TV. He’s mostly well known for his work with development studio Thatgamecompany, known for such games as Flow, and the critically-acclaimed Journey, all of which he made the music for. The soundtrack for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is his latest big project, so we invited him to talk about his experience working on said game along with recalling his work on Journey.
Nerd Reactor: How and when did you know you wanted to make a career in music?
Austin Wintory: I was very lucky to discover music through the lens of composition when I was around ten years old. And so basically from that moment, I dreamt of pursuing a career in music. I discovered the Jerry Goldsmith canon of film scores at that age, thanks to my childhood piano teacher, and basically tried to position all my life’s decisions from that point forward around making this career possible. This of course eventually lead to actually going to college to study music and then chipping away bit by bit after that.
NR: What was the inspiration behind Journey‘s soundtrack?
Wintory: The inspiration behind Journey is actually not terribly different from any other project I work on, in that the primary inspiration is the game itself. In other words, Journey itself was the inspiration to Journey’s soundtrack! I worked on the game in tandem with the team for the entirety of development, and we kicked ideas back and forth, so that any music was coming out of the creative process of making the game itself. I didn’t look for too much external inspiration though obviously I don’t live in a vacuum. All my influences are likely present all the time!
NR: How did you react when you won the Grammy for Journey‘s soundtrack?
Wintory: I should point out that I did not win! [Whoops!] I lost to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their film score of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. However, the news of being nominated was certainly a shock and profound honor. John Williams, one of my lifelong heroes and without a doubt one of the most influential and important composers of the 20th century, was also among the nominees. And to be able to have that brief glimpse of being a co-nominee with him was a completely staggering moment. But ultimately I think it reflects on how lucky I was to work on such a special game. Because if Journey hadn’t been such a remarkable game, I don’t think that the music would have gotten anywhere near as much attention as it did.
Wintory: Without a doubt the goal with Syndicate was to create something new. Ubisoft specifically reached out to me with the hope of shaking up the formula of the AC franchise. There is a certain sort of futuristic hybrid synth element to a lot of the prior scores, and they basically said to me in a very open-ended way, “How would you do this differently from that? What is your thinking with regard to Assassin’s Creed?” And so I pitched them an idea that I actually frankly didn’t think that they would be interested in. I was quite shocked when they immediately responded to it and said, “ We love it, and let’s go to work.” So I set about writing crazy neo-Romantic chamber music and waltzes and arias and the whole thing!
Wintory: I have been referring to the music as neo-Mendelssohn. It’s a blend of a very modernistic sound with a 19th-century chamber music sound. Mendelssohn (pictured below) was a particularly evocative composer, and his whole approach had this wonderful light-on-its-feet touch that is just perfect for a pair of sibling master assassins. So even though I wasn’t trying to make some authentic period score (in other words this is not music which one would confuse for actual 19th century music), it definitely tips its hat, and tries to create an aesthetic that just naturally gels with the environment. But there’s also a lot more to it than that. There is quite a lot of authentic folk music and hymn tunes of the era integrated into the score, and there are brief little semi-operatic interludes that use text from a famous English language opera called Dido and Aeneas, etc. So I am trying to make a pretty rich tapestry of London as best I can.
Wintory: My advice is usually personal and rarely musical. It is very easy to go out and get an education, or buy the right equipment, or do these other things that give you the kind of basic access. They’re most essential barrier to entry in most cases. But the real way that people find themselves working in the industry is by providing something that only they can provide. One drives demand for their work by creating work for which there is no other source, and that stems from just living an interesting life. It’s not about being brilliant, or being the best, or anything like that, but it comes from being authentically one’s self. Because there is no one else who has lived your life, and the music that you write is a consequence of the life you’ve led. So my advice is always be true to one’s instinct and one’s voice, to be honest, in every sense of that word, and to be open to possibilities around you. Because life will write experiences onto you that then become part of your musical approach. And the more that that happens, the more unique it will be.
If you’d like to hear Austin Wintory’s music, go to his website austinwintory.com to buy his digital albums. The Assassin’s Creed Syndicate soundtrack isn’t there yet, but you can hear it in-game when it launches on October 23rd.
Check out the video below featuring music from Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.