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Incanus

SCORE: Journey (Austin Wintory)

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Journey

Music composed by Austin Wintory

 

journey-austin-wintory.jpg

 

A Review of the soundtrack album

by

Mikko Ojala

Journey is a 2012 video game from thatgamecompany that has also released such original titles as Flower, FlOw and Cloud, that offer highly unique and visually stunning concepts in gaming. The game is a highly audio-visual experience that blends typical adventure and platforming but places you into a world of where your character, a mysterious cloak wrapped and magical scarf wearing being travels through stunning landscapes, challenges and trials towards a mysterious mountaintop to realize his destiny. One of the oddities in this environment is the interaction with other players, who you encounter on the journey and can aid them but you cannot communicate with them in any way verbally, making for a strange new way of collaborating in a adventure gaming environment. The story is shrouded in mystery, the players allowed to piece together the myth and history of the world that surrounds them from the environment, murals, buildings and tapestries, all the while they perform their pilgrimage to reach the ever looming mountain and achieve their ultimate goal. Thatgamecompany brought in a talented young composer Austin Wintory to score his second collaboration with them after FlOw and he responded to the story and journey with a soundtrack that is both mesmerizingly melodic and ethereally evocative.

Austin Wintory whose career has really started in the 2000's has scored a hefty number of films in these few years and also broken into game scoring, earning a whole slew of awards and nominations in his relatively short career thusfar. As he says in his bio on his website, he was introduced to film scores by Jerry Goldsmith's work in the 80's and ever since he has been pursuing a career in films scoring. From what I have heard from the composer I would gladly welcome him a big break in the near future, so convincing is his writing in Journey alone.

Journey as a score blends worlds of ambient sound design and beautifully melodic and lyrical writing for orchestra and solo instruments into a fascinating whole, where the said incredients blend and ebb and flow in ethereal and powerfully evocative dance. Wintory's writing is mature, self assured and creative and, as it has become common in game scoring, takes its subject matter seriously much like a film, never downplaying to the medium. Game scoring has become a source of quality music and music making in the last decade and the possibilities of the cinematic qualities and style in games has allowed large dramatic scores to bloom in the genre, whether synthetic or orchestral or both. In Journey Wintory writes for electornics and a handful of soloists, among them Tina Guo (Cello), Rodney Wirtz (Viola) and Lisbeth Scott (vocals) and for a moderately sized symphonic (mainly string) ensemble, the score performed by the Macedonia Radio Symphonic Orchestra under the baton of Oleg Kontradenko, creating a varied and colorful tapestry of sound that envelopes and challenges and enthralls the listener with atmospheric and melodic soundscapes. Wintory treats the soloists as the focal point of the music, cello, flutes, viola and harp often presented with minimal accompaniment or over an ambient soundscape, lending a highly personal quality to the music,yet sometimes the soloists lead the orchestra in fascinating melodic explorations, perhaps the reflection of the idea of a lonely main character in a vast world.

The feel of the music is ambivalent in that it does not, out of a conscious effort by the composer, seem to be from any specific culture or cultural area, but embraces a wide variety of music styles and ethnic musical traits. Some alto flute passages conjure with the solo cello images of Far East, yet the percussion and other melodic lines clearly point to another direction, Celtic or Middle-Eastern colorations appearing in the next track, no element becoming too dominating through the running time. This I take (as I have not played the game) mirrors the approach of the world which the main character inhabits and works well on the album as well, providing surprising mixes of colours and stylistics, keeping the listening experience fresh.

Ambient textures Wintory uses become backdrops for the solo instruments and orchestral performance, keeping an element of mysticism, scope and ethereal wonder or peril firmly in the soundscape nearly throughout the album. Sometimes these slow, flowing, sparkling walls of sound somewhat dam the flow of the music or threaten to drown the organic elements but on the whole the synthetic material blends well to enhance the overall mood of the music, achieving a quasi spiritual and contemplative effect. Good examples of this are tracks like Temptations, Reclamation and several of the Confluence tracks (of which there are 6 in all). To balance the slower more ruminative moods there are several livelier lyrical tracks like the energetic the Road of Trials with its nearly Celtic pluckiness and sparklingly flowing blend of soloists and orchestra in the Threshold. The composer addresses the more serious threats and dangers on the journey by some impressively challenging modernistic ambience, percussion and string writings, like in the ominous Descent and especially in Nadir, where intensely furious layers of strings and percussion attack each other in a battle for supremacy, both frightening and powerful at the same time.

And despite mentioning the word atmospheric quite often in the review I was impressed by the fact that the score exhibits a good ear for melody, the mystical, spiritual central theme of the game and soundtrack presented on soulful solo cello and husky alto flute directly on the first track Nascence, a vaguely exotic winding and yearning melody, well portraying the questing nature of the story, the searching mood captured in the wistful melodic line. After such a well rounded start Wintory anchors the music to a continuous yet often subtle development and variation of this main theme in various guises snippets and fragments through the album, the first few notes wafting through the dream-like soundscapes or string harmonies, the second track Call being a prime example of this, the union of ethereally ambient yet thematic approach.


Even though Wintory wisely relies on a strong main theme and melody to carry the emotional weight, Wintory writes individual setpiece themes on several tracks, that seem to be woven from the same elegantly lyrical cloth as the main theme and provide exquisitely beautiful moments along the way, such as the Atonement, the already mentioned Threshold and The Road of Trials and he brings the score into a highly satisfying finale with the glowingly dramatic, poignant and almost bittersweet 7-minute meditation on the main theme in Apotheosis and ends the experience in a beatific solo voice and orchestral resolution in I Was Born for This with Lisbeth Scott lending her amazingly moving and rich voice for a prayer-like end credits song, the lyrics comprised of stanzas taken from many classic texts on legends of questing heroes sung in Latin, French, Old English and Japanese.

Journey is a nuanced and highly colorful work, often arrestingly moody in one moment and hauntingly lyrical the next. While its thematic material is strong this music might not make an instant impression but rewards multiple listens if you allow for all the elements, moods and variations to sink in. The album forms a well balanced listening experience without forgetting to form a strong musical narrative along the way, the score charting a dramatic journey of its own through exotic and mystical musical landscapes. Some slight balancing issues between the organic and synthetic sound worlds aside Mr. Wintory has here created a truly impressive piece of work and I certainly look forward to hearing new music, in films or other media, from him in the future. A delightful surprise and for me one of the best scores of the year.

5/5 STARS

Music composed, orchestrated and produced by Austin Wintory
Featured soloists:
Tina Guo: Cello
Amy Tatum: Flute / Bass Flute
Charissa Barger: Harp
Rodney Wirtz: Viola
Noah Gladstone: Serpent
Sara Andon: Flute
Vocal solos performed by Lisbeth Scott; text compiled by Jeremy Howard Beck
Percussion and programming by Austin Wintory
Orchestral performances by the Macedonia Radio Symphonic Orchestra
Orchestra conducted by Oleg Kontradenko
Orchestra contracted by Laurent Koppitz

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Nice review Inc!!! I might try to listen to Journey in the future.

Austin was clearly influenced by Jerry Goldsmith that he made a medley based on some of JG's scores as tribute to the master:

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I can indeed hear some shades of Goldsmith's style in Mr. Wintory's writing but I feel that he exhibits his own compositional voice in Journey quite strongly.

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Incanus reviewing video game music? Well, that's unusual, to say the least... Maybe I should check this score...

It is nothing curious or unusual. I just prefer to write on film music most of the time. Journey prompted me to write a review as it is somewhat different from what is becoming the main stream of game music, which is hyperdramatic and gigantically orchestral (or synthetic orchestral). It is somehow both extremely grand and intimate in scope at the same time. Very engaging and interesting music, that has dramatic heart. Somehow Wintory's approach seems to me more like he expressing with his own voice than taking temp tracks from film and game scores, not sounding closely like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith or Nobuo Uematsu or Howard Shore. Also the emphasis on the soloists was a great choice, a certain lyricism and beauty but also fragility and loneliness perhaps the intention of the composer.

Here you can listen to longer samples of the soundtrack on Soundcloud.

Glad you were able to find so much in Wintory's music without playing the game, Incanus. It's a masterpiece of audiovisual storytelling.

I have seen a few screenshots and videos of the gameplay but other than that I had no idea how is the game itself. The fact that is leaves such an impression on its own is a testament to its evocativeness. Did you know that Mr. Wintory also derived a concert work from the Journey score? Tina Guo was also a soloist in that, performed in LA this spring if I remember correctly.

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Yeah, the score has made a profound impact on music listeners. I think it's one of two game scores to hit the Billboard top 200 or something like that.

I hope this works as a gateway drug into other game scores for you. There's a wealth of fabulous material to find from this generation (past 5-7 years), much of which is more impressive than what's being composed for Hollywood.

Greg Edmonson's Uncharted scores are truly some of my favorite adventure scores from the 00s.

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Oh I have been keeping tabs on game scores ever since Medal of Honor soundtracks. There is a lot of interesting music in games these days but also a lot of chaff as well as in any genre. I wish some composers could get a chance with live orchestra when obviously there is fresh new talent and skill in among the game composers. I still lament that Jeremy Soule doesn't go hasn't gotten a chance to go full orchestral.

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Actually Skyrim is synth work, as far as I know only the choir in a couple of instances is real. Soule's samples are absolutely great and pretty convincing and I remember reading that he has worked hard to accumulate such an extensive and high quality sound library. His work for the Elder Scrolls and Guild Wars series is quality stuff. Skyrim soundtrack is whopping 4 discs long(1 disc is sound design and soundscapes though) and I don't think they had a budget to record such a long score with a live orchestra. Same goes for the new Guild Wars 2 soundtrack, which is 4 discs.

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Yeah the Skyrim release is awesome, got it signed by him too!

Same. The 4CD album is colossal, but maybe thats where its faults lie. I appreciate the merits of Skyrim but I don't find myself agreeing with the heaps of praise its received. The haven't heard it in the longest time, but I recall it being a bit too atmospheric to really love it. The samples are great though and it certainly has some rowdy highlights, but overall I found it disappointing.

I've heard great things about Journey though. I'll have to get it soon.

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The game music by the very nature of the medium is still different from film music. As with movie scores the music in games can't stand out too much from the scenery and as a consequence the music in a large fantasy RPG can be mostly atmospheric or innocous in large part, as the orchestra cannot be raging full steam in the backgroud when you are taking a stroll through the woods or climbing a serene mountainside. Or well it could play full and powerful but would seem out of place. But that is not to say that there isn't good music in such massive scores as 3 or 4 disc free roaming RPG soundtracks but it can be spread thinner than in linear more story driven games, where e.g. setpieces come at a more regular and controlled rate.

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Well the atmospheric stuff is where it's at. Guess you have to play the game to appreciate its entirety.

I understand that. And I really should get this game sometime. But as a listening experience, there isn't much for me.

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Skyrim or Journey? I haven't played the latter, but I believe it.

With Morrowind and Oblivion, you had a real immersive experience, and obviously the music was a part of that. But something about Skyrim sets it even higher than its predecessors in that department. I can't really think of any other instance where I've gotten that totally lost in any form of storytelling.

The urge to once again break out the Xbox and be utterly irresponsible for months is strong....

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Skyrim and Journey are totally different animals. The former is, as you said, a completely immersive experience that has almost no equivalent. But Journey is about, well, the journey. It is the experience of going from point a to point b in not necessarily narrative terms but in a very spare, florid audio/visual painting. Almost like a musical without lyrics or any dialogue of any kind and the barest semblance of a plot.

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Not to mention that Skyrim takes weeks to play through to the end, and Journey only an hour and a half, two tops. Setting up your character and playing the prologue takes about the same time as the whole of Journey. So indeed, comparing the two seems ridiculous.

Skyrim's score had that quality that it didn't bother me at all when hearing the same tune for the 100th time when I made another trip to Whiterun. I have more than 200 hours clocked in that game, but it will be a long time before I start it up again, I think.

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Journey is great stuff. But I think Banner Saga works better as a standalone listen. More people should check that score out.

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