Respawn! Searching For Stravinsky's DNA In Destiny

Nov 30, 2015

Where are new fans of classical music going to come from? That’s a common question among symphony orchestras, and just about every performer.

Turns out, Classical music is finding new audiences in some surprising places, like post-apocalyptic Russia centuries into the future, a world populated by Orcs and Night Elves, and a desolate island in the Hebrides. Video games have been providing players the chance to have their quests accompanied by Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber for decades, and composers of recent games have gotten especially creative in blending classical with original music in a seamless sound.

Screenshot from Destiny.

Michael Salvatori, who, with Martin O’Donnell has co-written scores for some of the most successful games of all time, including five Halo games, and recently Destiny and The Taken King, says he creates music to give the game world its own unique identity.

Destiny, a game set many centuries in the future after the collapse of a Golden Age, has echoes of our past, including scraps of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony heard from a long-ago broadcast. It gives an eerie, abandoned feel to the environment that adds to the tension of that level.

Recently I had a chance to talk with Mike about the process of writing the hours of music needed for a game on Destiny's vast scale.

When I asked Mike about classical composers who have influenced him over the years, he mentioned some of the most important composers of the 20th Century and our own time, including Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Holst, Aaron Copland, and Bela Bartok.

Armed with that information, I decided to play “musical detective” to see if I could hear echoes of music by those composers in Salvatori’s music for Destiny and The Taken King, in which he collaborated with C. Paul Johnson and Skye Lewin. Of course, Salvatori has been composing for so long that his music has its own sound, but it’s interesting to guess where the ideas have come from. Along with the selections from the soundtracks of Destiny and The Taken King, I've included music by the composers Mike admires. My intent is to explore the pedigrees of this diverse game score.

Oryx, the Taken King.

For example, Path to Oryx borrows the sometimes-menacing brass of Sibelius. Here's the ominous opening to Finlandia:

And, the threating opening to Path to Oryx:

There’s a quiet, mid 20th Century American sound to Excerpt from the Ecstasy, that could be from Aaron Copland:

And here's a bit of Copland's nostalgic "Letter From Home," written for a radio broadcast for U.S. troops serving overseas during World War 2:

The Tower, Destiny's home base.

Although Stravinsky didn’t get into writing music for films in a big way, composing for games might have appealed to him. Epic battles and exotic landscapes would have given him plenty of inspiration. And it might have sounded like this track, Regicide, which uses some of the same rhythmic drive of the Rite of Spring:

And just to refresh your memory, here's that rhythmic passage from The Rite of Spring:

In his suite The Planets, Gustav Holst combines his love of mythology with astronomy to get to the hear of what makes each of our planets unique. In Neptune, we hear far-off voices from deep space:

And in the The Great Unknown, which is what you hear as your little ship orbits over Earth in Destiny:

Salvatori said his overriding goal in composing isn’t just to make music that provides a great background for what’s going on in a game, but to write music that’s good enough to stand alone, for listening away from the console, and that’s instantly recognizable as music from that game. Making sure that the music he’s writing with the team now has enough Destiny “gravy” is how he put it.

Will music from games be around centuries from now, as Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony is in Destiny’s far-off future Russia? I put that question to Salvatori, and he said he’s encouraged that his music will have a very long shelf-life, thanks to an enthusiastic fan base who create their own covers of their favorite melodies, and composers who are evolving the themes he co-wrote with Marty O’Donnell for Halo.

Too bad we can't teleport to the future via a game to find out!