Charting The Pathless, part 2

The ‘band of soloists’

Over a year ago, I published part one of this series in which I revealed the aesthetic and main theme for Giant Squid’s upcoming adventure The Pathless. Over the coming weeks I’ll have several more posts to share detailing additional aspects of the score, which has spanned now three and a half years of development and nearly endless musical iteration.

For today, I’ll take a look at the ‘band of soloists’ that form the heart of the score throughout the game. Whereas I’d originally been thinking of a mostly-orchestral score peppered with some specific sounds, it ended up evolving into a far more soloist-centered approach. As the game got bigger, in a way the score got smaller but more colorful, and the resulting ‘global jam band’ is actually the real nucleus of it all.

FYI there will be no spoilers here, but due to the way the specific instruments weave into the story / gameplay, some of this might seem a little deliberately vague.

Nyckelharpa / Morgan O’Shaughnessey

To begin, in part one you may recall my mention of the Nyckelharpa, and how it played the role of the lead instrument in the initial presentation of the theme (“Pilgrimage”). While it’s not uncommon that I test out a particular sound early in the project and then end up abandoning it in favor of something ‘better,’ in this case Morgan’s Nyckelharpa has remained at the heart of The Pathless for all 3+ years.

That said, I’d initially seen it as a slightly more monolithic soloist, dominant above all the colors in the music, but as time has passed its taken a more omniscient role. The Nyckelharpa, in all its Swedish folksy glory, is now sort of like a glue that binds the rest together. If this score is comprised of a group of people sitting in a room together, the Nyckelharpa has become the furniture on which they’re sitting. Part of this is because it adapts so well to many types of settings I need it for: lead solo line during an intimate moment; counter-line during a bombastic, exciting moment; subtly adding to the background of a more ambient moment, etc etc…

It’s worth adding that the folk traditions the instrument is built for and from don’t live too deeply in the DNA of what I wrote for it here. I intentionally tried to nudge beyond its roots, while still retaining the various ornamentations and gestures it excels at.

As a side note, Morgan and I first met and began collaborating on The Pathless in 2017 but funny enough, another chance to evoke Scandinavian fury came about in the middle of the project and then shipped before we’d finished!

Oud, Lute and others / Tom Strahle

Anyone with even passive familiarity with my work over the last several years has undoubtedly heard the performances of this wonderful musician, Tom Strahle. I’ll give a more detailed account of our long-running partnership in a later post, but simply put, I rarely write a score without him. His musicianship, humility and creativity is just boundless and knowing he’ll be playing the notes is always a multiplier of their potential that few could match.

For The Pathless I asked him to stretch! While principally a guitarist, he can play seemingly anything with strings and one day, he made the mistake of texting me a photo of a lute he’d just bought. I had been trying to work out the palette for the score, and he provoked that first mental image of the global jam band. Around that same time, our creative director Matt Nava had proposed throwing in Oud (which is the Arabic-by-way-of-Spain’s cousin to the lute). Funny enough, Tom already had one, so we began experimenting.

As with the Nyckelharpa, the goal wasn’t to write Renaissance-style lute parts nor Maqam Oud parts, but rather to cultivate my own vocabulary, and let those affects infiltrate it. This process took a very long time, as many of the initial pieces felt either too cemented in the instruments’ source traditions, or too remote from them.

Xiāo, Dizi, bansuri, recorders, penny whistles, flutes and oboe / Kristin Naigus

If there’s anyone I work with as regularly as Tom Strahle, it’s Kristin. Originally an oboist (and the principle soloist of the score to ABZÛ), like Tom she’s taken it upon herself to learn seemingly every instrument on the planet. This has manifested in her performing all manner of beautiful and bizarre bits on my scores over the years (and again, I’ll go into a broader overview of that another day!).

On account of the sort of quasi-orchestral, Euro-centric sound I’d begun with in the score, our earliest experiments entailed penny whistles and recorders. As with lute, these instruments relate to both the folk and so-called ‘classical’ (ie Renaissance and Baroque) traditions dating back hundreds of years, with vast amounts of music and repertoire exposing their potential. I like them because their pure tone color, almost a literal sine wave, lets me use them as forwardly or transparently as I’d like. In many cases, they form a background ‘halo’ over other instruments, adding shimmer more than melody.

But as things evolved and the sound became more deliberately global, we incorporated a pair of Chinese instruments to the mix: the Xiāo and the Dizi. Both are used in Eastern folk traditions and have that wonderful, breathy quality typical of bamboo flutes, but (I’m starting to get repetitive here!) the goal again wasn’t to recreate Chinese folk music. The goal was to assimilate it into a new fabric. The process was the same as the others: early experiments over-indulged in the folk traditions and others under-utilized them.

Double Bass / Eric Snoza

Anyone familiar with my work the last decade knows I have a strong penchant for featuring the cello (almost always, the superhuman Tina Guo) but in recent years my friendship with Eric Snoza has really forced me to reevaluate the lyrical potential of the cello’s oversized cousin, the double bass. To be clear, I’ve always loved bass (I had a whole ensemble of them in my recent score to Erica!) but The Pathless gave me an opportunity to feature in a manner I’d never tried before.

Throughout the game, Eric plays a dual role as a soloist anchoring the bottom end of the spectrum, and also occasionally as a traditional bass line accompanist. Because the instrument, as a soloist, is almost exclusively associated with jazz, I tried to avoid some of its more obvious gestures and let it carve out a space that felt distinctly its own.

Beyond that, Eric is a true virutoso and (as you’ll hear in the excerpt below), I was able to really push the acrobatics of the bass to places I’d genuinely never attempted before.

Baritone violin / Paul Cartwright

The history of Paul’s involvement in The Pathless is a bit unlike the rest of the soloists. Paul is a deeply gifted, classically-traditionally violinist (including electric violin!) with a mile-long list of credits as a session musician. We’ve worked together in a variety of capacities before, but what happened here was unique: I was hunting for a musician who could play the Mongolian stringed instrument called the Morin Khuur, aka “Horsehead fiddle” (to pair with the Tuvan stringed instrument Igil, already featured on the score) and coming up short. I found a few candidates but it wasn’t quite working. So I reached out to Paul and he suggested this instrument called the Baritone violin, which is essentially a normal violin with extra thick cello-like strings that can be tuned down a full octave.

Upon hearing him play this instrument, and with some exploration on tone color (in general I encouraged minimal vibrato and a more overall “rustic” sound, rather than the clarity of tone a standard violin might aspire to) I reworked the Morin Khuur parts to fit and the results were wonderful. The instrument became a consistent corollary to both the Tuvan Igil and also the Swedish Nyckelharpa.

Viola de gamba / Malachai Bandy

Viola de gamba, a Renaissance precursor the modern cello, has long been a favorite color to feature in my work (Leif Woodward’s performance of the instrument was featured in my score years ago for Phosphor’s iOS game Horn). It’s a fabulously unique sound, often cutting through mixes with its raspy tone and lack of vibrato and felt like a compulsory addition to The Pathless.

Especially as the score tilted more and more eastward (in every sense: Eastern Europe, Middle Eastern and Asia, the viola de gamba became a useful color for maintaining that age-old Central European sound. I use it throughout the score, many times to carry bass lines or augment the sound of long droning sections. In a number of places, Malachai had some pretty intense solos to play though. Funny enough, the instrument is actually played a bit more like a guitar (in terms of fingerings and voicings) than the orchestral string instruments that replaced it and as a result I was able to write some seriously tricky parts that would’ve been probably a lot harder on cello or viola.

The below is an example of one such moment, in which the viola de gamba is doubling a few instruments in a tricky passage. I’ve several reduced the others in this mix so as to feature how he sounds here.

Percussion / MB Gordy

MB Gordy is a GRAMMY-winning percussionist with approximately nine billion credits to his name. He’s a true artist, always looking for new sounds and new instruments, and has become indispensable to my writing the last few years. The percussive needs on The Pathless were enormous, ranging from very gentle rustlings to gigantic, loud pounding explosions. Despite having a 4-person ensemble at Abbey Road for a bulk of the score, I spent several days with MB adding in additional layers of sounds.

One of the most common ways in which players will hear him is attached to the interactive system built for the game’s open world exploration. In short, if the player builds up a lot of speed, we gradually add layers of percussion to augment their momentum and energy, all of which is shouldered by MB’s many instruments. When this happens, there are a variety of calculations made about the player’s overall narrative trajectory and physical location, and a mix is stitched together specific to their choices.

Here below is a sample of such a moment, but with many of the soloist instruments removed which would also be playing (so as to better appreciate MB’s playing!).

Bass Clarinet / Andrew Leonard

I have a very long history of collaboration with the spectacular musician and human that is Andy Leonard. He is a featured performer on many of my scores over the years, but probably my favorite were his delicate-yet-searing solos in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

For all of his ability as a lyrical and emotive clarinetist, our most common work together has been creating snarling and nasty sounds with the bass and contrabass clarinet (he is ALL over Erica doing precisely this). For The Pathless I needed an instrument which could be both highly distinct from the main “jam band” of soloists, lyrical and expressive, yet somehow mysterious all at the same time. Forgive my vague description, but to go into too much detail would be too spoilery to my taste.

Vocals / Úyanga Bold

I’ve had the pleasure of working with the supreme talent that is Úyanga for a few years now, first on Erica but now in a very featured way in The Pathless. Ironically, her role in this score is so specific to some of the narrative moments of the score that I really won’t say much. In fact, I hesitated mentioning her role at all.

Instead I brag about her musicality more broadly: she has sung on countless games, films, trailers, sample libraries, commercials and many more. She’s a deeply spiritual performer, very introspective in music-making in the hopes of always reaching somewhere new. As with all the other musicians in this score, the goal was to find a sort of ‘global’ sound, drawn from the strengths of traditions the world over. For her solos, we began from the traditions of her native Mongolia and expanded outward, dialing in the exact sound to be both specific and universal.

Here below is a moment, with zero context, in which we she performs some of her more aggressive vocals.

Textural chamber music / Fifth House Ensemble

Finally, a word about the illustrious Fifth House Ensemble. While not a ‘soloist’ per se, I didn’t want their contribution to go unmentioned. This Chicago-based group are the artists behind our many performances of Journey LIVE, which we first began in 2016. They are also responsible for connecting me to the Alash Ensemble, the backbone of The Pathless’ score, with whom they were doing a sort of joint artistic residency (my collaboration with Alash will be given its own post soon).

Because of the sort of rustic ‘jam band’ nature of this score, I knew that I wanted to entirely avoid electronics or synths, yet I also had a need for more ambient, amorphous musical colors. The idea struck me to record Fifth House performing a series of untimed aleatoric gestures that I could then manipulate into clouds of sound. The results were precisely what I’d hoped for and are heard throughout the game (often very subtly).

Whew! Ok that’s the quick and dirty of all the featured solo performers who play consistent roles throughout The Pathless. Believe it or not, there are actually quite a few musicians beyond this group too! If you’ve made it this far and are still hungry for more, see below the video compilation highlighting many of these recording sessions.

Hopefully this blog post (and the one before it and multiple to follow) highlight just how much work, detail and love has gone into The Pathless. It’s been pure joy and I feel so deeply privileged to be part of it.

Professionally curious about music. Composer for Journey, Abzu, Erica, John Wick Hex, The Banner Saga 1–3, AC Syndicate, Tooth & Tail, etc. Fan of humanity!

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