Here’s a little-known fact: Halo’s original theme, built upon gothic monk chants and orchestral crescendos, was partly inspired by The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday.’ The song our dear mothers love to hum on the way to Wallmart once in a while. The same tune Martin O’Donnell, the legendary composer responsible for supplying Bungie’s game-changing Halo: Combat Evolved with enough otherworldly sense of wonder that you could stretch it across the entire Milky Way galaxy, loves to hum on the way to Wallmart.
Yes, they have as much in common as Master Chief and Bugs Bunny. But they actually have something in common: both ‘Yesterday’ and Halo theme are some of the most listened and easily recognizable pieces of music in their respective industries. Keep in mind that we are talking about the composition that was pretty much conceived in Marty’s Honda Civic.
What makes Halo sound Halo? – Gareth Coker
To celebrate the sixth mainline (and nonetheless, the first open-world) entry in the legendary franchise, we had the chance to bring all of Halo Infinite’s composers in one place to chat about the pressures of working on such a colossal project; finding new expressions in well-established, almost sacred pieces and Infinite’s intricate audio engine which does exactly the same with Gareth Coker’s, Joel Corelitz’s and Curtis Schweitzer’s beautiful compositions what Left 4 Dead’s infamous “AI Director” does with game’s hordes of zombies.
By now, most of our readers must be familiar with the veteran composer Gareth Coker, who gave sound to one of the most beautiful indie titles of the past decade, Ori and the Blind Forest (who also did a brilliant first-person retrospective on its sequel). The same composer that Curtis Schweitzer, whose phenomenal soundtrack for Chucklefish’s Starbound made you ascend into a higher, pixelated plane of existence, was at first intimidated of working with due to Gareth’s popularity and meticulous approach to compositions. Then there’s the final musketeer Joel Corelitz, who previously worked on Kojima’s gloomy Death Stranding alongside Ludvig Forsell and just of recently helped the same Chucklefish studio to fill their newest indie epic Eastward with 72+ chiptune-perfect tunes filled with that unmistakable retro crunchiness of a 16-bit era.
And if you’re wondering what every die-hard Halo fan was thinking of in the back of his mind ever since Infinite was announced back in 2018 — will there be enough Gregorian chanting this time around? (Halo 4 ‘s audio director Sotaro Tojima previously took the blame for that) — we won’t spoil it… (Yes, yes there is and it’s as epic as we remember it from the Combat Evolved days).
Inspiration is always right in front of you. – Joel Corelitz
gamemusic.net: How do you feel after such a huge achievement, nonetheless your first Halo project?
Curtis: Relief is a good word, right? I consider myself a semi-patient person, but it’s been a really long time. To see it all out in the wild and being enjoyed by folks around the world has been lovely.
Joel: Nothing other than excitement and relief. Especially because we all finished most of our contribution to the score ages ago and then it got delayed for a year because of Covid and we just had to sit on it for a while.
Gareth: It’s funny because when I started working on Halo Infinite I had one idea of what it might be. And what it ended up being was not entirely different from what I imagined, but also with a few interesting surprises.
gamemusic.net: Can you tell me how your involvement with Halo Infinite began?
Gareth: Similar to Curtis, I got an email in my inbox one day… One thing I’m going to mention immediately is it’s funny reading the comments online. ‘I can hear the Ori elements in the soundtrack,’ some of them read. Well, that’s not exactly right.
I understand that’s part of my sound. But the number one reason I was hired for Halo was actually my work on ARK: Survival Evolved. A lot of percussion and a lot of rhythmic elements of that soundtrack overlap heavily exactly like it does on most Halo scores. Plus, there’s a big science fiction element in ARK, too.
Joel: In my experience you put your work out into the universe and you make connections. Then great projects like Halo Infinite generally find you and not the other way around. I had worked with the Halo Infinite’s music supervisor Joel Yarger on a game called The Tomorrow’s Children. Then I worked on Death Stranding and Sotaro Tojima, Halo Infinite’s Audio Director, had worked at Kojima Productions. So, yeah. Same thing happened to me one day – I got an email in my inbox.
Gareth: What I think is common in all of our work – and the supervisor (Joel Yarger) referenced this as well – is that none of us are afraid to use major chords. If you go through our work and look through our history, you’ll see that we’re not afraid of that. There’s fear in this industry to use major chords because it can feel too manipulative. But if you use it in the right way, it can be very powerful.
Curtis: I have no idea, really. They listed a few tracks of mine they’d heard before. And when I was in the initial stages of Hades, they said, ‘Would you like to work on this?’ This, of course, being one of the largest video game franchises in the world. My first experience on this project was the 2019s trailer “Discover Hope” which we spent a really long time on, honing it down to the most perfect version that we could possibly do (in the given time).
gamemusic.net: Was it difficult to come up with your first original composition for the Halo universe?
Curtis: Absolutely. ‘Don’t use the Halo theme and just do what you would do,’ is what they told me at the beginning. Like, let’s take Halo out of it and just write music for it. And guess what – I approached in a completely wrong way! It was way to actiony and had way too much stuff in it. It was an overwritten mess.
gamemusic.net: Was this perhaps your first time using the Dorian mode?
Joel: I don’t think I ever have not.
Gareth: Dorian mode is widely used across a lot of well-known video game soundtracks. It’s a very friendly mode, I’d say. But I don’t think when any of us are writing compositions we think, ‘Oh, this should be in Dorian mode.’ It comes naturally. Whether you are classically trained or have no training whatsoever, I would bet that the vast majority of us are not thinking about scales or music theory at all. We’re always thinking about the feel of it. The art of what we composers do is making sure players get more immersed in the game’s world. So the only time when music theory is actually useful is when you’re trying to get through the writer’s block.
gamemusic.net: Have any of you had writer’s block during the production?
Curtis: Umm.. On every single cue, perhaps?
Joel: I think that’s my favourite thing about being a composer – you never get writer’s block. Inspiration is always right in front of you. Whatever I need to write for the game, the game itself is always my inspiration. So that’s never an issue, at least for me.
Gareth: When you’ve been doing this for a while, there’s only two problems you will have in your career as a composer. One is getting fired. That’s never good. The second and the biggest problem usually is that you have to write more music. ‘Oh, the music doesn’t work?’ Well, try again and write another one or get fired… That’s always the answer to the problem – write more music.
I remember trying to find out how to compose Halo music. The comparison I’ve made for myself was going to Halo music school for a couple of weeks and really studying the soundtracks. What makes Halo sound Halo? What are the chords, the motifs, the rhythms? What I learned is that Halo is not all action all the time. I remember the first versions of the tracks that I wrote had way too much going on with orchestral elements. I was simply trying too hard to write the greatest piece of music ever written because this is Halo. Once we started pressing ‘Delete’, trying to find the elements that can sing the most – all of a sudden it started sounding more like Halo.
Curtis: Exactly. Try to be as super efficient as you can be with a small idea. It’s not these massive everybody-in-the-orchestra-ripping-away sorts of music that you hear in Halo. It’s more of a how much you can do with just a string section or a choir.
To be able to use these classic themes and employ them in a way that would bring something new to the table without losing its original DNA. – Curtis Schweitzer
Joel: It sounds like we all went through the same process. Learning how to write halo music for me was like learning music theory…
Gareth: Or like learning a new language. Once you have learned to speak and listen, read and write it well enough, it becomes a second nature to you.
gamemusic.net: What is your first memory of hearing Halo music?
Joel: Oh boy. Where do I even begin… What’s so effective about the universe of Halo is that it’s not just one thing – it’s multifaceted. There is the The Master Chief Theme which is that badass da-da-da-daaaa moment. Then there are tracks like ‘Walk in the Woods’ that embody the beauty of the environment. Finally, there’s the legendary ‘Monk Chant’ which Curtis got to reinvent.
Curtis: It’s amazing how often you find ‘Monk Chant’ in the rest of Halo music. Just listen to the “Reverie” track and you can hear that it really does draw from the original chant. And that was one of the revelatory experiences of this project – to be able to use these classic themes and employ them in a way that would bring something new to the table without losing its original DNA.
Gareth: Respecting the past, but also introducing some new, modern flavours.
gamemusic.net: How did it feel to remaster some of the most established tracks in the entire franchise? Correct me if I’m wrong, Joel, but is ‘Never Tell Me The Odds’ your own take on the fans favourite ‘On A Pale Horse’?
Joel: This is the first time I’ll admit this – I did that piece because people were asking for it. The delay afforded us a bit more time to write. I was so excited, encouraged by the feedback our first three pieces got that I couldn’t help it but make something for the fans. Like Curtis and Gareth said, the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity with this project was trying to create something based on a recognizable piece and give it new life.
gamemusic.net: Was it difficult to find the right balance between the original sounds and ones that you were adding in the mix?
Gareth: There are pieces of music that are as iconic to the game as Star Wars’ “Fanfare” or “Imperial March”. You simply have to use them. If you don’t – you are failing.
A simple example of that is “Set a Fire in your Heart” which was originally written specifically for the end of the gameplay reveal trailer. It combines ‘Escharum’s theme’ in the bases and cellos. And then it combines an orchestral rendition of the ‘Monks Chant’ on top of it. It was so obvious what I had to do at the time: it’s a clash of two mercenaries; of course we were going to make them intertwine. Curtis is probably going to have a heart attack when he hears this, but I think it was approved after its second or third version.
The delay afforded us a bit more time to write. – Joel Corelitz
Joel: In order to reinvent a classic theme without messing up its original DNA, I have to treat it like a reference track (or the original piece). If I ever get a reference track, I have this rule where I listen to it only once or twice. (Very often I will break this rule and keep listening to it.)
What I found out – the more I listen to the reference track, the more it loses its essence. I didn’t just try to just copy ‘A Walk In The Woods’ when I wrote ‘Through The Trees’. You can hear the cord structure is fairly different. It doesn’t have that response progression that happens after the main theme.
Gareth: If you get too interested into the deconstruction part of composition — you stop…
Gareth: …then you’re only thinking about the music and you’re not thinking about what the game needs. That’s the only thing that should matter to every video game composer.
gamemusic.net: Were the needs of Halo Infinite any different from the projects you worked on in the past?
Curtis: It was. The biggest level up I did was learning to make my music as interesting and multifaceted as possible so that it can be teased apart and used in that interactive-dynamic fashion. You would often get these notes back saying, ‘Hey, this sounds all great… But maybe these chords are just a little bit too static? Can we do something more interesting with them?’
Gareth: This was actually my first time working with such an intricate system, too. The challenge that Halo Infinite’s audio playback system introduced was that there can never be any dead time. No fillers. Now, if you followed my work, you will know that I am more fond of the horizontal music systems rather than the vertical ones. And Halo Infinite does both.
What we are doing here is writing tracks that have a fairly constant level of activity so that they can be rearranged by the audio engine. Which I think for an open world game is the right solution. All open world games require a specific music system. And if we would start worrying too much about every single different possible outcome that can take place in an open world, we would simply lose our minds. We would not get any music done.
If you compare this to a game like Ori and the Will of the Wisps which is fairly linear, one of the reasons I can do the horizontal approach in Ori is because I can predict fairly accurately what the player is going to do. With a massive game like Halo Infinite it’s rather impossible to achieve that without the help of an AI.
Joel: One thing which occurred to me that Joel Yarger, our music supervisor said pretty early on in the process was: ‘Don’t repeat that section – we already have it. We can just play it back.’
Curtis: I got that note, too!
gamemusic.net: This was the first time you got to work together, right? Do you remember what you thought about one another in those first few months?
Curtis: I remember I was pretty intimidated by the idea that I’m going to work with the Gareth Coker on the same project.
Gareth: The moment that stood out to me was when we were at the studio recording ‘Zeta Halo’. I was like, ‘This is pretty good! I’m just going to sit here and enjoy this.’ I think I sat there for an hour while the choir was doing their thing because it was something that Curtis wrote. I imagine Curtis was stressed as hell recording that. It was your first time recording in the Abbey Road studio in London, right?
Gareth: What I wanted to say – it was really cool to see someone else go through the same nerve-racking process in real-time that I’d had to go in the past. I’ve never actually been to another composer’s session. Certainly not during someone’s first recording session. And it was just amazing to see Curtis enjoying having his music performed by the best musicians in the world for the first time.
I think that’s my favourite thing about being a composer – you never get writer’s block. – Joel Corelitz
gamemusic.net: Would you say you have more fun writing music for new IPs or Halo Infinite was equally exciting?
Gareth: Even though this is technically the sixth game in the series – you cannot say ‘no’ to an opportunity like this. Now that I’ve done both new IPs and worked on sequels, they’re all just different challenges to me at the end of the day. ‘Do I get to tell a story within the game [with my music]?’ That’s why I get out of bed in the morning. Plus, I had never really done a science fiction project before.
Joel: Finding new expressions of something that already exists and getting to define them anew – that’s what I love the most about this job. And I think we all got to do a little of both on this project. With Gorogoa or Eastward, these fresh IPs, part of my main task was figuring out how do these universes sound? And that takes a whole lot of exploration.
gamemusic.net: Finally, personal favourite Halo Infinite composition of yours?
Joel: “Spire”. Just because it was my first composition that got approved.
Curtis: “Zeta Halo”. It was just one of those rare moments where you’re working on it and you’re thinking, ‘This is an opportunity to do something really cool with a track that I personally have a lot of emotional connection with’.
Gareth: “Silent Auditorium”, “Endless” or “Judgement”. I still cannot choose which one. But all three of them symbolise this new suite of Halo music which you hear at the end of Infinite.