In 2009, his music captivated me with its uniqueness and since then I closely followed his career. Players know him mainly for his dark gothic horror music for Bloodborne, fans of sc-fi cinema know him thanks to his hybrid score for Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, but hardly anyone realizes what the beginnings of his musical journey looked like. Last year I had the honor to talk to Ryan Amon and take this opportunity to bring our readers closer to these beginnings.
Players know him mainly for his dark gothic horror music for Bloodborne.
gamemusic.net: How did you get into the video game music industry? I must admit I was surprised when I found out that you are the co-author of Bloodborne’s soundtrack. I knew you mainly from the world music style which can be heard partialy in Elysium and suddenly you deliver a dark symphony inspired by Wojciech Kilar and classical music giants. Of course Bloodborne is not the only game you scored.
Ryan Amon: My introduction into the game industry was a phone call from Sony, who was working with FromSoftware on a game called ‘Beast’, at the time. I was asked to write some theme ideas from a short description, and one of these went on to become the theme to the game, which was later re-titled ‘Bloodborne’. I heard later that a fan had posted a Dark Souls video with some of my past music from City of the Fallen and the director Hidetaka Miyazaki had heard it and that’s how things started.
The sound of the game was indeed inspired by Kilar’s approach, as his Dracula soundtrack had been one of the earliest I had in my film score collection growing up. It was a reaction from seeing some early artwork of Bloodborne and I think my subconscious took me into Kilar’s world. Shortly after I started working on Bloodborne, I was contacted by Ubisoft to contribute some music for Assassins Creed: Unity, which stemmed directly from the sound of the Elysium score.
gamemusic.net: We recently had the opportunity to hear your music in Diablo IV cinematic intro. You were at BlizzCon and saw its world premiere and enthusiasm it met. How did it feel to see the reaction of the audience? Not mention that this is the return of the legendary video game series.
Ryan Amon: I had never been to BlizzCon before (or any game convention actually) and decided to finally meet the cinematic team in person that I had been working with for many months. I was really surprised to see how many people were there, seated in 4 separate halls waiting for the opening ceremony.
I had arrived at the airport about an hour before it was to start and made it just in time to drop off my luggage and get into the main hall, where the team had a seat waiting for me. It was really kind of them. So I didn’t really have a lot of time to get my bearings before it started, and I think I was running on about 3 hours of sleep. In the big hall, where I was seated, the cinematic experienced some technical difficulty a few minutes in, and the sound continued to play but the image was lost for a while.
I found out later that this glitch didn’t occur in any of the other halls where it was being projected. The audience was pretty quiet during the whole trailer and it wasn’t until the very end when the logo appeared that they cheered. Honestly, what I remember most was how many people were there to be a part of it all – to be a part of the Blizzard community.
gamemusic.net: Ok, but now let’s expand our readers’ knowledge of your music journey and move to the trailer music industry, from which your proper career began.
In other interviews, you explained where the inspiration for founding City of the Fallen came from, but the music style it represents is older and we could already hear it in the PostHaste Music catalog. What is its genesis?
Ryan Amon: So the idea of City of the Fallen also came about because as I was working with other trailer music libraries, such as PostHaste, I realized that the formulaic approach (and sonic approach) didn’t always fit into the experimentation and orchestration ideas I wanted to explore. And since these other libraries weren’t looking for this style, I decided to do it for myself. It was really a personal project much like a band would do, where a certain sound was carved out.
That sound came from my travels and love/study of ethnomusicology and incorporating world instruments along with organic synthesis into a great big mixing bowl. Trailer music by it’s nature tries to play it safe because the music can then be used in a vast array of projects, allowing more usage and thus more financial gain. My approach had nothing to do with making money from it, but instead was a creative outlet and experiment.
gamemusic.net: In addition, in the PHM catalog there are the first signature sounds for your music style, such as the exotic-sounding female choir (Wrath of God) or the santur perfectly integrated into electronic music (Illicium, Catacombs). Could you tell us more about them and other ones?
When the production of the music becomes more important than the music itself, I feel we have wandered off the path and need to find our way back. – Ryan Amon
Ryan Amon: Looking back, I think that the world influences in a lot of my music has always been a part of my style, even when I wasn’t aware of it fully. I grew up listening very closely to James Horner and found some of my favorite instruments to be the human voice and ethnic winds, thanks to his use of them. I realized later that both of these instruments were the earliest to come into being, besides the drum, and maybe that is why it resonates so much with me.
The human voice is the oldest instrument and the flute was created to mimic the sounds of nature. Reeds in particular were played by the wind as it passed by, so those musical tones would have been very interesting to early human cultures as some of the first music as we now describe it. Also, back when I started working on trailer music, the choir hadn’t been used in everything yet (mostly because the cost of recording being so high), but with technology that all changed and soon we were hearing sampled epic choirs in many things, including reality TV.
I later started moving away from choirs being at the forefront or in the music all together, partly because of this. I am still a big fan of using vocals in the music I do, but in a much more subtle way, or as a background color that adds another brushstroke. The ‘wailing woman’ vocal has also become vastly overused to evoke emotion, although composers are often asked to continue using it by directors and producers.
Ennio Morricone was utilizing it long ago, as were other composers, but it was commercial success of ‘Gladiator’ that brought it to the attention of the studios and general audience I think. The electronic music in a lot of the tracks came from my experiment of mixing all these elements to see what emotion would come from them – a bridge between the old and the new, the ancient and the modern. I’m still very old school when it comes to my music approach, and I enjoy writing with pen and paper, which I think helps us improve our craft and connect with our ideas in a pure and honest way, but the reality is that computers are 90% of what we do now, and it is important to learn to utilize the technology as well.
Part of the problem today is putting the cart before the horse though. When the production of the music becomes more important than the music itself, I feel we have wandered off the path and need to find our way back.
gamemusic.net: City of the Fallen refers to the Bible, as well as album and song titles. Where did this idea come from? For example when you worked on Exsillium, did you draw inspiration straight from the events or characters tracks are named after? Or maybe the decision on the style of the album was independent of the biblical theme?
Ryan Amon: City of the Fallen came from the name of an older track I did, and I liked the title and felt that it had a lot of mystique and ancient lore about it. It also evoked all the biblical references to fallen cities throughout history, and great battles of civilization. Each ‘album’ from City of the Fallen was going to focus on its own ancient stories, and Exsillium was the fight of angels and demons.
I usually don’t name tracks until after they are written (or at least sketched out). – Ryan Amon
That was the idea. My brain wanders a lot and when I sit down to write music ideas, they wander all over the place too (without a visual film narrative to follow, for example). So a lot of times I just let the track go wherever it felt it wanted to go. I usually don’t name tracks until after they are written (or at least sketched out). Then I listen back to them and picture what might be happening during this moment, and choose a title that can reflect that.
I had decided already that all the albums would be about humanity and it’s Creator, and the spiritual battles that would ensue to either divide or reunite them. It was also a different approach than music libraries because the albums were focusing on telling a story with a certain theme, and not random tracks in the same style for marketing purposes.
gamemusic.net: Speaking of inspirations, I would like to ask for details about the styles of the first five albums. Revelations and Crucible stand out the most, although they are still faithful to the CotF style.
Ryan Amon: When I first started the idea of City of the Fallen, I didn’t have a set plan – I just started writing. The first album set the tone of instrumentation and the use of choirs and ethnic instruments. Revelations stemmed from a desire to cross the boundary into film music a bit more in the approach, with a softer dramatic feel to it, whereas Crucible was focused more on electronic and rock integration.
I’m not quite sure the progression of how it evolved, but I tried to keep each album have a slightly different style and tell a different story musically. I think I was more influenced by rock and electronic during the middle of that period (the first 5 albums) and felt like experimenting with bringing it into the mix.
gamemusic.net: This year, after a long, eight years break, CotF’s sixth album – Creation – was released. Creation’s style is quite different from its predecessors. I think it sounds like a combination of Elysium (which has a lot from Revelations) with Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar. Where does the decision to go in a different direction come from, and is this the last word of City of the Fallen?
Ryan Amon: I actually didn’t plan to have another album. It came about because of some new ideas I had sketched out that were never going to be accepted by other trailer music libraries. I started writing a format that started extremely minimalist and small and then would grow into a swirling sonic explosion.
Not all of the tracks do this as big as others, but my idea was to tell the story of the creation of the cosmos and the formation of galaxies. The album was influenced by my interest and study into the orchestrations of John Adams and Philip Glass. At this point in time I don’t have any immediate plans of doing another album, as my path has shifted to other endeavors, but we’ll see.
gamemusic.net: You probably have more opportunities to work with an orchestra lately, but few years ago you mentioned in another interview that you prefer to work on samples. Has anything changed since then, and if not, where does this love for samples come from?
Ryan Amon: If I mentioned preferring samples in the past, then that has definitely changed. I think my favorite thing is working with an orchestra. Of course every project is different, and not all of them have a budget or call for an orchestral score, but I think that music written and performed for live players has a timeless quality that I hope will make a strong resurgence in media, especially film.
It also keeps these amazing musicians employed in a time where technology is threatening to replace them. I think when composers were first able to mockup an orchestra, it unlocked a way for us to hear our full compositions convincingly enough that we could make quick and easy changes, but lately it has become a tool for many composers to abandon their study of the craft, particularly orchestration techniques. Some sample libraries have a short notated score of the technique (some aleatoric samples, for example) and this is very valuable to study.
I think the main issue I have with samples lately is that directors, producers, and studios now consider it normal to have a mockup created that sounds as real as possible, and the focus becomes on the production of the music before the composition and storytelling element. Again, it’s putting the cart in front of the horse. It is also conditioning us as listeners to become used to hearing walls of sound and over-production, and our ears expect music for film or media to follow the same compression levels as a pop or hip hop song on the radio. I believe samples are a great tool to use for the mockup purpose or when there is no other alternative (no budget), but not to replace the orchestra with them when the resources are there.
I believe samples are a great tool to use for the mockup purpose or when there is no other alternative (no budget), but not to replace the orchestra with them when the resources are there. – Ryan Amon
gamemusic.net: In your music, you often use typical instruments in an unusual way. Could you explain the process and give us some examples?
Ryan Amon: I’ve always liked to experiment with instruments and find ways to evoke sounds from them that were ‘non-traditional’. I like to look to the natural world around us and I’m open to incorporating sounds from animals and natural occurrences if it helps to evoke a human response in a story. The first time I heard Bjork wasn’t until I was in college and I remember she had taken the sound of walking through hard-packed snow and used it as a percussive element.
It started me on a path of being more open minded when it came to composing. I don’t usually have the luxury of having a live musician sitting in front of me with his or her instrument in order to experiment with different techniques, so I like to dig through sound libraries until something inspires me. Some instruments grab my attention right away and I have no idea where I might use them, but I make a note and file it away for the future. An example is an instrument called the Berimbau, which is usually played percussively.
I found a sample of it in a very low register that was a long bowing technique and I loved the brittle darkness that came from it. I decided to use it as a color in ‘Bloodborne’, and when it is doubled with the basses and cello in low registers, it adds a bite and almost rusted metallic color. I also like to use vocals in different ways, because it is such a primitive instrument. I like to use the sound of human breath as a percussive instrument as well as a color to mimic winds (I did this in the Diablo IV trailer). Our ear recognizes something in it and yet we still can’t quite figure out if it’s an instrument or a voice or an effect. I enjoy doing these kinds of things.
gamemusic.net: Of course, City of the Fallen is not the only catalog in which we can hear your unique world music style – there are many more: Killer Tracks, Future World Music, Fired Earth Music, Mighty Generation Music, Critical Mass and Immediate Music. Can we expect more music like that in the future? I must admit I’m hungry for more after Creation.
Ryan Amon: In the past, when I was writing trailer music, I would work on whatever styles were popular at the time, as these styles would often be accepted and used in campaigns or on tv. I found these to become repetitive after a while and stepped away from it, but it was a wonderful stepping stone on my own path, as I learned certain mockup techniques and experimented with hybrid orchestration.
I probably won’t be writing music in that formula in the future, as my personal instincts and interests at this time are headed in a different direction, but I will be experimenting more with orchestral color combinations that I was testing out in ‘Creation’. There are certain techniques from wonderful composers like Ligeti, Adams and Penderecki (naming a few) that I have been studying and these techniques and approaches bring out wonderful colors from the orchestra. I love Elliot Goldenthal’s approach to storytelling as well. I still have a strong foundation in the melodists like Williams, Horner, Goldsmith, and Kamen, as I grew up with these composers. So my influences are coming from very different styles.
gamemusic.net: Finally, I would like to ask about mundane matter – your favorite music.
Ryan Amon: My favorite style of music to listen to, if I had to pick only one, is pastoral, melodic music. I regularly play soundtracks like Jerry Goldsmith’s ‘Rudy’, John Barry’s ‘Dances With Wolves’, Michael Kamen’s ‘Band of Brothers’, John William’s ’Schindler’s List’, and many of James Horner’s lush orchestral scores (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall, etc.). There is something about this kind of music that speaks to me, and I also enjoy writing this kind of music.
Many years ago I did a mockup album titled ‘The Sketchbook’ and also an album called ‘Providence’ more recently, and this style is something I love to do – a type of storytelling that comes natural to me. I also love the big sweeping orchestral action themes that are nostalgic for me, like Kamen’s ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, Trevor Jones ‘Cliffhanger’, and William’s ‘E.T.’. One of my favorite scores of all time is also Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Mission’, for the sheer rawness and beauty of it. I have written many different styles over the last 20 years or so, and I’m always learning new ways to express ideas musically. I’ll still be learning when I’m 90.
gamemusic.net: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure to talk to you! I’m looking forward for the next chapter of your musical journey.