The Grammy Awards have been progressive when it comes to video games.
Since 2000, the Recording Academy has allowed video games to vie against top-flight film and TV series in its visual media category. Only one problem: Not enough people vote for them.
In a decade and a half since eligibility, only one video game score has been nominated for a Grammy, Austin Wintory’s 2012 compositions for the meditative independent game “Journey.”
It’s not for a lack of options. This round alone saw the games “Transistor,” “The Banner Saga,” “Destiny” and more entered on the Grammy’s initial ballot. Not one got enough votes for a nomination.
“I went through the process,” says Darren Korb, whose soundtrack to “Transistor” mixes breathy cabaret songs with sci-fi beats and spine-tingling guitars in five original songs and 18 instrumentals, all designed to capture the range and diversity of a futuristic city. “I joined [the Recording Academy] and researched how to do all that stuff and submitted the score myself.
“It was a strange process once I got into it, where you basically just have to lobby for your music,” Korb says. “There’s a big struggle for exposure for independent artists as far as the Grammys go, and it’s occupying a space in a category with ‘Frozen,’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and stuff like that.”
Considering that “Destiny” boasts a Paul McCartney song on its score but still failed to garner a nomination, “Transistor” likely never had a shot. But it’s a fine example of the sort of adventurous scores that now regularly dominate the video game medium. As is Mikolai Stroinski’s chilling noir for “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter,” Stafford Bawler’s playful ambience to “Monument Valley” or Wintory’s patient approach to militaristic music in “The Banner Saga.”
To its credit, the Grammys didn’t exactly play it safe. This year’s nominating class in the visual media soundtrack category includes Stephen Price’s Oscar-winning score for “Gravity,” which is all paranoid and sparse, as well as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ “Gone Girl” score, a quiet work that manages to be digitally mournful. There’s also 2014’s second bestselling album, Disney’s soundtrack to “Frozen,” a modern spin on Walt-era classicism.
As a Disney fiend, I can’t lie; “Frozen” was the score I listened to most in 2014. But second was Korb’s work on “Transistor,” the game from Supergiant. The 31-year-old composer is representative of the sort of unexpected faces that dot video game music makers — he never set out to become a composer.
Early in his career, Korb worked on random TV and film projects, including the forgettable 2008 film “The Adventures of Food Boy.” A boyhood friend, Amir Rao, was founding a video game company and happened to ask Korb to be his go-to composer. “Transistor” is Korb’s second game for the Supergiant studio but one that typifies his left-of-center approach.
“I don’t have a traditional composer background,” Korb says. “I don’t have the available skill set to do the stuff that generally happens in movie scores, where you’ll set up themes for characters and have repeating themes. That’s not in my bag of tricks.
“I’m more of a songwriter,” he continues, “so I tend to create a palette of instruments or a genre of music that I can use to tie everything together, rather than motifs. I end up creating a big range of pieces that are connected by elements other than the actual content of the music.”
Think of “Transistor,” then, as more a concept album than a typical cinematic score.
While many songs feature a metallic-like vibrating guitar sound, it isn’t an easy work to get a handle on. Bossa-nova acoustics shimmy with blocky beats in one track; jazzy rhythms in another contrast with stretched synthetic notes — some of which just happen to sound like a stray cat meowing.
Then there are the actual songs, smoldering takes on nightclub reveries sung by friend Ashley Barrett, the singing voice of the game’s sword-wielding hero, Red. Digital tics bounce to life throughout, and guitar riffs dig craters in a world that sounds as if it’s built in a computer. The mix might be a little familiar to those who remember the techno and rock merging of the alt-rock ’90s, but Korb’s work is brighter, less dooming.
Wintory says he talked up the score to anyone in the Recording Academy who would listen.
“There’s a lot of great orchestral scores,” Wintory says of the past year’s game soundtracks. “There’s a lot of great Hans Zimmer-style, quasi-electronic, quasi-orchestral scores. There’s inevitably a lot of purely electronic scores. Then there’s ‘Transistor.’ There’s really nothing like ‘Transistor.’”
Korb was encouraged to submit “Transistor” for Grammy consideration after “Journey” was nominated two years ago, and he leaned on Wintory for campaign advice.
“I did what I could,” Korb says. “I wrote emails and made Facebook friends with people and tried to get them to listen. But, for me, I have a hard time trying to sell myself. I’m like, ‘Here’s a thing you can listen to. I’m trying to do a Grammy thing.’ It was not a fun process for me.”
Though Korb confesses to being unsure if all the effort was worth it, Wintory is adamant that game composers should continue to champion their work. For one, he notes he received considerably more offers to perform “Journey” at happenings beyond game events and game concerts. He was working on an as-yet-unannounced film score during an interview this week, and he continues to split his time between game and film work.
“When things are validated by a nomination, it raises their profile,” Wintory says. “When an entire, massive, creatively flowering medium has received almost none of that, any little bit dramatically helps. The game industry is not who votes on the Grammys. The music industry is a much older industry, and we’re still the punk kid in that world.”
RECENT AND RELATED