Andrew Prahlow Talks Composing Outer Wilds And The Pending Live Show

Recently I spoke with Composer Andrew Prahlow about his award nominated score for Outer Wilds as well as his career.

How did you get into composing?


I grew up playing classical trumpet from grade school through college and loved playing in orchestra, but also played a lot of guitar and would find myself writing songs in bands, or songs in general for fun. I started to fully focus on composing and scoring for projects when in Grad School at the USC SMPTV program. My first job out of school was being an assistant for Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn on The Legend of Korra and Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness. When those shows ended, I started working on my own projects. My next gig was writing a bunch of trailer music with Mark Petrie, who I still often collaborate with, or scoring an occasional indie film or indie game on my own, but the video game composing really started taking off first when Eclipse: Edge of Light’s music received great reviews, and escalated even faster when Outer Wilds was released last year, since it started receiving a lot of recognition.


How does scoring a game compare and differ with other forms of composing and which do you prefer?


With a game, you really have to use your imagination in the early stages. In my experience, I’ll mostly see concept art or have long conversations with the creative director about what the game will actually look like. It isn’t until later stages when I’ll see completed areas, art, and gameplay. Especially with Outer Wilds, the travelers’ instruments were such an important and integrated part of the gameplay, and that started to expand and become even more important to the story over time. It was an incredible opportunity to work very closely with Alex since the score had to feel very cohesive, both diegetic music and the musical score. This lead to a ton of exciting ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of originally, with the team working in parallel and coming up with cool concepts through this type of collaboration. With film and television, it seems a lot of times I’m brought in a different way fundamentally since I’ll be constructing the world of the project as a whole – it’s a lot more necessary to think linearly for the story, because viewers will see the narrative in the same order, while gamers could have a completely different experience depending on how they approach the game.


What led you to composing for Outer Wilds?


I met Alex and Loan while at USC, and I had previously worked with them both on student projects. Outer Wilds began as Alex’s Graduate Thesis project and really evolved over the past few years. It became a very personal project to me, since I was along for the ride the whole way, back when Alex started making the earlier prototypes.


Where do you find your inspiration when composing?


It may seem simple but I find most of my inspiration through human interaction and experience – the good and the bad to be honest – things like making new friends, going to see live music, falling in and out of love, spending time talking with family, etc. It really helps to relate to the characters in the project by relaying it through my own human experience, imagining how I would feel in the situation and how that may differ from how the characters on screen would feel, and then ultimately approaching the music as the character and no longer myself. A lot of times when I start composing for a project and the deadline isn’t incredibly tight, I’ll go out and about, attending concerts and spending time with friends while keeping the game/film/etc. on the back of my mind, while spending my time at home closing my eyes and vividly imagining the world that the score lives in. I’m also very vigilant of listening to all new singles that are released every week, as well as all the new record releases, trying to listen to as much as I can all the time, while still listening to the older records that I love. At some point, I get this ‘lightbulb’ moment and am ready to get to work, usually starting with textures or a simple melody, and am able to build a cohesive world of the score from there.


What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a project?


I love a lot of the atmospheric minimalist composers such as Johann Johannsson and Max Richter. When I discovered The Blue Notebooks a few years after its release, about a month later Fordlandia was released and that album really changed my life. Simultaneously, I was listening to a ton of post-rock (Explosions in the Sky, This Will Destroy You, etc.) and there’s a certain very slow-churning, nostalgic element to all of it that I can get lost in. In middle school and high school, I grew up listening to a lot of these smaller emotive indie rock bands, some taking years to receive recognition, and over time seeing bands like Portugal. The Man have these amazing singles end up on Top 40 Radio, or musicians like Eric Frederic (Ricky Reed) constantly push forward in their passion for music, branching out and exploring new ideas and turning that into an enormous career, was amazing to watch unfold.


Also, seeing songwriters such as Jon Brion making beautiful music for films such as Eternal Sunshine – or the fact that Godspeed!’s ‘East Hastings’ was used in 28 Days Later, and the band Rachel’s having their track ‘Water from the Same Source’ used in Hancock, made me excited about the future, realizing that I could write the kind of music I loved to listen to for projects, and I could continue being my true self – something I was never willing to give up – even living out in Los Angeles, where it can be easy to lose yourself in the noise. Another huge inspiration was while working with Jeremy and Ben, they helped found The Echo Society, a collective of composers that I definitely look up to in both their personal works and the projects they work on.


For Outer Wilds, some of the biggest influences were definitely the music of Mike Kinsella (American Football / Owen), Explosions in the Sky, and Sigur Ros. I wanted to combine this homely midwest emotive feeling of a lot of the music I grew up listening to in high school that I feel very nostalgic for, and combine it with post-rock. Overall though, I wouldn’t say that I control my listening while working on a project. I really do listen to as much music as I can all of the time if it is project related or not. There are certain games that captured me right from the title screen or opening sequence that always remain in my memory (Jet Force Gemini, Metal Gear Solid 2, Uncharted, and Warhawk (PS3) are a few that come to mind). I already knew I was going to love those games before even playing them, just from the way the music made me feel. I really wanted to capture this feeling for others with the simple opening to Outer Wilds.


How much leeway do you have with the creation of the score or did the game’s producers give you the framework that you had to work in or was it more of a collaboration?


Alex would listen to every idea I had all the time. I could pitch him these off-the-wall concepts and we were pretty open about testing things to see how they felt. Some of these crazy ideas made it into the game (the Nomai Skype texture is one I’m super proud of). Some other odd musical and textural ideas even made it into the game but were used in areas or scenerios that I hadn’t intended, moving around the music and repurposing it turned into another exciting thing as the game evolved.


What do you like to do when you’re not composing?


I’m usually attending live shows, whether music or comedy. I’m a huge fan of improv and standup so it’s really easy to head over to UCB in Los Angeles and see some hilarious performances, or catch a ton of great comedians around town. I try to make it out to a concert once a week, because there’s something very wonderful to me about everyone standing in a room together experiencing music all at once. When I played trumpet in orchestra I would get that feeling, and live shows still provide that for me.


What else do you have coming up that the readers can look forward to?


I’ve been working on an Outer Wilds live show that I’m excited about, and hope to play a show in Los Angeles once this quarantine situation resolves. I’ve also been working on my own composition record that I hope to release by the end of the year.