Talking Metamorphosis With Composers Mikolai Stroinski And Garry Schyman

Recently I spoke with Composers Mikolai Stroinski Mikolai Stroinski portrait B+W and Garry Schyman Garry Schyman - Photo Credit Heather Gildroy

about their work with Metamorphosis and their past work with The Witcher and Bioshock Franchises.


Metamorphosis Cover

How did you start out composing?

Mikolai Stroinski: I remember my first piece of music, a little miniature for piano, when I was around 9 or 10 years old. I was at an elementary music school at that time and my teacher was telling us about the elements of music like melody, harmony, and such. She said that the most important one was the rhythm because you can’t compose a piece of music without it. And so I took the challenge 🙂 I composed a piece with a very scattered rhythm thinking that if I chop it there won’t be any – and of course there was one. Ever since then there is a bit of a composer-rebel in me. This approach “really, you shouldn’t do this? so I will” stayed with me ever since. It sometimes opens up interesting creative doorways.


Garry Schyman: I was studying music in college, just because I loved music and studying piano when it occurred to me that the best way for me to make a living as a musician was as a composer for film and TV. I was just an OK pianist and disliked performing but started composing and decided to transfer to the University of Southern California and study composition. My goal was scoring for film and TV and I got lucky right out of college working for Mike Post and Pete Carpenter scoring TV shows like Greatest American Hero and The A-Team.

Did you have any influences going into this project?

MS: Bernard Herrmann was an important one coupled with Sprechstimme vocals. I borrowed some harmonies and textures from Mr. Herrmann and frankly speaking, his music has always inspired me. The tonality gets so dark that you might miss the moment when the atonality kicks in.


GS: I studied 12- tone composition with George Tremblay just out of USC and I spent three years studying nothing but 12-tone with him. That was my introduction to serial music and the music of Arnold Schoenberg. I would definitely say Schoenberg’s music and my early studies in his style were major influences in my work on the score.

Did you face any challenges while creating the score?

MS: Not really. Once we settled on the musical color it went smooth as butter. It was a “disciplined playground” where we had all the composing fun that is possible but ultimately it was all for the benefit of the game.

GS: I have to say this gig went very smoothly. Mikolai and I were somehow in total sync the entire time and once we agreed on a direction, I found the cues were very easy to write. They just seemed to pour out of me and that does not always happen. We even wrote related themes for different parts of the game without discussing it.

How would you describe the music in the game?

MS: I think it’s pretty unique. It is based on symphonic orchestra which we recorded in Macedonia. Stylistically it is, as has been mentioned, a mixture of Schoenberg, Herrmann…and Schyman and Stroinski! The overall musical element that glues everything together is the amazing vocal of Joanna Freszel. There is some craziness in our music but also some distinguishable themes. There is chaos but there is also a reason and order.

GS: The story for the game is of course, based on Franz Kafka’s famous book Metamorphosis. Written in German during a revolutionary creative period known as Expressionism. Kafka was part of this movement which included composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg and painters like Egon Schule. So when Mikolai and I discussed direction I suggested a writing in the style of the Expressionist composers, which included a unique style of singing invented by Schoenberg called Sprechstimme that involves a technique of half-spoken half-sung. It is very unique to that period and has the added advantage of sounding ironic and provides the perfect accompaniment to Kafka’s ironic, dark, twisted tale.


How did the collaboration process work as it must be very different than doing a score on your own.

MS: It was exciting to realize that while I was writing music in my studio, Garry was composing his cues at his studio. I had a feeling that this was going to be something special. It’s one of those situations where the more people are active, the better the outcome might be. It was a smooth process of completing cues one after another and making sure that there was a common denominator between them.


GS: Mikolai had more interaction with the developer as he was initially hired by them and as the game was developed in Warsaw, where Mikolai has a home, he spoke with them most. He and I agreed on everything so easily that there was almost no direction other than let’s do something cool. We shared themes and music as we composed and it was a very easy process.


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


MS: It’s much harder to get a movie or a TV show that allows you such creative freedom and fun as much as video games offer. Of course, there are elements which you must take into consideration and which can affect your music, such as its implementation in the game. In most cases the music is looping so you can’t make it too intense, otherwise it will become bothersome rather than improving the gameplay experience.

GS: Games are interactive and their scores need to be interactive as well. Meaning the length of time any player spends doing something can vary greatly from person to person. Thus, game scores need to work for varying lengths of time. It could be as simple as a loop or it could be somewhat complex with the music composed in layers so that crossfades could occur to complement the player’s actions. It can get a little complex if you’ve never done it before but not that difficult really once you’ve been working in the genre for a while. Games also often have a component of in-game movies that a composer scores just as they would for a film or TV show – locked to picture.

I have to say I really enjoy working both to picture and in games. I tend to enjoy working with game development teams over film and TV crews because they have been universally great to work with. Down to earth, friendly, nerdy and really just great people to work for. The one downside in games is that there is very little royalties available to composers such as performing rights that are common in film and TV. So you have to work all the time to make a living. Both have their upsides and downsides. Like everything I suppose!


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

MS: Brave ones inspire me. Those that are able to come forward with their music without making it more important than the medium they are scoring. The opposite of what pads are doing. I don’t listen much to “other composers”. Metamorphosis was an exception because I knew that the Herrmann style was going to work here.


GS: I love many of the great film composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and of course the legendary John Williams. Their work has and continues to inspire me since I was a kid. I also love classical music and I could name thirty composers I LOVE but if I had to name one, I’d say Gustav Mahler. I don’t listen to any particular music when I prepare for a project other than direct references to the work I am doing, if there are any. I certainly spent some time listening to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in preparation for Metamorphosis.

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?

MS: Throughout the process I was receiving consecutive parts of the game that needed to be taken care of. They were happy with the idea and execution of the music from the very beginning. They told us that the music should have an element with a sense of humor in it and watching the footage we felt the same. So you might say that everybody was on the same page from the start ‘til the end. I’m really glad and appreciative that they trusted us.

GS: It really depends on who you’re working with. Some development teams are very hands-on and scrutinize every note and give you lots of feedback. But other teams like Ovid Works for Metamorphosis were very hands-off and just loved everything we sent them. Such a lovely gig was this!


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


MS: I like to work on my self-development and I try to get away from social media which has gotten too deep into my reality. Reading books makes me happy and fulfilled. Of course, like any human being I watch Netflix and YouTube. I enjoy meditation and if Covid19 is not an issue, to hang out with my friends and family.

GS: Reading books (currently a bio of Friedrich Nietzsche), playing the piano, walking and hiking and exercising in general, listening to music, hanging out with my wife and son.


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


MS: I’m really excited that the series I worked on “Liberator” drops on Netflix on the 11th of November. I’m also finishing music for the video game “Chernobylite”. A very special project to me where I was able to utilize many of my analog synthesizers and finally do some sound design with hundreds of plugins that I’ve been accumulating over the years. It’s a horror that takes place in Chernobyl!


GS: Working on a big AAA game right now but I cannot say what it is. Unfortunately the game industry is so very, very secretive. We sign NDA’s and can’t say a word about our working on something until it comes out.

Looking back on your first game score until now; what would you say is the biggest thing you have learned about scoring games?


MS: That the joy I feel while scoring them ultimately translates into the joy of those who play them and that is a beautiful engine for my creation. Going a bit deeper – because we are creators of emotions for games we score – it’s important to be aware of as many emotions as we go through in life.

GS: How much freedom and creative we can often have and are encouraged to enjoy. The most interesting music I have ever written has been for games. The teams and the games they make seem to embrace really creative efforts from the composer and that has been the greatest gift of my professional life. I am so grateful to finding such amazing opportunities in game music.