A few weeks ago, I posted a review for the 2nd Volume of the Assassin’s Creed: Unity soundtrack, which was composed and performed by Sarah Schachner, musical genius and all-around cool person. Sarah also did some work on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I was lucky enough to be able to have a chat with Sarah about the challenges behind composing music for videogames, her inspirations, Assassin’s Creed, and a few other choice tidbits. Read on!
TT: I notice that you have composed for both film and video games. Do you find there to be a big difference between the two? Which do you find more challenging?
SS: I wouldn’t say one is more challenging than the other, they’re just different. While film and TV are similar in that you are scoring a linear story, the interactive nature of games requires music to function differently than any other medium. Something that is pretty unique to video game scoring is that a lot of the music (combat in particular) must be able to loop and be stopped at any point by computer software (depending on what the player is doing at any given time) and jump to another section within the piece seamlessly. This is the biggest challenge because that type of unpredictable movement is totally unmusical. If you have a long form melody that is developing and then it gets cut off mid phrase and must jump to the “winning” section of the piece, that’s going to sound really strange for the player, so you have to figure out how to be creative while working with a lot of unusual constraints, musically speaking.
One of the most interesting things about the Assassin’s Creed universe is that (intentionally or not), there seems to be a common “feel” to the songs. As someone that has worked on music for more than one of the titles, do you and your cohorts draw upon the previous games to provide you with inspiration for the ones that follow?
There definitely is a general “sound” to the Assassin’s Creed series but each still manages to have its own vibe due to the different historical time periods and geographical location. While it’s unusual to not have a universal main theme for a franchise, the concept of merging accurate period music with sci-fi synth elements kind of glues the series together sonically. That balance is something that’s always intentionally carried through with each installment. It had never been done before, but for Unity, Ubisoft actually requested that we bring back the theme from Ezio’s Family in some way.
Outside of the directive from Ubisoft regarding Ezio’s family’s motif, where else did you find inspiration for your work from Assassin’s Creed: Unity?
I drew inspiration from many of the well-known classical, baroque, and romantic composers of the late 18th century and surrounding decades. I focused on counterpoint techniques in hopes to evoke a technical command and methodical power in the vein of Bach’s Sinfonias and fugues. There are times that I used harmonic language outside of the norm for this era, but just as Assassin’s Creed is a virtual simulation of the past, I didn’t want the score to be too exact or locked into historical accuracies. Also, there is a beautiful film score called Tous Les Matins Du Monde, composed by Jordi Savall, which popped into my head when I first began talking with Ubisoft. I was then inspired to have a custom bowed dulcimer made. Savall plays the Viola da gamba, which are not easy to come by, but the dulcimer has a similar raw and evocative sound that I thought would be great for the score.
Out of all of the instruments that you have, what is your favourite? Which one do you play when you just want to chill out?
Ahh…that’s a hard question. Each one is so different. Nothing really compares to the feeling of playing a stringed instrument, but a real piano is the best for coming up with harmonic ideas (and definitely not a midi keyboard). When I just want to chill out and have fun, I turn on the modular synth.
Who would you consider to be your own inspiration(s)?
Ennio Morricone, Thomas Newman, Clint Mansell, and early Hans Zimmer had a big impact on me as a kid. Any artist that really demonstrates masterful control over the subtlety of emotion and does it in a unique way inspires me. Hearing Thomas Newman for the first time was basically like being shown magic and you just want to know how to do it and can’t get enough. I draw inspiration from all over the place and not just composers though. I love electronic music and synths so I’m always listening to what’s going on in that world. When I was younger and in school, I would often write things trying to sound like someone I admired (which is a great way to learn), but ultimately, your best work comes from your own unique point of view and trusting your instincts – and not what you think other people want to hear.
Have you ever played any of the games in the Assassin’s Creed series?
I haven’t played them all from the beginning, but I played a bit of Assassin’s Creed III and Black Flag of course. I’m still playing Unity now!
Which is your favourite in the series so far?
Hard to say since I haven’t played them all. There was something really fun about being a pirate and sailing around on that giant ship though. Unity feels a bit more like the earlier ones which is good but I’ve unfortunately never excelled at being overly stealthy. I’m better at melee-ing people in a jumbled frenzy so I liked being a crazy pirate. I would like to be a Viking assassin actually.
What non-musical goals have you set yourself for the future?
Being better about time management and allowing more time for non-work things. Doing music for a living, it’s easy to get into the habit of feeling like you need to be working ALL the time. So yeah, getting away from the computer to avoid becoming a decrepit, arthritic mutant is probably the main goal of 2015! Oh and releasing an electronic EP this year, but I guess that’s a musical goal…
Well thank you very much for chatting with me, Sarah! Really looking forward to hearing more of your work in the future!