“Music communicates emotion more directly than any other artistic medium. Music is not just melody and rhythm, it’s also sounds and textures, associations, and experiences.”
Halo 4 celebrates its seventh birthday today…
Even after all these years, I still regularly listen to Halo 4’s soundtrack.
I still catch myself drumming the five-note beat of Revival, humming the tune of To Galaxy, thinking about the emotional associations I have with various other tracks – listening to them during the writing of these articles.
Often, I describe Halo 4 as “a confluence of talent,” but one area I’ve not talked about as much is the music and how it compliments and drives Halo 4’s worldbuilding, characterisation, and how it uniquely honours the past scores.
Neil Davidge, Kazuma Jinnouchi, and everybody involved in the creation of this game’s soundtrack are unsung heroes of the series – today, I want to give them their due.Before we dive into Halo 4, I want to briefly preface this by looking a little further back…
In 2009, Bungie held a panel at PAX where they talked extensively about their then-upcoming game Halo 3: ODST.
I remember watching the recording of this panel as soon as it dropped, as ODST was a game I was particularly excited for (one of those “This is everything I wanted from Halo!” moments).
Eight of Bungie’s perhaps most recognisable faces of the time talked at great length about the ideas and concepts that ODST was being built on – the story, art direction, atmosphere, music.
At one point, Martin O’Donnell introduced the track Rain by saying:
“I threw away all the Halo themes that we had ever heard and decided to try to do something new.” [Martin O’Donnell, Bungie PAX panel 2009 – Part 2 (4:00)]
That really ‘struck a chord’ with me.
Up to this point, Halo had musically been defined largely by the scores of the original trilogy.
Halo Wars released in February 2009, blessing us with Stephen Rippy’s take on the series for the RTS genre, but ODST seemed to represent a real shift away from the ‘traditional’ established sound of the series.
Where there were once Gregorian monks chanting, there are now also saxophones and noir-inspired jazz which are a part of Halo’s musical identity as well.
I always think of this as a huge moment of growth for Halo, breaking into new and unfamiliar territory without much of a sense of obligatory deference for the past.
I respect that kind of risk.But there’s a notion that Halo’s music was previously something uniform and consistent, that it was neatly holistic, which I simply do not find to be true (to the betterment of the the series, I want to clarify by saying).
Certainly, we can acknowledge that there are certain characteristics and motifs that give a strong impression of that consistency…
But I think we should all have our memories of Halo 2 wiped so we can experience it again for the first time.
(Not even just in terms of music. Halo 2 is such an immense departure from Halo 1 in almost every way and I don’t think we talk about that enough!)
Halo 2 took a very interesting approach to how it evolved the main theme, with the emotional progression of “Ah, there’s the Gregorian monks – it’s ancient, epic, mysterious… and now they’re handing over to Steve Vai for the next three minutes!”
You pursue the Heretic leader, Sesa ‘Refumee, through the Threshold gas mine, battling his forces in a Banshee while accompanied by Incubus.
You witness the fall of the Covenant as the Great Schism breaks out, wandering through the epic halls and hanging gardens of High Charity to a sorrowful soundscape that culminates in Breaking Benjamin blaring over the final battle at the Mausoleum of the Arbiter.
I try to conceptualise what it is people mean when they talk about “Halo music,” as if it’s this singularly defined thing, but I think that this impression largely stems from Halo 3’s soundtrack being composed entirely of select remixed tracks from Halo 1 and 2.
For me, Halo is at its most exciting when it’s pushing the envelope of its perceived identity, when it’s wacky and weird with its experimentation – whether that comes in the form of practically immersion-breaking licensed music that’s in there simply because Bungie was able to sign almost anybody they wanted onto Halo 2, or noir-inspired jazz, and beyond.
Far too often, I find this to be a thinly-veiled way of saying in bad faith that [insert composer here] didn’t just do what Marty did (often in reference to Halo 3).
In reality, Marty was every bit as interested in throwing away everything conceived to be “Halo™” to experiment with something new and different.
The number of composers who have contributed to Halo over the years now is quite immense.
Neil Davidge, Kazuma Jinnouchi, Paul Lipson, Tom Salta, Gordy Haab, Lennie Moore, Brian Trifon, Brian White, Stephen Rippy, Yasuharu Takanashi, Naoyuki Hiroko, Tetsuya Takahashi, Nathan Lanier, Kalus Badelt – now Curtis Schweitzer is set to compose for Halo Infinite.
(As an aside: in the future, can we get like… Sarah Schachner? Hildur Guðnadóttir? Emi Evans? Sachiko Miyano? Yuka Kitamura? There’s some truly incredible composing talent out there who have a lot to bring to Halo, which has – over almost two entire decades, as the above list of names illustrates – been a space occupied exclusively by men.)
Every one of these people (and more) have brought something unique to Halo’s soundscape, whether it’s their interpretation of past scores of pushing the musical ‘voice’ of the series into new territory.
It’s entirely natural that new talent brings something different with the goal of keeping things fresh – new artists, designers, programmers, storytellers, and so on.
Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori are the names we associate with getting the ball rolling, giving Halo its iconic sound, and they’ll always be remembered for that.
But the musical identity of Halo does not ‘die’ when a composer does something new.
What is most important, ultimately, is that the score drives and reinforces the themes, atmosphere, and emotion of the game – which brings us to…
“I’ve been playing the Halo series since it started on the original Xbox. […] It’s one of my go-to things like going for a walk or going to the pub for a quick half. Whenever I get frustrated in the studio one of my things is to play a bit of Halo so in a way, me getting the job seemed like it was meant to be.” [Neil Davidge, Sabotage Times – ‘”Halo 4 Was A Dream Gig” Interviewing Soundtrack Maestro Neil Davidge’ (23/9/12)]
Neil Davidge, man…
The name is one that I was peripherally aware of for some time prior to Halo 4, as I started listening to Massive Attack when their album Heligoland released in 2010 (and I still listen to that album today).
When we learned that Davidge was going to be composing Halo 4 and his work with Massive Attack was brought up (connecting the dots with music I’d already been quite familiar with for years), I was nothing short of ecstatic.
That excitement, naturally, only grew upon learning that he was a huge fan of Halo too.
“No one knew I was a big fan of the game and had been playing it since it came out! When we were working on 100th Window with Massive Attack I’d be playing through the story of Halo when I was waiting for the band to turn up or the computer systems would go down. I have all the games, I know all the characters. In fact my daughter got really into the game so Saturday morning became our Halo morning! She’s actually a lot better than I am these days…
343 didn’t find out I was a fan of the game until about two weeks before I was due to fly to Seattle for the first meeting in December 2010. We got on very well and I played them a piece of music I’d prepared which they loved, and that became the track Awakening.” [Neil Davidge, Ask.Audio – ‘Interview: Neil Davidge on Composing the Halo 4 Soundtrack’ (8/11/12)]
From the moment I saw the concept art trailer for Halo 4 (from 2011’s Halo Fest), it was the music that proved to be as instantly arresting to me as the visuals of this new Forerunner world.
It was overwhelming enough for me that Halo 4 (like ODST before it) was exploring something I had specifically wanted from the series, as if 343 had found my own wishlist and made a game around it, but it also evoked that mood I had come to associate with what really drew me to Halo.
Somewhere between a great evolutionary step forward to somewhere new and a rediscovery of that awesome feeling of looking up to an alien horizon – this is the space I was finding much of 343’s work to be, particularly with Halo: Cryptum, the first book in Greg Bear’s Forerunner Saga.
It is fitting then that Davidge’s music feels so grounded in the lore of the series too, something that was by-design.
Even the names for the setting and central plot device (Requiem and the Composer) revolves around music.
“For this game, I played each of the games again, got every book that I could find and I read all of them, listened to the previous scores – everything that I could possibly get that had anything to do with Halo.” [Neil Davidge, Halo 4: Composing A Universe (16:30)]
“Initially I started by trying to inhabit the Master Chief and from his perspective tried to imagine how I’d feel in that particular mission, confronted with that particular character in that environment. So, I spent a lot of time reading the books, looking at images and the script to get some ideas of what’s going on and where I should be in an emotional sense. Then I wrote to that image I’d created in my head.” [Neil Davidge, Ask.Audio – ‘Interview: Neil Davidge on Composing the Halo 4 Soundtrack’ (8/11/12)]
By no means can I call myself a ‘musically literate’ person, but there’s something about Neil Davidge’s music – about how he creates and uses sound – that just defies description.
Just listen to the track Aliens, which captures exactly that.
The symbiotic melding of classical orchestra with a modern artist’s stranger, more electronic beats and textures creates such a unique sound that felt like a definitive auditory identity for the next phase – this new era – of the Halo universe.One particular example that comes to mind (and this moment has stuck with me ever since Frank O’Connor teased it during the 2012 Eurogamer Expo) is when the Chief enters the Cryptum chamber for the first time.
The track that plays during this sequence is Pylons, a Forerunner-themed track that ominously conveys, with dreadful clarity, that you are not just walking through the halls of a long-dead civilisation.
You are transgressing somewhere you should not be.
Aside from the novelty of seeing a Cryptum for the first time (let alone knowing who was inside it), which has yet to wear off for me, marked by that sinister shift in tone, there’s even greater depth to this track…
The angelic ‘voices’ at the start of this track sound like what one might expect to hear from the Forerunners, but Davidge synthetically filters that sound to make it twisted and discordant.
It evokes the voices, the songs, of the suppressed essences within the Prometheans – like a distressed warning.
This is something of a recurring motif throughout a number of Forerunner-themed tracks. And this is twisted further in Revival and Nemesis, the character themes for the Didact, as the choir evolves into a throaty Bulgarian chant.Revival, specifically, was inspired by the memory of David Anthony Pizzuto, the original actor for the Didact who sadly passed away in February 2012.
In this single scene, without any added effects, purely through the performance, Pizzuto captures the towering presence of the Didact. His statue, movement, voice… it’s easy to see how this track was inspired by him.
One might be tempted to think of the development of Halo 4 as having been cursed, which I’m sure many of the developers would probably agree with. Several key parts of this game have been emotionally informed by loss.
But, at every turn, it drove Halo 4’s creative direction.
Inspired by Pizzuto’s performance, Revival not only manages to be superlative in capturing the essence of the Didact as a character, but finds grounding in the lore as well.
“Who summons the Didact from his meditative journey?”
I was stunned into immobility. My thoughts flashed with panic and wonder. The stories still echoed over thousands of years.… The Didact! Here, surrounded by the last population of humans in the galaxy…
Not even a fool such as myself could believe such a thing. I had no idea what to do or say. But out of the dark behind me, the humans began singing again. And with that wailing, wavering song, the tone of the voice from the pillar changed its challenging tone.
“A message from the Lifeshaper herself, conveyed in a strange manner… but the content is correct. Is it time to raise the Didact and return him to this plane of existence?” [Halo: Cryptum, p. 59-60]
The chanting in Revival echoes this moment in Halo: Cryptum, where the Didact is awakened by Bornstellar. His human companions – Chakas and Riser – conveying a ‘message’ through this wailing song, part of the geas imposed on them by the Librarian, announcing that it is time for the Didact to be awakened.
It is this unprecedented level of detail (on top of the already immaculate quality of the music) that defines much of Halo 4 for me, but also consolidated in my mind that Davidge was the perfect person to take up the musical mantle.
“[The visual world of the game] is on one hand very organic and very ‘human,’ but on the other hand very technological and very futuristic. Neil does that. But also because storyline is so important to the game, if I was hiring him that’s why I would say ‘Neil Davidge would be great for this.’ He’s going to make sure that the storyline works, he’s going to create this interesting sound world for it, and it’s going to work on both levels.” [Andrew Morgan, Halo 4: Composing A Universe (20:20)]
“I have a vision of how I want to engage the player when they’re working through these missions – the feelings I want them to feel as they’re playing. And the messages that I want to convey about what the character is going through emotionally. Because you’re not necessarily going to see that whilst you’re actually playing the game.”
[…] “I have to keep a sense of who these characters are and what they’re going through, experiencing as they experience and reacting in the way that they would in the game – throwing those emotions into the music so that, as a player, you get to feel it first-hand.” [Davidge, Composing A Universe (20:58) and (22:35)]
Davidge’s approach – subtly weaving these elements into more ambient and worldly tracks that double-up as character themes – is clearly presented here.
It’s interesting because Halo never really did that approach to music before. The scores by Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori do have notes and motifs that we came to associate with certain characters, but I think their music is more illustrative of particular moments.
A key difference in the storytelling styles of Bungie’s games is that they’re more event-driven. They capture the movements of an odyssey, a physical journey across spaces and setpieces.
Halo 4, on the other hand, is something that was approached with greater emphasis on themes and character-driven storytelling, which is reflected in this new approach to the music.
“It’s a completely different world, completely different galaxy, completely different foe. He’s older, he’s wiser, he’s kind of a bit more battered. He’s seen a lot.
I think the game has changed enough, the environment has changed enough – we’ve got new characters, Prometheans, the Didact, all these new personalities. It requires, I think, a change in direction musically.” [Davidge, Composing A Universe (11:46)]
Davidge’s first track composed for Halo 4 was a prototype piece called Awakening, which is also the first track you hear on the OST.
On this, he had a lot to say about how he conceived that track and its emotional application to the Chief.
I’ll let Neil speak for himself here because this is some gorgeous character insight…
“For me, Awakening is… it says something about the Master Chief and about the journey he’s been on since the beginning, since Halo 1, and how he’s evolved.
He has this destiny, and he’s a hero, who’s kind of facing a galaxy on his own. No one else knows what he’s going through, apart from, maybe, Cortana. She’s the only one who actually gets it.
No one else has travelled the journey that he’s travelled. He’s on his own, so the solitude that must come with that – the responsibility that must come with that. It’s really inspiring.
The Master Chief has been asleep for almost four years now. He’s awakening in a very tense situation, and, in typical Master Chief mode, first of all there’s action. He, first of all, takes care of business. He comes up against these huge moral issues, it’s not cut-and-dried what he needs to do. He has to go inside himself and, I mean, there’s a man underneath that armour. We don’t actually hear him speak that much but I’m assuming there’s a lot that’s going on inside him.
My understanding of Halo 4 is that we actually get to see a little more about what it is for this guy to have lived the life that he’s lived, faced the challenges that he’s faced, and what that has actually done to him – how that has changed him.
The hero is very much a man with flaws who misses his home, misses his friends, misses colleagues, but knows that this is what he needs to do. He’s involved in something greater than just himself.” [Davidge, Composing A Universe (16: 45)]
THAT OLD, FAMILIAR FEELING
Where Davidge (who was based primarily in London) provides us with the bold and experimental side of the score, Jinnouchi is the other half of that larger, greater whole. His tracks could be said to be more familiar, grounded in the past.
117 is nothing short of the definitive theme for the Master Chief. It’s an anthem for Halo’s brand of heroism, which even the most strident critics of Halo 4 struggle to disagree with.
Playing in fragments throughout the campaign, during certain key character moments, 117 explodes into a triumphant crescendo at the end of Halo 4 during the Broadsword run through the Didact’s ship, coming to a rueful end in the Epilogue.
Just like we got with Davidge, some of Jinnouchi’s tracks also find that they have a basis in the lore.
For example, at the end of Halo 3 we receive – in the final Terminal, on Legendary – a communique from Mendicant Bias. You know the one.
“But I want something far different from you, Reclaimer.
Mendicant Bias is the one who sends the Chief to Requiem at the end of Halo 3 in order to fulfil his goal of atoning for his betrayal of the Forerunners during their war with the Flood.
The very first track you hear in Halo 4, every time you booted up the game and got to the main menu, is called Atonement.Beyond simply referencing and remixing some of the old scores for easy ‘nostalgia points,’ Jinnouchi took things a step further by having those musical references sparingly used in order to illustrate a point.
Take Never Forget, for example – a solemn fan-favourite track that has been in the series since Halo 2 (then titled Unforgotten).
Halo 4 notably (and rather boldly) ends without a sequel hook, so what you are left with as this track plays over the final moments with the Chief, continuing through the credits is the same feeling of uncertainty that he’s feeling.
On something of a personal note, this is where Halo 4 was just the right game at the right time for me.
As I mentioned, it explored so much of what I’d had on my narrative wishlist for years, but the time of its release was a pretty huge time of change for me as well.
I was in my final year of school, soon to head off to university where I’d be leaving a lot of friends I’d known for a long time behind. I was also discovering certain things about myself which I had to deal with alone, entirely in my own head…
That final shot of the Chief gazing out at Earth without any idea as to what’s going to happen next is the closest I’ve ever felt to him as a character.I really cannot emphasise enough how much I feel this was the right choice to make with the approach to referencing and using tracks from the original trilogy.
This was not an ‘easy’ direction to go by any stretch of the imagination, that much has been made clear by loud groups of people who have historically complained that Halo 4 didn’t hammer the nostalgia button more.
Instead, it holds back to tell its own story and finds purpose in its use of the past.
Never Forget is no longer just ‘a track’ that was brought back from Halo 2 and 3, which mostly only played in the main menu.
Halo 4 turned it into a poignant lament for Cortana’s sacrifice, giving it substantial emotional context.
I honestly think that this kind of approach shows even greater reverence for the original trilogy than packing the soundtrack with references.
People often think that that’s what they want, only to find it rings hollow when they get it.
Where it’s hard to separate Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s work because their names are equally put on every track, the musical constituencies of Neil Davidge and Kazuma Jinnouchi are more readily apparent.
As I said earlier, they are two halves of a greater whole as composers and it’s clear to see how the work of one compliments the other.
The result, for me, was utterly enchanting.
STARS TO STEER BY
Something I continue to be in awe of is how Davidge just… made up all these new ‘alien’ sounds. These weird organic noises that never existed before and certainly can’t be replicated by any natural means.
And he layered them in such a way that they can be ambient scene-setting noise, part of a track’s emotional core – they can serve any purpose he needs them to.
He crafted such a unique sound to the Forerunner identity. I think Frank O’Connor’s veneration of his work says it best.
“Neil would prototype themes and melodies and moods in Midi. These ‘roughs’ were designed around characters, around environments, and around specific encounters.
[…] Neil’s process is grueling. Harrowing even. If he can’t find a sound he’s looking for, he’ll invent it either from scratch or by creating monstrous hybrids of digital and analog material. Blending instruments. Rending audio. Bending sounds. And this is long before these things get to an orchestra, But it’s definitely where some of the charisma of this project comes from.
Even in the most conventionally orchestral pieces in the soundtrack, there are elements of the unreal. Sounds and tones and instruments you’ve never heard before. They don’t always stand out and they’re sometimes incredibly subtle, but the way the entirety of this musical arsenal forms the overall sound is to me – magical. [Frank O’Connor, Making of Halo 4 Music (booklet included with Limited Edition Halo 4 Soundtrack), page 1]
There are ways in which this can be detrimental, of course. Not actually being there at the studio and seeing the ways in which the game is evolving can present a problem that no amount of talent can account for.
“What they initially start with are just the bare bones so I was given a lot of mesh images of Master Chief running through… something. Ultimately, in parts I was creating music to half a dozen still images and two sentences of what was going on in a mission. I had to come up with ideas of what Master Chief, Cortana and other characters what doing and feeling and then waited to see if they came in conjunction with things 343 would give me when they had furthered development.” [Neil Davidge, Sabotage Times – ‘”Halo 4 Was A Dream Gig” Interviewing Soundtrack Maestro Neil Davidge’ (23/9/12)]
“In a film score you’ve generally got the complete visuals to compose to. Often with a game you’ve got nothing and the best you can expect to be scoring to is a bunch of still images and a proposed plot which isn’t set in stone.” [Neil Davidge, Ask.Audio – ‘Interview: Neil Davidge on Composing the Halo 4 Soundtrack’ (8/11/12)]
At the same time though, this can be an advantage because the composer keeps that pure, crystallised vision of what 343 wants the game to be without getting caught up in the more granular issues that arise in development.
While it is well known that Halo 4 had a troubled development cycle, it has been said that there weren’t very many out-of-left-field surprises that radically changed the vision for the game.
Many of the major setpieces in the campaign are an exact match of the concept art that Davidge likely would’ve been shown.
(Click each image below for glorious embiggening!)It’s all well and good naming the composers as the main ‘faces’ of the finished score, but as with all things this was a titanic effort on an international scale.
Acknowledgement also has to go to the likes of Matt Dunkley, Andrew Morgan, Ken Kato, Sotaro Tojima, Abbey Road Studios, Angel Recording Studios, Newman Scoring Stage, the Chamber Orchestra of London, the Hollywood Studio Symphony, the London Bulgarian Choir.
Claire Tchaikowski and Dessislava Stefanova deserve a particularly special mention. Claire’s soul-rending, stunning vocals for tracks like Legacy produced what I personally regard as the superlative track for Halo.
To my mind (and, indeed, my ears), no other track in the series manages to capture the sombre, sweeping tragedy of the Forerunner story, building to such an eminently hopeful crescendo.
There are so many people across several continents that poured their hearts and souls into just this aspect of the game. It’s a confluence of talent unto itself with an incredible scale of production, the result is something that I still can’t stop listening to.
If I have any complaints, it’s that there are a number of tracks in the game and in promotional material that aren’t on either Volume 1 or 2 of the soundtrack, that the sound mixing in the game can often make the music a little quiet, and that we won’t ever get another team-up of Davidge and Jinnouchi on a Halo project…
To get a closer look at just how much went into the making of this soundtrack, I must recommend that you set aside some time to watch this hour long documentary which I’ve referenced a lot throughout this article – Halo 4: Composing A Universe.
“I don’t care if they forget the melody, but I want them to go away with a feeling. I want it to have changed their mood somehow. […] I do hope that I’m going to change the course of someone’s… someone’s hour, someone’s day, by listening to that piece of music. It will give them a sense of hope, a certain faith, they will be encouraged to love a little more – to care a little more. To do better, to strive. It will encourage them when they’re… when they’re not sure if they can achieve their dreams.“ [Neil Davidge, Composing A Universe (57:00)]
To wrap things up here, I just want to say thank you to Neil, Kazuma, and everybody involved in the making of this amazing score.
Not only did you create my favourite soundtrack for Halo, but it’s one of my favourite soundtracks of anything.
I know this is coming many years after the fact, I’ve no idea if anybody involved in the production will even see this (one hopes, of course, but this gushing is therapy for the self more than anything), but this is my long overdue love letter to them.
For seven years, I’ve carried this music with me, and I’ll undoubtedly be listening to it on the regular another seven years from now.
I could write more. I could go into ludicrously granular detail for practically every track, but I must lament the fact that YouTube isn’t my platform to convey many of the things I have to say. In writing, we’d be here until next year!
Happy birthday, Halo 4.
You’ll always be my favourite.
UPDATE (7/11/19): Neil Davidge read this and it just so happened that he was in London, he invited me to come to a talk he was doing about his work on 8 Days: To the Moon & Back – the BBC’s 50th anniversary tribute to the Moon landing.
Meeting your heroes is one thing, but it’s another thing entirely when they’re somebody who actually gives you the time of day. I got to have a good long chat with him and he’s lovely!
It’s weirdly cathartic for me because my ‘place’ in the Halo community is sort of synonymous with Halo 4. It’s a game that’s integral to me on a personal level, but I was only 18/19 when it came out. I hadn’t even started my blog back then, so I wasn’t ‘part’ of it at all.
But now, all these years later, through my content, I’ve been lucky enough to meet its makers and just share with them how much I love and appreciate the heart and soul they poured into this game. It’s incredibly humbling and I couldn’t be happier!