Since the title screen of 2001’s Halo, the music of the series has been weaved into the fabric of one of the most iconic and successful video game franchises and has become nearly as integral to its success as the Final Fantasy series. The famous theme, sung in the vein of Gregorian chant, has been a staple of video game music for nearly a decade. Like Bioshock and Star Wars, the creators of Halo opted to keep their composers (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori, in this case) along for each installment of the series giving it an even stronger sense of continuity and character development.
The previous installment of Halo was a departure from the series in both its gameplay and its soundtrack. Substituting vast warzones and fields for the fictional city of New Mumbasa, O’Donnell wisely opted for a noir-like soundtrack heavy on saxophone to highlight the isolated feel of the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs).
The latest outing, (the already record-breaking) Halo: Reach, is not an off-shoot like Halo: ODST or a sequel – but a prequel. There is an interesting musical dilemma in this…
One of the “criticisms” (I put quotes because I use the term in a different sense here) I had about the soundtrack to the Star Wars prequels is the use of themes not realized till later in the series (i.e. “Imperial March”). Additionally, the music of the prequels was far more musically/harmonically complex both in thematic ideas as well as rhythmic structure. How can a film that – in theory – is supposed to take place years before the other films have music that is so much more ornate; symbolizing that of a more mature composer? Granted, the prequels are a different era, but if the entire rationale behind a prequel is to create a world previous and (usually) less advanced than the worlds and times we already know, would it not make sense to create a soundtrack in the same vein? On the other hand, we have evolved and so has the technology so why shouldn’t the subject and music do the same? It is no surprise to me that the talented Martin O’Donnell has struck a fantastic balance between giving us new, interesting, and slightly different music, all the while capitulating on previous themes without surpassing them in their message and musical complexity.
Beginning with “Overture”, we are reacquainted with the first half of the aforementioned, iconic, Halo Gregorian chant motif. In a dramatic departure from what one might expect next, O’Donnell hands us a healthy dose of 6/8 meter with a Phrygian mode (for you first-year music students, the Phrygian mode is a scale going from E to E with no accidentals. It is also referred to as the Kurd mode in Arabic countries). As he stated in his interview with OSV earlier this month, “I used a mode (Phrygian) that emphasizes some intervals and harmonies that sound just a bit non-Western to my ears. Reach is a planet that was colonized by humans primarily from Eastern Europe and several of the Spartans have accents that make you believe that English is not their first language. I felt that the music needed to reflect that without being too specific to a region on today’s Earth.” Though the Phrygian mode has many uses in music, it is used in Middle Eastern music so commonly (and in music that is supposed to ‘sound’ Middle Eastern) that it was incredibly difficult to divorce myself from that sensibility. Even still, it did not become less effective with this association. However, the true meat of this piece arrives directly after the Phrygian section in the form of an all-string theme that to me stressed the emotions of faith and hope – not unlike the emotions felt fighting this battle that we all know is one that cannot be won. This is a wonderful piece to start the soundtrack and game; top-notch work from Mr. O’Donnell.
“ONI: Sword Base” is the first track to introduce us to the rock-styled musings of the Halo soundtracks. This track provides a bit of an emotional respite from the heavier-themed tracks and works quite well to speed up the feel of the action. After all, this game (and series) is a bombastic shoot-a-thon with no apologies and, after about three minutes, we are happy to turn into space cowboys.
“Tip of the Spear” blends some of the Phrygian sensibilities found in “Overture” with the more percussive, action music we expect from O’Donnell and his team. In the middle of the track, a full shift to electronic music is unwrapped. The Halo series has many thematic angles to it and is a universe that can be described through many genres. It can be told through the paradigm of science fiction, action, war, and all of their various sub-genres. Instead of picking one, O’Donnell – even within the first few tracks – taps into all of these throughout the soundtrack (twenty tracks and clocks in at just under two hours) and shows his firm grip on the language of Halo. By this point, it is safe to say that O’Donnell is not only a contributor to the Halo universe, but also one of its primary creators.
There is a famous anecdotal story of a meeting between the great director, William Friedkin, and the composer, Bernard Herrmann, during post-production of 1973’s The Exorcist. Friedkin wanted Herrmann, the great Hitchcock composer, to write the music for the film. It is said that Friedkin said to Herrmann, “I want you to write me a score as good as your Citizen Kane score!” In response, Herrmann balked at this and replied, “Then you’d have to give me a film as good as Citizen Kane.” Throughout the life of the Halo series, I always felt the drama of the action in the previous games seemed to belie the O’Donnell team’s efforts. That is, the action – though intense and always put together exceedingly well – never seemed to have the depth of character and drama needed to really knock my socks off. To relate it to my anecdote, I always felt like O’Donnell was Herrmann had he agreed to write the score, trying to add wonderful depth and drama to that which was not there. However, in Halo: Reach this is not the case. The team of C. Paul Johnson, Ivan Ives, Martin O’Donnell, and Michael Salvatori has delivered the goods in each installment of the Halo series. The team’s success in Halo: Reach, headed by O’Donnell, is no surprise here.
It does not matter to Martin O’Donnell that we all know how this part of the saga will end. Halo: Reach‘s soundtrack hooks the listener and makes him truly believe that Reach can be saved. It is this determination and grace in musical spirit that makes the fall of Reach so heartbreaking. In the end, everyone who experiences this soundtrack will remember Reach.
Any fan of the Halo series and/or its soundtrack will be thrilled at the latest (and last) of Bungie’s installment to the series. The soundtrack is available digitally and with physical copies via all major outlets. It is most highly recommended.Tags: Bungie, Halo, Halo: Reach, Marty O'Donnell, Michael Salvatori, Microsoft, Reviews, Videogame