Composer of ‘Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök' on her Grammy nomination in new categ
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At Sunday’s 65th Annual Grammy Awards, composer Stephanie Economou won the show’s first-ever video game music category.
The new addition has been a long time coming. While some gaming songs earned Grammy nods before, they were lumped into a broader best score soundtrack for film, television, and other media category.
“Having video game music recognized as its own category is just validation that us game composers have a purpose and a hand in evolving the musical landscape,” says Economou.
Economou was one of five nominated composers this year for her score to “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök,” a 2022 mythological epic that puts players in the boots of Norse god Odin as he exacts terrible vengeance against the giants that wronged his family.
“I knew that it had to have a scope and scale that was huge and emotional and ultimately very human,” says Economou. After hearing that the game’s developers had been inspired by the black metal subgenre, she enlisted band Wilderun and longtime collaborator Ari Mason to conjure the game’s driving, mournful sound.
Economou was the only woman nominated in the new category — something that surprised her. “There are just so many brilliant women voices in the video game music space,” she says. “I might be the first, but I’m not going to be the last, that’s for sure.”
For Economou, inclusion in the Grammys doesn’t just vindicate the work of composers like her, it also acknowledges the unique power of video game music itself.
“You’re not just consuming like you might be with film and television,” says Economou. “So that level of immersion, I really do feel is the closest that you can get to experiencing and loving and being part of art.”
Player character, Odin, in combat with one of the game’s many frost giants. (Courtesy of Ubisoft)
On her favorite moments from the soundtrack
“I listen back to the main theme and I’m really happy with how that all came together. I got to work with Einar Selvik, who sang vocals on that, and he is kind of the voice of ‘Assassin’s Creed.’ He’s sort of the image of what people hear when they think of Viking. So having his artistry on that track was really, really special.
“I also still like listening to the track ‘Old Friends and Gentle Jailers,’ which is the second track on the album. Ari Mason, who’s an incredible vocalist who I have known since childhood, sang vocals on that, and she also improvised a lot of things throughout the album, and I just love her performance on that track. I think it’s really powerful and wonderful.”
On how video games composition differs from composing for TV or film
“It’s different in the sense that in video games, you could have a player exploring or beating a boss for anywhere from four minutes to hours. So the music has to adapt to the fact that from player to player, it’s going to be a different experience.
“So if the player happens upon a tension area or a danger zone, there’s a layer that comes in to make them sit on the edge of their seat. There are intensity layers that you have to add on top depending maybe if you’re getting close to beating a boss or something like that. So the music is alive. It’s living and breathing. It’s ever evolving. You have to be very clever about how you design that music. Maybe you want to pick a tempo where you can do half time and double time and switch between these feels so that you can get the most out of those sorts of energy changes for the audience.”
The mythological scale of “Dawn of Ragnarök” called for a grand soundtrack. (Courtesy of Ubisoft)
On how video game players uniquely influence the experience of the soundtrack
“I think anybody who has a hand in creating a game — whether it be the designers, the art directors, the composers, the sound designers — I think we’re creating a world for others to make their own art, to find their own story, to live and breathe in. And I think that’s a really fantastic thing. It’s no wonder why games have the reach and the impact that they do.
“I think we’re seeing now, with the advent of a lot of these stories being turned into television and films, I think we’re going to see people who maybe didn’t grow up playing games or if it’s not part of their lives, I think we’re going to see them pivoting into playing these games because these narratives have such a wide reach. It’s the art and the storytelling that grips people and games allow for this very intimate experience and involvement in that art.”
On what being the only woman in this inaugural Grammys category means to her.
“It’s certainly meaningful to be able to represent women in that category. I am truly surprised that I am the only woman in that category because there are so many brilliant, influential women and women-identifying composers in video games.
“Sarah Schachner wrote the music for ‘Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,’ the main game, as well as other Assassin’s Creed games. Yoko Shimomura has had a big hand in defining video game music. Hildur Guðnadóttir, who is well known for her film work, also was doing video game music. You have Winifred Philips, Lena Raine — there are just so many brilliant women voices in the video game music space, so I’m very surprised I’m the only one.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect Stephanie Economou’s win at the 2023 Grammy’s.
Katherine Swartz contributed to this report.
James Perkins Mastromarino produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Perkins Mastromarino adapted it for the web.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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