“I never in a million years thought I’d be able to just call him ‘Paul'” begins Martin O’Donnell, explaining his collaboration with the legendary Paul McCartney on Bungie’s Destiny. But O’Donnell himself should be no stranger to the concept of celebrity by now, having scored each of Bungie’s Halo titles to universal acclaim.
O’Donnell’s rise to industry prominence started at Mac World in 1999, when Bungie unveiled Halo for the first time. The three-minute scripted demo took people by surprise and the series, of course, went on to take the game industry by storm. Part of the bold impression made by Halo at that first showing, and a crucial element of its continued iconic status, was O’Donnell’s first audio composition. So when Bungie showed Destiny to the world at E3 this year I was slightly disappointed not to be obsessively humming a new O’Donnell theme for the rest of the month. What happened?
“I’m certainly working on it,” O’Donnell says. “It’s hard for me – and some of the guys get impatient about it, like ‘hey Marty, quick just write an iconic theme and show it to us’. But that’s not what I did with Halo. I like to write music. And now getting to work with Paul McCartney it’s just great to work on a whole bunch of music with a lot of themes. So we have this really great start on many, many pieces of music that all seem to work together well. Most of it hasn’t been heard yet. Exactly which element will rise to the top and become the iconic thing? I think that happens over time, organically. I feel like we have really iconic stuff that at some point will rise to the top and become the iconic theme. It probably hasn’t happened yet.”
O’Donnell was able to get McCartney’s interest thanks to this unique approach to scoring Destiny. “I came up with this idea of music of the spheres. I came up with eight pieces, a suite, it turned out to be 50 minutes long, we’re going to be releasing it before the game. And that’s the thing that I got Paul interested in working with us on.”
It’s a collaboration that stretches back nearly three years, when McCartney was working with the Rock Band franchise. A friend of O’Donnell’s offered to reach out to McCartney on his behalf and O’Donnell’s initial reaction was understandable: “I said ‘that’s insane, but sure, do what you want…'”
Fast-forward six months and McCartney had reached out to O’Donnell, offering to spend time with him and trying to understand game music. “Paul’s one of these guys who just never seems to want to stop developing and moving, so we had a great meeting and started collaborating. And for two years we traded music back-and-forth, met at several studios. We did this session at Abbey Road. I’m really looking forward to getting that out for people to hear because it has… it’s the 50-minute suite that tells its own story that’s within the story of the Destiny universe. It’s written by Mike Salvatori, me and Paul McCartney.”
It’s this very suite that comes up repeatedly in our conversation which O’Donnell clearly sees as holding the secret to Destiny’s soundscape. “I’m hoping there’s enough substance there that as Destiny develops into the future we can keep adapting that score,” he says, “arranging and growing new themes that are the germs of ideas right now in the suite. That’s the general plan right now. It allowed us to do a purely musical approach that can be adapted over the next number of years.”
That “purely musical” approach is down, in no small part, to McCartney’s involvement, which was initially a concern for O’Donnell: “That was one of the things we were quite worried about: would Paul even be interested in a sci-fi shooting game? But he seemed excited about it. He’s played Halo with his grandkids and was… I can’t speak for Paul, but I think he’s pretty excited that he’s stretching into an area he hasn’t stretched before.”
McCartney didn’t just bring a new paradigm to O’Donnell’s methodology; he brought some new (and old) technology: “He brought out his old tape-loop machine – he said the last time he used it was on Sgt. Pepper. So he sent me an entire session where he was playing around with all these tape-loops. We were just thrilled. That [was] the same machine that was on Revolver.”
O’Donnell evangelised the medium to McCartney, and the composer is set to continue his work when he revisits London in September for Game Music Connect, a event that aims to lift the lid on working in the game music industry.
McCartney’s influence and legacy in the music industry is unrivalled, and in O’Donnell he not only seems have a game industry collaborator but an equivalent; few composers working in games have the level of control O’Donnell has. Bungie has entrusted him with all of Destiny’s audio direction, from sound effects and those monastic chants to a game’s dialogue and final mix. Or, as O’Donnell puts it: “Whatever’s coming out of the speakers, I’m the one saying ‘yes, I like it that way'”.