At the time of writing, Death Stranding is just hours away from launching. You've got your pre-load ready to boot at midnight, with 2019's most unique experience ahead of you. It's an outstanding game, which we highlighted in the 10/10 Push Square review, with one of its greatest aspects being a soundtrack that sticks with you long past its conclusion. Prior to release, we were lucky enough to catch up with score designer Joel Corelitz to discuss how you approach an otherworldly title such as this.
Push Square: The likes of Gorogoa and The Unfinished Swan are certainly different experiences, but Death Stranding feels like a whole different beast completely within the video game industry. From an audio perspective, did your compositional approach change due to the project's uniqueness?
Joel Corelitz: It didn’t change so much as scale-up. Unfinished Swan and Gorogoa are delicate and meditative, and much of the music for Death Stranding needed to be aggressive, and unrelenting. But that intensity is very much rooted in rhythm and texture vs melody and chords which is the way I process music. My favorite thing about being a composer isn’t about specializing in a style so much as having a sensibility that can work across genres. So even though this was my first time working on a project that demanded such a visceral, aggressive approach, I was able to find something in it that felt true to my own creative sensibilities - I just had to turn them way up. Studying extreme forms of music, like grindcore - was really helpful in this respect. It’s a real challenge and intricate craft to create music that feels like it’s operating at 100% all the time and I needed to do that for the action / battle music I worked on.
How did the opportunity to work on Death Stranding's soundtrack come about?
Sound design and original sound creation is a very significant part of what I do in my own compositional work - and a big reason why Sony’s music department has brought me in to work on diverse scores like The Unfinished Swan, The Tomorrow Children and Hohokum. I start every cue from scratch and design sounds as I go. I don’t use a template or presets. There’s nothing wrong with that and it works for a lot of composers, but it isn’t my process. Sony initially brought me in not as a composer, but as a musical sound designer to support Ludvig by creating custom sounds for him to use on the score. It was a unique opportunity to compartmentalize that part of my creative process and export it to a score I wasn’t composing - at least not yet. The additional music I contributed came later.
You assisted lead composer Ludvig Forssell in creating the score. What were some of the ideas you brought to the table that made it into the final game?
The initial sound creation I did for Ludvig led to a 3-day sampling session at Sony. We went shopping and bought a cartful of hardware to the studio and used it along with a piano that we modified extensively to create a custom, exclusive sample library that was used all over the score. We created what’s called a “prepared piano”, where the strings and damper are modified in various ways to dramatically change the sound. We put duct tape over the dampers, inserted screws in between some strings to create harmonics and wove playing cards around other strings so certain notes would vibrate. This technique turns a regular piano into a unique and very interesting percussion instrument. I’ve always wanted to prepare a piano myself and finally got my chance.
At this point, I didn’t even know that I was going to write additional music for the score. So when that request came in a few months later and I got to actually use the library we created on my on cues for the game, it was a huge surprise and thrill.
Your own contribution to the official soundtrack is two tracks in particular, with Cargo High being a personal favourite of ours. Did you want to differentiate your pieces from the rest of the pack?
Thank you! Each of these tracks is an edit built from a 4-track battle suite - and both were written to accompany and compliment Ludvig’s original battle suites. So my tracks needed to follow the sound he established for the score - and composing in a more supportive role was another first for me. But my sensibilities are very much there.
On a broader scale and having played the game through to completion, we'd describe every bit of Death Stranding's audio pieces as otherworldly. Was it a goal of yours and Ludvig's to create a score that almost seems like it originated from a different planet altogether?
I can only speak to my side of this but our first conversation was about how Death Stranding’s score shouldn’t sound like anything else out there. Ludvig wanted the music, right down to the instrumentation to defy classification. I think the result is something that feels both familiar and foreign and it’s disorienting in the best way.
Alongside the game's official soundtrack, a Timefall album is launching which contains music inspired by the game. Did you have any influence on that too?
None at all!
Were you in contact with Hideo Kojima much over the course of development? What did he inspire you to create with Death Stranding's official soundtrack?
I had no contact with Kojima-san but it’s impossible not to be inspired by the world he created. The irony is that I’ve only seen ever-so-slightly more of the game than everyone else so a bit part of what I brought to my contribution to the score is my own sense of intrigue and fascination with the world and all the questions we have about it.
What's next for Joel Corelitz?
I’ve been hard at work on the entirely different score for Eastward, in development by Pixpil and to be published by Chucklefish. Been thinking about doing a YouTube series too about techniques in the studio without focusing on gear or gear acquisition. Been doing a lot of sound design for products and experiences too. It’s sort of all over the place and I love it that way.
We would like to thank Joel Corelitz for taking the time to answer our questions. Death Stranding's official soundtrack is available on Spotify now.