Released in 2007, BioShock turned out to be one of the most talked-about games of the year. Among other things, the game's unique art design, which managed to look both retro and futuristic, turned the game into a multi-million seller on PC and Xbox 360. One of the ingredients that contributed to the game's breathtaking atmosphere was Garry Schyman's distinctive score.
After his well-received soundtracks for the Destroy All Humans franchise, BioShock marked the composer's breakthrough in the game score world and turned him into one of Western game music's stars. However, to the chagrin of game score collectors, Schyman's multi-award winning soundtrack initially did not receive an album release. Reacting to pressure by enthusiastic fans, developer 2kgames eventually released 17 minutes of the game's soundtrack as a free digital download, but predictably, this only served to elicits demands for a more complete release. Finally, in February 2010, these calls were answered: I Am Rapture - Rapture Is Me contains the already released material plus another 20 minutes of Schyman's score. However, the album was only available as part of the BioShock 2 Limited Edition, which carried a hefty price tag of $US 100. While it is arguably true that through this release policy, a great number of interested collectors will remain unable to get their hands on a comprehensive representation of Schyman's score in whatever medium, I Am Rapture - Rapture Is Me finally offers the possibility of a thorough assessment of the composer's work for BioShock.
As already mentioned above, BioShock benefited from unique art design that set the game apart from the masses of first-person shooters which have flooded the market in recent years. Part of this art design was of course the game's score, and in several interviews, Schyman reported on the arduous process of matching the soundtrack's stylistic distinctiveness with that of the game's visual presentation. Early on, Schyman and BioShock's audio director agreed on accompanying the game with a historically 'correct' soundtrack of early/mid 20th century classical music, since the game's setting, the underwater city Rapture, had been built in the early decades of the 20th century. Not only would such a score fit the game's location, but through its inherently cerebral stylistics, the music would also mirror the fact that Rapture had been built as a colony housing thinkers, artists and scientists.
This well thought-out approach to the game's score makes for its first rather unique aspect: put simply, early and mid 20th century classical music styles are very rarely integrated into game soundtracks (as opposed to, let's say, mid/late 19th century romanticism). This stylistic emphasis brings with it an emphasis on atonal material and the emancipation of dissonances (of course, this is a simplification of sorts, given the vast range of different classical music styles that emerged during the early and mid 20th century). For some, listening to I Am Rapture - Rapture Is Me may initially be an alienating experience then. Another consequence of this particular artistic approach is the move away from pieces that feature a full symphony orchestra and a focus on smaller ensembles — in this case a string orchestra, prominently overlaid with instrumental solo performances.
But this is only one facet of the soundtrack's shape. The score's exact musical approach still had to be determined, and after having a number of themes rejected, Schyman hit gold when he combined different musical styles into a melange that was indeed as unique as the game's visuals. His formula is best exemplified by the album's opening track "Ocean On His Shoulders": the piece opens with atonal material that is reminiscent of classical composer's Witold Lutoslawski's aleatoric works, before mournful strings enter, providing a surprising counterpoint to the dissonant beginning. The piece's emotional grip becomes even stronger when a solo violin enters, playing a delicate, sad melody that is nothing short of exquisite and effectively conveys the tragedy and isolation of Rapture and the history of this failed utopia. But soon, the dissonant elements are re-introduced and ultimately take over again. It is this balance between horror and beauty that will become the score's trademark (a mixture that, although in a different disguise, rears its head again in Schyman's Dante's Inferno).
This is most clearly evidenced in other pieces that offer skilful variations on the described "melodic solo instrumental parts against frightening orchestral background" approach and stick quite closely to it, while wisely incorporating changes to the orchestration to provide sufficient variety. The solo cello of "Step Into My Garden" is introduced by wild violin glissandi. "Dancers On A Strings" features not only solo string instruments, but also a melancholy piano part, conveying a sense of nocturnal beauty and mystery. Meanwhile, the dissonant orchestral material, which accompanies the beautiful solo performances, reminds the listener (and gamer) of the constant thread lurking in the corridors and halls of Rapture. Aleatoric pizzicati in the second half of "Diseased Medical" greatly add to the menacing atmosphere of the track and introduce sounds one rarely hears on a game soundtrack.
"Cohen Is Lurking", at four minutes the album's longest track, is another prime example of Schyman's unusual compositional approach for this project: the piece constantly switches between sections for three solo instruments (violin, cello, piano) and menacing ambience, to the effect that both elements combat and compete each other, the contrast between the two greatly enhancing each section's impact. Throughout all this, Schyman's outstanding compositional skills constantly shine through — witness how the dissonant violin chords starting at 3:02 in "Cohen Is Lurking" keep the listener on the edge of the seat by giving off the impression they might turn consonant any second and release the tension that has been building up throughout the track, only to remain thorny and atonal.
It is this particular combination of both different styles and emotions that becomes I Am Rapture - Rapture Is Me's greatest artistic asset. As hinted at above, early/mid 20th century music has the potential to alienate a fair number of listeners, with its generally greater emphasis on modes of musical expression that are still largely considered unusual and somewhat difficult to enjoy; just think of how rarely works by Schoenberg or other proponents of twelve tone music are performed in concert halls these days. Schyman's decision to include more immediately emotionally accessible elements in the form of the described instrumental solo performances establishes a perfect balance between emotional resonance and intellectual engagement on the side of the listener. It is important to note that the musical elements described above not just alternate within one composition, but exist side by side: even during the majority of the heart-breakingly beautiful string solo performances, dissonant orchestral material lurks in the background, adding welcome emotional ambivalence to the score's soundscape.
In this context, a look at Schyman's inspiration for BioShock's soundtrack proves enlightening: according to a statement he made in one interview, one of Schyman's most important artistic influences on this project was early 20th century composer Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, resulting in Schyman's decision to make violin solos the central element of this score. Interestingly enough, the concerto's dominating artistic feature is its incorporation of tonal material into its twelve tone idiom, and the resulting combination of lyrical expressiveness and modernistic atonality — a melange that also comes to characterise Schyman's BioShock score. One should not emphasise the analogy too much — tonality and atonality are more closely intertwined in Berg's concerto, and Schyman's material for solo violin (and cello) is more romantic in sound than Berg's writing; however, these stylistic similarities still prove useful in describing the soundtrack's ambiguous emotional content and highlight the sheer artistic ambition powering it.
Schyman's writing for solo instruments deserves highest praise: he doesn't write the kind of melodies that you'll take away with you after a listen and hum throughout the day. What will remain with the listener for a long while, however, is the mood these melodies evoke. According to Schyman, his aim was to underscore what he describes as the "overriding human tragedy" around which BioShock's narrative revolves: mankind's attempt to create an utopia on Earth, and the latter's inevitable downfall. And thus, the overarching feeling emanating from the considerable number of violin and cello solos on the game's soundtrack is one of deep tragedy. BioShock's score is hardly the only game soundtrack that aims to express this sensation, but instead of using sweeping, overtly emotional orchestral statements to convey its message, I Am Rapture - Rapture Is Me, through its emphasis on solo instruments to carry the melody and the way Schyman shapes the musical material he works with, opts for a more restrained approach. Using altered, unusual scales in his writing for solo string instruments, Schyman keeps the constantly returning musical representations of sadness effective and ensures that the soundtrack is never overwhelmed by sentimentality. Adding to this is the fact that the solo instruments are recorded in a very reverberant acoustic, which perfectly emphasises the sensation of vastness and loneliness a visitor to this failed underwater colony must feel when witnessing the results of its decay. Due to this particular presentation of the soundtrack's deeply touching, melodic material in conjunction with frightening, more outwardly modernistic orchestral noise, I Am Rapture - Rapture Is Me stands as one of the most supremely atmospheric scores — film and game — in recent memory.
The described emotional ambivalence that makes the described compositions for solo instruments so captivating spill over into the album's other pieces as well, even if they don't follow the same artistic blueprint. Partly, this is achieved by clever album sequencing. After "Dr. Steinman", with its furiously dissonant opening string cluster and a rhythmic section for low strings with aleatoric violins on top, has scared the listener into submission, "Empty Houses", the score's most romantic piece (no background dissonance this time) soothes with rapturously beautiful string writing. It's a testament to Schyman' compositional talents that, despite this difference in emotional expression, I Am Rapture - Rapture Is Me almost always feels stylistically cohesive. "Welcome to Rapture" emphasises the inviting, but haunted quality of Rapture through an repetitive whirlwind solo violin motive set against an eerie orchestral waltz accompaniment, which evolves into a more grandiose statement for full orchestra, before reducing the instrumentation to solo violin and celesta. "The Good One", with its harp arpeggios and tubular bells accompanying the elegiac sounds of the string orchestra, conveys a sense of wonder at the game's underwater setting, while still hinting at the tragedy that has taken place. "The Docks" mixes sounds that will readily evoke a certain "harbour atmosphere" (ship bells, an accordion melody) with swashes of menacing ambient sounds and manages to make in impression even in its short running time — something that goes for almost all of the 24 tracks on this 38 minute album.
Setting I Am Rapture - Rapture Is Me further apart from other game soundtracks is the dazzling display of technical skills that it requires from its performers. "Cohen's Masterpiece" has justly become famous as a piano showpiece, with fans' interest in performing the composition themselves becoming so great that Schyman eventually released the track's sheet music for free download. Supposed to function within the game's narrative as a fictitious original classical composition, "Cohen's Masterpiece" certainly fits that bill, with its virtuoso right hand work (especially the constantly cascading arpeggios), jagged melodies and syncopated left hand accompaniment. The piece's texture is predictably very dense, but sufficiently varied through a quieter middle section. No less spectacular is "Spliced Aphrodite", which features some of the most impressive writing for solo violin in game soundtracks so far.
Spicing up the mostly elegiac atmosphere of the soundtrack are a number of compositions that underscore the game's moments of conflict or opt for a more horror-oriented approach. The aptly titled "Combat Medley" assembles the material Schyman had to write when BioShock's producers realised that, contrary to earlier plans, they needed music to accompany the gamer's encounters with enemies. Unfortunately, by that time, the orchestral recording sessions had already finished and the resulting replacement of a live orchestra with sound samples for the game's action material is noticeable, robbing the piece of some of its power. However, due to the dissonant nature of the music, the transition from real to synthetic instruments isn't too jarring. And in any case, "Combat Medley" shows Schyman's dissonant composition style at its most entertainingly frantic, somewhat reminiscent of Elliot Goldenthal's action scoring for his Batman soundtrack: full of savage rhythms, shrill strings, and a heavy emphasis on percussion. The same goes for "All Spliced Up", with its unexpected rhythmic changes, a dissonant string crisis motif and... some rather bizarre, but entertaining whistling, which also graces some seconds of material on "Combat Medley".
"This Is Where They Sleep" and "Haunted Slums" offer the most straightforwardly horror-styled material on the album, but they also intrigue the listener with creative compositional details, such as the unearthly upward orchestral glissando in "This Is Where They Sleep", set against dissonant, whining violins, or the brass chords at the end of "Haunted Slums" that sound like a ship's distress signal. The latter track's ghostly, whispered vocals fortunately come across as less gimmicky than similar pieces in Dante's Inferno. Finally, "The Engine City" and "Bowels of the City" are stomping, industrial-sounding marches that aptly convey the image of vast machines in dark halls, hidden deep within Rapture. Both pieces display some interesting touches regarding their orchestration: "The Engine City" includes a trombone melody (one of the few occasions on which the melody is not carried by the strings) and a short polyrhythmic section when the deep strings enter at 0:38, while "Bowels of the City" adds a xylophone to the list of instruments deployed. Both pieces feature a part for solo violin, set against the march rhythms to stunning effect.
Two tracks on the album break the soundtrack's stylistic coherency, although this is deliberate, given that they were created to work as source material within the game's narrative. "Rapture News Daily" starts as a by-the-book, stately march, whose melody is then adorned by a syncopated rhythmic motif repeatedly thrown in by the brass and woodwinds to ever so slightly disrupt the music's flow. "Rise, Rapture, Rise" turns out to be a most surprising closing piece for the album. On first look, another jolly march, written in the style of a national anthem, seems like a rather awkward way to end such a magnificently tragic score. But upon closer inspection, it turns out that this seemingly stereotypical composition is infused with the same emotional ambiguity as the rest the score. Not only does the piece poke fun at its own sense of self-importance and the grandiose ideology behind this underwater art colony through its emotionally hyper-charged, trilling soprano melody and self-parodying lines such as "Oh Rise, Rapture Rise! We merrily sing this reprise." More importantly, it also foreshadows the tragedy to come by exposing the flaws in the ultimately inhumane beliefs upon Rapture is built when the soprano sings "Oh Rise, Rapture Rise! To help us crush parasites, despised!" against a merry orchestral accompaniment. As much as the more prominent compositions for solo string instruments, "Rise, Rapture, Rise" musically represents an utopia bound to fail and thus provides an oddly fitting and poignant conclusion to the album.
If this review has made I Am Rapture - Rapture Is Me sound like a rather cerebral, high-brow affair, it's because BioShock's soundtrack is one. However, not only is it intellectually nourishing (and how many game soundtracks can make that claim?), but the music also remains emotionally accessible through the way Schyman mixes dissonant and gloriously melodic material to heartbreaking effect. Although only 38 minutes long, the soundtrack and the mood it conveys leave an indelible mark on the listener. The score for BioShock marks one of the most satisfying matches of narrative and musical accompaniment in game history: the music successfully mirrors the game's period setting, its location, its habitants, and its ambiguous history and what remains of it. Hitting all these marks, while producing a game soundtrack quite unlike any other, Schyman can lay claim to having composed a modern game score classic.
Still, the question remains how eager listeners and collectors are supposed to lay their hands on this soundtrack. Spending $US100 solely on what are effectively 20 minutes of new musical material, which is stylistically similar to what has been already released as a free digital download, can only be recommended for the most die-hard game music fans (although it needs to be said that the BioShock 2 Limited Edition also includes the soundtrack for that game). While it is obvious that the soundtrack, in the format it has been released, is supposed to function as a collector's item, it remains puzzling why the score wasn't released as a digital download on iTunes and other online music stores as well. That way, collectors could have chosen to pay a premium for a beautiful collector's item, while everybody else would have been provided with an easy way of enjoying Schyman's creation. Ultimately however, the purpose of this review is to evaluate the artistic merit of the score at hand, and how it's presented on album, and on these accounts, I Am Rapture - Rapture Is Me is an unqualified success.