While John Williams is, was and always will be considered the primary Star Wars film composer, Gordy Haab has unquestionably become the most prominent composer for Star Wars video games. Beginning with 2011’s The Old Republic, Haab has been responsible for composing for six major titles (and Kinect Star Wars), which have delighted both Star Wars fans and video game aficionados.
On the latest Star Wars project, EA and Respawn Entertainment’s Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, the award-winning composer teamed up with his British frequent collaborator, Stephen Barton, to release one of the biggest and most dynamic scores in the franchise’s history. The soundtrack is a worthy successor not only to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order but also to every Star Wars score to date.
In addition to Haab’s Star Wars work, his video game discography includes other massive IPs like Halo, The Walking Dead and Indiana Jones. Before Jedi: Survivor, his most recent Star Wars endeavor was 2020’s Star Wars: Squadrons.
In honor of Star Wars Day (May 4), SPIN spoke with the duo about their latest project, the music of the Star Wars universe as a whole, and how their different sci-fi histories compare.
SPIN: What was it like returning to the Star Wars universe for Jedi: Survivor?
Gordy Haab: Following the success of Fallen Order, there was a lot of anticipation and excitement around continuing our musical journey on Survivor, but also a desire to build upon and potentially surpass our previous work. We embraced the challenge by pushing the sound of Star Wars Jedi music beyond traditional composition, production and storytelling — creating something we believe is truly unique and larger than life.
Stephen Barton: I think the complexity of creating a sequel will always present a challenge, but it was a huge pleasure to return to the Star Wars universe musically. Early in the production of the first game, we discussed the overall story with the narrative team, so we had a general understanding of this game’s trajectory and overarching tone. The first game exudes an underlying optimism, even amidst the bleak circumstances Cal encounters, where the Empire has really eradicated all but the last vestiges of the Jedi. This optimism, however, is profoundly tested in the sequel. It is always fun to explore themes and develop them into more intricate and darker variations.
How does your creative approach differ when working on a massive IP like Star Wars compared to something more niche?
Haab: There’s always a level of pressure when working on a franchise as beloved as Star Wars, with high expectations from fans. However, we wanted to avoid the expected and approach the music with our own unique aesthetic. We strived to create something contemporary, unexpected, and fresh while retaining the symphonic grandeur, melodrama, and top-tier production quality that defines Star Wars music.
Barton: We obviously write a bit with the knowledge of what the franchise means to everybody historically, but I think overall it always comes back to story. We are first and foremost storytellers, and what makes Star Wars great is its universality. In this game, the story very much challenges the traditional Jedi viewpoint on family and relationships, and — as with many of the games produced by Respawn — we enjoy playing with the concept of moral ambiguity and blurring the line between good and evil in our characters.
Has your creative partnership evolved since working together on the first game?
Barton: In terms of both composition and bourbon consumption, absolutely. I think we’ve developed a sort of musical shorthand as well. I’m still in daily awe of Gordy’s abilities with orchestral color. I think we’ve both learned a lot from deeply looking at each other’s music and weaving in and out of each other’s work, producing the recordings together, stepping back and looking at this enormous canvas. There are cues where, unless you know which one of us created them, it’s impossible to tell just from the music, as the themes are highly collaborative. My favorite moments are when he reworks my ideas, bringing a fresh perspective to a motif I may have started and taking it in a completely new direction. For this game specifically, Gordy crafted the 12-tone imperial motif at the beginning, which I’ve had a blast incorporating and playing with throughout the score.
Was there anything that you did on this score that you’d wanted to do in previous Star Wars material but didn’t have the chance to do?
Haab: Definitely! One thing I’ve always wanted to do is incorporate synths into an orchestral score in a way that creates a dialogue between them — as if they’re sentient beings conversing with each other. While it’s not new to combine synths with the orchestra, we aimed to do it in a more meaningful way, as though the synths were one more conscious voice in conversation with the orchestra. In addition, I’ve always believed that a theme’s “catchiness” depends less on its singability and more on its memorable “shape.” Our Empire theme — which you can hear in its rawest form in “Dark Times” and “Mogu In The Mist” — is a great example of this approach. While it’s melodically complex due to the use of quite literally every musical note available, its recognizable and familiar contour is based on the pattern of a heartbeat’s sinus rhythm, something we feel is familiar to all.
How much say did you have in the accompanying Sounds from the Galactic Skylanes album featuring music from artists performing as in-game characters?
Barton: We helped curate it. I spoke with Aaron Contreras, our narrative director, years ago about how cool it would be to put together a cantina album where there would be no song that you’d be baffled to hear on the radio in isolation. The temptation with “alien” music is to make it sound “alien,” and that was absolutely not what we wanted to do. We wanted something that felt entirely organic to Star Wars. We had a lot of fun working with The HU on the first game, so this was very much a natural extension of that.
I have one question for each of you, individually. First, Gordy, as the John Williams of modern Star Wars video game music, have you ever struggled to find new directions or become burnt out?
Haab: Honestly, no. I’m a massive Star Wars fan, and the opportunity to lend my own voice to my favorite franchise is and has always been a dream come true. I’ve enjoyed evolving my sound and approach over the years, always striving for personal growth and musical advancement. Comparing the music from my earlier Star Wars projects to Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, I believe you’ll hear significant musical evolution, with just enough continuity to remind you of the universe in which the music lives. As a lifelong student of music and storytelling, I consider the chance to grow and develop my sound within “the greatest story ever told” to be the honor of a lifetime, and I look forward to seeing where I can take it next.
And Stephen, having worked on Star Trek: Picard and Star Wars content within a relatively short amount of time, how different or similar did composing for the two franchises feel?
Barton: Both insane and insanely wonderful. I never imagined I’d be working on both of these franchises. To get to play with the themes from both worlds extensively was very fun. Although with this Star Wars game, we actually use the Williams themes extremely sparingly (five or six moments at most), whereas Star Trek: Picard was a full-on celebration of everything that’s gone before, with themes of six different composers referenced.