Award-Winning Video Game Composer Austin Wintory Returns to Conduct the CSO

On November 15, Austin Wintory will return home to conduct the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in a program devoted to "Comic-Con"-themed music, including his own compositions for the universe of video-games, where he's found his greatest success.

At 30, Wintory is already an accomplished veteran and trailblazing composer. He received the first Grammy nomination for a video-game score (Journey) in a category historically populated with film music by the likes of Hans Zimmer and John Williams -- and he was nominated for a BAFTA for his very first game score, for the acclaimed PlayStation 3 title flOw.

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His journey began in Aurora, where he lived his first seven years. His father was an orthopedic surgeon, and his mother a professional mom moonlighting as an artist. "Neither of them are musicians in the slightest," he stresses (nor is his older sister). His paternal grandmother was a music teacher and played violin in her local Arkansas orchestra, "so if we are assuming musicianship is a genetic thing," he says, "it came from her."

He spent his first decade in a kind of musical vacuum, but was always sparked by creative impulses. "I was into videogames, I was into movies," he says. "I really just liked creating."

When he was ten and living in Englewood, he developed a Ralphie Parker-style fixation on a BB rifle that belonged to his father as a kid. Mr. Wintory bartered culture for armaments, promising to give Austin the gun only if he learned to play Beethoven's "Für Elise" on the piano. Wintory accepted the challenge. "The local church-lady piano teacher all my friends took lessons from was booked," he says, "and I guarantee you if she hadn't been we wouldn't be having this conversation -- because they all quit."

Instead they discovered Derry O'Leary, a burly Irishman who (in Wintory's description) "looks like Santa -- big white beard, huge guy -- [and] wore Hawaiian shirts and straw hats and beaten-up sandals." Wintory got his crash course in "Für Elise" and earned his rifle, and he decided to continue with lessons. O'Leary eschewed the classical repertoire, and what he chose to bring to their next lesson would set the course of young Wintory's life.

"I'm from Los Angeles," says O'Leary (who for decades has been a regular sight at the Cherry Creek Mall, tickling the ivories at Christmastime), "and I scored a little bit of TV back in the '60s and '70s. I was always interested in film scoring. I brought over some soundtracks, because I have quite a collection of Jerry Goldsmith and other scores. We put on some albums, and he kept saying 'wow' and 'cool.'"

"They were so imaginative," says Wintory. "I couldn't believe music like this existed at all. It was just instantly, 'I need to do that.' I couldn't even read music -- I just knew I wanted to be a composer."

O'Leary tasked his pupil with scoring a fake movie, complete with a main theme, love theme, action sequence and end credits. "About three weeks later, he had it done," O'Leary recalls. "And it was great. His dad said, 'I think you've found his niche.'"

Wintory plunged into composing with single-minded determination. On his own initiative, he wrote new music for existing films as an exercise and taught himself notation and the fundamentals of music theory.

When he showed up to Cherry Creek High School, he was a bona fide film music nerd who knew that his idols (like Goldsmith and John Williams) were always credited as the composers and conductors of their music. "I marched straight into the orchestra at the very beginning of my freshman year," he says, "and the orchestra director, to his credit, basically opened up the doors. I ended up putting my music in front of the student orchestra and conducting it almost every day, all four years of high school. They performed it in their concerts four or five times a year."

Wintory also hired a second teacher just to learn the business side of film scoring -- like how much trumpet players charge per hour and how to draft up recording contracts. That's how driven (and savvy) he was.

"I'm kind of a nerd for every aspect of it," he demurs. "To me everything is part of the creative process, so there's no part I want to keep at arm's length. I just kept digging, and the more I found the more I liked, the more I wanted to dig. To me it wasn't trying to look ahead or be strategic -- it was literally just powered by love, and plowing ahead without knowing any better."

He spent the better part of his junior year writing music for his English teacher's wedding ceremony, which took place at the Denver Botanic Gardens. "I brought my entire high school orchestra and conducted them behind the audience," he says. "I wrote an hour of music -- which I then recorded in a studio called Colorado Sound as a surprise gift for when they came back from their honeymoon."

After high school Wintory studied composition at NYU, then transferred to the film scoring program at the University of Southern California. There he struck up two fortuitous friendships: one with the game developer who created flOw (an elegant game that ended up on display at the Smithsonian, where Wintory's music was performed in concert), as well as Journey -- an artistic exploration of the "hero's journey" concept that asks players to cooperate rather than destroy each other. Wintory's poignant, cello-driven score landed on the Billboard 200, and is his most popular music to date.

The other connection was with Jordanian-American filmmaker Amin Matalqa, who directed Captain Abu Raed. Imagining themselves the next Steven Spielberg and John Williams, Wintory wrote an emotionally delicate score that underlined Matalqa's film about an old janitor who enriches the lives of neighborhood kids with his storytelling. It won the Sundance Audience Award in 2008, and generated serious buzz at Oscar time.

Today, Wintory has already scored more than forty feature films and twenty-five video-games, achieving his greatest success in the latter world. "Games represent something genuinely new from a composer's standpoint," he says. "The last time composers got to participate in the birth of a new idea this fundamentally was the development of the phonograph -- well over a century ago. There have been a lot of innovations in music over the last hundred years, but I don't think anything can hold a candle to the level of deadlock shift as the notion of 'interactive music.'"

Beyond his many fond childhood memories (exploring the Cherry Creek Reservoir, riding horses at the Lost Valley Ranch in Sedalia), Wintory says he owes his profession to his Colorado public education. "The caliber of music program they have at Cherry Creek High School rivals that of many universities," he says. "If I hadn't gone to that school, it's questionable if any of my career could have happened."

He donates a portion of profits from music sales to Education Through Music-Los Angeles, where he serves on the board of directors. He does so, in part, "because of the rampant epidemic of the lack of music education in schools," he says. "I got a life-enabling experience out of my public-school education, and the fact that there are more kids than not who don't even know what they're missing...that's just as wrong as anything I could name about our public policy."

It will be a thrill when Wintory returns to conduct his "hometown" orchestra in November. For him, home is all about supportive family members, inspiring teachers, and former classmate musicians -- just as composing now is all about the gamers, filmgoers, and fans who respond to his work.

"I don't write music because I want to write music," he says. "I write music because I want to connect with people."

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Tim Greiving
Contact: Tim Greiving