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One Cool Thing: Eli Rainsberry

One Cool Thing: Eli Rainsberry

Editor's note: Welcome our latest post in a regular series where we invite members of our team to talk about One Cool Thing (not necessarily from games) and if/how it influences/reflects on their work. While we're not able to talk about the exciting things we're working on right now, we hope this will be a nice little series of introductions to the interests & practices of our excellent team.

Here's our brilliant composer Eli Rainsberry on Road to the West.

For previous articles in this series, check out programmer Daria Radu on Dancing Games, story tech Florence Smith-Nicholl's on Environmental Storytelling and Archeology, tech lead Katrin-Anna Zibuschka on Co-operative Experiences, deputy tech lead Roxanne van Dam on "Doing the Disco", writer Harry Josephine Giles on Brave Sparrow, writer Sharna Jackson on Joana Choumali, tech artist Angus Dick on Fantastic Planet, creative producer Ben Wilson on Leaderboards, and our outgoing story lead Char Putney on Randomness.

A still from Cowboy Bebop
A still from Cowboy Bebop

Road to the West

There are probably too many music cues from Cowboy Bebop (1998) that I comb through my head whenever I feel the need to get inspiration from its soundtrack; particularly the up-tempo, bebop jazz that Yoko Kanno and her band Seatbelts created for the series.

And as I slowly started collaborating with Die Gute Fabrik last year, elements of what we talked about for the development of music for the Next Thing included the usage of music cues in television - both animated and live-action shows - in ways that helped support characters, situations, or places, as well as titular themes that evoke all of the above so well. A lot of anime was brought up. And of course, Cowboy Bebop came up as a reference, too.

Whilst some shows usually have repeated music cues to represent certain moments, or certain characters, that are performed more frequently throughout a series, Cowboy Bebop was, to me, a show that wouldn’t do that as much. Instead, more pieces might be used more individually, or, in certain cases, no more than a couple of times. It felt like a way to connect a piece of music, as well as visual storytelling, with a single, specific scene or feeling. In a way that makes it feel like a 'rarer', more standalone experience.

A Youtube video of the Cowboy Bebop OST, specifically, Road to the West.

The cue, ‘Road to the West’, was performed during two instances in the series: at the beginning in “Session 1 (Asteroid Blues)”, and very close to the end, “Session 25 (The Real Folk Blues, Part One)”.

As I listened back to it both in isolation and between the separate scenes, I found that I really appreciated and thought more about the following:

  • Its minimalist arrangement. You hear only two instruments in the piece; a tenor saxophone and a synthesiser. With the synth acting as a bed for the saxophone’s sombre song, this not only allows you to focus on what the melody is intending to communicate, musically, but also enables space during parts of both scenes to fully convey what’s happening on screen, especially through sound design and dialogue between characters. I thought about how it felt like the dialogue in both scenes was also as minimal, yet intentional, as the music was.

  • How it's conveyed in both places and situations. Both times this cue is played, conflict is involved in some way; whether it be during, or concluding scenes. As you listen to this piece, the sounds of fight and combat are present and overwhelming. There’s also flight involved: you see protagonist Spike Spiegel navigating the action, flying his Swordfish II in pursuit. Both situations are high in tension and intensity. And yet, if you hear ‘Road to the West’ in isolation, without context, you might not imagine this piece to initially be paired up to such high stakes situations. In its contrast, I appreciate how this piece carries both scenes with a calm momentum, with a flow that makes action feel represented as gracefully as the music sounds.

  • And yet, the music also hints at a feeling of finality with both place and situation (note this bit may contain spoilers if you haven’t watched Cowboy Bebop). I found that this cue was used in two scenes which led almost unavoidably to either loss, defeat, or death. The first time we hear the piece is right before two characters face their fate following a chase from Spike during “Session 1”. Hearing it once more in “Session 25” almost felt like a heartbreaking omen for what was about to come in the very last Session.
A still image from Cowboy Bebop
A still image from Cowboy Bebop

‘Road to the West’ is a testament to Yoko Kanno’s versatility with the range of music she’s composed for Seatbelts. It was inspiring for me to not only hear how the piece was performed in the first place, but also to hear it just once again much later down the line; a careful choice, that I felt brought extra meaning and intention to the final episode.

I still find a lot of appreciation towards musical tropes and structures in the shows that I watch, and it can be satisfying to hear the right kind of music for the right kind of situation each episode!  But in this case, I really admire the idea of having this more minimal approach, placed for intentional impact and with care. I think this is what often draws me to return to ‘Road to the West’.

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