Jesper Kyd is taking a leap of faith
If you play games, you’ve heard Danish composer Jesper Kyd’s music. It’s a fact, not a question. You’ve strangled goons to his Hitman: Blood Money score. Slashed through the kingdom of the dead in Darksiders 2 to soaring ethereality. Wandered the wisecracking wasteland of Borderlands 2 to melodic yet purposeful guitar. And, potentially most pivotally, hurtled across the rooftops of Renaissance Florence with your hood up while listening to a perfect blend of orchestra and synth in the sci-fi history cocktail that is Assassin’s Creed 2.
Kyd is sitting in his home studio in LA as we chat via Zoom. Our excuse to eagle dive into the Animus is thanks to the 15th anniversary of the Assassin’s Creed series. It’s now a sprawling behemoth of many historical playgrounds, but the franchise started in 2007 with one hooded Assassin and a dynamic score from Kyd. There’s a new and exceptionally shiny vinyl release of the Assassin’s Creed soundtracks but before we get hay everywhere, it’s important to recognise that Kyd’s career in gaming music spans generations.“I started pretty early. I started making music with computers when I was 13 and my first video game soundtrack came out when I was 17, I believe,” he explains. Kyd was an active part of the 1990s Copenhagen demo scene, a pioneering group of self taught young coders and artists, before forming a game company called Zyrinx and working on Sega Genesis games.
His time in the ‘90s demo scene, tinkering with Ataris and the latest consoles was pivotal for what lay ahead. “We revelled in being able to do stuff nobody could do,” Kyd grins. “We actually had full motion video running on the Sega Mega Drive, which nobody else could do. We invented a lot of stuff. We were able to rotate the screen, which was something that the Nintendo system (SNES) at the time was known for doing. It was a very innovative company and that philosophy was also with music.” One of his earliest scores was a rave culture-inspired soundtrack for 1995’s The Adventures of Batman & Robin, an early hint that instead of breaking the rules, Kyd didn’t really have any to start with.
Everyone being self-taught in such a new field and experimenting with technology within the demo scene meant fewer limitations and a real sense of progress. You can almost imagine the montage – potentially scored by Kyd himself – but programmers, graphic artists and musicians would get together to show off their latest skills. “That was a really interesting way to grow up because nobody was telling me my music had to sound like this or that, and I wasn’t concerned about trying to make my music fit a certain style,” says Kyd.
“When I first heard Commodore 64 music, I thought, ‘Wow, this is totally music you’ve never heard before’. Just like when you first heard Tubular Bells, you’re like, ‘Wow.’”
”It was complete creative freedom in the ultimate sense. And this is kind of how I found out what I really love to do, and that is to experiment with music and come up with things that maybe you haven’t heard before or things that hadn’t been mixed together in this way before. I think this is something that I’ve been using for my scores, both for video games and film ever since.” Kyd always wants to create something new and his key inspirations come from seeing artists doing the same thing. Growing up he loved Mike Oldfield, Vangelis, and Jean-Michel Jarre – “these pioneering musicians that completely broke new ground. That was what I was interested in.” And Kyd’s creative freedom was only further enriched by the progress of technology gradually removing the limitations on video game music. As graphics improved and memory increased as we evolved from cartridges to CD-based consoles, suddenly there was more space for a soundtrack to match the visuals.
“I started when everything was like beeps and bleeps and suddenly I got a Commodore 64 and it had a sound chip inside, an analogue sound chip that could suddenly make real music,” Kyd enthuses. “When I first heard Commodore 64 music, I thought, ‘Wow, this is totally music you’ve never heard before’. Just like when you first heard Tubular Bells, you’re like, ‘Wow.’ And so that’s where I started. I started creating mostly what I would call CD-based music, which is just regular music. I was always making that music on the side as well, even way back, because I always knew that’s where it was going to end. The music quality was just going to keep improving and the video game consoles were eventually going to have real music instead of chip-based music.”
And he was right. Kyd’s first orchestral score was Hitman 2 in 2002 and this was another push forward into unknown musical territory. Video game soundtracks were about to take on an entirely new dimension. ”I remember saying to the team, ‘Are you sure you have the right guy?’,” he laughs. While this might have been a ‘naked in front of everyone’ nightmare scenario for most, Kyd just embraced the next step. “I just kind of had to, you know? I just went in and started studying symphonic music. And when that music was recorded, I just remember hearing it and thinking, ‘Wow, I am so grateful that I got to do this because it has awoken something in me that I didn’t even know was there’. And that is my love of orchestral music.” Take orders, Agent 47-style and go and listen to the bold and confident score of Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. The intimidating choral power and threatening orchestra of this main title is Kyd just getting started.
By this point, Kyd’s philosophy is clear. Ezio-style, he’s made his career taking his own leaps of faith but is brilliantly down to earth about it all – yes, that’s a sneaky reference to one of AC 2’s most iconic tracks. “I think this is the demo scene spirit as well. I’ve always thought that there’s nothing that I can’t do or attempt to do. I just jumped straight into it.
When you get uncomfortable with something, you know you’re doing something right. I mean within context, of course. But if you’re working on a project and you’re not sure if this is something you can pull off, then you should absolutely do it because that’s where you learn the most. I love working on things that I haven’t worked on before. I think especially on Assassin’s Creed, that’s something that I really got to exercise and get to do.”
Let’s get back to the Brotherhood then. Kyd worked on the score for the original game, Assassin’s Creed 2, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, and alongside Lorne Balfe on the soundtrack for the Constantinople-set Assassins Creed Revelations that closed out the Ezio Trilogy. He then made a mead-raising return to the franchise for the Viking delights of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla in 2020 with fellow composers Sarah Schachner and Einar Selvik.
We’re now 15 years on from the original AC game but Kyd was there from the very beginning. A lot of composers sent in demos but Kyd was the one that got the call from Ubisoft Montreal and worked directly with the lead creative team.
“I met Patrice [Desilets] and Jade Raymond at E3, and I remember they took me up to a hotel room and pulled out a laptop and started showing me concept art of what the game would actually look like and be able to do. That’s the first time I really saw what they were trying to achieve. And I remember they were saying ‘Yeah, and you’ll be able to go all the way over there even though you’re standing here’ I was like ‘nah’,” Kyd laughs.
“Nobody has done anything like this before, a big city where you can go anywhere and crawl up any building? I was completely shocked and blown away by what they were attempting to do. And when I first saw it actually running, I just remember thinking ‘they did it. I cannot believe this is such a groundbreaking title’. Nobody had done anything like this. This for me felt like a true, one of the first, if not the first true next generation title.” And it, did, Assassin’s Creed was an astonishing playground. Even if we did have to do far more eavesdropping than we’d like, the potential was always there from the beginning. And AC2 rectified the ills of the original.
“That was a really interesting way to grow up because nobody was telling me my music had to sound like this or that, and I wasn’t concerned about trying to make my music fit a certain style,”
Kyd appreciated being there from the beginning and watching the game evolve with the development team, even if no one knew exactly what they wanted the Assassin’s Creed score to sound like. He had the Holy Land 1191 setting but everything else was down to Kyd. “I was given three words to work with,” he says. ”’War’, ‘tragic’ and ‘mysticism.’ Obviously the tragic because of the time period and war because of its time period as well.
But the word that really pulled me in was mysticism. That was such an interesting word for me. And I think for the music in general. I felt I really ran with that. I tried to put a lot of really spiritual elements in the score and warm elements. It was a very religious time and I think that’s something that had to be featured in the music.”
To bring this religion and spirituality into the score, Kyd reflected the belief systems instrumentally. As we explore the more Christian city of Acre we hear more typical Western instrumentation such as violins, cello and piano, while the Muslim city of Damascus embraces the ney flute, live percussion, and ouds. Finally, the soundtrack for Altair’s trips to Jerusalem, was a meeting of both cultures and instruments. But vitally, all of this had to be translated through the lens of the Animus – the DNA reading time machine that makes the whole series possible as characters in the modern day run and stab their way through the memories of their genetic ancestors.
“We had to figure out ‘what is this Animus device, how do we make that work?’,” Kyd explains. ”Because it was really, really important that people understood the Animus. That’s where it all came from. This is Assassin’s Creed one! We’re presenting the whole idea. So this idea of the Animus, filtering all the music and even these beautiful live performances, but editing them and filtering them in ways so it sounds like something is a little off here. We’re actually running in a simulation. That became a big part of the sound.”
And literal simulation running was key too. The parkour – dialled down in later entries in the series – was a so-called pillar of Assassin’s Creed in 2007. Running across the rooftops of ancient cities, leaping across vertigo-inducing drops to the streets below, is very much the original Creed game’s bread and murdery butter. The development team wanted this to be reflected in the score and it was where Kyd cranked up the electronic elements. “I thought, ‘that is such an interesting thing. Now we’re really feeling the Animus at its strongest’,” says Kyd. ”And I remember the way it was told to me. It’s like it feels like we are now pushing the Animus to its limits and there is like screen tearing and stuff going on when you were in these intense escape sequences.”
“When I first saw (Assassin’s Creed) actually running, I just remember thinking ‘they did it. I cannot believe this is such a groundbreaking title’”
But it’s Assassin’s Creed 2 and the Ezio Trilogy where Kyd’s music truly spoke to our collective Renaissance souls. Kyd’s evocative scores for the orange-roofed cities of Florence, Venice and Brotherhood’s Rome sit firmly in the video game soundtrack hall of fame. Why is this? Air assassinations? Leonardo Da Vinci? Think again… “This whole thing about adding a romantic side to a game where you play an assassin, it was such an interesting concept,” Kyd explains. “I remember when the team up in Ubisoft Montreal showed me Assassin’s Creed 2 and some of the early test footage. It was all about lighting and it was Venice at night in this romantic light and I just was completely blown away. And I remember thinking, ‘wow, I really have to embody mood and atmosphere for this score and the whole romanticism that inspired that sequel.’” Anyone who has slowly wandered Assassin’s Creed 2’s Piazza del Duomo listening to Kyd’s gently reflective track Home in Florence will know that it’s the emotional heart of this game that’s the reason we’re still in love with Ezio’s journey after 13 years.
And, importantly, this romanticism fuelled a theme that has become synonymous with the world of Assassin’s Creed, long after we left Renaissance Italy behind. The soaring iconic track Ezio’s Family has taken on a life of its own, with a version recorded for each subsequent entry in the franchise. But long before it was given the Victorian London treatment by Austin Wintory, or taken to Ancient Egypt by Sarah Schachner, Jesper Kyd was writing music that didn’t even have a home yet, a track called Earth.
“It was the first theme I wrote for the game! The first thing I wrote for the game was Earth. That’s where the theme was birthed, and it was something that I felt needed to be written,” he says. “There was no moment in the game specifically that I had in mind for this. I mean, there was a moment in my head, but there was no moment in the game where I saw this play. And it wasn’t even part of what I was asked to write. When you work on a game, you have a list of all the things that we need to score. And it wasn’t on there… It was something that I needed to write to understand Ezio’s character.”
Ezio Auditore da Firenze’s transformation from lothario to hooded Assassin is an emotional journey as his future in Florence dissolves with the death of his family. This was Kyd’s guiding light for the score. “What he goes through is so tragic and especially the way the character is presented – ‘may it never change’ and then of course, everything changes, right? It’s so traumatic and it’s so well-written. It needed an expression. And I needed to write this music to understand Ezio. So Earth was written and it’s a theme that the team, I was told, started calling Ezio’s Theme and I was like, ‘Oh, okay. But we’re recording with a live orchestra’. And I remember thinking, ‘I should do a live orchestral version of Earth, you know? I don’t know… I mean, I think it’s a good idea…’” Spoiler; reader, it was a good idea.
It turns out that trying to make Kyd pick a favourite version of the track that has been released since is impossible. “I mean, I like all of them that I’ve heard!” he smiles. “It’s so exciting to hear new editions of the Ezio’s Family theme. And I honestly love all of them. The way I see Ezio’s Family now is it represents what the assassins have to sacrifice to be an assassin. You especially see it with Ezio, of course, with the way his father and his brothers were killed. But I think all of the assassins make a sacrifice. And that’s what it means to me now, that theme, it has definitely transcended its original purpose.”
By the time he returned to the series for Valhalla, a lot had changed. Assassin’s Creed was still an open world sandbox but we were no longer limited to cities and the odd bit of countryside. Eivor’s version of Norway and England are vast expanses of wilderness, the setting of a sprawling RPG and a different AC world for Kyd to come back to “I think one of the big changes was how big the game had become, and I was really blown away by the size of Valhalla. When I started scoring Valhalla, it was like, ‘This is not a city. This is huge open landscapes with mountains and night-time and forest…’ So it gave me a completely different perspective on the music and what the music should be. I just had to do something completely different.”
And by completely different, Kyd didn’t just mean a new approach. While he wrote the score to be performed by the ancient instruments of the tagelharpa, lyre, rebec, and, well, less ancient cello, he also played and recorded every single one himself. The New Game+ equivalent of composing, if you will. “That was pretty huge for me,” he smiles. “I had never really done that before, and so I acquired a lot of instruments. I wanted the score to feel like everything was based on live performances. If I performed it myself, I knew exactly what I wanted out of the performance and that was the way to go. And then after I filter everything and make it sound atmospheric and layered.” The resulting score is a perfect, atmospheric accompaniment to the vast ever changing skies above our Viking settlement and chilly views from Hadrian’s wall as we ponder our next target. A focus on folk music and a rejection of the electronics of the Animus grounds us further in Valhalla’s world. “I really wanted to write something super atmospheric that made you think about the Viking gods and the belief system that’s inside the head of these characters you’re running around with.”
But what next? As you’d expect, Kyd isn’t resting in a pile of hay. He has a cyberpunk influenced score on the way, a movie score with a live orchestra and choir, and a desire to constantly keep moving. “I have to keep pushing myself in order to maximise my learning and that is always what I’m looking for,” he says. “The bigger the challenge, the better. So yeah, for me it was difficult, of course, to score Valhalla and perform it myself. But I tend to look back and say, well, all the choices, most of them have been difficult. I’m comfortable being uncomfortable when I write music. That is my place. That is what I feel the most excitement for; when nobody really knows what it should sound like. And then it’s left up to me to come up with ideas. There’s nothing more exciting for me than that.”
For more information about Jesper Kyd, click here. In celebration of Assassin’s Creed 15th Anniversary, Laced Records is releasing the Assassin’s Creed® 15th Anniversary Vinyl Box Set. You can pre-order the special collector’s soundtrack vinyl here: www.lacedrecords.com (US & Canada) / www.lacedrecords.co (Outside US/Canada)