"The instant I got in my car, my email started blinking. Of all people, it was from my friend Christopher Tin, emailing me to say 'CONGRATULATIONS' – in all caps."
Tin won the first Grammy for a piece of video game music, Civilization 4's "Baba Yetu," in 2011. He and Wintory had been friends for years. When Wintory saw that email, he quickly called Tin and the subsequent conversation went something like this:
"What are you – are you on the website?" Wintory asked Tin. "What's going on?"
"Yeah, I'm looking right at it! There you are!" Tin replied. And then, after a second, the situation dawned on him. "Wait a minute – you didn't know this already?"
"No! I'm in my car right now."
"Oh, this is perfect."
Just then Wintory's phone began buzzing, beeping and possibly sobbing under the barrage of emails, texts and calls from friends and well-wishers. Two weeks later, Wintory agrees with Tin's assessment of events.
"As fate had it, I heard from Chris himself," he says. "I had no foresight, I had absolutely no plan, and yet in hindsight, I wouldn't have it any other way."
Wintory is still reeling from the news. Logically, he understands that he's been nominated for a Grammy, but emotionally, he's still coming to grips with such a heady reality.
"I'm still working toward excited," Wintory tells me. "I'm still in that kind of shocked, semi-delirious, blurry, anticipating-waking-up-any-time-now stage. I do look forward to being excited about it. But I feel like I'm right now still in the blast radius, in that Saving Private Ryan moment where everything's silent except for that high-pitched ringing and everything's moving at a different framerate."
Winning a Grammy has never been a specific goal for Wintory, but the nomination accidentally fulfills a lifelong dream of his: to be recognized on the same tier, in any sense, as John Williams. Wintory equates Williams to the mountain in Journey that is forever in the distance, no matter how many hills the player crosses, always just out of reach.
I feel like I'm right now still in the blast radius, in that Saving Private Ryan moment where everything's silent except for that high-pitched ringing and everything's moving at a different framerate. Austin Wintory on his Grammy nod
Despite an age difference of more than 50 years and careers in wildly disparate places, Wintory and Williams are indeed nominated in the same category, Wintory for Journey and Williams for The Adventures of Tintin.
"To be a co-nominee of John Williams – and even as I say that it doesn't sound like I'm saying something real – that really is a lifelong dream. It could have been the 'Small Town America Gazette Artist Choice Nominees' or something, or anyone on Earth, to have put together a pool of people that they thought were worthy of recognition, and put my name alongside his. Never mind that it's the Grammys and obviously that's a different story than the small-town paper's critics choice awards.
"Just to be there, for that brief moment, in no way equates my work to his. But in that brief moment to stand side-by-side, that is and was a lifelong goal, but one that I had zero expectation of actually happening."
It happened, and it's happening. The 55th Annual Grammy Awards will be held on February 10, 2013, at the Los Angeles Staples Center and on televisions nationwide. This is the first time a full video game score will be included anywhere in the nominations. Wintory is surprised that after 12 years of eligibility for game scores at the Grammys, with his colleagues producing unbelievable work, Journey is only the first nomination.
It's not a bad step for video games, but Wintory believes the industry will flourish both because of and despite the outside recognition.
"Games are going to earn people's respect on their own terms more than anything else as time goes forward," Wintory says. "I think that people are going to fall in love with them because they play them and they listen to them and it will be a direct one-to-one communication. For them to really take hold they won't need validation from third-party sources, even one as prestigious as the Grammys."
Between bouts of shellshock and celebration, Wintory is now composing a swathe of scores for games, films, symphonies and albums. One of his recent announcements is the remake of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, a project that he's particularly excited to be involved with, but that other people seem to have a difficult time grasping.
Wintory notes at least one reader on every news site running the Leisure Suit Larry story makes the comment that it's a "step down" from Journey. Taking website comments to heart isn't something that we generally recommend, but Wintory isn't one for convention.
"I had an amusing time on your site interacting in the comment thread. It really is quite surprising to me that this has been so shocking to people. It's the classic situation where somebody does something that, through great luck, seems to connect with people, and you become branded as that thing in their eyes."
Leisure Suit Larry isn't on a lower level than Journey to Wintory. It's perfectly on par, if not more desirable for its nostalgia.
"It's such a classic game – sort of a cult classic. But it really is such an iconic game of the 80s and 90s. Growing up then I was a huge Sierra adventure nerd and played every one of those games – King's Quest, Quest for Glory, Space Quest. I had them all, I had beaten all of them many times, memorized them; I was so into those games. And so this was a dream job."
Wintory isn't satisfied unless he's challenging himself and stretching his own skills in new directions. He worked on the score for Monaco at the same time as Journey, for example, immersing himself in deep, introspective cello composition in the mornings, breaking for lunch, and diving right into old-timey ragtime piano in the afternoons. That creative whiplash keeps all of his music fresh, he hopes.
I can sit here and mechanically emulate what ragtime piano sounds like, but I'm not interested in giving off-the-shelf ragtime music. I really want to make sure it's my own take on it. Austin Wintory on Monaco
"The difficulty is in finding yourself in the new genre," Wintory says. "I can sit here and mechanically emulate what ragtime piano sounds like, but I'm not interested in giving off-the-shelf ragtime music. I really want to make sure it's my own take on it."
Monaco just opened for pre-orders, but even though it's 99 percent done and Wintory has been working on it since May 2011, he's still composing for it. That's how he works, and he was still fine-tuning Journey up to the minute they pried it out of his hands for certification.
This year Wintory composed at least five movies and he has three others in the works for 2013, alongside a few games he can't yet discuss, Monaco, Leisure Suit Larry, Banner Saga, and all of his own work. He's the composer-in-residence at Colorado's Boulder Symphony, and he's working on a chamber opera, a few albums he'll announce soon, and some singles in collaboration with other artists. He's busy. Mostly though, he's determined.
"I can't believe that this is my life," Wintory says. "There's no explanation for this. I just think I stumbled into something and I feel really, really grateful for it. But you can be absolutely assured that I will maximize it as much as I can."