Trek to Yomi’s Haunting and Unique Musical World

Interview with Composer Cody Matthew Johnson

Listen to most videogame soundtracks, and you’ll hear the sound of an orchestra. Sure, sometimes the composer will use traditional instruments in new ways or add electronics. But quite often, games and film scores use the same orchestra that was born in the 19th century. With Cody Matthew Johnson’s score for the upcoming action game Trek to Yomi, nothing could be further from the traditional palette of sounds.

Trek to Yomi is an incredibly unique game that plays homage to classic samurai films. In part, this comes from the action but it also comes through in the stunning, black and white visuals. Supporting the narrative and action is music by Cody Matthew Johnson. Johnson and his team of collaborators — including Yoko Honda — used only Japanese instruments from Japan’s Edo period (1603 -1867). In part, the score was based on the sounds of Gagaku, ancient Japanese imperial court music. Gagaku used techniques of counterpoint (multiple melodies sounding together) hundreds of years before European composers.

From Rock to Yomi

Like many media composers from Danny Elfman on, Johnson has roots in rock and pop music. “I’ve had an interesting musical journey (at least I think so) – from orchestral music, to jazz, to songwriting, to being the front man in a rock band, to heavy metal, EDM, and the whole kitchen sink,” he said. Where some composers concentrate on melody or harmony, Johnson thinks about frequency (the vibration of sound). “I’m always thinking about the emotional context of frequency – not necessarily the music itself.”

Trek to Yomi is, in Johnson’s words, “a bit of a lovechild between the cinematic influences of Akira Kurosawa and the Edo period at large.” It seemed natural, then, to use Japanese and other Asian instruments. “Strictly using Edo period instruments was not only a way to bring the story closer to the Edo period and feudal Japan. It was also our way of showing the utmost respect for (game developer) Leonard Menchiari’s vision of creating an experience rooted in historical accuracy. Sprinkling Edo period instruments on top of an orchestra would have been the path of least resistance but would not have served the player the best experience.”


Musical Deep Diving

While it might seem limiting to only use traditional instruments, Johnson had the opposite view. “I found it very creatively liberating to have these constraints. Thinking “outside the box” often presents us with the crippling nature of infinite possibilities. Thinking “inside the box” makes us become wildly creative with blending tonality, textures, and colors.”

Some of the soundtrack sounds electronic. But Johnson insists it isn’t. Instead, he manipulated recordings of ancient instruments into sounding hauntingly new. “I leaned heavily on my sound design skills to stretch, distort, pervert, and mangle the amazingly high fidelity and stellar performances we captured from traditional Japanese musicians,” he said. “I promise not a single wavetable or synth of any kind was used on this score!”

Something Unexpected: Improvisation

Like in many scores for film and videogames, Johnson wrote specific themes for characters and events in the game. Unlike some scores, improvisation by the musicians was part of the process. “We had the players jam and track variations of some of the melodies, rhythms, riffs, etc. so that we could take them and resample them into later variations on that theme in the game.” He added that “There are loads of interesting and aleatoric effects the players experimented with during our sessions.”


While Gagaku instruments form the backbone of Trek to Yomi’s score, there are colors from other Asian instruments as well. “You’re hearing the droning of monk-like voice textures, screeching erhu (Chinese violin) and kokyu (a Japanese instrument very similar to erhu). There are various bells and percussion, and some other instruments that come from that shared pan-Asian Yomi mythology.”

Moving and Outside of Time

The result of Johnson’s experimentation and grounding in tradition is music that is dramatic, emotional and haunting. It sounds as timeless as the ancient music that inspired it, and totally contemporary.

“We have many years’ worth of immersive music knowledge and used every bit of our toolkit,” Johnson said.  “We made sure the music was not only rooted in the Edo period and influenced by Kurosawa-san, but also compelling and elevating for the story and overall experience of Trek to Yomi.”

Trek to Yomi is set to release on PC and consoles May 5, 2022. You can learn more about Cody Matthew Johnson on his website.

***Special thanks to Cody Matthew Johnson***