Composer Marty O’Donnell ’77 is a man with a penchant for delight. Talk to him about his wife of more than 30 years and their two daughters, his work at video game developer Bungie, Inc., or his experience as a Conservatory student at Wheaton, and that delight shines through. “Wheaton was a spectacularly great experience for me,” Marty says.
Like his wife, Marcie Zieske O’Donnell ’77, Marty began Wheaton as a piano student. Although he excelled at the instrument, in his junior year he made the difficult decision to change majors.
In part you could blame his decision on the band Led Zeppelin.
“I had a band back then, and we played progressive rock,” Marty says. “We did covers: Zeppelin and other complex stuff.” Marty’s drummer noted his talent for arranging popular songs for the band, and encouraged Marty to write his own work. Once Marty began composing, he knew it was what he wanted to do with his life.
“I talked to Dr. [Harold] Best HON and made the switch from piano to composition,” he says. “It was daunting to make that change so late in college, but I raced to the finish, cramming it all into the last year and a half of school.”
The risk paid off. After Wheaton, Marty graduated with honors from the University of Southern California’s master of music program in composition. He then returned to the Chicago area and ran a commercial music studio with his business partner and friend, Michael Salvatori. One of their many compositions was the “Flintstones Kids” jingle for the children’s vitamins.
Eventually tiring of the time constraints of commercials and film scores, Marty made the switch in the 1990s to composing exclusively for video games. He notes of this long form, “It’s such a great opportunity for storytelling.”
To date Marty is most recognized for his work on Halo, a science-fiction game series about an interstellar war between humanity and an alliance of aliens. “The medium of video games isn’t evil. The medium itself can be anything,” he says. “I don’t like gratuitous violence, but I do like Star Wars.” The Halo soundtracks have not only been enormous commercial successes, but have also received numerous awards.
Marty’s friend and former classmate Dr. Tony Payne ’79, associate professor of music and director of special programs for Wheaton’s Conservatory, notes that Marty’s work “bears the clear imprint of a complete education in music, from singing in the Men’s Glee Club to attending Alton Cronk’s Medieval-Renaissance class.” Tony adds, “Marty is at the avant garde of nonlinear musical composition, integrating the best of acoustical and digital music.”
As audio director at Bungie, Marty not only composes the scores, but also is, he says, “responsible for everything that comes out of the speaker.” He hires and directs actors to perform dialogue, and discerns the volume of competing sounds such as explosions, footfalls, and music.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he explains. “I have control over all of the elements.”
A new member of Wheaton’s Board of Visitors, Marty hopes to bring his passion for the arts to this role. “I have a heart for creative people who seem misfit or out of place,” he says. “I believe everyone is creative: it’s the image of God in us.”