Almost entirely—and I’m not even sure “almost” is valid—in this series I have talked about writing. Stories, characters, factions, histories, poems, plays, screeds, scriptures, cosmologies: writing. Writing is an act of composition, putting together words so that they hopefully communicate something of interest to someone, or at least to myself. It is the bulk of the work I completed for the project, but there is also the composition of the music to talk about. Since I began working on the music last, it seemed appropriate that I should save it for last to talk about in this series. Yes folks, sadly our time upon Eadran is at an end. At least it is if I’m not forgetting something really important. If I am forgetting something really important, by the time I remember I might have lost all interest. So it goes. Well, let’s get on with it.
To begin with, it is important to make a distinction between absolute music and functional music. Absolute music is commonly defined, pretty much in accordance with Beethoven’s conception of it, as music which lacks reference to anything extramusical—that is, anything outside of itself. If I write a piece of music with the aim of illustrating, however intangibly, a scene, what I have created is not absolute but programmatic music. For me personally, the distinction is meaningless, because there is no piece of music that can depict, for example, a picnic—and if you absolutely have to create a picnic scene, that’s what a canvas and paints are for, or a camera and props and actors. It’s fair enough, however, to say that music can translate certain extramusical things into musical terms. Action, for example, in a totally abstract sense, can be mirrored in movement via rhythm, in complexity by size of instrumentation, and in vigour by dynamics. Stravinsky’s ballet score Petrushka uses these elements to create an ebullience which mirrors the Shrovetide Fair, the setting of the ballet proper. But without the choreography, without scenic titles like “The Shrovetide Fair” or “Petrushka’s Room” we must confront the music entirely as music, and we cannot glean any scenic information from music alone, except perhaps by recourse to matching it against other musics we have heard, perhaps from a film or another ballet, used to accompany particular scenes. It is impossible to actually listen “clean”—to listen without any reference point whatsoever—since by the time we are mentally developed enough to properly listen to a piece of music we have lived long enough to become culturally acclimated, we are positioned at the centre of a network of references that is constantly reinforcing itself with each new experience, and certainly the composer of Petrushka was as well. For this reason I deny programmatic music entirely, and say that instead the distinction should be between the absolute and the functional.
Functional music is any music designed primarily to be used as opposed to listened to. It is meant to be heard in a context made up of it and probably several other media. Cinema is a perfect example. Most films are made up of image, action, spoken word, and music. The music is rarely if ever the focus, but one of several things that operate in tandem to support and convey the focus, which is usually a narrative depicting a process of change. This is also the case for games, although not necessarily in the same way. Games typically place the onus on the player, they will not continue without the player’s input. I mean, yes, the player can put the controller down and let their avatar get hit in the face over and over until their hitpoints are depleted to zero, but that’s hardly “continuing” now is it? In order for the game to progress to its conclusion, the player cannot be absent from or an inactive part of the process. This is simple generally, but means many different things specifically. In a platformer, the player’s job is to navigate their avatar around physical obstacle courses while knocking out enemies, usually but not always without getting hit in the process. In an RPG that is also true, but the means of doing it are much different. Most platformers don’t have dynamic attribute systems. There may be multiple playable characters, and they may in turn be differentiated not just cosmetically but in terms of how far they can jump or the kinds of attacks they can perform. In RPGs, the player is not only responsible for getting the avatar from one place to the next, but also for changing them over time, through the acquisition of points which can be spent to increase attributes, making them stronger, or faster, or more resilient, or whatever. This becomes more complicated by sub-genre, but going into that will only get us off-topic.
You might think all of this unnecessary and verbose for an article on in-game music, but I promise you I am getting to the point. The main thing to take away from the previous paragraph is that the kind of control, thus the frame of mind the player needs to be in, are different for platformers and RPGs. Platformers tend to be fast paced, control is always direct, typically consisting of directional input plus two, sometimes three buttons for jumping and attacking. RPGs are much more complex, and play at a slower pace. The player is tasked with using menus to manage equipment loadouts, determining how best to spend points to build their avatar and possibly other characters, and the action may even, as in the case of a good many classic JRPGs, consist of the player selecting combat manoeuvres from menus also. Two modes of play, two frames of mind, before all else the composer has the fundamental consideration of what the player is supposed to be doing, how they are supposed to be doing it, and to what end.
The game I was working on was an ARPG, that is an action RPG. ARPGs meld fast paced gameplay with equipment and attribute management, generally with the aim of increasing the complexity of play and thus the demand on the player’s range of skills. As I said in the Introduction, the game was initially to take place in quite a small area. There would be a city, and underneath that city there would be a series of connected dungeons. While the city would largely be a place of respite for the player, eventually they would have to not only attack the encroaching hordes in their bases, but to defend the surface itself from invasion. Little by little this became less and less of a priority, as the game’s scope expanded beyond the city walls and out to the surrounding countryside, eventually reaching other cities. By the time I was in a position to really think about the music, I had to contend with issues of category beyond those outlined above.
Since the game’s action would be split between the city and the countryside, I got the idea to write two separate soundtracks. The city music, I decided, would be in-universe, a musical counterpart to the books of lore. This half of the music would be divided into seven sets, one for each city, each of which I aimed to get to around twenty minutes in duration. These sets would be differentiated from one another in sound by style and by instrumentation. Larger cities would have bigger instrumentations, smaller cities perhaps just solo instruments. By this model, Arch Thorian dominated with an ensemble derived from Frescobaldi’s ensemble Canzone, with viola and cello standing in for viol and bass viol, trumpet and trombone for sackbuts, a bassoon, a harpsichord, a pipe organ, a lute, and even drums—this last my own addition—while Luctaris and Oleand had but a harpsichord and a squeezebox respectively. Unsympathetic as I was to the notion that I should write “ambient orchestral” in the manner of some parts of Jeremy Soule’s Elder Scrolls soundtracks, it was nonetheless what my boss had asked me to do, so I thought that a less busy music which nonetheless sought to avoid banality would at least be a reasonable choice to accompany countryside exploration. But I would not only create something softer and less imposing, I would tie a city’s music to the music of its surrounding land by motif. The vastness of space between cities could be compounded by large, soft, open chords whispering past the player’s ears like a wind on the plains, harmonies echoing city themes. In this way I developed a scheme for containing the world in purely musical terms. I had “translated” the action, as Stravinsky did for the Shrovetide Fair, undoubtedly with far less elegance, but done it nonetheless.
The music for the cities was not only differentiated by instrumentation but by period influence. I am by no means a music historian, but over the years I have picked up something of an ear for period styles, at least on a superficial level. This allowed me to go deeper into the embellishing of mood and atmosphere in each location. For the snowy, magical town of Tocane, which leads to the mysterious Tocanum Mountains, I chose a wind quintet (with the ever trusty cimbasso standing in for a French horn, which at the time I had no good library for) and wrote in a style inspired superficially by Mahler, particularly the smaller song cycles. On listening to this music, you might think it kind of excessive to have such forms appear in a game soundtrack. You might also be right. But like most things in life, the first time you do it, you don’t really know what you’re doing. My lack of fancy book learnin’ means that I tend to go in blind and bang my head against whatever hard surfaces I come up against until I get through. With a late Romantic/early Modern sound—and this is a marked change for the ear following the Baroque, Classical, and even folk themes heard elsewhere—I felt I had a dynamic tonality which could suggest both the environmental grandeur of the place and the mysterious magical elements of the town and its people, also hinting at what is to come out in the mountains themselves. When you pass through the gate to the mountains, you then have the shift to a full orchestra, which is mostly playing harmonies, nothing intensive, we’re away from people, the hustle and bustle of settled land, but we still hear the echoes out here, like a light in the distance of a dark sonic wilderness.
Going further still into the details of this distinction, the city music was always intended as in-universe music. That is, this music purports to have been composed and performed by people in the game’s world. It is something the people here listen to, dance to, drink to. From the earliest prototypes I was aiming for some kind of synthesis of European classical and folk inspirations, which I intended would reinforce this idea wordlessly to the player. I composed a few tavern dances which would play, appropriately enough, when the player entered a tavern. (I thought about maybe altering the instrumentation depending on which tavern the player happened to be in, but this seemed like an excessive thing that would only complicate organisation of the finished product.) I had intended to include among the books of lore at least one biography of a composer, and tie him to a piece or two from the music of this or that city, but by the time I was out of the project I hadn’t gotten around to it. At least one composer, the Izian Huldibane, is mentioned as being a friend of the playwright Pynchonius. I thought maybe following the latter’s faked death and exile the two might work together, a Molière and Lully but on friendlier terms, and without one vying for the King’s preferment to higher stations almost intentionally to the exclusion of the other. Alas, I do not think work one of Huldibane would ever be heard on the lips of a Thorian flautist, at least not at the time the game takes place, so whatever he wrote is sadly absent from the embryonic soundtrack. Yet I suppose Huldibane, if we take the Lully thing to heart, could have been like Lully’s near contemporary Froberger, whose harpsichord works inspired some of the Luctaris pieces.
Beyond the calmer scenes of the city, and the harmonic winds blowing across the wilder landscapes, there are of course many specific instances where a particular kind of music is called for. Because of the fast paced gameplay in dungeons and other hostile environments, we agreed early on that combat music for standard battles would not be a thing, otherwise the music would start-up for a few seconds while you dealt with a trash mob and then unceremoniously fade back to nothing, becoming probably rather irritating rather quickly. Instead, the dungeons would feature vaguely threatening “you may or may not be in combat so here’s something half way between an ominous ambience and a pulse” sort of music. Some games don’t feature any music in their dungeons. Dark Souls, which I wrote about back in February, has a fairly limited soundtrack. It’s probably for the best, since many enemies in that game have audible tells for which attack they are about to do, giving you a little window to think about how to react. One area where Dark Souls does bring the musical goods, and then some, is its boss music. The contrast between the musicless gauntlets you must run to reach the bosses and the orchestral and choral music that explodes into life when you traverse the white light makes for a much more imposing and often nail-biting fight. In terms of RPG boss themes, I was practically raised on Nobuo Uematsu’s work for Final Fantasy. Zeromus, Clash on the Big Bridge, the final section of Dancing Mad, JENOVA, One Winged Angel, and of course all the “generic” boss themes used for the less super duper big boys throughout the series. But Final Fantasy is distant worlds [author’s note: ha ha] away from what I was working with, and some years after my infatuation with it had waned, I came more to love the sound of a Mahlerian orchestra.
The song cycles, which I mentioned earlier as the inspiration for the Tocane music, are not Mahler’s most famous works. He is best known for a cycle of large symphonies which pushed orchestral writing and the Germanic tradition to new extremes. His most famous work might be Symphony No. 5, notable for its five movement structure grouped in three distinct parts, among many other things. The middle part is a grand scherzo. A scherzo is a lively piece, typically in triple meter (although there are examples to the contrary, like Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, the scherzo of which is in duple meter, or even quintuple meter, like the scherzo of Borodin’s unfinished Symphony No. 3) which was used by Beethoven to replace the then commonplace minuet. In Italian, “scherzo” means “joke”, and, following the usual structure of the Classical symphony, comes between the slow second movement and the finale, as a sort of breather. In Mahler’s symphonies the scherzo is elevated beyond a simple perfunctory role, and it is often as demanding and heavy as the movements surrounding it. Taking this as a basic premise, my thinking was that it would be possible and desirable to develop a cycle of “battle scherzi” which would add tension and a dance-like excitement to the boss battles. The character of the scherzo after Mahler is very expansive in its scope and range of moods, and can be tailored to suit, in a soundtrack, an equally expansive set of circumstances. Mahler’s themselves, being absolute music, are obviously not appropriate, they move in accordance with their own internal clock, and they cannot be rendered subservient to a principal action, so naturally the scherzi I wanted to write would have been quite different. I never got to write even one scherzo, but damn if I didn’t want to!
In writing the music I sought to both provide a traditional soundtrack and to expand the player’s means of experiencing the culture of the places they would visit. It was important to me that both aspects of my work, the writing and the composing, link up somehow to form something greater than themselves. Like the pretence towards historicity of language exhibit by the books of lore, I sought to use approximations of period styles from the European classical and folk traditions in order to create a sense of time and place and history that would in turn add weight to the setting. The prototypes I had amassed by the end of my time with the project did not quite reach what I wanted to achieve, but this varied from one thing to the next. The Tocane pieces were roughly what I wanted them to be, and only wanted for a little fine tuning and polish to be ready for use. The Luctaris harpsichord music, however, I had planned to rewrite whole pieces of because I was thoroughly unsatisfied. Hindsight is very powerful, but only valuable if you gain its lessons before it’s too late to act on their impetus. With the rate of progress on the project being what it was, our small team going like the clappers to make a dent in the total workload, I had ample time to think about what it was that I could do better. These pieces do present interesting character, however. Unlike some other cities’ soundtracks they aim to be more than pastiche, Luctaris is one city in which atmosphere becomes fantastical in its power, there is something like the feeling of dark magic in the air, an odd melancholy that cloaks the streets in a malaise fog. So the music is not just in keeping thematically, roughly speaking, with its counterparts in other parts of the world, but is on some level attempting to embody a kind of ennui. Consider “Luctarine Blues”, which switches between 3/4 and 4/4 as it stumbles through an unstable harmonic language—some kind of whacked-out baroque take on Satie, perhaps. It might even be true that in some way the lingering compositional mistakes in these pieces are part of what makes them appropriate for Luctaris, beyond their intentional character there is something in them that is broken.
The most fully realised batches of city music I cooked up, beside the Tocane quintet, were the solo lute pieces from Thadwyck and the solo accordion from Oleand. In both cases I feel like the compositions themselves are largely, but not uniformly, solid, amusing, and characterful. Still, there are some weaknesses. The “Loure” for example, which is not actually a loure, and the “Thadwyck Step” both are kind of mediocre in their material choices. In Oleand it is “Maister Juvenus Pacebellus Auscentis His Round” that is weakest, mainly because its ABA structure is in fact AA’A, the “B” being merely the A section transposed. I do like the main material, and especially the way the piece ends—it has a very conclusive flourish which flows naturally from the preceding section—but the sections lack contrast and do not make up a good structure. As part of this set, I was tasked, mainly as a joke, to write a piece based on the motif of Pachelbel’s famous Canon, but to do so without just recreating that piece. Writing that for the Oleand music, despite my initial reluctance, was one of the most fun things I did for the entire project. It also spurred me on to do a piece riffing on Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, which amuses me if no one else. As an aside, Cazazza Dan fans (I’ve been told they do exist) may notice that the B section of this last is the source of the accordion solo motif from “It’s Okay to Be a Lettuce”, the finale of Starlite Revue
In conclusion, while it may all sound good on paper, and even in the air (some of it at least), I think my work would have failed in practice. As far as I can tell, it was indeed a novel approach as I had hoped it would be, but novelty doesn’t count for much when efficiency is all. If I had come to it through an iterative process, then maybe, but it was practically the idea from the beginning. I wasn’t basing it on anything aside from my dislike for the way lore, culture, atmosphere, and “lived-in-ness” was handled in certain other games. While the writing, I think, is mostly solid and enjoyable, the music needed far more work to, well… work. In the spirit of this series, I am of course dealing entirely with the music as is, nothing added or taken away. When I say the music “would have failed in practice”, I mean it would have failed as it existed when my time on the project ended. Sure, I could go and clean things up and make them all nice and exactly how I would have wanted them to be in the final product, but that’s not the point. From the very beginning my aim with this series has been to document the world at the moment I stopped working on it. It’s a huge snapshot of a time and place that never quite existed, a potential moment crystallised, a world unbuilt. And by such cheesy ways do I bid it farewell.
The World Unbuilt Musical Supplement