As I’ve mentioned on the site before, my wife and I both finished our master’s degrees a few months ago. Going to graduate school for composition taught me a lot that I was missing about orchestration, part-writing, working with performers, and throwing myself into a chasm of financial debt from which I will never escape. But one of the most challenging areas of graduate school for me was the music we were taught. It varies from school to school, but on the whole, most academic composition programs in the U.S. teach with a heavy emphasis on 20th Century Music. Composers of modern classical music during the last hundred years (like Stockhausen, Webern, and Takemitsu) strayed away from the tonal and diatonic compositions of their predecessors (music that has a tonal center and usually functions as part of a major or minor key, like nearly all the music you hear on a daily basis). Instead, some, like Schoenberg, chose modes of composition that didn’t favor a single note or pitch as the center, but treated all pitches equally, setting up a system where any note the composer chose could follow or precede any other. Others, like Stockhausen, began to see the limitations of physical instruments as the only sources of music, and began to explore the vast opportunities afforded by electronic sounds. Still others, like Luigi Russolo, who has crazy eyes, decided that music in general had become too mired in common pitches and tones, and composed pieces entirely on self-constructed instruments that made sounds that many would only consider noise (like grinding or banging sounds).
As interesting as the gamut of 20th Century music is, at first, I really didn’t like most of what I heard. I’m pretty sure my former advisor is on his way to my house to level a flying dragon kick at my head as I speak, but I spent much of my early time in the program trying to find something to like about modern academic music, and failing. Sometimes there was no discernible melody to speak of. When there was, it often sounded eerie or bleak to me, which was fine until I began to feel like those were the only emotions I was ever being introduced to. I loved the groundbreaking chances that the 20th C. composers I studied had taken, but wasn’t too excited by the results. Where was the emotion? Where was the soul? How could I possibly apply music in this vein to video game composition?
Since my first year at grad school, I’ve come to really appreciate what 20th C. composers had to offer. Stockhausen’s electronic piece Telemusik combines electronically generated sounds with folk music from nations spanning the globe in ways that had never been done before. Xenakis’ Rebonds (one of my favorite 20th C. pieces) takes solo percussion to new levels of insanity. And the more I came to understand and find things to like about 20th C. music, the more I came to realize how its lessons could be (and have already been) applied to game music. Below are just a few of the 20th C. composers who’s philosophies and techniques have been used by game composers (whether knowingly or not).
John Cage and Limbo
John Cage was better known for the things he wrote about music, rather than the music he wrote himself. He experimented with aleatoric music, or music that was created using chance. An example I read would be if you were to take a large sheet of paper (several feet along each edge), draw staff lines on it, and then fire a machine gun at it from a distance. Wherever the holes were punched would be where you would place notes on the staff, which is pretty much the most insanely awesome way of writing music that I’ve ever heard of, but my wife won’t let me get a gun license so I can try it at home.
Cage was also famous for exploring the implications of silence. He was kind of obsessed with being immersed in a completely soundless environment, so much so that he traveled to Harvard University to try out their aneochoic chamber, a room designed so that no sound could be made while standing inside of it, and no sound could enter from the outside. When Cage came out of the chamber, he informed the technician that their junk was like, mad busted yo (I assume) and that while inside he had heard a high pitched sound and a low pitched sound. The tech told him he was hearing the workings of his own nervous system and his own blood pumping through his veins, respectively. From this experience, Cage decided that there could be no such thing as true silence, that we are always exposed to sound of some kind and thus, depending on how you look at it, always exposed to music. Cage even wrote a piece based on this idea called 4’33”, which is four minutes and thirty-three seconds’ worth of empty measures. Not a single note is played during the piece, but instead of muttering under your breath, telling your wife you’ll be “right back,” and then running out of the symphony hall to punch the white-jacketed bartender right in the mouth and steal his bottle of $32-a-glass merlot, you’re supposed to allow any sound you hear during the performance to constitute the music. The creak of seats, someone coughing a few rows over, the engines of cars outside, anything. I actually tried it once; I set my stopwatch and just wandered around outside for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and if you’re in the right mindset, it’s actually pretty cool to just consider all the sounds you normally hear every day as part of a musical composition.
I don’t know if the developers were aware of him or not, but Cage’s theories on silence certainly seem to be found in Limbo, which is a fantastically creepy game about a little boy traveling through the woods. There is no music in the game, anywhere, ever. And while it suits a game with this kind of atmosphere just fine, after a while, you start to realize that you can easily take what little sound you hear to be part of the soundtrack itself. The little boy’s hollow footsteps sound every bit as lonely, if not a bit more so, without a somber oboe line to back them up. The rustle of leaves or the creak of wood have musical qualities all their own, especially in the absence of actual instruments. And the sound of that horrifying giant spider creeping up on you has every bit as much effect as an ominous string section slowly building to let you know you’re screwed.
Erik Satie and Katamari Damacy
Erik Satie is one of my favorite avant-garde composers, and not just because he looks like Shakespeare and Sigmund Freud got together and had a baby who decided to pursue a career as a James Bond villain, though that’s a lot of his appeal for me I guess. I also like his music because he has a pretty ridiculous sense of humor. I mean, we’re talking about the guy who wrote a piano piece that was meant to be played 840 times in a row (which took about eighteen hours). Awesome.
One of my favorite pieces by Satie is a ballet he wrote called Parade, which is crazy because it uses a variety of instruments that aren’t, well, instruments. The piece uses sirens, pistol shots, typewriters, lottery wheels, and milk bottles, among other things, to produce music, which is something Dr. Seuss would do if he were still alive and spent a lot of time trying to start a band and going to garage sales.
The main thing I think Satie can teach game composers with this piece is the idea of variety; Parade (among many of this other works) has something new around every corner. I can’t think of another game soundtrack that embodies this more than the music for Katamari Damacy. If you haven’t played it, it’s about that little green dude on the right, who’s dad is the King of the Cosmos. Daddy got drunk one night, smashed all the stars out of the sky, and now it’s up to the Prince to take these little sticky balls to earth, roll them around in all of our junk until they get bigger and bigger, and then throw them up to the sky where they become super-hot balls of inflamed gas somehow. God bless you Japan.
The great thing is the soundtrack is very Satie like in that, not only does it have a sense of humor about itself, but is takes the “kitchen sink” approach to music composition. Japanese guy rapping? Check. Jazz? Check. Marching percussion? Check. Lounge singing, fugues, and crazy electronic sounds? Check, check, and double check. Fantastic.
Schoenberg and Zelda: Skyward Sword
Regardless of what you might think of his music, if you’ve studied Arnold Schoenberg, you have to admit he was a pretty creative guy. He composed nearly all his life, devised an entirely new way of writing music which in turn developed into a new school of music composition, and he was even an artist!
But Schoenberg is probably best known for the creation of 12-tone composition. This is a method where you take the 12 notes found in the chromatic scale (notes A through G and then all the sharps or flats) and arrange them into 12-tone rows, where each pitch is used once. You can then create music utilizing these rows, which can be played backward or forward, inverted (flipped so that they move upside down) and twisted in a variety of other ways while still remaining related to their original form. I will fully admit to not being the biggest fan of Schoenberg’s 12-tone pieces; they always sounded a bit too random for my taste, even though nothing could be further from the truth. However, Schoenberg did inspire an entire generation of composers to begin looking at musical lines in new ways. Do they always need to proceed from beginning to end? Or in complete statements? Why not take a well recognized melody and quote it, but do so in a new or subverted way?
I hope more game composers begin to use these techniques. It’s one thing to quote themes from other games in a series at an appropriate moment. It’s another to use Schoenberg style thinking to hide these themes in plain sight, so that when they are uncovered, there’s that much more impact.
I’m sure many of you have seen this, but check out the video below; a trailer for the upcoming Zelda game Skyward Sword, which contains some of the game’s soundtrack. See if you recognize the famous Zelda theme hidden in the music when it’s played backwards:
That’s it for this week! If you guys have any comments or questions, I’d love to hear them!