Thursday, February 11, 2010

My 2009 OST Selection - Interview with Wasily Kashnikov

Few videogames, if any, ever felt as lugubrious and inauspicious as Ice-Pick Lodge’s THE VOID. Upon its original release in Russia in 2008, when and where it was known as Тургор (Turgor, meaning Tension) this subjective journey of anguish was released on selected European countries before finally becoming available for download at Steam - the single most popular content delivery platform in the world. Moving from its initial obscurity into the limelight of independent computer game press, the game was well-received to the point of earning some of the most favorable reviews in the whole of 2009. The game was also praised for its bold new tone, gameplay mechanics and its themes - seldom featured in popular videogame titles - as the German television channel 3Sat so brilliantly indicated. Yet, to a large extent, THE VOID still retains its cult game status notwithstanding of the short-lived exposure in the media.

I’ve made it a habit to emphasize one single work among the several propositions presented each year in the field of music created as a complement to videogames. Far from an award or the proclamation of a superior example among the many, this is essentially an attempt to draw some attention towards compositions that, in spite of their intrinsic quality and importance, have been overlooked for various motives. This year I’ve had the rare chance to contact the author of the soundtrack of my selection, as well as exchanging various impressions about his work, while questioning him about the thousand things. In his debut as a videogame score composer, Wasily Kashnikov (a.k.a.
Mushroomer) has teamed with Andriesh – a fellow Moskvitch DJ who had participated in the making of PATHOLOGIC.

In The Void, the player must explore different locations in search for Lympha, a natural source for the production of color.

This partnership has resulted in a very substantial soundtrack album, first released in 2008 together with the game, subsequently re-edited with additional themes and re-mastered versions. If THE VOID is an erudite reflection on the complexities of life and death, Kashnikov’s fascinating personality and musical talent are are a valuable contribution to this achievement: enigmatic and brooding, his soundscapes and montages are highly reminiscent of the work of some of the British electronic music pioneers like the early Aphex Twin's Ambient Works or FSOL's Lifeforms and ISDN period.

To match the diversity of abstruse contexts presented throughout the game, the young musician applied different instruments and sonorities from the soft chords of a resonating piano to the sharp-sounding wooden flute and guitar, blending them together using VST software generated effects and using the KORG Electribe EM-1 to produce the different drum beats. Self-portrayed as a do it yourself musician, Mushroomer has adorned THE VOID with a plethora of organic sounds that expand the depth to an already intricate and challenging experience. In spite of the limited tools and resources available to Kashnikov, his work has raised the standards for indie game music production and is thus worthy of all my praise and admiration.

- There seems to be no doubt that the worldwide release of The Void has contributed immensely in divulging of your music. Was this your first experience in the field and how did you acquaint yourself with the Ice-Pick Lodge studio founders?

WK : My first experience with the game development industry was long before I met Dybowskiy and the Ice-pick Lodge studio. We had a team of enthusiasts called Temporal Games, in which I took part in the development of a fantasy RPG, as a coordinator, sound producer and game designer. You know, the kind of teams, where each member does everything he can. in However, the project was never finished, as it often happens.

But my participation in the project allowed me to visit the KRI Conference (Russian analog of GDC) and meet a lot of wonderful people, who later helped me a lot. So, by the time I began discussing with Nikolay the possibility of working on the new Ice-Pick Lodge studio project, I was already well acquainted with the process of creating games. Nikolay then game me a test task, explained the concept of music and sound and in a few months, having successfully passed the test, I began to work in the studio. Now I can say without exaggerating, that this was the most comfortable, interesting work in my life so far. We’ll see, if something beats the record.

Girls and Hunters can be considered to be the hallmark of the soundtrack and, according to Kashnikov himself, the most laborious theme of all.

- Apart from your work, the soundtrack also features several themes from Andriesh, who had already collaborated with the studio on the production of Pathologic. How was the work assigned to both?

WK : When I began working, the first thing I did was listen to all the material, that Andriesh has written. Then I asked Nikolay to select the tracks that fit the Void conception best, and started to look for the sound that would work well with what was already written; that wouldn’t contrast with it too much. Besides that, I immediately took most of the sound design and special effect work. We didn’t work together in the traditional sense – I wrote music while sitting at the Ice-pick office, and he worked from home.

There isn’t a single track in the Void which we would’ve written together, though I think it would have been an interesting experience, but alas it never happened. Speaking of Andriesh’s music, I’d like to note, that I was very impressed by his Pathologic soundtrack, but I don’t like his solo projects as much. I’m not much of a dance music fan, I guess.

Mushroomer during a live performance.

- Tallying up the themes from all the different versions, the soundtrack spans over an impressive four disc collection. Tell me about the greatest challenges and difficulties related to the process of creating this vast enterprise.

WK : The greatest difficulty in writing the music was to find the right sound: the types of instruments, harmony of how everything sounds. It was hard to achieve the integrity of the entire soundtrack. When I finally found the right sound – everything became a lot easier. More than half of the tracks were written in mere months – 2 or 3 to be precise. And finally, when mentioning the large volume of the final product, don’t forget, that the 3rd disk simply contains poems, and the 4th disk contains not only new tracks written for the English release, but also re-mastered original tracks. And writing and re-mastering music – are definitely not the same in terms of time spent.

So, the main result of work on the Void is the first disk. The second disk is more like an alternative version of the soundtrack – what it might have been, and half of the tracks from disk 2 are unreleased material written by Andriesh. It was also difficult to remake tracks, the sound of which seemed almost perfect, but that didn’t suit Nikolay for some reason. For example, the main menu theme exists in 3 or 4 variations. “Strange Creatures” from disk 2 – is one of the unapproved variations of the main menu theme.

Regardless of its independent roots, the team has worked to exhaustion in the creation of large and splendorous and veritably exquisite locations.

- The Void is an unconventional game by design. Its unique environment creates a sensation of emptiness and oppression that is impossible to evade. Every location is a mystery in itself; and even characters are mystifying and ambiguous. What is your interpretation of the game and how has that influenced your work?

WK : That’s a good question. I based my view on the description Nikolay gave me way back at the first test task – this was a dying world, this was the wait for the birth of something new, the theme of famine, and finally the theme of being able to create something seemed to be the stem of the entire game. Anyhow – for me the Void was a metaphor of art, as a battle of the dying old with the upcoming to change it new, and the realization of a dream. I guess it sounds confusing – but there aren’t enough words to describe it – personally, I think that all of us realized a dream in this game. At least, I did.

Declamation in Russian of the poem "Mudam-se os tempos, mudam-se as vontades" by Luís Vaz de Camões concerning the passage of time, memory and evolution.

- Because I'm Portugese, I was very surprised to see how the game opened with a feminine voice’s declamation of a poem by Luís de Camões. Do you know how did this idea come about?

WK : To be honest – I don’t have a clue. I didn’t take part in selecting the poems for the game, but I can assume, that this poem was meant to fully describe, what should be happening in the consciousness of the player during the game, and it’s a great way to introduce the players with the poetry, they otherwise might have never heard

- The game’s soundtrack – your themes in particular – reflect a great passion for different styles of electronic and IDM music. What where the greatest influences and inspirations when you were creating the music?

WK : If you’re asking about what I was listening at the time, then… From electronic music it’s Boards of Canada, Bonobo and Carbon Based Lifeforms. From others I enjoyed Tom Waits, the Dresden Dolls, Nervous Cabaret – either way, its mastery and beauty in case of electronic tracks, and emotions in case of the ones with voice. And the result of this insane mix is what you have to “tolerate” the entire game -if you don’t choose to turn off the music, of course.

- Did you feel, somehow, restricted by the fact that you were creating music for an interactive game?

Speaking of the technical side of my work – I always kept in mind that I’m not just writing music, but an addition to an experience. My task was, beside all, to merge music and game play so that there’s no dissonance that would concentrate the player’s attention on either parts of the experience risking to damage several elements of the game. For example, the battle with the Triumphator brother is interactive – all his actions are reflected in the music themes, which sound during combat. Literally, you’re fighting the music that you hear! It’s a human orchestra after all!

Music from the battle against one of the brothers, the Triumphator: different variations were created in order to accord with the different stages of the conflict.

- There seems to be an interesting anecdote behind the choice of your artistic name "Mushroomer"? Why are mushrooms so fascinating to you?

WK : I have a degree in biology, an agronomist, to be precise; and mushrooms are a very interesting life form even if not consumed. ;o) They are neither plants nor animals – they exist on their own, and nevertheless, have a great influence on our everyday. For example, alcohol (and even the Bible notes Jesus Christ turned water into wine) – is the result of work of yeast fungus – a form of mushrooms; many diseases that plagued humanity are the result of proximity to mould, and last but not least – mushrooms are tasty. So, I haven’t chosen this nickname for nothing – it’s best to be friends with such a mighty power of nature, rather than ignore it or be enemies.

It was my dream - mixing of live and synthetic voices... - Wasily Kashnikov

- With only two games released, Ice-Pick Lodge has won different prizes as well as the recognition from players. How have reactions to your work been, so far?

WK : Generally, the reactions are quite positive. Well, of course, I’ve met reactions like “where the hell did Andriesh go, and who the hell is this Mushroomer dude?”, I’ve seen people who think that there’s no actual artist named Mushroomer and all the music was written by Andriesh. But these are rare. Mostly people agreed that I did a wonderful job, and that’s twice as pleasant since I think so, too!

- Will you be working with the Ice-Pick Lodge studio in other projects? (Are there any plans for future collaborations?)

WK : Personally, I’m not working on anything now, when it comes to working on the new studio projects. But I suppose, as soon as it comes to sound – I’ll start working immediately.

(All the sound clips and and excerpts from The Void OST are used on this page with the permission of its authors).

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Q&A with Koji Ueno - Resonances of Gadget

Since the beginning of his career in 1978, Koji Ueno has been composing music that encompasses multiple styles and genres from pop to new age, from orchestral to electronic and dance oriented. Having achieved a reputation as one of Japan’s most promising musicians after joining the Guernica ensemble, he has worked with some of the best musicians in his country such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, with whom he authored the soundtracks for the major motion pictures Oneamise no Tsubasa and The Last Emperor.

In one of his most singular musical moments, Ueno participated with Haruhiko Shono and the Synergy studio for the creation of the music score for the best-selling CD-ROM experience GADGET: INVENTION, TRAVEL & ADVENTURE. As an addendum to the results of my research, already presented in last year's interview with Haruhiko Shono, I now publish a brief interview where this gifted and erudite musician discusses a few interesting subjects regarding his valuable contribution to the game - later resulting in that rare album entitled Resonances of Gadget: Quasisymphonic Movements and Noise Montages.
I was also surprised to learn that some of his influences when composing this soundtrack were musical masterpieces of my own personal predilection.

CG: As a composer, you have a reputation of someone who is constantly looking for new challenges. In what circumstances did you enter the project of creating this soundtrack?

Ueno: I was the first composer choice of Mr. Shono and his office. They knew about my admiration for the art of the pre-war/war time, Russian avant-garde and machine age which were also of special reference to that locomotive he designed for the game.

When Mr. Shono was a university student he was a fan of my band Guernica, whose concept was the combination of pre-war avant-garde and pre-war popular music.

One of his university friends who was also a Guernica fan asked me to make music for his graduation art work and introduced him to me around 1983 or 1984.

CG: Some years after the original release of GADGET, Synergy produced a renewed version. Was the same soundtrack used or did you create new themes for "Past as Future"?

Ueno: I can’t remember exactly. During the production of that project I handed my works to Mr. Shono directly who later edited and overdubbed them – a process in which I had no participation. I do remember, however, that in "Gadget Trips/Mindscapes" I made a lot of new material.

CG: What did you base your music on - were you given game materials or simply Images, sketches, ideas?

Firstly I was asked to made music for the trailer of Gadget for its promotion. That trailer already had many designed materials such as the locomotive, some of the characters and locations. I selected suitable digital sampling data as several timbres of that trailer music and then I constructed music to fit into the timing of the scene changes of the video.

Eventually, that material became the theme "Overture: Invention, Travel and Adventure". Many materials later used in the game and the movie were reductions of that. The following variations were made using a method similar to film scoring techniques, based on scene images and the story itself. I remember that the tracks Overture, Tranquility, Contradictions and A Recollection of the Future, from the soundtrack album, were the first themes I composed.

CG: What motivated you to create the music? You focused heavily on the industrial and engineering part of that universe; but also on the deep psychological trance with eerie noise montages: what did you intend to make the players feel by listening to the music?

Ueno: I think "Gadget" has something like a feeling of oppression throughout the whole game.

And has what we may call industrial mysticism, as well as the feeling of destin sans issue. Maybe those themes were the most inspiring.
Anyway Mr. Shono's designs were of great artistic beauty, so I was keeping those in mind when I was composing. I’ve also tried to make music that wouldn’t weary the player.

What are your thoughts on GADGET and your interpretation of it?

Ueno: Nightmare of 20th Century?
Do the retro-chic machines dream of autocratic brainwashing?

CG: The train theme is possibly the most emblematic of all: its beat pattern being so contagious. Tell me more about the conception of this theme in particular.

Ueno: When I saw the train sequences for the first time I felt that they required some like constant beat and that it needed to suit the tempo of the scene – while not evoking any memory of a dance music or techno beat!
So I selected sampling material by classical percussion instruments bearing in mind that the time of the music should be cross rhythm, not just a simple 4/4 or 3/4.

, I tried to play some of samplings on keyboard. There, sampling material can be played slow to fast combining different rhythm (tempo) by playing more than a single note. This is how I found the exact material and tempo.

Anyway it's important to read the exact tempo of the scenes.
Maybe that is also one of film music techniques.

CG: Finally: in terms of musical composition, what were your references to the creation of this soundtrack?

My greatest influences were: Edgard Varèse
, Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231, Sergei Prokofiev (Symphony No.2), Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith’s The Planet of Apes, Béla Bartók, John Cage, Louis and Bebe Baron’s Forbidden Planet, Charles Ives, Leoš Janaček’s Glagolitic Mass, Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante, Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening and Aaron Copland.

Given its extreme rarity, I converted the soundtrack to a suitable MP3 quality that is now available for download.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A digital Carpe Diem

Tale of Tale's new iPhone and iPod touch application was officially released today and while the Apple platforms are surely not to my personal liking I couldn't miss the opportunity to mention this strange new form of interaction that they have prepared. As tiresome as the last year might have been for the studio, Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey keep working with determination in search for new grounds. VANITAS was commissioned by John Sharp and Ian Bogost as a part of the Art History of Games symposium taking place in Atlanta, which includes games from other known independent authors such as Jason Rohrer.

Priced at one single dollar, VANITAS evokes the concept of mortality by arranging loose objects inside a wooden box, not unlike the use of deliberate symbols and icons in pre-modern Flemish art. Inspired by the famous biblical passage vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas (vanity of vanities, all is vanity, from the book of Ecclesiastes) Tale of Tales has conceived a meditative space without rules or concise objectives - highly reminiscent of the same philosophy which is present, although in an entirely different format, in Japanese garden models. The deep soul-searching experience about the futility of materialism is enhanced by the cello moods of this project's invited artist, none other than the talented Zoe Keating.

More information can be found at the official website.