Mikael Karlsson

Credits:
- Battlefield: Bad Company 1 & 2



Official website

 

Mikael Karlsson has composed for a great number of different media including video games. In this interview, he talks about writing music for Battlefield, the differences between game and film music as well as his opinion on interactive media and his perspective on different genres of music in general.

Hi Mikael, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?

I’m originally from Sweden, but moved to New York ten years ago. I work as a composer of modern classical music, soundtracks and the occasional pop track (the most recent one being “Until We Bleed” with Lykke Li and Kleerup.)

I live in Harlem and teach at the Aaron Copland School of Music - City University of New York. I spend my time balancing very disparate types of music making. My concert music is largely of the kind that people call avant garde, while many of my soundtracks are tonal and more easy on the ear if you will. I work with art installations, dance, films, concert music and anything that I find interesting. I love working in different styles of music and with varied collaborators because it gives output to all kinds of ideas.

Ideas don’t come in categories, and they usually span wider than just the one direction. I can’t imagine that soundtrack composers only get soundtrack ideas, and new music (contemporary classical music) composers never dream of a great pop progression. It sounds so lame to say that categories of music don’t really reflect how music travels and is made, but I guess that sometimes the truth is lame like that. Try for a second to define “classical music” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s not possible to do without making subjective decisions in the matter. I write music. Period.

As for how I started in the video game business:

Back in Stockholm I used to work in the same wine store as my friend Stefan Strandberg. This was before either one of us had really decided what we wanted our future work to be about. We collaborated on some music and talked endlessly about soundtracks, films and books. Stefan moved on to become the audio director at DICE while I moved to New York to get a masters degree in classical composition. I formed Please MusicWorks with three other people in the city. Tobias Wagner, composer and producer; Charlene Huang, violinist and account manager, and Kiku Enomoto, violinist and contractor. As I started developing a compositional voice, I kept sending my recent music stuff to my friends back home in Sweden, Stefan included. The first CDs I sent were very crude and simple, but you know… schooling works, and I got better with time. In the meantime, Stefan was hired as a sound designer at DICE. He’s truly brilliant at all that stuff. I have helped him chase sounds in the fields in Skåne, Sweden, and those hunts weren’t even work related! They were just good sounds, and he wanted them. I totally understand that kind of obsession with a craft. If you really care about what you do, your brain will never stop thinking in terms of your craft.

One day Stefan called me up proposing that I make a demo for Battlefield: Bad Company so that he could present it to the people at DICE. I assume that he had started hearing things in my music that would suit the game. Tobias and I went to work on a set of demo cues aimed especially at getting this gig while Charlene and Kiku made an ensemble of 25 amazing volunteer friends materialize on a sweaty Sunday morning in a studio by Union Square. We recorded our tracks and sent them off to Stefan, and a few weeks later we heard back. They liked what we had sent them, meaning that the gig was in motion.

That’s how the video game stuff started.

 

Let’s talk about Bad Company. How much creative freedom were you given by the developers in order to find a unique and creative soundscape for the game?

Because the connection to the production team was through my friend (see the first question), there was already a creative understanding to lean on between us. We had been talking music for a loooong time leading up to the initial commission so there was a vocabulary already in place. Stefan described the kind of music that he wanted, and together with Tobias Wagner we developed the string quintet concept for Bad Company 1.
Stefan gave feedback to most everything we did, and knew what and when to present to the rest of the team at DICE. My conversations were only with him, which created a great space of trust and experimentation within sensible musical boundaries and a buffer from the many different opinions that always come with a production of this scale.

Stefan and I emailed favorite pieces back and forth between us, narrowing in on main ideas that seemed to be common denominators among our musical preferences. For the string quintet concept I remember sending him the Kraftwerk arrangements by the Balanescu Quartet, some Bartók string quartets and a whole lot of Shostakovich. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden was in the mix at one point as well. He pointed to the compressed punch of Daft Punk’s Homework, and so on… I experienced it as a very fluent, free discussion. We knew we couldn’t go completely new music with this soundtrack, but we also knew that the Bad Company game needed some new air breathed into its very famous theme, and I think we found a good balance with the chamber cues as an extension to the large orchestral tracks.

 

You’ve also worked on Bad Company 2. What’s the most challenging aspect of scoring a sequel?

I suppose that normally the challenge would be that a sequel by default already has revealed its winning concepts, and that there are conflicting expectations on the sequel. On the one hand, fans of the first instalment will want to feel a repeat of what they liked in the first game – they want more of the same. On the other, they expect new sensations that make the sequel feel fresh, and not just more of the same.

For BC2, there is luckily a big change in the game itself. BC2 has a much more developed, cinematic story line than BC1. The mission is not as obvious and the music will need to direct the player in more subtle ways.

The cues in BC1 were Leitmotif-oriented, but they weren’t narrative. In BC2, the music produces a narrative.

 

Overall, how would you describe your score and what aspect of it are you most thrilled about?

The new score moves away from the first instalment. The story is different, so the music needs to infuse the game with a sense of newness too. I’m sure there are those out there wondering where the BF theme went, but it’s hinted at in many of the new cues, and DICE felt that it would be cooler to be a little more subtle this time. Everyone knows that theme, so let’s tease with it rather than slam it down on the table like we did in Bad Company 1.

The four new themes follow the story line of BC2. “The Storm” is the adventure theme - the cue that’s supposed to get your pulse and excitement up a little. “The Ancient Weapon” and “The Secret Revealed” both refer to parts of the storyline I shouldn’t reveal since that would ruin the fun. Needless to say there is a dark mystery lurking in this new adventure, and the members of Bad Company are dealing with a threat that is larger than you can imagine.

“The Snowy Mountains” music conveys the brand new icy landscape that dominates parts of this story. Bad Company 2 moves through terrains that BC1 did not.

What am I the most thrilled about? I’m always the most excited about the performers. The way Tobias and I work always puts them in focus, and that’s what makes these soundtracks different from soundtracks recorded with full-time studio musicians. Don’t get me wrong, studio musicians know their shit, but there is an extra level of audience awareness in a concert musician. There is an element of perfection that comes from the unexpected rather than from the polished. A concert musician comes with a sound and a manner whereas a lot of studio musicians are experts at shape-shifting and blending in with a production. I always loved friction and complexity in music – that added grit – and you can only get that from a musician whose strength is his/her individuality. No one goes to hear a great concert performed because he or she is polished – there are a lot of polished performers out there – you go because their sound is unique, and because their delivery kills you just a little. The Battlefield: Bad Company soundtracks only use concert musicians from the biggest stages of New York City. We’re talking members of the NY Phil, the Met Orchestra, Alarm Will Sound, The International Contemporary Ensemble… and so many other amazing groups.

Already with the score for Bad Company 1, amazing soloists brought the grit for the string quintets. Wolfram Koessel of the American String Quartet and Maiya Papach of the International Contemporary Ensemble took the lead parts in some pretty aggressive music. Their stage presence (along with that of the other players) can truly be heard in those recordings. Wolfram is an extremely expressive cellist, and Maiya is one of the most incredible violists around today. They showed up to the sessions packing a mountain of awesome attitude and energy. As soon as we started recording, we could hear that it was not just a recording. It was a damn concert.

For Bad Company 2, “The Ancient Weapon” features a stratospheric violin solo part. Conrad Harris from the Flux Quartet floored everyone in the big Studio A room at the recording session at Clinton Studios in Manhattan. I swear… the whole recording staff stopped breathing, me included. There was of course also the ridiculously gifted David Taylor on bass trombone. When we told Kiku Enomoto, our contractor, that we needed the biggest bass trombone sound in the world for the in game loops as well as for the “Snowy Mountain” cues, she just laughed and said “there is only one.” David does the enormous braaaaaaaps in that music, and becomes as big as the subject of the music. He is also all over the looped cues, providing some extended technique playing for added excitement. Michael Atkinson is the other guy performing in the in game loops. One of the best French horn players I know… It’s funny… he’s actually rehearsing in the room next to where I am right now… some really crazy new music. It’s sounding incredible. He’s with The Knights (a new Manhattan based chamber ensemble.) I’m writing a chamber piece for their French horn section this spring. I can’t wait.

 

You’ve also scored a great variety of movie and TV spots. How would you compare movie and game scoring?

If we don’t include cut scenes and other film sequences in games, all game action is audience guided, so the music can’t really anticipate much, since the game (and thereby even the soundtrack) is waiting for the player to decide what’s next. In a film, the music can play a contrapuntal part to the drama, and tell what isn’t on the screen. That doesn’t really work in actual game play. Sure, you can imply that there is something odd about a situation or that there is a threat present that hasn’t revealed itself yet, but those are all very vague effects due to the fact that music is abstract in itself. We’re confined to basic messages, basic emotions. It’s by default a subjective phenomenon, so unless you want to be super obvious and bang the large war drums or sound a French accordion, the music will always say many things at the same time. In game music you have to embrace that fact instead of trying to fight it.

In a film, music can be a very precise narrator, or a useful way to create smoke screens in the dramatic narrative. Film is linear (even when the narrative isn’t) – games are non-linear or spatial. There are advantages to the non-linear narrative of video games. If you’re not tied down by time-code and linear flow (as you are in films), you can go in a freer direction with the score. Your cues can be actual pieces since they’re playing next to the action, and not in it.

 

Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?

Oh, of course I am… I mean, I write films scores too, so I don’t really see why there wouldn’t be comparisons. It makes all the sense in the world. Making a video game soundtrack doesn’t make me anything particular, and there are no water-tight walls between video game soundtracks and film soundtracks. Sure, there are stylistic categories in music, but hierarchies between them have nothing to do with music. Hierarchies are always social constructs applied to non-hierarchical things.

I do most of my work in the vein of contemporary classical music, but like many of my peers I don’t really stay put in that little box. It used to be that if you’re a classical composer, you shouldn’t be writing film music. It was considered a lower class of music making because it communicated to a wider part of society, and a true artist should not be bothering with “the masses.” I think a similar pride used to keep film composers from video game scoring. It was looked upon as something less prestigious, socially. We have seen this development with most new formats (or even ideas), and with time comes acceptance and eventual equal worth. Stupidity always reveals itself down the line.

At this point we’re hopefully past that problem. The only question that matters really in any kind of music is “does it sound good?” If it does sound good, and it’s new, then there’s good reason to make it.

 

Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?

I think there will need to be some conceptual development in the field. I am convinced that we haven’t quite yet discovered what we want from game music. If you look at the development of film music over time, its use has become very varied. It was just years ago that video game scores had to prove that they could be “as good as film scores.” The tendency was to try to emanate Hollywood styles. Then came the newer trend where lonely pianos accompanied stunning war scenarios (an old film scoring trick, but fresh in game scoring) and other “unusual” takes on the action. We’re now at a point where we can experiment more freely, and pick and choose between convention and the new. Game scoring now holds its own, and has a wide palette of expectations to pick from.

The main problem left to solve is what video game music can do that film music cannot. The action bubble / loop layering technology that still seems to prevail in most games works, but I have a feeling that something much more sophisticated is just around the corner. We just have to stop thinking of games as interactive movies for a bit and I’m sure that a brand new idea that doesn’t live in the shadow of film music will emerge.

 

What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?

The most difficult task is to fine-tune a track that doesn’t have a set narrative to it. It’s challenging to make the music feel inevitable when the action isn’t set. That also poses the most enjoyable part of the process. The freedom is greater than it is in film scoring. The music needs to stand on its own dramatic feet since the gaming action is open-ended to a certain degree, which means that you can employ self-contained musical forms in the score.

 

What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player / on your mp3-player right now?

I tend to go for great melodists. Franz Schubert is very important to me. His melodies are simple (not simplistic) and move with astounding grace. He knows how to put a single strange element in a slow-moving melody to steer it in a new direction that doubles its length and concentration. I admire him for the concentration of his ideas. Haydn string quartets and Beethoven piano sonatas are great ways to clear your mind. If I really hate what I’m producing musically at the time, I usually go biking to the south peak of Manhattan while listening to Beethoven sonatas. There is something so rhetorical about music from the Classical Era. It sorts your brain for you as you listen to it.

I always, always return to Diamanda Galás when I get stuck. I don’t mean to say that my music sounds of Diamanda Galás. It doesn’t. No music does, and that’s why her exquisite and powerful voice rips through so many expressions of music and arrives at the only ones that matter: beautiful, unusual expression that manages to communicate very clearly from outside of the mainstream.

Some others: György Ligeti, Morton Feldman, Terry Callier, The Books, Young People, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hermeto Pascoal, Jacob Druckman, John Cage, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Arnold Schoenberg, Wendy Carlos, Tobias Picker, Yma Sumac, Henri Dutilleux, Pierre Boulez, Nico, Nina Simone, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Maurice Ravel and Luciano Berio.

Lately I’ve been listening to the Swedish band Wildbirds & Peacedrums – friends of mine. I think they are extraordinarily good. YouTube them and you’ll see what I mean.

 

What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?

You know how it is… the last project is usually the one that is the most fun. I have to say though that working with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is incredibly fun. I wrote the music for Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s new ballet On This Planet, and there is just something special about seeing movement to music. Music is so incredibly abstract, and dance is strangely able to be at once abstract and concrete, so dance with music brings clarity without limiting the material to a set idea.

That, and the other very recent project: the song cycle Day Comes Apart.

 

What would be your dream project?

I think it would be to make an opera work. In fact, I’m trying right now! (hah!) I’m working on a synopsis with my Swedish friend David Flodén and I’m very much enjoying the way our discussion goes. We have a lot of opera pet peeves between us so I feel confident that something quite atypical will come out of it eventually, and I hope that the story and my music still will be what still makes the opera compelling.

There is something very audacious about an opera production… it’s rather a wasteful thing to put on. It’s immoral in its scope and perverse in how expensive it always is to produce, so I’m feeling the pressure to try to create something that warrants all those extravagant factors. I’m a chamber music fanatic, so opera feels very foreign to me, but I have to figure it out for that very reason.

 

What are you currently working on?

A lot of things… I just finished a song cycle of nine songs called Day Comes Apart (I mentioned it in a previous question) with text by Rob Stephenson. I’m incredibly excited by having recorded it with mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer and pianist Yegor Shevtsov. It will be released everywhere (and available for free on my website, mikaelk.com, for a while) on March 22.
I’m going to Gothenburg to write another track with Kleerup in April. The ballet I talked about premieres at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden in Germany on April 16-18 2010.

 

Do you play PC or console games yourself?

Short answer: no. I don’t have the time to do it. Of course I study some of the games out there to see what’s going on – I’d be arrogant not to – but I don’t really have much time to fill on the side of my occupation, and I love having it that way, believe me.

I hope that admitting this fact doesn’t come across as disrespectful to gaming as a thing in itself. I find it very interesting and I know that if I had the time to do more of it, I would get sucked in right away. Does the baker always eat bread? Stefan told me that he was very consciously going for a composer who works outside the medium so that my concern could be with the music and the drama, and not so much the technical aspects of the production. More than anything I think he wanted music that stems from the classical tradition, where live performance always reigns supreme, and where sample libraries aren’t welcome…

 

Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?

Hm, I don’t know. Come say hi at the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco in March. I’ll be there to see how Bad Company 2 is being received by all the gamers out there, and to learn about other games. Should be good nerdy fun!

 

Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.