The following is a blog post by our composer Tom Stoffel on his work on Blade Symphony. You can find more of his work at his website: http://www.tomstoffel.com/
When embarking on a large creative endeavour there is bound to be a large portion of time dedicated to brainstorming and experimentation. Blade Symphony’s score certainly met this requirement. From the beginning of our collaboration, Michael Chang (Flux) and I knew the project would demand an extremely colorful and ethnically embracing musical score. The challenge, I soon realized, did not exist so much in Blade Symphony’s demand for musical diversity, but rather in its demand for a sound which was both aesthetically and dramatically appropriate.
Diversity was going to be a key element of the score. This much was settled. And before I became too involved in experimenting with the music I wanted to be sure to ask myself the one question which prefaces every game score on which I work: Which part in this elaborate tale of beauty, action, and drama does this game wish the music to play? After some thought I came to these conclusions:
1) The music must color the stunning atmosphere of the game.
2) The music must heighten both the intensity and the focus of the duels.
I had two clear goals on which to focus and I was ready for the real fun to begin…
The Journey Begins
I rarely approach musical experimentation in the same way twice. Every project is extremely unique and my relationship to each project is just as fresh. The new and unique relationship I have with a game or film usually fosters an intuitive connection between my mind, my body, and the project. If all goes well, the music will organically grow from this unique connection.
I was immediately drawn—as many others were— to Blade Symphony’s beautiful in-game atmosphere. A more inspiring in-game realm I have yet to experience. My mind and body were drawn to its stillness, elegance, and strength. In an attempt to dig deeper into the atmosphere, I spent a significant amount of time just sitting in-game and soaking in the spaces. Eventually, my mind and body experienced a feeling of deep focus and peace. It was from this place that I began to write.
I first began to experiment with traditional Asian folk instruments which included the taikos, ehru, zither, singing bowls, gongs, dhols, and samulnori percussion, among others. I wanted to see if I could bring the Zen-like focus of these traditional textures to the dueling arena. I first started off with just creating a folkish Zen-like texture. I knew right away that this was not going to serve goal number two: the music must heighten the intensity and focus during combat. Although, it did add something in the way of focus. But for what it added in focus it was lacking in intensity. I then added a synthesizer element to see if I could capture some of the high tech nature of the neon blade paths. This was definitely a cool effect and it added something, but it did not add much in the way of intensity. After some head scratching I had an interesting idea which I hadn’t seen before in a game. I wondered, “what would happen if I tried to represent the fighters with their own unique instrument?”
If I was going to try this, I decided, I needed to be sure to really represent the character as well as their behaviours in the duel. The first duel I tried this with was Judgement vs. Phalanx. I assigned Judgement a zither, while assigning Phalanx a muted electric guitar. I then composed a musical backdrop for the dual using the traditional instruments and synthesizer from before. I would play the musical backdrop and then improvise a part for each character over the top.
As I improvised Judgement’s zither part I would imagine his powerful strikes and lunges. Then it was Phalanx’s turn. After recording Judgement’s part I played back everything I had so far and I improvised Phalanx’s part over the top. Imagining his elegant sword skills and light footed maneuvers I would counter Judgment’s zither parts with Phalanx’s electric guitar part.
In the end, this process created a dynamic and interesting musical duel between the two characters. Upon completion, I felt I had really touched on something here. I then went on to compose “musical duels” in this same fashion for all of the different possible character combinations.
As you can hear, the effect was quite interesting. I was certainly happy with the outcome. When I shared it with the team, they all loved the atmosphere and improvisatory qualities of the pieces, but they decided the pieces lacked the level of danger and intensity needed to carry a duel. I agreed. But alas, not all was lost. The team ended up loving the color and strength these instruments brought to the pieces. These sounds went on to be the core instrumental foundation for most future pieces.
Anatomy of a Musical Duel
Between the earlier improvisatory duals and this monastery dual track quite a bit had changed. At first listen, one will notice the basic amount of instruments has greatly increased. One will hear a full chorus, full string ensemble, pipe organ, a larger percussion section, and a greater dynamic variation throughout. Also, the tempo has greatly increased and the harmonic progressions move with more gravity and bravado.
Equally interesting are the elements which did not change. Listening closely, one can still hear the traditional folk instruments being well represented throughout. One also feels a strong sense of focus beginning with the simple yet powerful opening section as well as the minimalist repeating rhythmic figures which answer each intense chorus-like reiteration.
After having a few listens, the important question arose: what did this new piece teach me about how I might musically represent a duel?
First off, the piece shows to what extent the music can be pushed in order to achieve a higher intensity level while still remaining within the stylistic goals of the game. It also shows how a balance can be struck between alternating sections of extreme power and sections of extreme focus. Of course, this piece had not by any stretch of imagination perfected this balance. But it did reveal some of the techniques by which a balance of both intensity and focus could be sustained throughout a duel.
Needless to say, the team was quite surprised with this piece. They were very excited about the power the piece brought to the scene. They concluded, I was definitely heading in the right direction. The music was certainly proving its ability to balance and sustain both intensity and focus throughout a duel.
Jazz and Folk and Dubstep and Everything Else…Oh My!
After reviewing the team’s feedback from the previous piece, I set out to compose five new tracks which would hopefully capitalize on everything I had learned so far. I called these the “Discovery Tracks.” Although, I should mention, technically the previous tracks were just as much a part of the “discovery” as these five.
These new “Discovery Tracks” were to explore a whole host of different combinations of instruments, styles, and techniques. The folks at Puny Human were always really awesome and extremely supportive during music development. They really wanted me to stretch myself and try as many different styles and types of fusions as I could. Up to this point the team seemed to be drawing musical inspirations from games ranging from Bayonetta to Street Fighter to Kindom Hearts to Final Fantasy and musical styles ranging from house to jazz to funk to dubstep to western to classical to folk music. This wide range of inspirations certainly fit our original estimation of the musical diversity needed for Blade Symphony’s soundtrack. My task now became figuring out how to synthesize these styles and influences into a unique and uniform sound.
At this point, I chose to leave the issue of uniformity out of the equation, as I was sure that would come at a later stage. Right then, I was focused on discovering an interesting sound! Now, I could talk for hours about the process by which I derived at the myriad styles represented in the five “Discovery Tracks.” Rather than take up the rest of your day, I decided I will just let the music speak for itself here. Below, you will find some short examples taken from the “Discovery Tracks.” I am sure the wide range of diversity will be self-evident. If you are interested, you can listen to the full five tracks on the second half of the Blade Symphony OST, “The Path of Discovery: The Cut Tracks.”
Here is a sampling of the experiments…
And let us not forget the
Needless to say, the “Discovery Tracks” phase explored a ridiculously wide range of musical possibilities. The question now became: how would the team and myself ever swim through the stylistic diversity represented here and end up with a stylish, unique, and somewhat uniform soundtrack?
The New Sound
Anyone who has played the game and or listened to the finished soundtrack will notice how most of what was presented in the “Discovery Tracks” was either modified, rerouted, reworked, and/or completely trashed. Although there was much transformation between the “Discovery Tracks” and the final tracks of the game, the discoveries made during this period were extremely formative. And one can track their influences in every subsequent track.
So what was learned in the feedback sessions?
To start, there was an overwhelming show of support for the traditional folk aspects of the pieces, particularly in the percussion sections. This was to be expected considering the team’s feelings toward some of the earlier pieces. There was also a great enthusiasm displayed toward the jazz elements. The team felt the improvisational qualities of jazz mirrored the fast paced, on-your-feet, improvised thinking players would most likely employ during duels. The team members expressed interest in the fuller, broader, classical orchestrations, particularly with the use of brass and strings. While others enjoyed the breakdowns and dropped beat sections of the tracks.
Conversely, the majority of the members were not thrilled with the ultra analog synthesizers. Nor were they interested in the extremely techno driven tracks. Not surprisingly, the members were almost unanimously against the use of any synthesized voices, speech, or cheesy arcade announcers.
As the feedback continued to roll in the picture was becoming clear. The new sound—which would eventually become the Blade Symphony soundtrack—would be both grandiose and tight. It would be both intense and focused. It would be an eclectic combination of traditional ethnic flare, focused minimalist progressions, sick breakbeat interludes, and striking improvisational virtuosity. The musical world of Blade Symphony would sing of diversity, intensity, gravity, and style.
The Musical Duel
The final tracks capture and synthesize so many wonderful styles and influences. As I learned very early on in the discovery process, a sword duel requires a music which achieves a balance between intensity and focus. This diverse musical journey proved that this balance could be achieved by a myriad different techniques. Through the juxtaposition of contrasting rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, and textural elements the dramatic peaks and plumbits of a sword duel could be significantly enhanced and emphasized.
Below are two tracks taken from the Blade Symphony OST. If you are interested you can check out all of the tracks on the Official Blade Symphony Soundtrack. The two tracks I have chosen to talk about here exemplify the ways in which the dramatic peaks and plumbits of a duel’s intensity and focus are emphasized through varying types of rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, and textural juxtapositions.
The composer would like to mention that no piece of music—or any work of art for that matter—is confined to rigid and concrete interpretations or understandings. My love/hate relationship with music theory lives on. If there was one thing I have taken from my experiences with musical analysis/theory it is this: a musical theory is only acceptable up to the point where it can no longer point to evidence in the music to support its premises.
With that being said, here are the composer’s theories behind the efficacy of the juxtapositions between intensity and focus as evidenced in the following Blade Symphony tracks:
“Swords of the North” incorporates a diverse combination of improvisational jazz in the piano and zither, traditional asian folk string and percussion instruments, and conventional western harmonic progressions with some classical orchestrational influences.
Contrasting figures of intensity and focus are presented throughout the piece. The large scale juxtapositions are as follows:
Section 1: 00:00 – 1:13 (Overall feel is focus)
Section 2: 1:13 – 2:09 (Overall feel is intensity)
Section 3: 2:09 – 2:41 (Overall feel is focus)
No decent piece of music is ever as cut and dried as the broad sectioning above would suggest. Contained within the larger sections of “Swords of the North” are the many instances of juxtapositions which create the interplay between intensity and focus. See below:
Section 1 (00:00 – 1:13):
00:00 – 00:16 The long flowing melody of the flute (focus) and the sporadic percussive interjections (intensity).
00:16 – 00:45 The floating interplay between the flutes (focus) and the improvisational flourishes in the piano (intensity).
00:45 – 00:59 The steadily descending harmonic progression and the almost heartbeat like bass drum beat (focus) and the continued improvisational flourishes and figures in the piano (intensity).
00:59 – 1:13 Again the steadily descending harmonic progression, the long sustained woodwind chords and the minimal repeating rhythmic figure (focus) and the improvisational stabs and flourishes of the zither (intensity).
Section 2 (1:13 – 2:09)
1:27 – 2:09 I think it is clear through the syncopated rhythmic figures in the acoustic guitars, the complex rhythmic figures in the percussion section, and the flashy improvisational piano lines that intensity is the main goal of this section. That being said I believe there is still a small seed of focus to be found in the use of space/air between the interjections. I think these pockets of breathing room encourage the dueler to step back and focus on the choice and execution of his next move.
Section 3 (2:09 – 2:41)
2:09 – 2:41 In contrast to the last section, I think it is clear that this section is aiming at pure focus, almost to the point of decompression. Although, the sheer dynamic blows of the aggressive percussion hits never allows the intensity to completely leave the scene.
Compared with “Swords of the North,” “Wushu Tactics” begins in an opposite manner. “Swords of the North” begins with a focus section and transitions into a section of intensity. “Wushu Tactics” begins with an intense section and settles into a focus section.
Here are the large scale juxtapositions of focus and intensity in “Wushu Tactics:”
Section 1: 00:00 – 00:27 (Overall feel is intense)
Section 2: 00:27 – 00:51 (Overall feel is focus)
Section 3: 00:51 – 1:24 (Overall feel is intense)
Section 4: 1:24 – 2:27 (Overall feel is focus)
Section 5: 2:27 – 3:04 (Overall feel is intense)
Section 6: 3:04 – 4:33 (Overall feel is focus)
One interesting thing to note about “Wushu Tactics” is the intensified transitions between sections. Some of these transitions can almost justify their own sections. That being said, I have not set aside these transitions above, instead, I have included them in the explanations below:
Section 1 (00:00 – 00:27):
The bursts of percussive excitement, frequent cymbal splashes, and the fast zither plucking all create an atmosphere of intensity here.
Section 2 (00:27 – 00:51):
The relaxed beat, singable melody, and predictable harmonic progression all foster an atmosphere of reflection and focus. Yet, in the background one can still hear flourishes of stick hits and cymbal splashes which maintain an element of intensity.
Section 3a (00:51 – 1:17):
The accelerated and sporadic rhythmic figures being passed around between the string instruments and the percussion instruments certainly creates an atmosphere of intensity here.
Section 3b (1:17 – 1:24):
This is one of those transitional sections where there is an interesting pressure exchange from intensity to focus. The long flowing flute melody over the top of the staggered bass bursts with breathing space between pulses creates a feeling of decompression or slowing down.
Section 4a (1:24 – 2:20):
The evenly descending bass lines, the mellifluous vocal lines, the melodic restatements in the piano, the warm swelling pads, and the steady rhythmic pulse all add to the feeling of focus throughout this section.
Section 4b (2:14 – 2:27):
This is another transition section. A very abrupt switch to intensity happens here. The percussion section grows, the vocal line comes to a climax, and extremely dissonant improvisational reiterations in the piano and bass bang out a feeling of tension and anticipation.
Section 5a (2:27 – 2:52):
I chose to label this section as intense due to the big breath of air which occurs just before the powerful entrance at 2:27. This brief moment of space holds the duel in suspense just before bringing in an intense flourish of rhythmic fury, triumphant brass stabs, powerful choral parts, and soaring solo vocal intensity. This section is the intense climax of the piece.
Section 5b (2:52 – 3:04):
This is another transitions section. The exchange between focus and intensity. Is really powerful here. This transition incorporates a very clear alternating between focus and intensity. The focus is felt through the isolated minimalist patterns in the hand drum and zither. While the intensity is felt through the shocking entrance of shouts, cymbals, and taikos.
Section 6 (3:04 – 4:33):
I reluctantly labeled this section as focus simply for the relatively small number of instruments presented in this section, as well as the flowing vocal lines. That being said, I believe there is a strong element of intensity represented through the percussive bursts throughout.
At 3:55 there is a definite transition to a more intense feel. This intensity is carried into the percussive section which follows it. By the time we reach the very end of the piece we have again transitioned to an extremely Zen inspired closing section of focus and reflection.
The Final Tracks
In the end, the team and I were very happy with the final tracks selected for the Official Blade Symphony Soundtrack. Over the course of our journey, we discovered the musical elements which contribute to creating the perfect soundtrack for a duel. Through diverse stylistic choices and the juxtaposition of figures of intensity and focus, a musical duel was born.
Finality has always caused me some degree of anxiety. I much prefer inventions, beginnings, or new adventures over completions, endings, or finished journeys. That being said, it is a fact that every project will have a final version and every game a final release. Blade Symphony’s final tracks were certainly drawn from a river of musical possibility; I know some of the best musical discoveries are still swirling around in that river, and I will probably never get used to the feeling of walking away.
Through my experiences as a musician, I have learned to trust that the music will always be out there. Just as Blade Symphony’s music will always be out there. I am grateful to have been lucky enough—with the encouragement and vision of the Puny Human team— to have gone on this journey of discovery. Ultimately, it is this journey of musical discovery that keeps me composing. It is this journey which fuels my desire to know what might be hiding around the next corner, waiting to be discovered and shared.
In the beginning, Blade Symphony was a beautiful and fascinating world of gorgeous atmospheres, elegant duelers, and dynamic combat. With the addition of new music, I feel the world is that much more exquisite, and the gameplay that much more alive. All in all, I am very satisfied with the outcome. Still, I cannot help but wonder what new ideas are out there and how they may evolve Blade Symphony’s universe in the future…