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Age of Conan: Unchained Interviews: Exclusive Interview with "Godslayer" Composer Knut Haugen

By Garrett Fuller on June 10, 2010

MMORPG.com:

Ever since the Conan Movie in 1982, the music of Conan has played an important role in the IP. Can you tell us about your experience and influence with the famous soundtrack?

Knut Haugen:

That is right: Most Conan fans know Basil Poledouris’ scores from Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer. The first one in particular has had a big impact on what fans expect from the music in a Conan franchise – in the same way Schwarzenegger's version of the main character had on what Conan should look like. With no preconceptions I think most people would find Jason Momoa to be a very good choice for Conan in the new movie, but if you stray too far from expectations, people will react. Same thing with the music: Since preconceptions are there, you have to take them into consideration. At the same time, one of Funcom’s goals has been to re-interpret the world of Conan based on the books of Robert E. Howard to get closer to the core of what Conan is all about. For me it was only natural and also important to re-invent the music to some degree as well. Certain cues in the game have apparent references to Poledouris, but instead of using him as the source of inspiration, I found it more fruitful to draw on the same influences as Poledouris did: Medieval music, Russian vocal and orchestral music, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and other similar works. So instead of evolving from Poledouris, we have evolved from the same point further back. Who is the man and who is the chimp is for someone else to decide ;-)

This concerns mainly the music for Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures though. For Rise of the Godslayer, I found it natural to go one step further and create something truly original (even though stylistic similarities to the Conan filmscores can be heard in certain tracks from Rise of the Godslayer as well for those who are interested enough to find them). The basic mood in the two installments of Age of Conan is very much the same, but the style of the music for Rise of the Godslayer is completely different. It is of course heavily influenced by Chinese music and due to the fact that the complete score has been recorded live, it sounds much more natural, dynamic and organic this time around.

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MMORPG.com:

When planning the music for Khitai, where did you draw your influences from?

Knut Haugen:

Since the theme for the game is Khitai it was only natural that the music be highly influenced by Chinese music. There are also Japanese elements in there. Some of the cues are Chinese through and through, but most of them are a hybrid of eastern Asian traditional music and European orchestral music. For a couple of months – at least – before I started writing the music, I listen only to Chinese and Japanese music to really get a feeling for it. I had to know it so well that I no longer had to think: “Let’s see… How do I write Chinese music? Oh yes, pentatonic scale!” I read lots of books on instrumentation and orchestration, watched videos of performances and talked to musicians to get to know the style and instruments as well as possible. If you know the instruments and are able to write idiomatically for them, the music will sound Chinese, because that is the music these instruments are constructed for. China has a very rich musical heritage and there is so much variation and so many possibilities that you really have to know it very well to be able to write in the style freely.

I come from a classical background and have a deep knowledge of western orchestral literature from my studies as well. This “database” of music is my “vocabulary” so to speak, and is always with me and influences the way I write.

MMORPG.com:

What was the biggest challenge for you personally with the soundtrack for Rise of the Godslayer?

Knut Haugen:

The biggest challenge with a project this big, is probably to make all the different parts of the production come together to create a score that sounds as good as possible. In addition to being the composer, I am also the music producer for this score, meaning I was responsible for the whole production process both artistically and practically with everything that involves: I compose the music and orchestrate it; I contact people who can help me provide musicians and rent studios, equipment and special instruments; I prepare and oversee the recording sessions; I do MIDI-programming, score editing, mixing and mastering. And then when everything is done, there is the CD release with everything that involves. Producing a score like this is a very long and hard process and it is important not to loose your focus on the way. There are a lot of people involved and a lot of things to keep track of. The creative process of composing and orchestrating is what I like the most of course. That is what I know and what I do. So, being the producer with everything that involves is definitely what I find most demanding.

MMORPG.com:

Is there any part of the Conan mythos that is your favorite? A favorite story or character?

Knut Haugen:

Hmm. Of the original Howard stories, my favorites are probably The Frost-Giant’s Daughter, The Tower of the Elephant and The Hour of the Dragon: I have a direct reference to the The Frostgiants Daughter in the song The Lure of Atali from the first the Hyborian Adventures score. She is a character very similar to the Norwegian “Huldra”. The song is used in certain areas of the Cimmerian highlands. The Tower of the Elephant is central to the storyline in Rise of the Godslayer. This particular story has seen many incarnations. I particularly like the Dark Horse comics version. The Hour of the Dragon is the closest thing to a full-scale Conan novel by Howard. It tells of the time when Conan is King of Aquilonia and the threat of Acheron. I have to admit that Conan himself is my favorite character. No Conan – no stories, movies or games…

MMORPG.com:

Game music is very important to the player experience, how do you set the mood of the player in combat, questing, or exploring?

Knut Haugen:

The most important things to convey when you compose music for films or games, are a feeling of mood, time, place and intensity. For exploration you will always try to make the experience richer by creating a musical background that reflects the general mood of the area, the time-period/era in question, where you are and the tension or lack thereof in this particular area. For combat music mood, time and place is equally important, but most importantly you have to raise the intensity level and get the adrenaline pumping in the player. Unique for games – and in particular MMORPGs – is the fact that the player often stays in the same area for hours on end and will hear the music over and over again. This is the biggest challenge for a game composer: You do not want the player to get tired of the music and turn it off, because then he or she will miss out on much of the experience. The solution to this is to vary the music as much as possible. You should also make sure it is not too prominent with too much thematic material, because it will be more annoying to listen to repeatedly. At the same time, to make the music interesting, it needs melodic material. A good game score manages to balance these two conflicting aspects.

MMORPG.com:

How many tracks are in the soundtrack?

Knut Haugen:

There are 23 main tracks in Rise of the Godslayer. Most of the tracks come in several variations, so there are in fact more tracks in the game itself.

On the CD we have included the 23 main tracks, which you will also get if you buy the mp3s. On the bonus DVD (that comes with the CD), we have included all main tracks as well as a few of the variation tracks in their original 5.1 surround (DTS and AC3) versions.

MMORPG.com:

If someone wants to get involved with Sound and Music in games what advice would you have for them?

Knut Haugen:

I cannot give much advice to sound designers, because that is quite different from being a composer: A sound designer is usually an in-house resource capable of working on any type of project while a composer is specialized and freelance. A composer is usually hired for being an expert on a certain style of music. A developer will normally need a lot more sound-designers than composers, due to the vast amount of sound effects necessary in a game. Hence, there are more job opportunities for sound designers than composers.

That said, the most important thing is to know people and the most difficult thing is to get them to listen to your music: If you are the best composer in the world, you will not get hired unless you can convince someone to listen to your music. Another fact is that developers tend to use the same people over and over again if they are happy with them. They do not take risks, so if they know someone that will deliver a mediocre score on time and on budget, they will probably not choose a composer they do not know, even though that person would be able to deliver an amazing score. If a composer is easy to work with, it will also improve his chances of being hired again at a later time. Many work relationships start in school: Several of the best known director/composer relationships started in this way. My advice would be to get the best education possible and go to a school where it is possible to meet future work collaborators. If you cannot do that: Never stop learning, work as much as you can, get experience and do your best to get to know people in the business.

MMORPG.com:

Give us your final thoughts on Rise of the Godslayer’s music.

Knut Haugen:

The score for Rise of the Godslayer is truly remarkable in many respects: It is different and original compared to most game and movie scores and in terms of quality it is right up there with the best film scores. We really wanted to take game music to the next level with this score and I really believe we have managed to do just that: We have involved the best people in the business to make sure the score will live up to the high quality standards we are used to in Funcom and even raised the bar considerably using only live instruments this time around: As the basis for the score, I used a full symphony orchestra – recorded in Prague – and lots of Chinese and Japanese instruments: A huge taiko-drum ensemble, erhu (Chinese violin), pipa (Chinese lute), guzheng (Chinese zither) and several flutes like dizi, bawu and shakuhachi. We recorded the Taiko ensemble at AIR Lyndhurst Hall, considered to be one of the best sounding studios in the world. Everything has been recorded, mixed and mastered in 5.1 surround and only the best musicians have been hired to play on the soundtrack: The Chinese musicians are true masters of their instrumnets and have played on films like Mulan, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and several Jackie Chan films while the flutist is known for playing the solo flute parts on films like Titanic, Braveheart, The Mission and many others.

I am also very happy with the CD release. Those who buy the box, will get the full 5.1 surround versions from the game in addition to the Audio CD, which I think is great. There is also a lot of other bonus material, like unique artwork and an item for use in-game called the Bone flute.

All in all I am extremely happy with how the score for Rise of the Godslayer turned out. I have had the opportunity to bring all my musical ideas to life in the best possible way. Writing in Chinese style has been a very rewarding experience for me and I honestly think this score includes my best works ever. I hope that you – the players and listeners – will enjoy it as well.

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