Violins and violence for video games

What comes to mind when you think of video-game music? Forgettable push-button electronics, an annoying pastiche of themes and sounds that could have been created by a ten-year-old kid with GarageBand software? One new video game, Battlefield: Bad Company, veers far from that overworn path, instead offering gamers the chance to hear the lush sounds of a full symphony orchestra and string quintet, as well as solo cello and piano.

Image from Battlefield: Bad Company
Courtesy of Battlefield: Bad Company

The game, released by Electronic Arts, features music produced by Please MusicWorks, a multimedia company founded by composer Mikael Karlsson in 2003 with Kiku Enomoto, Charlene Huang, and Tobias Wagner. Unlike many studio music factories, which employ professional musicians who could be described as generalists, Please MusicWorks has a roster of about 100 musicians who are top-notch New York classical freelancers. The music for Battlefield: Bad Company, for instance, is played by a 70-piece orchestra; the conductor for the project was Alan Pierson, of the ensemble Alarm Will Sound.

Listen to clips from Battlefield: Bad Company:
Courtesy Electronic Arts/Please MusicWorks 

Karlsson, born in 1975 in Sweden, has lived in New York since 2000. He writes music that gets played in venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, but he’s also written soundtracks to a number of experimental films and writes pop music, such as his May 2008 song “Until We Bleed,” co-written with Lykke Li and Kleerup. His latest album, Privacy, a compilation of his best chamber pieces of the last five years, comes out in fall 2008. In addition to composing, he also teaches music theory, composition, and ear training at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in New York, and he works as an assistant to the composer Tobias Picker. On November 12, music from Privacy will be performed at LeFrak Concert Hall in Flushing, New York, as part of the Chamber Music Lives series.

Karlsson recently spoke with Symphony managing editor Jennifer Melick by phone from California, where he was visiting Please MusicWorks offices just after the release of Battlefield: Bad Company.

JENNIFER MELICK: How do you feel about being the composer of a score for a violent video game? The cover image shows a hand grenade with a smiley face.

MIKAEL KARLSSON: It’s kind of awkward! But it’s fine, even though I don’t play war games, and I’m not a war supporter. It’s a kind of a hybrid thing. I’m not a gamer at all. Maybe I can do Tetris, at best.

How did the Battlefield: Bad Company project get started?

Producer Stefan Strandberg and I have known each other since we played music together back in Sweden. We actually worked in the same wine store, after I dropped out of law school when I was 20—I sold alcohol to be able to afford piano lessons. We’ve always been talking about music, and challenging each other. I’m the classical guy, and he’s been the “everything” guy, so it’s been a lot of fun. Then Stefan moved on to become the head sound designer at Electronic Arts in Stockholm. One day, in 2005 I think, when I had moved to the U.S. and was home in Sweden visiting, I told him I had teamed up to form a company to score large projects like this, because it’s one thing to write it and another to produce it. “That’s funny,” he said, “because I’m making this game, and I was going to ask you if you wanted to do it.”

So we brainstormed for a year. Stefan sent me a lot of Rachmaninoff, and I sent some Schnittke back—the choral works, the Choir Concerto and Psalms of Repentance—to find the general tone. Also the Balanescu Quartet, a group that is best known for its unusual covers of songs by the German experimental band Kraftwerk.

Image from Battlefield: Bad Company
Courtesy of Battlefield: Bad Company

So was the music written before the game was completed?

We were working on it at the same time, but we actually finished the music last fall, before they finished the game. Then they wrapped up the game work late last spring.

Listen to clips from Battlefield: Bad Company:
Courtesy Electronic Arts/Please MusicWorks 

Do gamers hear music while they’re actually playing the game?

No. The place where you hear a lot of the music is where the game stops, and at that point a little film plays with our music. These filmed bits were edited to our music.

There are 70 musicians in the orchestra that recorded the music for Battlefield. When did you decide on this big-orchestra sound?

I figured it out in collaboration with Kiku Enomoto and my other Please MusicWorks collaborators. Right off the bat we wanted to make this enormous sound—you need a massive brass section, a wall of brass. We needed a standard symphony orchestration. Then for the smaller part of the soundtrack, we went in the other direction, and I wrote the rest for string quintet. All the main themes exist in both shapes—full orchestra and string quintet. For a project like this, you first have to show what sort of big sound you can make—if you don’t have any of that, people are going to look at you funny.

The four big tunes—the Battlefield theme, the War theme, Prelude to a Lost Cause, and the Legionnaire’s Theme—are being sold on iTunes individually, right?

Yes, and from other large distributors as well. You can buy the full-orchestra versions and the arrangements for string quintet.

Mikael Karlsson, composer of music for "Battlefield: Bad Company."
Photo: Niklas Alexandersson

You have scored a number of soundtracks for experimental films, like Barbara Hammer’s History Lessons (2001) and Christopher Young’s Orpheus and Eurydice (2001). How is a project like scoring music for a video game different from scoring a movie?

With a movie the process is linear. You know what’s going to come next, and you can build with form to a much larger extent than you can with games. I can set up something that’s going to happen 40 minutes later. But I have no idea what the game player is going to do. He might be running to an explosion, but then what if he turns around? The solution Stefan and I came up with was to minimize the music that’s in the game when you play it. It’s a very noisy game—it’s a war game, after all! I find that if you soundtrack something that’s supposed to feel like you’re in it, you have a problem right away, because sounds distance you from the action. In the video game, if you want to feel like you’re running around in mud, you don’t want the music to get in the way of that. Whenever a player controls the action, there is no soundtracking. But there are a lot of places in the game when the player just sits back and these little films with music play out on the screen.

When writing the Battlefield music, what musical influences did you draw upon?

The big name for orchestral dramatic music is Gustav Mahler. He was a big influence, the early symphonies. I would say Schubert for his melodies. In Battlefield, we try to make it not just snare drums and orchestral explosions, but a musical soundtrack. And Schoenberg for his use of the orchestra; this music could be just for orchestra, it has so much in it. And the Balanescu Quartet’s Kraftwerk arrangements. Also Bartók. And Alfred Schnittke, just the part writing, just the way he scores his voices; there is something weird in his music, it’s always “sinking.”

Left to right: Clinton Studios assistant engineer Justin Kessler, Please MusicWorks composer/producers Mikael Karlsson and Tobias Wagner during Battlefield recording session
Photo: Alvin Booth

In addition to your work as a composer, you also work as an assistant to the composer Tobias Picker, who is best known as a composer of the operas Emmeline (1996) and An American Tragedy (2005). Have you given any thought to writing an opera yourself?

Tobias is easing me into the concept of writing for opera. I haven’t written a lot of large orchestral music; my music is so fast and agile and rhythmically complicated, it’s very different from the soundtrack music I write. I’m still struggling to make that work with a group of 60 or 70 people, and he’s showing me what’s possible, and I’m learning how to combine drama in that way.

Do you play an instrument?

I play the piano. I don’t perform a lot, because I have a kind of serious case of stage fright, but I love playing in public when it’s chamber music, with other people. Solo performances I hate—I realize what could be done, and when I’m playing I hear what I’m not doing. I played tuba once, very badly—I was eleven or twelve. I was a stick figure, and the tuba was three times the size of me.

You’re working on a lot of projects at the moment—a song cycle, a ten-channel piece, chamber pieces, string quartet stuff, and something you’ve described as “a piece that mocks the beauty of the Baroque era.” How is everything progressing?

I have to finish all these things—it’s very frightening! I’m recording the ten-channel piece on August 21 for the ICE [International Contemporary Ensemble], with Alarm Will Sound as members, and the song cycle has to be done in September. And I’m talking to the mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, who is amazing … I just received the text for the song cycle from Rob Stephenson. I’m collaborating with François Rousseau, a photographer, writing a soundtrack for a February 2009 exhibition at Le Maison Européenne de Photographie in Paris. He has beautiful, amazing photos, and he showed me the final text of the exhibition.

What does it mean to “soundtrack” an exhibition?

Rousseau asked me if I would “soundtrack” his exhibition, but I don’t want to use the word “soundtrack.” There will be music that interacts closely with the imagery in the photographs, and I'm trying to make that really unusual, like a concert experience, in a modern idiom, rather than a movie-type idiom. There will be ten individual speakers, each with different content. Normally there are two or five, if you listen to it at home.

You also write pop music. What are you working on now?

I’m still doing some stuff with Katie Eastburn, a singer I like a lot, out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That’s probably going to be the end of pop music for a little while—oh, I’m working on another project in Europe, I just remembered, in August. I want to write more classical stuff, because I’ve been working on these kinds of pop projects but I have too many ideas that don’t fit into that idiom. I haven't written concert music for several months.

When did you become interested in classical music?

I didn’t listen to classical music before I was 20. Then I got really obsessed with soundtracks—Michael Nyman soundtracks—and to understand how it works I started taking classical piano lessons with my teacher in Sweden. Then I applied to music school, and then I fell in love with classical. I love that there’s so much of it that I just haven’t heard.

When you go to a music school, you’re surrounded by people who can start humming everything—they know every melody to every symphony. And I can’t do that.

What do you think you have learned from the classical music world, and what do you think it could do better?

From the perspective of a composer, I think you have to not sit and bow and be humble all the time; with the masters looking down at you, it’s hard to make music, period. Sometimes the academic vein of classical music now is caught up in a very intellectual pursuit. I love listening to Milton Babbitt talk, but I don’t like his music! Some of what’s really interesting about pop music is that you can have one idea that’s really appealing. This is true if you listen to some of György Ligeti’s best pieces. You don’t need to understand it. I just enjoy listening to it. The joy of making the music is lacking sometimes when I talk to classical composers. But then of course you can turn the tables—in classical music there’s immense attention to detail, and the tradition and ability and emotional depth that you can get that is so often overlooked in pop music. I love not compartmentalizing it. That’s the benefit I have from not being in just one genre, classical or pop.

Tell me about your Please MusicWorks collaborators for the Battlefield: Bad Company project.

Tobias Wagner is also a composer, and he was actively involved throughout this project. We usually work together, but in this case I wrote the music and he gave advice. Then Kiku Enomoto, an active violinist, is our contractor who got the amazing musicians. Charlene Huang is the coordinator, the contact person with all the clients. We formed a company that’s not a standard company. We have a vast roster of all the best New York freelance musicians, and they’re all friends with Kiku and the rest of the gang. All the musicians we used for Battlefield are people we’ve been working with for a long time. They’re not a studio orchestra. We listen to Bartók and Mahler for reference, and these guys are out playing that music! So that works really well. The difference between L.A. and New York is that you get excellent players in either location, but in New York we have musicians who play at Miller and Merkin and Carnegie and Lincoln Center. We’re all so excited and we’re not sitting in an office trying to maximize our income; this is an artistic journey. All recording takes place in New York, we used Clinton Recording Studios and worked with Silas Brown, known to a lot of classical musicians, who has been nominated for several Grammys for several recordings he’s made. I’m excited to be able to work with him as a Please MusicWorks collaborator!

How did you come up with the name Please MusicWorks for your company?

I like that it can mean so many things. At one point, I tried to start a record label called Please Records, but I am not a good administrative person for business, and I didn’t know what to do with it, except find all these people I liked… I’m a musician, it wasn’t right for me. Anyway, the name came up again later when I was getting this group together. A bunch of us sat down to brainstorm ideas, and I said, “What about Please MusicWorks?” The initial reaction was, “No, it’s kind of strange.” But eventually we came back to it, so here it is. I like the little kneeling man in our logo. It was made by a friend of mine.