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The Anvil of Crom: Knut Haugen talks game music, film music, and inspiration

Jef Reahard

Welcome, my fellow barbarians, to another installment of The Anvil of Crom. This week I've got a bit of a treat for the music fans in the audience -- which is basically everyone, amirite? Yes, I finally got the chance to ask a few questions of Funcom's Knut Avenstroup Haugen, the man responsible for Age of Conan's sweeping soundscapes and evocative musical score.

Even if you're not an Age of Conan fan, you'll want to check out what Haugen has to say about the creative process, musical inspiration and research, and the crucial role that work ethic plays for the artist.

Join me after the cut as we talk about all that and more.

Massively: Were you a fan of the Conan property or stories prior to working on the game?

Knut Avenstroup Haugen: Yes! I used to read the comic books during my teen years. I didn't read the original Howard stories until I started working on the game, though. As part of my initial research, I went through all of them. I think my first encounter with Conan was the Conan the Barbarian movie. I saw it two or three years after its release, so I must have been around 11 or 12. I was too young to see it in theatres, but I managed to rent it on video. I was completely captured by the Conan character, by the gritty and violent fantasy world and of course, by Poledouris' music -- which I still think is among the best film scores ever made.

I also still think Conan the Barbarian is a fantastic movie. There's almost no spoken dialogue, but the lack of words works very well in this film. The music becomes extremely important, and it carries the movie, ties it all together and gives the film a strong sense of identity. Without the music -- or if the music had been lacking in quality -- the whole film would have collapsed. It is really a great example of how much meaning the music can convey in a movie and how important it is. This film is almost like an opera with regards to the music playing almost continuously throughout.

Tell us a little bit about your background prior to working on Age of Conan. You're a classically trained pianist, yes? How did you initially become involved with Funcom and the games industry?

Yes, I am a classically trained pianist and composer. I studied at conservatories and universities in Norway and the Netherlands. Prior to getting the Age of Conan gig, I did concert music, and I still do. I have written music for everything from solo piano to large orchestras with choir and soloists. I also wrote the music for a musical as well as two small computer games that unfortunately were never released.

I got the Conan gig by sending a demo. The interesting thing about that is that I would not have known that Funcom was looking for composers if it had not been for a friend of mine who worked for them. It was he who told me they were looking for composers and that I should send a demo. I competed against composers from all over the world, and getting the job meant I did a good demo, but if I had not been fortunate enough to meet the right people, my skills wouldn't have helped me much.

CimmeriaHow does the collaborative process work when composing music for a game? Does the game director or producer leave you alone to do your thing and then offer comments and suggestions on a rough cut? Or is it a more immediate side-by-side working relationship where you're proactively brainstorming concepts with each other?

After I've had the chance to read the design documents, look at concept art etc., the first thing we do is to sit down and discuss the general approach to the score-- the basic idea or concept. This meeting includes game director, producer, lead designer, audio director and myself. The director, producer and lead designer already have a pretty good idea of what they want at this time, but at the same time, they are very open to ideas. They know that I have a deep knowledge about music and are interested in hearing my ideas. Bear in mind that the composer is usually chosen for a project because the producer/director think he is the best qualified person for the job. So at this point, we do a bit of brainstorming if you will.

Basically, we discuss back and forth about the general approach to the score and also more specifically about the different areas in the game and how they should be different from one another. When we have come to an agreement about the approach to the score, I go home to my studio and start working. After a week or so I will bring a few rough sketches (or mock-ups) and we will discuss them. If everyone agrees I'm on the right track, I will just continue along those lines. If they feel I got it wrong, we will go back to discussing and repeat the procedure. Basically, we will reach an agreement very quickly. I will typically bring back three to five sketches at a time and present them for the same people. I need the producer's/director's approval on each cue before I can move on to orchestration and recording.

It would be very time consuming and not very efficient to work side-by-side with the director/producer. There will always be differences in opinion, and I think that it is of vital importance that the producers have complete confidence in the composer's skills and experience and trust his judgment. If not given some artistic freedom, the composer will not be able to do his best. Of course, the director/producer has opinions about the music and gives feedback all the time, but there's no point in getting involved in the composition process itself. It will just slow down the process tremendously, and the score will suffer for it. It will lead to cues made from compromise instead of a speaking with a single, clear, and identifiable voice.

Did the collaborative process change for you at all with the change in leadership at the Age of Conan game director position (i.e., Gaute Godager for Hyborian Adventures and Craig Morrison with Rise of the Godslayer)?

No, not really. We basically worked as described above in both cases.

What kinds of music do you listen to when you're not working? Favorite genres? Composers? Bands?

I listen to all kinds of music, but I don't keep track of what's going on on the pop/rock scene as much as I did before, and I miss out on a lot of good stuff. Generally I'm more interested in art music/classical music than in the popular music genres, but I listen to all kinds of music. It depends on the mood. There's good and bad music in all genres.

KhemiI don't have any favorite composers, although there are many that Iike very much. There could be one brilliant piece of music from one particular composer that I like, so the list is endless. That said, the romantic era and the first half of the 20th century are probably my overall favorite periods including romantic composers like Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, and Russian composers like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. This is just off the top of my head. There are many more.

The Rise of the Godslayer score has been nominated for a Hollywood Music in Media Award. That's a pretty prestigious award, and you're in some equally prestigious company with your fellow nominees. Also, many of our readers and staff have commented on the fact that the Age of Conan music sounds like it belongs in a big budget movie. Is getting into film scoring something you've considered?

It's a great honor to be nominated for the HMMAs. It is in some respects more important to be nominated for the HMMAs than many other awards because the nominees and winners are selected by an advisory board consisting of heavyweight film composers and other industry professionals. It is a contest about quality, not popularity.

I appreciate the kind words about my music, and yes, I would really like to do film scores. I hope an opportunity will present itself. That doesn't mean I would not want to do games anymore though. Films and games come with different sets of challenges, but I think both media are equally interesting.

Your Age of Conan scores are extremely evocative and convey a lot of emotion, much more so than an average game soundtrack. Do you set out to capture a specific mood when you write a piece, or does it all kind of come together in that mysterious, intangible ether that artists often talk about? For example, one of my favorite tracks is The Dreaming: 'Ere the World Crumbles, which to me evokes the prelude and then aftermath of some terrible battle (but I'm sure it doesn't have the same meaning to everyone). What does that one mean to you and is that what you intended from the start?

To answer the first part of the question first: I always set out to create a very specific mood. The reason why my scores are more evocative and convey more emotion is probably because I always -- in addition to composing music that works with the game -- strive to make the music interesting in its own right. I also use more melodic elements than many other game composers, and melody is the single most meaningful musical element. It is something everyone responds to very instinctively. If you write too much melody, the music may easily become too repetitive, though, so the challenge lies in trying to strike a balance between being unobtrusive but at the same time interesting. The music has to convey enough meaning to give the related area a clear identity.

I always have a very clear idea of what I want. The problem is how to achieve that. As a composer, you build up an "arsenal" of techniques that you can use to convey certain emotional states and moods. It is mostly planned, but during the composition process, unexpected things will always occur. If time permits, you should (to a certain degree) feel free to follow the path of association and be open to the fortunate stroke of serendipity. These unforeseen things that always happen during the creative process will often lead to results that you would never have thought of beforehand, but they can also easily lead you astray so you forget what you set out to achieve in the first place, so it's important to keep your focus and not stray too much from your goal.

KhitaiSome call these unforeseen things divine inspiration or something like that, but this is not magic -- in fact, the more you work, the more you will experience these inspired moments. People who say they cannot work unless they are inspired are very unprofessional and probably inexperienced, because inspiration comes from hard work -- from getting up early every morning and working hard even though you don't feel like it. If one day doesn't lead to much, the next day will be based upon your experiences from the day before and open up to new possibilites not accessible without having tried everything else first. To miss the target is necessary to adjust your aim so you will eventually be able to hit the bullseye.

The track "Ere the World Crumbles" is in fact inspired by very much the things you mention. It is more a story of things that have happened than a song to be played as the events unfold, though. I don't see it as a combat or action cue. It's more of a saga in musical form, a bit like the poems and songs of the Viking Skalds. The lyrics are from the ancient Norse poem "Voluspa" or "The Prophecy of the Seeress" as it is called in English, from the Elder Edda. Elder Edda is the oldest and most important source of Norse mythology. Voluspa is the most famous poem and speaks of Ragnarok, the inevitable downfall of the gods and rise of the forces of chaos, the destruction of the world -- and finally of the creation of a new land -- paradise.

The words are in ancient Norse on the recording, but here's the translation for those of you who might be interested:

"Ere the world crumbles, not ever shall men each other spare.
Fighting Vanir tread the field of battle.
Shields are sundered.
Feed on the flesh of doomed men

Speaking of particular pieces of music... this is a layman's question and therefore may be quite silly, but I've often wondered about the tracks on a soundtrack album and how they're arranged. For example, when you sit down to write music, are you writing a particular piece that has a beginning, middle, and end, or does it flow more naturally and result in a big pile of music that is then sorted and organized into the finished tracks at some future point?

If I understand the question correctly, you are talking about the structure of a particular piece of music. Some of the tracks -- or cues -- come in several versions. For instance with or without soloist, with only strings or cut in half playing only first or last part, etc. Basically, they are all versions of the same piece -- variations using the same mold.

When I write the music I always plan very carefully how a piece should evolve. I think musical form is one of the most important aspects of a piece of music. A form could be very simple, like A, B, A -- meaning that in the end you will reprise the opening, but if it has no form, it will be a mess with no definable structure. Even if you don't think about the form as a listener, the wrong form would make you feel there's something wrong with the music.

Some call these unforeseen things divine inspiration or something like that, but this is not magic -- in fact, the more you work, the more you will experience these inspired moments. People who say they cannot work unless they are inspired are very unprofessional and probably inexperienced, because inspiration comes from hard work.

Especially in a game like this, where the world, although based on a fantasy world, is supposed to feel so real, the music has to feel real as well. And to achieve that, form is essential. So I always write with a particular form in mind, and the CD tracks are basically the most complete versions of the selected tracks.

Rise of the Godslayer (and Hyborian Adventures before it) sounds very tribal, for lack of a better word. There's a lot of ethnicity to the music that seems to go hand-in-hand with the different cultural regions represented in the game. Did you or do you research certain cultural music from which to draw inspiration or ideas?

It is true that the style of the music goes hand in hand with the cultural regions in which the music is used. As mentioned earlier, a very important part of creating music for a game -- or film for that matter -- is to give the music a sense of identity. The player must feel that the music is a natural part of the area where it is used and in the world in which it belongs.

I did a lot of research before writing both scores. I studied different types of ethnic music to use as a basis for the sound of each of the main cultures in Hyborian Adventures: Arabic/Egyptian for Stygia, Celtic and Nordic for Cimmeria and Spanish for Tortage. The music for Aquilonia is more generic in quality and leans more towards the romantic orchestra repetoir than any particular ethnicity. It was quite a challenge to find a way of unifying all these different styles and create an impression that all of them belong in the same world.

Particularly for Rise of the Godslayer where the style of the score is so clearly defined, I spent a lot of time preparing. I listened to only Chinese and Japanese music for a couple of months before I wrote a single note, just to get the feel for the music. I did not want the Chinese style to sound "theoretical." I needed to be sufficiently fluent in that particular musical language so that it would flow naturally and that I would feel what a good melody should sound like, rather than having to "calculate" what sounded right and what did not.

I also read several books on instrumentation and orchestration for Chinese and Japanese instruments and ensembles. I also watched a lot of live performances and talked to musicians who play these instruments to get as much information as possible before I started composing. It is very important to know how and for what purpose the instruments have been constructed and to know their possiblilities and limitations.

The musical style of a specific area sounds the way it does because of the way the instruments have been constructed. The construction of instruments dictates the way they should be played, which in turn means that when played in a typical manner, or idiomatically, the parts played by the instrument will automatically sound authentic. Learning how to write well for the instruments you have chosen is therefore extremely important to achieve convincing results.

Awesome info, thanks very much for your time! There you have it folks, a behind-the-scenes look at Age of Conan's musical genesis from composer Knut Avenstroup Haugen. I'll be back next week with more news, opinion, and speculation from Funcom's Hyboria. Until then, I leave you with my traditional concept art.

Jef Reahard is an Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran, as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via

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