Top Score

Composer Mikolai Stroinski offers a preview of his 'Ethan Carter' score

Composer Mikolai Stroinski
Composer Mikolai Stroinski
courtesy Top Dollar PR

There is good news for fans of the indie game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: Sumthing Else Music Works will release a soundtrack from the game on January 27, 2015.

I had the pleasure of sending questions to composer Mikolai Stroinski, and I've taken the liberty of adding some musical examples to highlight his responses:

ER: What did you have for inspiration - did you see screenshots, watch gameplay?

MS: For the first month my reference material was only four screenshots and several long stories (told by [author of the game] Adrian Chmielarz on the subject of Ethan Carter, his family, and the game setting). That was more than enough for me to establish the color and the emotional arc. Adrian is a great storyteller and the screenshots were as amazing as the graphics seen in the game.

After a while I received a working copy of Ethan Carter and was able to play it. Or at least do a walk-around! While doing my walkthrough and pretending to be solving mysteries, I fine-tuned the music's pacing to fit the flow of the game, making sure the score was not too intense, and not too docile.

ER: How did you choose what types of instruments to highlight, like piano and strings? Did the developer ask you to write in this style?

MS: [The developer] The Astronauts gave me full creative freedom. They were interested in what I would come up with. The symphonic palette is very close to my heart, and so are strings. The flute comes naturally to mind when exploring the beauty of nature. (I think this might derive from The Afternoon of the Faun by Claude Debussy.) There is a natural solitude in the flute, a certain hollowness that helps build a creepy atmosphere. I adjusted it further to better serve that purpose. I like a technique that leaves the listener wondering, "Wait a minute- was that flute that I just heard?" I call it the uncertainty of the unexpected.

The piano is the instrument most embedded in my DNA because I am a pianist, having studied it for many years. The actual reason the Ethan theme is played on solo piano is that I was improvising a theme on piano, and was planning on orchestrating it once approved. As it turned out, The Astronauts loved it so much they didn't want anything added to the (...according to them!) perfect piano piece.

ER: You created a very deep sound-scape for the game - your music sounds very open and round. How did you create this openness?

MS: Excellent question! I was thinking both in terms of time and in terms of harmony, using both those tools to achieve this. Harmonically speaking, I focused on using intervals fourths and fifths, plus chord structures built within those intervals. This is a common tool amongst composers, I however like to think of it as avoiding the thirds. This approach lends a subconscious anchor to the tonality. Thirds really are the ones lending definition to the chord. You want to avoid that if you're looking to create harmonic space.

A secondary factor (and maybe a more important one) is the time, or rhythm; it needs to be very diluted if you want to create openness. If I choose a dense harmonic structure, (or even a block), I will overcompensate with more time passing before the next chord. This gives the player time to get used to what just happened in the music.

ER: The game involves supernatural and paranormal forces and such. Can you explain how that influenced your music?

MS: I deliberately chose not to consciously score this element of the game. I was afraid the scoring would be interpreted too literally. Elements of the supernatural in modern scoring always feel more intelligent, and more 'natural,' if left musically alone.

What's the risk? The risk lies in hitting old-fashioned scoring notes, as for example the fifties classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. It is of course an exceptional piece of work, no denying it! But that scoring effect, transferred to the present day, would sound too jarring to a modern ear. It would not work at all in a modern scoring approach. In other words: if you can musically render a natural sounding 'supernatural', those scary elements will be interpreted as being nearer to us, and therefore much, much more scary.

Having said that- I am using some non-natural sounds in my score but their purpose is more to create an original palette, rather than highlight paranormal forces as such.

ER: What kinds of sounds did you use to create tension, or to reflect the paranormal? (I'm thinking specifically of the scraping of piano strings and other unique sounds)

MS: It is hard to mention all the sounds I'm using, but I like organic sounds. This comes from my TV writing experience (TV producers hated buzzy analogs). In this case I used a string sound: piano string or a double bass string, or a string section. EQ turned out to be a very helpful tool and helped me to bring out what I needed in a chosen cue. For instance, I really like that harshness of a single string that you can catch if you mic it from up close. I really wanted this sound to be surfaced during the mastering process. Or maybe I should have said- the sound of a bow. I used this technique on The Witcher 3 soundtrack as well, where harsh strings enhance the roughness of the Slavic folk sound.

ER: Some of the cues sound very hopeful. Can you talk about how you make music sound hopeful?

MS: Going from E minor to C Major :))))). Seriously it is about the chord progression and filling out the warm frequencies. This progression is so cliched! The task is how to build on it and not make it boring. But if you really analyze it, on the surface, it's almost a musical definition of hope. You start with a minor chord, (problems and sadness), then you move on to a major chord that happens to be also a natural substitute. And here comes the element of hope! Don't worry E-minor - here comes C major. But don't be too happy, because here comes E-minor again. And so on.

ER: What kinds of live instruments did you use?

MS: I recorded violin and viola players in my studio.

ER: The song at the end is wonderful. Can you tell me who's singing, and what the song is about?

MS: Absolutely- it's my favorite, Kyler England. We have collaborated before on the Dark Souls 2 trailer and you can tell she then had a completely different tone of voice- which just shows what a stylistically flexible, professional and talented vocalist she is. As far as what the song is about- I have bad news for you: I don't know and I don't want to know. I will always stay away from lyrics because they give music very much unwanted definition and take it away from the beautiful abstract realm. Count Basie once said that the most beautiful note is...the pause. Why? Because the listener can fill it in with his own content. My choice of made up lyrics works on the same principle. Writing lyrics about an abandoned boy who didn't have much luck in his life would be so...flat. I believe this way the ending has so much more impact.

ER: Can you think of anything else you'd like to add about the music?

MS: Your questions have really been well thought out and I don't feel I could add much more. It has been a real joy writing for Ethan Carter and discovering that people enjoy what I did.

ER: I'm excited to see you're one of the composers for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I hope to speak to you about it in the future!

MS: That would be my pleasure- thank you.

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