Arcanum at 60

[Update: In addition to the PC Gamer citation, below, Forbes listed Arcanum as one of the 12 best video game soundtracks of all time in September 2012.]

The March 2012 issue of PC Gamer magazine includes their list of the top 100 games of all time, and Arcanum, for which I composed the soundtrack and designed most of the sound effects, came in at #60. Here’s the entire citation:

Arcanum is a thesis in player-character depth. My first trip through, I murdered Virgil the second he showed up, then went lone-wolf as a half-elf magic user with a penchant for cheap harlotry and booze. My second romp: I rolled as a charismatic capitalist gnome, collecting NPCs to do my technological dirty work. Having the Industrial Revolution stirred in with a reactionary, magic-using population is a setting unrivaled in RPGs. And that music…”

I was really thrilled to see the music called out explicitly (emphasis theirs). I think the only other soundtracks that received mention in their list were Peggle (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy) and Homeworld.

The Arcanum soundtrack is the biggest game score I’ve composed, and it’s been great to see the consistent interest the music has generated over the years, from Paul R. Coats’s saxophone transcriptions shortly after the game was released to the Lively Arcanum group that has been performing this music around Moscow and St. Petersburg more recently (I think this is their official website?).

The music has enjoyed a busy second life in the concert hall. I’ve presented the music live in a number of situations, beginning with the first Sound Currents concert in Seattle with odeonquartet in 2003, and later as part of a game audio panel at Cornish College of the Arts (also featuring Marty O’Donnell, Alistair Hirst, and Scott Selfon). I arranged a string orchestra version that was premiered at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig as part of the “Third Symphonic Game Music Concert” 2005, and last November I presented it alongside some of my more recent ambient electronic work at a concert with students at St. Olaf, a pairing that I felt quite complementary. It’s been played on the radio a few times, and I once got a BMI report informing me that it had been played on television in Finland.

I’ve received a steady trickle of fan mail, and one particularly touching note came from a first lieutenant stationed in Afghanistan who wrote about the cathartic role the music played for him. It’s really an honor to feel that my music has impacted people’s lives in this way.

I believe that the main reason for this music’s durability is that it was composed with a clear vision, a direct response to the unique environment conceived by the game’s creators, Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky, and Jason Anderson. In Arcanum, a Tolkienesque world of magic has undergone an industrial revolution. To evoke this historical anachronism, I composed music inspired by the modes and contours of early sacred polyphony, but orchestrated it for string quartet, an ensemble that came into its own around the time of the Enlightenment. This decision stood in contrast to the common choice of epic, orchestral music for role-playing games, and I feel its popularity is linked to its unconventionality.

Last week I was talking to some new students about their first writing assignment for the spring semester. Before they composed a note, I asked them to write down on paper their concept for the music. I want to get them thinking about what the music is meant to convey and what means might best convey it, while at the same time to discourage the kinds of habits that are easy to cultivate when writing with the fingers instead of the head. For a game soundtrack as much as for the concert stage, music that endures must have something to say.

If you want the full scoop on the Arcanum soundtrack (including links to recordings and scores), check out my Arcanum soundtrack page. I’ve also compiled other reviews of the Arcanum soundtrack over on my press page for your convenience.

Words of Wisdom from the Chairman

[9/18/09 One more added paragraph!]
[7/13/09 Updated with two bonus paragraphs!  Can you find them all?]

Before I left for China in August 2004, I went down to the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district and, on the recommendation of my good friend and former fellow Lemur Celia Chavez, bought a nice, hand bound journal.  I’d always thought that, in the course of my life’s many sojourns, it’s kind of a shame I’ve never kept a journal to record my experiences, and I vowed to make amends on this subsequent venture.

When I first arrived I wrote fairly diligently, documenting my acclimation to life in China.  That lasted about a month.  Entries grew further and further apart, culminating in the lengthy gap between November 22, 2004, and April 9, 2005, before breaking off altogether.

When I started studying Chinese characters a while later, I realized that the only way these things were going to stick in my head was if I wrote with them regularly, and the journal effort recommenced, this time in Mandarin.  Since June 4, 2006 I’ve been keeping a Chinese journal, with much greater success than the English version.  There have been a few dips in frequency, especially earlier this year, as I focused on trying to read my first Chinese book (Lang Lang’s 郎朗 autobiography, and boy, will I have a lot to say about that when I finally finish it!), but now I’m back up to about once per week.  One of my simple pleasures is to go hang out in a bar on an off night, or occasionally one of those all you can eat sushi joints, find a quiet corner, and catch up on my journal for an hour or two.

It’s good for reinforcing characters, but there are drawbacks to a Chinese journal.  It lacks the immediacy of writing in my mother tongue, and my means of expression are drastically reduced to more or less recounting the bare facts.  I write less, I write more slowly, and I hardly ever go back and skim over what I’ve already written (one of the primary joys of journaling, I believe), since I read so slowly.  And due to its personal nature, I rarely have anyone proofreading it, so I tend to reinforce the same dumb mistakes over and over.

So I’d been wanting to write for a while about Mike and Liza Min’s recent honeymoon visit to Shanghai, but I eventually realized it simply wasn’t journal material.  Therefore I have decided to take it to the blog and get all gushy on you for a minute.

As Mike put it on the webpage for the Bike Bin Project, I’ve known him for forever and a half.  That would put our first meeting at the Bauhaus Café in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, where he, me, Korby Sears, and Erik Aho had arranged to go see Harry Partch acolyte Phillip Arnautoff’s homemade string instruments in just intonation.  From there, Mike joined me, Korby, and Geoff Ogle to found the Sound Currents concert series, and Mike assembled the Seattle School composers collective (him, me, Korby, Erik, and Guy Whitmore at its inception) to perform Mike’s piece “Folding” at the first Sound Currents show.  Seattle School went on to conquer the Seattle new music scene with confounding, confrontational pieces, culminating in the hugely successful Iron Composer songwriting competition/obstacle course/drinking game/audience participation/performance extravaganza (in which Mike went by the moniker “Chairman Min”).  I’m not going to tell the whole, crazy story; you can read about it on the Seattle School web site (though even that doesn’t really do it justice).

Unquestionably, my Seattle School cohorts are what I’ve missed the most about Seattle (well, them and good beer).  So when Mike announced that he was marrying Liza Keckler (whom I’d had the pleasure to meet on my last visit to Seattle in 2006), and that they were stopping by Shanghai on their honeymoon, I was ecstatic.  They were here for just 3 days, about a month ago, and it was so awesome to see them that I didn’t even want to waste time Twittering about it.  Jutta and I picked them up at the airport in a car with champagne and fresh fruit, and did our best to show them the best of our fair city of Shanghai in the limited time they had.

It went by super fast; it felt like there wasn’t nearly enough time to talk about all the important stuff, the kind of things that Mike, Korby, and I would stay up late drinking bourbon and dissecting, the inscrutable calculus of composer, performer, audience, expectation, sympathy, structure, innovation, tradition, all the factors that are at the core of any serious art.  I realized that in some ways we’d grown in different directions, but in the important ways, those directions were pretty much parallel. 

I consider Mike one of the wisest people I know, and in retrospect, I realized that I was kind of looking for Mike’s approval on my work and activities in the five years since I left Seattle, and especially in this last year, as my sabbatical is starting to wind to a close.  So the day after they left, I took out a sheet of paper and tried to capture all of Mike’s morsels of admonition.  My memory’s already going fuzzy on the details, but here were the salient points as I captured them then.

Chairman Min says:

I should find a theater guy to consult/collaborate with me on shows.
I can do a lot in two months (approximately what remains of my sabbatical)
I’m getting upset about the wrong things (I think he meant when I’m complaining about loops and peoples’ misapprehension of non-linear or algorithmic structures)
Prebound” is “sweet,” but “口口口口口口口口” should be the single for my new album.
I should curate my own art show; I know enough people to pull it off, and it would be incredible, or amazing, or awesome, I forget which.
When I said I don’t like most people (I think I actually said “anyone”), he said, “Yes you do; you’re just a big Ben bear.”
He digs my three big non-linear spectacle ideas: the opera, the symphony, and the restaurant piece (must get these realized, stay tuned!).
Again I said I didn’t really like anything, and he said that probably the problem was that, like him, I’ve been so overwhelmed by something truly excellent in the past that I’m disappointed when things fall short of that standard.
In the current economic climate, I should feel no remorse whatsoever about selling my downtown Seattle condo when I moved to China (which I had previously described as one of the big regrets of my life).  Mike has an MBA, so I trust him on such things.  What a relief!

Mike also completely disagreed with my frequent observation about how artists have an obligation to know their materials. I’m still thinking it over, but I trot that one out less frequently these days.

Another conversation stuck with me.  I mentioned a poet friend of mine that Jutta and I had gone bowling with a few weeks prior.  She’s since left Shanghai to pursue a graduate degree, which involves picking a new language to learn (you need four).  So we got to talking about career prospects for poets, and thinking about what poets really want out of life.  Mike said, “I think poets just want to be left alone.  Like composers!” 

So true.  That’s all I’m looking for.  I wish I could set my Facebook “looking for” field to “solitude.”  Perhaps as a composer I fetishize time a bit, but it’s really the only thing I need to do good work; I’ve got everything else.  My original plan for this sabbatical year was to move to another city where I didn’t know anybody and just be a hermit, focusing on my work.  As my sabbatical is starting to wind down (less than 2 months remaining!) I’m starting to think that wouldn’t have been such a bad idea.  I mean, I’ve gotten a fair amount done, but I always feel like I could be doing more.  So many opportunities in Shanghai, but, oh, so many distractions…

Other things I observed about Mike, which I think have always been pretty much true, and which I should really take to heart and emulate.

Mike is empathetic; he’s not over eager to talk about his own stuff, but is very receptive to what other people have to say.
Mike keeps his cool.
Mike doesn’t get hung up on insignificant details.
Mike seems to drink a bit less than he used to.
He looks a little older (a reminder that I’m sure I look much older than I did when I moved here), but he looks really happy. I mean, it’s his honeymoon and all, so I’d hope so, but in general he seems really happy with where he is in life.

So anyway, thanks to Mike and Liza for stopping by; your presence here was a tremendous joy and encouragement to me.  Accept my heartiest congratulations on your nuptials, and may you have every success with your impending projects (like that iPhone app).  Sorry for sending you to the beach with cupping bruises on your backs.  I love you guys.  You’re welcome back anytime.