Magnus Birgersson (Solar Fields) Interview: A New Sound for Every Day (June 2012)
Swedish electronic artist Magnus Birgersson is best known under his stage name Solar Fields. The project is highly profilic and recently released its tenth studio album. One of Solar Fields' biggest successes has been the Mirror's Edge game soundtrack, for which Birgersson composed about 150 minutes of music.
Interview Subject: Magnus Birgersson
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: What started you on your musical path? Do you have a musical education? Did you play in a band when you were younger?
Michael: It would be great to hear how you decided to become a solo artist. What inspired you to create the Solar Fields project? Why do you prefer ambient music, and how do you feel about other styles of music?
Magnus Birgersson: I don't really know, I guess it has been with me since the first day I got a connection with synthesizers. The endless possibilities with machines have always been a source of inspiration. Also, I guess travelling and meeting new people and cultures has impacted my inspiration. I have always been doing my solo thing in different kinds of ways, I like the freedom when I'm alone when it comes to composing.
I guess the Solar Fields project has been with me since I started with synthesizers and computers, it just took some years to find a good name for the project :) I do a lot of other things, so I'm not just into ambient, but for the Solar Fields thing it is mostly ambient stuff. I listen to all kinds of music. I guess ambient is the genre I listen to the least at the moment, because when I'm closing the studio doors, I like to hear other things than pads and atmospheres.
Michael: There’s an imposing amount of instruments you work with, but we’ve noticed among them is the balalaika. Why is this, and how important are live instruments for your work?
Magnus Birgersson: Well, I'm collecting a lot of instruments and the balalaika is one of them. I like the sound of it somehow, it has a really special character to it. For the Solar Fields project, I play all synthesizers and other instruments "live". I don’t use midi files for recording, so I press the rec button and record everything directly as audio files. If I need to sequence something, I mostly use analog types of sequencers or arpeggios.
Michael: Apart from Solar Fields, you also have a side-project called H.U.V.A. Network, with Vincent Villius of AES Dana. What role do you play there?
Magnus Birgersson: I guess I'm the captain of the machines, since I have all the knowledge about that.
Michael: You’ve already released two H.U.V.A. Network albums. What are your future plans?
Magnus Birgersson: Actually it's three albums :) When we both have the time to get back to this project, things will happen quite fast I guess.
Michael: Let's talk about your game soundtrack debut Mirror's Edge. Why did you decide to work on game music? How did you get to work on this particular project?
Magnus Birgersson: It was the Audio Director [Magnus Walterstad] for Mirror’s Edge at DICE who phoned me and asked if I was Magnus Birgersson, the man behind Solar Fields. He sent some concept art, but I still didn’t know what the game was about or anything and they asked me to audiolize the concept art to see if I ‘heard’ the same things he did while looking at the images. After he got the results, he said it was a perfect match and after some months I got invited to the DICE offices in Stockholm and I got a short briefing on the project. In September 2007, I started to work full time on the music for Mirror’s Edge.
Michael: Writing solo music and working on a soundtrack that will accompay existing imagery are two very different things. Were there any significant artistic and technical differences from your solo work? What were the terms and requirements have you got from EA and DICE? With what materials did the developers provide you with?
Magnus Birgersson: I got the complete manuscript, concept art and play through videos. DICE provided me with a lot of detailed information about each level, the characters and the story. Since I wrote the music in my studio in Gothenburg, I had to travel to Stockholm a couple of times to see how everything was coming together and make sure that the music and the game worked together as well as possible. Me and the Audio Director were in touch almost every day during the music production. On my visits to DICE in Stockholm I met the level designers and we played through the levels and we talked about how the music should feel. We tested the music with the game, trying out each level to see if we should trigger calmer music, more intense music, or maybe complete silence. I’ve seen Mirror’s Edge in action from the very early stages up to the final version.
If I was to compare this process to writing music for my own albums, it’s like night and day. I had to rethink my way of composing since I didn’t have the same linear structure to rely on, compared to when I am composing for Solar Fields.
It was also a huge challenge for me - there was a lot of music that had to be created during a short period of time. Finding out how to capture the feeling of Faith [Mirror's Edge's protagonist] and the story and reflect that in the music was quite challenging. Another challenge was to get the music to play seamlessly in the game and get the music to interact with the player. The idea for the music was that there should be no gaps while playing, which meant I had to compose all parts for each level so that they would work together even if there was a tempo change or a different chord structure. Since there are so many different sounding parts in each level that reflect Faith’s mood, it was a big effort to get these parts to work together smoothly. The goal was that the player wouldn't hear the changes between the different parts and rather feel the musical changes. The result is fantastic, but it was quite tricky to get it to work as we wanted.
I wrote around 150 minutes of music in total. The main scoring took 4-5 months, and after that I did some polishing and edits to align the music with changes in the game. Each level has its own theme and feeling that reflects the mood of Faith and the game play. I'm very happy to say that I got 100% creative freedom to do what I wanted. Of course there was a structure that I had to follow, for example we had different categories for each level, such as ambiences / puzzles / chases / combats. Other than that I had total freedom, and from the response I got up till today I think I added a lot of identity to the score and the game.
Michael: So far, Mirror's Edge is your only game soundtrack. Do you plan to continue working on games, or do you currently have any game projects in the making?
Magnus Birgersson: Until recently, I've been busy finishing my 11th Solar Fields album called Random Friday. The album was released in April, after that there will be some touring and then we'll see ;) Due to NDAs, I cant talk about any projects, but you will definitely hear more music in games from me.
Michael: What other musicians have had a strong influence on you? Who would you like to work with in the future?
Magnus Birgersson: Early Kraut-Rock had a huge influence in terms of being free to think and compose without any borders or rules - and that's what Solar Fields is all about. I don't follow any patterns of what is popular at the moment or try to re-create something that I have already done. Solar Fields goes way deeper than that. Every day is a new day and every sound should be a new sound.
Michael: With all your work, do you get much free time? If so, what do you do then? Do you like to travel? Have you ever been to Russia or Baltic countries? If so - what are your impressions?
Magnus Birgersson: When I'm finished with a project or an album release, I usually take some time off. I am really a hardcore worker - when I'm working on something, it is my only focus, and when I have the inspiration I need to let it all flow.
I have been to Russia and Ukraine a couple of times to perform live shows, and it was really fantastic. The audiences are really connected to the music and it is an absolute joy to come and perform in these countries. My last visit was in April, I had a show in Moscow.
Michael: What has been the funniest moment in your musical career?
Magnus Birgersson: Ooh, that’s a hard one - lots to choose from, so at the moment I can’t really answer :)
Michael: Finally, can you give any advice to musicians who are just starting out?
Magnus Birgersson: Stay unique and do what you really like to do and do not try to copy someone else. Take your time to learn how things really work, and you'll reap the rewards of your efforts in the future. Be creative, instead of using a sample from a library that hundreds of people have been using before - create the sounds yourself.