Anthesteria (George Beloglazov) Interview: Ambient Sounds for More Than the Russian Post-Apocalypse (April 2010)
Dmitry Glukhovski's debut book Metro 2033 has become a head-turning success, with 500.000 copies sold in Russia alone, foreign book rights sold to more than 20 countries, and Glukhovski winning the Encouragement Award of the European Science Fiction Society in 2007. Set in a post-nuclear future, within the confines of Moscow's subway stations, it's no wonder that at the same time when Metro 2033 was being written, Ukrainian developer 4A Games (a part of the crew that made the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) started work on a video game adaptation, which has received strong reviews since its release.
The music for this interesting project was written by our old friends Anthesteria, who left a lasting impression with their game soundtrack Outcry. Today we are talking with George Beloglazov, the brain behind Anthesteria's, about how the music for Metro 2033 was created. The interview will also cover a new project by Beloglazov's Phantomery Interactive - the ideological successor to Outcry, Phobos 1953, which boasts an improved game engine and atmospheric soundtrack with analogue stylings.
Interview Subject: George Beloglazov
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: How much did you enjoy the world described in Metro 2033 and what would compare it with - the Fallout universe, for example?
George Beloglazov: I might have already mentioned it - the idea of a post-apocalyptic world is very close to citizens of the former Soviet Union, if not so much in the way it's presented in the Fallout games. For us, the concept is more an accumulation of all those feelings of fear, anxiety and uncertainty which prevailed during the rapid collapse of the USSR. For so many people, the whole world changed, the old laws didn't apply anymore – overnight you find yourself in a hole, and there's people around you suffering the same fate and now you have to make this hole habitable somehow. It’s then when both the best and the worst qualities in people become apparent. In this sense, the world of Metro 2033 is closer and more relatable to me than the post-nuclear road movie style of Fallout, which better reflects the fantasies and fears of the American people. As a result of this I feel concerned about how Metro 2033 will be received in the United States and in Europe, because it is based on a typical Slavic cultural context, which may seem alien and incomprehensible to many foreigners – all these gloomy stalkers, fragments of military power or references to the Orthodox tradition.
Michael: Glukhovski claims that Fallout has made a great impression on him and that Metro 2033 is a tribute of sorts. Fallout's soundtrack consists of diverse ambient and jazz elements. What style of music will we hear in Metro 2033? What were your sources of inspiration?
George Beloglazov: Actually, I tried to create the tracks thinking of all these stations of the Moscow subway. The right thing to do would have been to study their history, themes and their current state in the game, and then write a track based on all this. But that's the ideal situation. The problem was that I didn’t have a copy of the game available when writing the music. There were screenshots and some videos, so at times I had to make some creative guesses. At one time I was keen on photographing various abandoned places - factories, bunkers, hospitals – and undoubtedly, that was an important source of inspiration. When working on Metro 2033, I once more turned to Tibetan overtone singing, using the phenomenal voice of Dmitry Globa, which fills the deserted subway tunnels. Also, somewhat atypical for Anthesteria, there are a lot of guitars on this soundtrack. And of course, there are Orthodox chants, some of which are performed at a lower pitch. The chants are an incredibly strong material with which you're more likely to interact act as a sound designer than as a musician.
Michael: Are there any hidden easter eggs on Metro 2033?
George Beloglazov: No, all easter eggs ended up in Phobos 1953.
Michael: On your blog, you conducted a poll called “What would you like as a soundtrack to Metro 2033?” Did you use the results of this survey in your work?
George Beloglazov: At that time, my work on the most of the tracks was nearing completion. That was why first of all, I was interested in comparing the already existing sound with what the book readers’ had in mind, perhaps after also after having seen screenshots and videos from the game. The results of the survey only reinforced my belief that I was moving in the right direction.
Michael: Would it be correct to compare Metro 2033's music to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.? How do you like MoozE’s work on that game?
George Beloglazov: I think he did his work very well, but no, it is not correct to compare these soundtracks, already because the two games are completely different. In its concept, Metro 2033 has absolutely no resemblance to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - it rather shares some common features with Half-Life. That’s why some people think that there’s no music in Metro 2033, but there an "atmosphere" instead – it’s in fact a big plus when you manage to create that kind of feeling. In addition, the gameplay in Metro 2033 is much more intense and dynamic than in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., so the music from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is more memorable for the player. Of course, the fact that the founders of 4A Games were some of the originators of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. necessarily leaves its mark on Metro 2033: people with guitars sitting around a campfire, a trip to the reactor, rusting machinery left over from Soviet times. Oddly enough, I think that in Metro 2033, it all looks more natural - in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. these images are often not completed, they are lacking in credibility.
Michael: We haven't seen a solo album from you for quite some time - what are your current projects and will you write in an ambient, post-apocalyptic and cinematic style for your new solo albums as well?
George Beloglazov: Oh, this is a very interesting question, although by now I'm not sure that I would like to write music for something like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.... You know, it’s such a strange sensation, similar to what you experience when you meet a girl for whom once you had certain feelings. It is a mixture of astonishment and disappointment, because what enchanted you one day now turns out to be not exactly the thing you expected. Really it's been a long time since I've released solo albums. My work for Phantomery Interactive and on game soundtracks occupies almost all of my time. But little by little, for several years now, I’ve been working on two albums. The first one is devoted to Pripyat [an abandoned city near Chernobyl] - which I visited - and how it is etched in my memory. It’s entirely based on my field recordings from this “ghost town” and archival audio footage recorded during the days of the accident. I want to make a sort of documentary-emotional "sound impression" of Pripyat - its past and present. The other album doesn’t deal with the idea of post-apocalyptic times, which as a concept has been worn out anyway. It is an album of prenatal experiences and early childhood memories. This is music of the world where we all once felt like being a part of eternity. Generally, a 4-5 year old child does not think of death’s existence and that life is finite.
Michael: How did you interact with Metro 2033's developers? It seems that regarding the music's style, you were given carte blanche - how did you decide the appropriate musical genre for Metro 2033?
George Beloglazov: I had complete freedom, except for restrictions concerning the length of tracks. I wrote the first track for the game as early as in the summer of 2006, at night in a garage in the old center of St. Petersburg. It was at that time that the overall musical style was chosen – dark ambient based on field recordings with minimal orchestration, but with a frequent use of guitars. On my part of Metro 2033's soundtrack, there are a lot of metallic sounds - these were mostly field recordings from abandoned factories situated in various cities of Russia, where you can find tons of rusted metal, and where the acoustics are simply phenomenal sometimes. Later I added the tracks with the Tibetan overtone singing, which I had already used in Outcry. I also wrote some more lyrical and sad compositions, which reflect the lives of people in the inhabited subway stations, using an acoustic guitar. Unexpectedly, a track written in the style of post-industrial country music for another post-apocalyptic project (now closed) fitted Metro 2033 just fine – the composition is often heard in the game when the player rides on a trolley.
Michael: Will the music emerge only during key moments (as in Bioshock 2) or will it be present all the time?
George Beloglazov: The music starts playing when the player enters a new location. Usually it’s a fairly short track (1-2 minutes), which gradually dissolves into the soundscape. In cut scenes, the developers designed the musical layout, and there the player will a few short snippets from different tracks mixed together. I would not call such an approach to cut scene scoring ideal, but given the fact that I was working remotely, it was more than justified.
Michael: We’ve heard that Metro 2033's soundtrack for the game won’t get a separate release. What are the reasons for this?
George Beloglazov: It all all depends on the publisher. Together with the developers, we are working hard to convince the publisher to do a soundtrack release. THQ is a big company, and the decision-making process is slow, but I think we’ll still release this soundtrack, perhaps as a free web album. The music rip which can currently be found on torrents is dreadfully twisted, distorted and inadequate. What's more, it's missing part of the tracks. I would not recommend listening to it or installing the pirated versions of the game, where the sound and the music are rumoured to freeze.
Michael: How many minutes of music were written for the game and how much time did you spend on composing for Metro 2033?
George Beloglazov: There are 15 tracks, with a total length of a bit more than 30 minutes. The total time spent on the project is very difficult to estimate. I started to write the music during the early stages of game development, and then there was a pause of a few years until everything was sorted out with the publisher. After that, it suddenly turned out that I had to write most of the tracks within a month, since the game was already in early beta! The developers suggested licensing a range of tracks from my old albums. Perhaps, if it had been some other project, I would have agreed, but Metro 2033 was special to me from the very beginning, and I had a very clear understanding of how it should be scored. So I convinced the developers that the music had to be created specifically for the game (one track called "Necropole" from my album Beyond Nimbostratus was left in the game, but all the parts were completely rewritten). It's possible I've never worked so intensely on a project before. Fortunately, during all these years of waiting I had prepared a lot of unfinished sketches for the world of Metro 2033, which came in very handy.
Michael: Do you think your music will create a stir just like Fallout did back in the day?
George Beloglazov: Time will tell – now the music leads a life of its own. The tracks aren't long enough for an album release. However, I wrote each track with a good 'reserve' - there are enough ideas, samples and parts to build a two minute composition into a to six minute track. Also, I intend to make a live version of the tracks from the project. But again, it all depends on the publisher, because I need approval to do all this.
Michael: Who performed the guitar parts - or did you use sample libraries?
George Beloglazov: For the guitar recording sessions, I invited Andrey Minaev, with whom I had already worked on Outcry. On one of the tracks I used a sampled electric guitar – I though about rewriting that guitar part, but that mechanical, industrial sound of the samples seemed like a better fit for the track.
Michael: The Russian Orthodox chants on one of tracks were obviously recorded live. What's the origin of this recording?
George Beloglazov: One of my friends, who is a musician, provided me with this recording. He is a religious person and often records chants and liturgies with the help of his portable studio. I have been using Orthodox chants in my music for quite some time now, and this choral liturgic music was just perfect for a location like the underground church in Metro 2033 - except that the quality of the recording was terrible, and I had to spend quite a bit of time to make it sound better.
Michael: After you've now witnessed how your music has been implemented in Metro 2033, does it all sound just like you imagined it would or are there any changes that would you like to see made? Given how long the game is, do you think there's enough music in it?
George Beloglazov: I’d definitely change and improve a number of things, but on the whole I’m pleased with the results - I managed to do all that I could within the time that was available to me. Considering the length of the game, I think that there's enough music in it. Furthermore, several tracks are presented in the game as short 15-20 second fragments, so this material can still be opened up in the future. I also believe that generally, the music in the game is mixed too quietly - it’s especially noticeable when it serves as a backdrop during dialogue scenes.
Michael: Metro 2033 has received some of the best reviews a Russian game ever has in the Western press, and riding on this wave of success, the publisher has already announced some downloadable content. Do you know whether they're planning to have new tracks written for the DLC or whether they'll use already existing material? Would you like to continue working on the game or perhaps a sequel?
George Beloglazov: I would really love for Metro 2033 to be a Russian game, but it's a Ukrainian project, and thus it all the more demonstrates the weakness of the Russian game industry with all its questionable shooters bolstered multi-million dollar budgets, provided through weird channels such as oil revenues. As for the DLC for Metro 2033 - I don’t have any information concerning this, but if the developers asked me to write some new music, I'd be very happy to do so! For me there have only a few music and sound design projects that I've really wanted to work on, and Metro 2033 was definitely one of them.
Michael: Metro 2033 is your first soundtrack written for a third party project and not for one of your own games. As you say, Metro 2033 might have been a unique experience, but would you still be interested in composing music for other people's game projects? Is there maybe even something in the pipeline already?
George Beloglazov: That statement is not entirely true. In 2006, I recorded the soundtrack for another Ukrainian game: Expansion: The History of the Galaxy. The game is a neverending project, much tougher than S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - the developers still haven’t reached beta stage. But I still believe in them =) By no means am I interested in all the offers that I receive. It’s easier to reject an offer if I feel that a project is “not mine” and that I won’t be able to do my best. There are lots of musicians in the industry who set out to work on any project - I call them "Swiss army knives”. "Swiss army knives" may compose big classical pieces, dark electronics, luscious lounge or heavy metal - all this in slipshod manner. I prefer to think of myself as a "fighting knife" - heavy, with two-sided sharpening and a good finger guard. That's the best item to have at hand if you face a skeptical crowd of players that you want to frighten to death, or if you want to keep them in suspense for a little while longer =)
Michael: On Outcry, your music was abstract and melodic, recorded using live instruments and VST instruments. On Phobos 1953, there's a darker, denser combination of digital sounds and analogue noises. Could you tell us more about the concept behind Phobos 1953's music and how you came up with its characteristic sound?
George Beloglazov: The Soviet retro aesthetics of the project revealed a great layer of music, which strongly inspired me. I wanted something "wrong" and atypical for the game's soundtrack: "dirt", analogue overtones, noise. One day, the music from a Russian film called Dead Mountaineer's Hotel, which was magically blended with the voices of guests of the titular hotel, somehow strangely lodged itself in my mind. The climax of the film's soundtrack is when an android asks: "Where is Olaf Andvarafors?", and a cold shiver runs through your body. At the same time, I didn’t want to completely adopt the analogue aesthetics of my side-project E.K.R.A.N., so it's still Anthesteria, but with a slightly different sound than in Outcry. Perhaps it's closer to an album dedicated to the Russian-Japanese War of 1904/05 - the same analogue shade and samples from old songs can be found there.
Michael: Phobos 1953 is based on a movie. When you wrote the game's soundtrack, did you use the film score as a reference? Was the option of using the film score in the game ever considered?
George Beloglazov: I listened to the movie soundtrack and there was a proposal to use it. However, even from a technical point of view, it didn’t fit completely. After 20-30 seconds of ambient sound, the volume inevitably escalated, violin tremolos entered and the music "jumped" at you - a common cinematic trick. It was impossible to figure out what to do with these pieces. There were also some irritating harps on the film score. As a result, we got rid of all the music from the movie and it turned out great.
Michael: All these atmospheric synth sounds are a deliberate stylization of Soviet films or even animation, aren’t they?
George Beloglazov: Yes, that’s exactly right, and even of animated cartoons. I'm crazy about those strange and surreal Soviet animated movies - Fantadrom, Armenfilm... At home I have an old synthesizer which produces the sound of the spacecrafts in a Russian animated film called Secrets of the Third Planet, and that mode is even mentioned in its manual (apparently they did not know how to name it and just drew a flying saucer).
Michael: Did you use real old school hardware such as Soviet synthesizers when you wrote Phobos 1953?
George Beloglazov: I used them a couple of times. I didn’t manage to show off their full potential – not because the synthesizers were lacking, but due to time constraints – for a long time, we couldn’t agree with the publisher on the music. Oh, these publishers - you never know what's going on in their heads!
Michael: The credits theme music for Phobos 1953 was written by 1Shot (aka the SoundEditing.ru project) How did your collaboration come about?
George Beloglazov: At that time we were finishing a game testing job, and in the course of our conversation with Eugene, he suddenly offered to write a track for Phobos 1953. Of course, I was surprised, because it's not every day that you receive an offer from 1Shot to compose music for your project, but I held back my excitement and said: "OK guys, but you only have time until Sunday”, and sent them some screenshots. It only took them a few hours, and the track turned out to be awesome. It's a perfect fit for the credits - an artificially generated voice recorded from a number station is just ideal for Phobos 1953's aesthetics.
Michael: In what way will the music engage our imagination? Does it have any particular hook?
George Beloglazov: I don't have the slightest idea! Well, there’s balalaikas in it :)
Michael: What albums have impressed you recently? Do you stick to your favourite artists or do you also come across new treasures?
George Beloglazov: I've listened to quite a few new tracks and rarely discover something new for myself.
Michael: Which games have impressed you with their music or sound design, and are there any Russian games among them?
George Beloglazov: I really liked the sound design in Cryostasis. Also, I’m always pleased with the sound and game music from Gaijin Entertainment. The sound atmosphere in Fatale, a new project developed by Tale of Tales, is fascinating – they did quite a logical thing when released a sound trailer for the game. Among not-so-new projects that I've only managed to look at recently, I was impressed by Condemned: Criminal Origins.
Michael: Recently, your game studio Phantomery Interactive has been keeping an eye on (or is already working on?) games for social networks, and thus there seems to be some confusion among your fans - are you still planning to make games for the retail market?
George Beloglazov: I should clarify: Phantomery Interactive is not engaged in social game production. A not-yet-announced project based on the same technology as Sublustrum and Phobos 1953 is currently under development. For social game projects, we've got a separate department that even operates under a different brand name. Now this all is an experiment with a new game format, which has great potential. We should realize that the social gaming market is not prepared yet to accept the kind of ideas that Phantomery Interactive presents, but when the time comes, we will strike a fatal blow at the very heart of Farm Frenzies and Pokemons =) By the way, we decided to launch an experiment and put the soundtrack of Phobos 1953 in a sort of application (at the moment it’s available only on the Russian social network Vkontakte). It’s safe to say that it's a kind of search for a new media vehicle for a music album, which may replace the CD.
Michael: What’s your forecast - will the Russian game industry make its way out of the crisis? Will large projects get off the ground or will there be a mass migration of developers into social gaming? Do you think that the social gaming market will sooner or later bottom out and people will no longer rush into playing yet another Farm Frenzy clone?
George Beloglazov: Social games are not a safe haven for developers waiting for the financial crisis to end, and they represent a very risky challenge. These games do not forgive mistakes and developers will no longer have "airbags" in the form of publishers that are financially involved in the development and provide distribution. And of course, marketing and support and working with a game's community of players will become a heavy burden that developers will have to shoulder. Nowadays, lots of projects are released every day and in the future there will be even more, with only few of them becoming successes, and the entry threshold will only rise further. Not everyone will be able to "rebuild the brain" in order to create social applications: knowledge of game design is not enough, because you also need a deep understanding of psychology and even neuromarketing. There are, of course, some advantages such as the lower costs of art design and game programming, instant feedback from the players, transparency of financial flows, etc.
Michael: Thank you for the interview!
George Beloglazov: My pleasure!