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Whispers of the Plains ~ Interview with Eufloria Composer Brian Grainger

Higher Plain Music has been lucky enough to snag a few minutes with the insightful Brian Grainger, composer for Eufloria the new indie PSN game (previously on Steam too). Here Brian talks about the project itself, how he composes, the problems, the rewards and how he feels on the end result itself.

So now Eufloria is out, how do you feel about being part of such an indie coup of sorts – a game that is taking on the big boys?

It’s interesting that you see it that way – personally I haven’t really looked at it from that perspective, but now that I do, it’s actually quite cool. I’m actually a very active gamer – I have all three current consoles, and I also play online games such as World Of Warcraft – so I don’t have any sort of animosity for major game studios or anything. In fact, I’d love to be employed by one, if they would ever have me. That said, I don’t think there’s actually anything stopping Eufloria from going even further than it has – we’re set to release the game on iPad/iPhone soon and that all by itself is this completely different and massive market. It feels great to be a part of something that has this much potential, although that is not to say I don’t think it’s great already.

Music and sound play a huge part in Eufloria’s atmosphere. How did you get involved in the project firstly, and what was it that drove you to go with the certain ambience that the soundtrack ended up becoming?

It was years ago now that the game was initially conceptualized and created by Rudolf and Alex, and when they started, they were working on it as more of an experiment in procedural generation that was meant to be submitted in an online contest, so they had a really limited amount of time to do it. Back then, Rudolf was already a fan of my music, and specifically the ambient material, and we’d already been in touch somewhat, although I didn’t know anything about what he did for a living. Their project, which was then named Dyson, was described to me with some aesthetic details and Rudolf asked me for permission to use a track from my 2006 CD Beyond The Sea Lies The Stars (Infraction Records) as music for the game, since he and Alex had been listening to it while creating Dyson. I think the track itself was “The Singsong Waters Of An Endless Sea”, which is a big 20 minute loop-based piece that slowly moved around and evolved…so not entirely dissimilar to the music I ended up composing for subsequent versions of the game. Anyway, I think Dyson won the competition and after that things started sorta getting bigger. They submitted it with some updated things to the Independent Games Festival, and surprisingly we got nominated for the grand prize! I think it was at that point that Rudolf said he would be fine simply licensing previous works of mine for use in the game, but I was already so impressed with the visuals and atmosphere that I insisted they let me compose new work specifically for it. By the time it hit the IGF booth I think there was about an hour or so of soundtrack completed. I remember it wasn’t done yet because when I flew out to San Francisco I made sure to touch base with Rudolf and Alex on the audio and discuss what they liked, or wanted to see more of. We had all agreed that the strongest track written for it so far was “Open”, in terms of runtime (the track is 15 minutes) and textures/composition, so I went back to South Carolina to finish the rest of the soundtrack with this aesthetic in mind. By the time the deadline to submit the game to Steam rolled around, the soundtrack rounded itself out at two and a half hours, plus another hour of alt. versions/outtakes. The final result of the music can be credited to both the game’s visual aesthetics and Alex and Rudolf trusting me to “do what I do” more or less. I’m proud to say that everything ended up meshing together far more effectively than I could have ever imagined when I was working on the music and it is all thanks to them.

The music has a certain ethereal otherworldly ambience to it and its hard to tell if the music ever has any actual riffs or hooks. How do you go about making music that is written almost not to take over the players conscious but to provides a certain tone that subconsciously takes over the whole mood instead?

This was very much my modus operandi for most of the recording sessions. I had already made a lot of ambient music prior to the game, but in actuality I was taking a hiatus from making ambient as Milieu because at that point there were some genre-specific boundaries around the project. I had strong desires to make ambient music with less emphasis on melody and more emphasis on texture, atmosphere, experimentation, so I had effectively “packed up” and taken to recording beatless works only under my own name, to have more freedom with the format than Milieu, being a predominantly electronic project, could afford. Looking back at that scenario now, it all seems a bit overdramatized and I suppose that’s one of the big reasons why I prefer to work under several different monikers…so things never get boring! Anyway to continue with my answer: Eufloria was what brought me back to Milieu and ambient electronic music. The whole format of the project being a new and refreshing hill to climb was really what got my gears turning. I love a challenge and something so potent like Eufloria makes it really hard to resist going headfirst into that. Subconsciousness was actually a big factor in this music – I knew straight away that I wanted to invoke a lot of familiarity, comfort, curiosity and even some nostalgia with the soundtrack, all the while being acutely aware of the boundaries involved in both keeping something ambient, not letting it get too busy for a low-key pace, and maintaining the very form of it being a soundtrack, leaving enough open space for sound effects. Combine all of those requirements with longer levels needing longer pieces that developed over time, and the whole project really sort of started there, out of basic on-paper necessities. Stylistically, I wanted the music to feel organic, alive, even growing and changing, and this was inspired by the procedural generation of the game itself. How the trees never grew the same way twice, and how there were all these beautiful variants on the simplest things. For example, that translated into me writing melodies that were programmed to have certain notes played at different octaves every time, which creates the illusion of infinite variation while effectively still being a very straightforward programmed composition. This part of composing alone can create so much musical variance that you still need to rein all that back in, in the end. Especially if you want to end up with something that feels more like a song, less like a meandering jam, even if it turns out to be 15 or 20 minutes long. That element presented itself in the form of a recurring melodic theme, which could and would appear in several different instances of the soundtrack’s songs. It was written initially as a very sparse lead melody made up of only a few simple notes, and was subsequently adapted to be played slower, faster, backwards, on higher and lower octaves, or even just shoved into effects processors as a raw sound to mulch up into textures. That melody really is the blood flowing through the soundtrack, and was established as early as the very first piece that was written, “Meander”. So all these sort of variables and parameters were set up, and through that process, the music almost seemed to write itself.

With the PlayStation version, around an hour of new music was recorded for the game. Did your approach change in any way from PC to PlayStation? Were there any goals you’d set yourself or things you really wanted to try out?

Ironically, so much time had passed between the PC and PSN version of the game that when I sat down and recorded additional music for the soundtrack and handed it in to Rudolf and Alex, most of what I had done got rejected! It wasn’t that they didn’t like what I had made, but instead that my notions of the soundtrack and the sort of blurring you get when you reference something by memory too many times…that had mutated my interpretation and representation of the Eufloria sound, to the point that the tracks I submitted were all essentially “songs” made within the Eufloria sound-template, rather than actual scores for the game itself. So I went back to the drawing board, and it was just as much of a challenge as it was the first time around, unexpectedly. Usually, because I make so much music and I make it on a pretty regular basis (for readers unfamiliar I have released over 300 different albums and EPs since 2004), it’s very hard or even impossible to ever fully return to the sound of a recording I made a year ago or more. Because I have so many different projects and monikers, my gear is always changing, and the way I approach that gear is changing too. For example, I now use a digital reverb/delay effects box only for textural noises and not for the effect it is intended to apply, whereas if you saw me recording in 2006, that effect was my primary source of reverb or delay in my setup. So when I went back to Eufloria, it was almost more a case of amnesia, because I couldn’t even remember how I made everything the first time…and from there, all I really wanted to do was rediscover some familiar ground. The additional hour of music that I recorded, that was happily accepted by Rudolf and Alex, ended up coming from a more graduated look at the game. I wanted to make pieces that relied even less on the previous conventions of melodic unification and variance, and more on things like immersion via repetition and long runtimes. Therefore most of the Euflorian Additions, as I have dubbed them, are much more minimal in the way of melodies and movement, and rely on absolute repetition to really present themselves fully. For me, repetitions can be a very comforting thing, and from the perspective of a gamer, playing Eufloria, you want to have some atmospheric stability…so the new pieces are meant to be relatively predictable, in a good way, and hopefully they round out the already existing soundtrack with a different kind of dense, organic ethos.

Are there any plans for a soundtrack to be made available for sale?

Yes, the OST was first released in tandem with the Steam release of the game, and since that was a limited edition of 100 copies on 2xCD-R, it went out of print relatively quickly. Since then, I have reissued the double-disc set in different packaging (it was in a jewel case before, and now it’s in a white DVD case with different cover art) in an edition of 117 copies, and that edition will be reissued itself if it runs out too quickly before demand is satisfied. The additional tracks recorded for the PSN version have also been given a CD-R release of 171 copies in a high-gloss mini-LP style cardboard CD sleeve. Both the OST reissue and the Euflorian Additions disc come with factory printed full-color art from the game itself, and can be ordered directly from me at the Milieu Music online shop. Digital versions of both releases are also available directly from me at my Bandcamp website, in FLAC, MP3 and even OGG file formats., there was a very limited edition release called We Live In The Trees that was only available as a thank you to people who helped me pay for my trip to and from San Francisco for the Independent Games Festival. This release contained two longform tracks, Softwhite and Burnt Dusk, which appear in abridged/heavily edited versions on the OST release. This release is completely out of print and unreleased anywhere else, although I am considering making a digital version for sale on Bandcamp soon. Beyond all of this I am actually at work currently on yet another expansion of the soundtrack intended for the iPad version of the game, and that additional music will likely see a physical release as well in the future.

Which parts are you most proud of and were there any unique challenges in composing Eufloria that you had to overcome?

I would say that the most challenging factor in composing for the game was simply that it was my first soundtrack ever attempted, and so the general going about it was in itself the hardest part. Once I had a handle on what X visuals and Y pace would translate into aurally, it developed very naturally. My favorite pieces are “Open”, “Pink Leaves” and “Distances”, even though those pieces are all very different musically, and I think the thing I am most proud of about the soundtrack is how well received it has been in terms of just being a Milieu album, on top of a soundtrack. It has effectively crossed into both being a functional score for Eufloria and a record that people can put on outside of the context of the game and still enjoy as music alone.

How much of a gamer are you yourself and are their any games that sound out for you lately?

As previously stated I am a very enthusiastic gamer and I’m always appreciating great sound design and music in other games. This year in particular I’ve played some really fantastic games…LA Noire really had impeccable atmosphere and I absolutely loved the investigation interface, and how much it relied on musical cues instead of some intrusive on-screen menu to guide the player towards key elements. I’m a big BioWare and Bethesda fan so I was of course playing Dragon Age 2 and Fallout: New Vegas (the latter a few different playthroughs), and I’m super excited for Mass Effect 3. I finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution about 2 weeks after I picked that up, and I’m nearly done playing Rage right now. Aside from those titles, I regularly play as a rogue in World Of Warcraft, log in to Animal Crossing on our Wii and I have kept up with some XBLA titles as well, such as Limbo (which was truly a standout in terms of audio and atmosphere!) and anything the almighty Doublefine releases (Trenched is a riot!). Ironically the system I turn on the least is the PS3, but I have been turning it on more for Eufloria lately, and of course where else will you go to play Katamari Damacy or Little Big Planet? I am also eagerly anticipating The Last Guardian and I plan to pick up the HD remasters of Ico/Shadow Of The Colossus too, and I just heard from a friend that Crono Trigger just got a digital reissue on the PSN as well, which I’d love to play again. The most anticipated title of the year for me is hands-down Skyrim – Oblivion was one of the first games that truly blew my mind and in the wake of open world Rockstar games, it really just stepped everything up in terms of immersion. For me, there is something quite nostalgic about picking flowers in the woods, finding an Ayleid ruin and spending hours on end exploring, looting, questing. Once Skyrim is released I will probably disappear from everywhere until Christmas, when I awake from a coma, open my presents, and retreat back into my studio until Mass Effect 3 lands…

Do you have any other composing duties lined up we can know about?

Nothing I can really talk about at length just yet, although it has been formally announced that I am once again part of Rudolf Kremers’ team for his next game, tentatively titled Starlit, doing (you guessed it) soundtrack and sound effects. The game is set up to be a science fiction title and so I am already forming the basis of what the Starlit universe will sound like along with Rudolf. Rudolf is a very talented guy and a pleasure to work with, so I’m sure people who played Eufloria and enjoyed the game as well as my music will not be disappointed with whatever we collaborate on next.

Many thanks to Brian for his excellent insight into his world of composing. Be sure to check out his works!


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