Thomas Brunet took the time to answer a few questions we had about their work on the Chants Of Sennaar soundtrack. Here's what they had to say!
Q1: It seems fair to assume that Chants of Sennaar is at the very least loosely based on the biblical story of The Tower of Babel. Did you use this concept as a jumping-off point for the soundtrack or any of its tracks specifically?
A1: Actually, the Tower of Babel appeared quite late and only as a quick way of pitching the game. Of course it has deep ramifications and parts of our western cultures are permeated by it, so in a way there is a lineage there, but it never consciously informed the way I wanted to treat the music. One of the most important guidelines I received from Rundisc (who developed Chants Of Sennaar) was that the distinct groups you meet in the game and their respective cultures, although inspired by reality, were never allegories of a specific ethnic or religious group. We had to keep things fictional.
In the same way that the architecture featured in the game is a patchwork, the music leans on several different influences, and the choices I made during the composition process were guided by the way each people thinks and sees the world, way more than by any resemblance they might have with such and such real-world group. I didn’t want any particular influence to dominate too much so it was a bit of a balancing act.
A2: I knew absolutely no-one starting out and, most importantly, I still wasn’t sure which instruments would be featured prominently in the score. I knew right away I wanted a live cello and maybe an oboe but the rest was decided a bit later. So the first thing I did was to contact the recording studio to get a cost estimate on the project and to try and record as many live instruments as possible without going over budget. In this process I met with Stéphane and Laura who own the Studio Du Bassin near Bordeaux and they became dear friends. They were the ones who brought in the flutist, Sylvain Millepied who, in turn, brought in the other musicians. My priority was to find musicians and technicians who were experienced in recording games or films scores, playing to a click and all that sort of thing. This proved critical in keeping schedule since we had a very tight budget for 2 days of sessions for 9 instruments. Everyone of them did a fantastic job, and I couldn't be more grateful. They all demonstrated such dedication and professionalism that kept the stress to a minimum and hopefully the fun to a maximum. Later we returned in the studio to add the vocals and the clarinets. So it was literally my first experience working with any of them, and I’ll gladly do it again!
Q3: Did you play any instruments on the soundtrack or did you work solely on the composition?
A3: I played Irish bouzouki and several traditional flutes on the demos. All my flute takes were thankfully replaced with the incredible performances by Sylvain. I also had to deliver these demos to test implementation as we progressed, so I did all the mock-ups with samples, most of which you can still hear in the final soundtrack. I often start by playing an instrument, be it piano, guitar, flute, percussions. That way, I know I have something that’s idiomatic for the instrument that I can build on top of. For example, the track “A Bit Of Fun” was initially just me playing a Romanian peasant flute and finding the right tone for the scene. So playing and composing are part of the same process for me, which makes sense when working with traditional music. Of course there is a whole different layer of harmonic work that happens on the page or in the DAW. But I tend to try and perform themes and rhythmic accompaniment before I write them down. There's an intimacy to playing these yourself that helps when doing the more cerebral part of the work.
Q4: Point-and-click adventure titles have been making a noticeable comeback as of late. Do you have any thoughts as to why they might be experiencing a rise in popularity?
A4: This kind of thing never stems from a single cause, so there are multiple answers to this.
One obvious answer is to acknowledge that slower-paced, more contemplative games are garnering more success than ever as our collective levels of anxiety seem to reach new limits every year. Not only this, but maybe we’re beginning to realize that games can be fun AND cerebral.
I think there's a more specific answer pertaining to the genre. I've recently read a fascinating article about "knowledge-vanias" (or MetroidBrainias), like Outer Wilds, Tunic, Heaven's Vault, Obra Dinn. (The article is here, it's in French but translators should give you a good idea of the message: https://playstationinside.fr/
What it says is that Knowledge-Vanias (or games in which progress is equivalent to the amount of knowledge you have as a player) are defined by the way they let you experience a universe that feels like it hasn't been built for you. Players feel like they stumble upon these worlds, and the more coherent they are, the better the experience. These games tend to immerse players in a confusing but utterly fascinating world where the rules exist, you just have to figure them out by yourself. And the feeling of reward when you achieve anything, however small, by using your own personnal skills (observation, memory, deduction) is what many people don't find in their gaming experiences anymore. We've seen many messages pointing to the hand-holding in modern productions and how it doesn't feel as engaging as figuring out the logics of a rich world on your own.
Another aspect of this I believe is more general: the number of games in our backlogs keep growing exponentially, we have less time than ever to play games other than the AAA titles of the moment. Which means we probably look for new experiences in our smaller gaming sessions: indie games tend to be where new and innovative gameplays are invented. And I don’t think I’ve played a AAA point-and-click game. Would Myst qualify maybe? I don’t know that AAA was even a thing back then…
Anyway, it still is a pretty small niche compared to other genres, but there is something like a revival. To me, it seems to be related to available time in people's lives, the increasing demand for less content and more meaningful games. Maybe it's just a natural cycle that means if something is less trendy it becomes increasingly rare, and therefore more special, until it is made trendy again and the cycle repeats? Hard to say.
A5: The soundtracks I looked to included Austin Wintory’s score to Journey, Jessica Curry’s score to Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, Michiru Ōshima’s score for Ico, and others.
But as a musician who likes to feel strings under my fingers and drumsticks in my hands, I draw way more inspiration from traditional music and the people that make it and make it live. One of the challenges of writing this score was to make music that these cultures could have invented, without referencing a particular real-world tradition. So instead of trying to emulate certain styles, patterns, or even instrument pairings, I tried to imagine what each people, with their particular set of values, would consider artful, beautiful, musically satisfying. For some it takes the form of a kind of reverence in the face of the divine, for others it’s something leisurely, or perfectly ordered, or calculated. Game music is leaning towards more and more interactivity, and that's a good thing. But Chants Of Sennaar didn't call for a super-adaptive score. There are actions you take that drive the story, and in these rare instances, the music reacts to them. But usually, player interaction doesn't drive a story as much as it unveils elements that allow you to figure out what the story is, and what happened in the past of this world. It all comes together to reinforce the feeling that this universe existed long before you came upon it, and that it wasn't designed for you. It's one of the clever tricks that also sets it apart, and it didn't feel like the right thing to do to draw too much inspiration from other game soundtracks, as marvelous as they all are.
Q6: What have you been listening to lately?
I wouldn't feel right if I didn't recommend some great traditional artists like Renata Rosa and Dominguinho for Brazilian music, Danyèl Waro for La Réunion, Karolina Cicho in Poland, Muszikas in Hungary, Sona Jobarteh in Gambia, Benat Achiary in the Bask Country, not far from where I grew up... The list goes on endlessly and that's what's so enthralling about traditional music.
Q7: What have you been gaming lately?
A7: I will not surprise anyone with this: Baldur’s Gate 3 has captured me as it has many people. I’ve enjoyed Star Wars: Jedi Survivor too. I absolutely adore Tchia and Stray Gods, but I’ve yet to finish them. A Highland Song is probably my next purchase. In any given year there’s 10 incredible games, but 2023 has like 50! It'll be a while before I can get to play half of my wishlist for this year alone. It’s a shame that thousands of the people who made the very games we now worship are out of a job. Such a strange feeling to be absolutely drowning in quality games in an industry that breaks every record year on year while the people making it all are laid off and generally under a tremendous amount of stress. As a composer I'm excited by the apparent vitality of my industry, but as a gamer I'm worried because I know the next years will inevitably see a severe drop in the number and quality of games, across the board. Profits and quality will crash, devs and gamers will pay the price. I hope that when it happens we collectively remember that devs are largely not the ones responsible. They are already being punished in the name of infinite revenue growth.