Vladimir Rannev with Nikita Rasskazov
In-game soundscapes

Vladimir Rannev is a composer specialized in acoustic and electroacoustic music. For Open, he authored the soundscape of S.A.R. Online Sessions, a game by Mikhail Maximov commissioned by the Russian pavilion at the XVII Venice Biennial. For this episode of Digital Takeovers we invited Nikita Rasskazov, musical programmes curator at the V–A–C foundation, to have a conversation with Vladimir about his experience of in-game audio spaces creation and the way it is different from working with other mediums in terms of limitations and opportunities.

Vladimir Rannev
Nikita Rasskazov
Nikita Rasskazov
How was composing a video game music score different from your usual format of work? Random actions performed by players inevitably change the soundscape dynamically. How did it impact your work?
Vladimir Rannev
Musical compositions, be they contemporary or not, tend to have bifurcation points, or aleatoric patterns prearranged by the author. Under certain circumstances the elements of the composition are subject to reorganisation: some instruments or groups of instruments can be activated or deactivated.

But this is not a conventional composition. In the collaboration with Mikhail Maximov there were many predetermined factors: the concept of the game, the visuals, the text. There was a certain scheme that evolved in the course of our discussions but the change was not drastic. I used the sound as an affectation tool, to make sure that the space, the characters, the inanimate objects, the locations next to the pavilion and the gameplay events get their own voice. It is the augmented acoustic reality of the game rather than a mere musical composition: after all, I was just a carriage hitched to a locomotive. Our common goal was to ensure that the entire train followed the right track in a smooth way and reached its destination safely.

Therefore, it was a work of sound design rather than an exercise in formalism with assembled sound events and externally imposed meaning. Sounds introducing elements that would evoke contexts external to Mikhail’s concept, such as the opening chords of the Russian national anthem, would have been inappropriate. Therefore, I saw no need in using external sound references.

Nikita Rasskazov
It would seem that many sounds in the game have a detached feel to them, imagining the non-human presence. However, the sounds of character interactions and weapons are quite familiar. Were your sonic choices regarding the nature of the sounds in any way informed by the concept of the game?
Vladimir Rannev
Definitely. The game hinges upon the tensions of human and posthuman, animate and inanimate, conscious and unconscious. Gaming and film experiences have trained us to recognize certain sounds as indicators of certain human actions. In this case I did not always need them. For instance, the spiderlike creature that is the player’s first avatar is already capable of acting on its own volition but does not really have a conscience. Therefore, it sounds like the weak rustling of leaves, and sometimes like a person who picks up things only to drop and break them. We were looking for ways to create liminal spaces and states of mind, within and without the pavilion, across animate, inanimate, and everything in between. It took a lot of discussions and corrections.
Nikita Rasskazov
You were saying that the creative process was iterative: you contributed new material and Mikhail suggested alternative solutions. How didt it work?
Vladimir Rannev
Sometimes Mikhail would add audio elements on his own. Then I would listen and realise that my idea was completely different. It was a fascinating process, much more dynamic than in cases with preset visualst. Accidental, unexpected events break up the routine of video scoring where everything is already decided and fixed so that you hear right away if the sound fits or not. In this case the proposed audio samples could behave differently upon launching the actual game. Sometimes Mikhail would suggest revising a certain episode, and sometimes I would see it for myself that another approach was required. Eventually I realised that testing was a crucial element of the process and got used to asking Mikhail to launch the game whenever I needed to run a piece.

A couple of initial iterations were enough to create a connection between us. We established that we could work together well, and then it was just a matter of specifics and operational choices, for instance, the modes of transition from one space to another. The sounds denoting actions and the general mood of certain spaces had to relate without drowning each other. I had to leave some air space and avoid excessive sound emphasis. It was a tricky task – but we managed.

Nikita Rasskazov
Was the choice between synthesized and acoustic sounds impacted by the concept of the game blending the synthetic with the organic?
Vladimir Rannev
I used many different sounds: some were synthesized, others were samples transformed beyond recognition. But there are no real-life sounds that would evoke familiar things like street noise, bustling cities, human speech, rustling grass, rushing streams, ect. Nothing of the kind. The gameplay implies that we cannot understand where we are because there is no unequivocal conceptual framework, no way to distinguish between good and bad, quest and rest, anxiety and tranquillity, dark and light. In this game everything is somewhere in between. That was the whole point, to find halfway solutions without putting too much or too little pressure into them.

Therefore, the use of sounds is ambivalent rather than descriptive, much different from the way it is in a straightforward theatrical production where wood means hearing the birds singing and an old house means the grandfather clock ticking. In this game there is only one such sound: the slot machine dropping coins. It is a very specific reference that Mikhail wanted in the score. Otherwise the player has no references at all, the sounds never illustrate or indicate anything.

Nikita Rasskazov
The character in the game undergoes a series of transformations that include non-human agents. Are these transformations reflected in the narrative?
Vladimir Rannev
Definitely. The score marks the moments of transformation from one avatar to the other. But there is a more subtle way to answer this question by pointing out that every game space, character, and object is intrinsically static in its sound profile.

The many things going on inside a human being disagree with the static outward appearance. Under different circumstances you can look the same and be two different people inside. The composers of the modern times, starting from the classics, have a very specific device at their disposal, namely the dynamic contrast. The conflict can be conveyed by elaborating on the appropariate thematic material.

For example, the first motion of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 begins with the theme of the peaceful work of the Soviet people. Then comes the turn of the events that make up the subject of the symphony: the war, the much-famed ‘invasion’ theme, its conflict with the other themes, and then the reprise, the peaceful theme again, this time in a minor scale which changes the melody into a heartbreaking, tragic requiem. The theme comes back after a series of horrible events and we recognize it just like we recognize the portrait of a person who had gone through a dramatic experience. We see that the traits are basically the same but the person is completely different from the one represented in the portrait. There is an outward similarity of appearance but inner condition is dramatically different, maybe even the opposite.

This evolution, the dynamism, the dramatic change of characters, spaces and objects is impossible in a game because we cannot predict the trajectory of the player, we cannot know which events will take place and which will not. To use the example of Shostakovich’s Seventh, it would be as if every bullet, bomb and shell of the Wehrmacht had missed their targets, no harm done. Without the invasion theme the peaceful reprise would have had a completely different meaning. But in a game the future of the characters, objects or spaces is unpredictable. It is beyond my control, so I cannot foresee the evolution of the character. Therefore, the dynamic drama is contained by the multi-vector quality of the gameplay, by the uncertainty and ambiguity. After all, it is the player who pulls all the levers in the game, not me.

Nikita Rasskazov
What were the restrictions of this kind of work? Did you have to make choices, renouncing certain ideas voluntarily or upon the suggestion of the artist?
Vladimir Rannev
Mikhail did not restrict me in any way. Should such a situation have arisen, we could have discussed it. It was an almost instant click with us, and I knew at once what was best to avoid. There was one basic restriction that I already mentioned, it had to do with having no influence on the course of the events and the way they unfolded. Normally I am dealing with sound material involved in a series of events. Sophisticated and critically thinking as we are, we remain products of a certain culture, a result of the evolution of the dynamic and versatile European culture. Starting from the late Baroque period, the emotion behind the events shifts with time, their interpretation alters and readjusts through a sequence of iterations: A plus B does not equal AB, the result is always different. But this kind of dynamic thinking is impossible in a game since the spacetime is designed by the player rather than by me. Unlike real life, the player can enter the same river not twice, but twenty times in a row. It is a completely different pattern of experiencing and tracing time. For an academic composer like myself it was pretty unusual and fascinating. The world you create is in a way different.
Nikita Rasskazov
Does everyone hear the same score in the multiplayer version? Do all the players sharing the same visual space get the same sonic environment?
Vladimir Rannev
The only shared space is the visual one. A single score simply does not exist. Unstead, the game has a variety of acoustic layers designed to avoid overlapping. One layer is taking care of the space, the other of the character that brings their own sound into the picture. A next layer is added in the vicinity of an object that has a sound of its own. It is not just a score that can be turned on automatically. The combination of the layers varies in function of the gameplay. So the players that find themselves at different points, pursuing different paths have a different sonic environment.
Nikita Rasskazov
Have you played the game in its final version? Did it change your own idea of your own work?
Vladimir Rannev
I have experimented with entering the game space while we were still working on it. Mikhail would send fragments of the game for me to explore a fragment of the space or to play a certain character, or watch him demonstrate an episode.

I am obviously biased because what really matters to me is what happens upon approaching a site, the way the sounds work together. I am like a director or a filmmaker who cannot get rid of insider knowledge and enjoy the film or performance as a normal person. So finding out whether I liked it or not does not matter for people who know nothing either of me or of Mikhail. And I guess it is the same with him. I cannot say if it works for me than the game works for everyone else as well. It is not true.

Sometimes a singer, a violinist or a pianist would internalise every note and take extra care to understand the inner workings of a composition: it means they are inside the game, actors of the creative process. But in many cases this attitude prevents the musicians from assessing their own performance, from distancing themselves and hearing themselves as would a person in the audience. This way the performance may suffer gravely. Our case is the same: we cannot judge the game as we are a part of it. A paradox, if you will.

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