Back to the roots – an interview with Marcin Przybyłowicz

230x180_Przybyłowicz123If by some freak chance you still haven’t listened to the music from The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, know this: you really should. We managed to catch the composer after Digital Dragons, where he took part in a panel discussion and received an Audio Award for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. In this interview Marcin Przybyłowicz summarises the production of The Witcher 3, tells us about his collaboration with Percival, divulges some of his post-Witcher future plans and speculates about what a hypothetical Witcher Trilogy concert would look like.

Gamers Listeners: Is it true that the production of the soundtrack to The Wild Hunt took 3.5 years?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: Yes, it is.

Gamers Listeners: Maybe we should start with the general outline of how music for The Witcher 3 was created. How did it start for you? Why Percival, why Gene Rozenberg and how did you start your collaboration with Mikołaj Stroiński?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: The whole thing took over 3.5 years because the process of creating music – let’s call it “the artistic phase” – began during the pre-production stage and carried on almost until the very end i.e. pressing the discs. In the first stages of the production we began with figuring out what exactly we expected from the third instalment. We knew the project’s general outline, the main premise, so we knew that unlike with Assassins of Kings, we wouldn’t have a massive political plotline. The focus would be on Geralt rather than history in macro scale, on what kind of person he is and what purpose he has in Sapkowski’s world, on the fact that he truly is a lone wolf roaming this world, and the story serves as a background for his search for Ciri, the Surprise Child, and for Yennefer, the love of his life. All of this understandably influenced our decisions in terms of music.

We also knew, looking at the game from a broader perspective, that we’d be going back to the roots of the series by drawing from our own folklore, and we wanted to showcase our Slavic mythology a little bit. There were some quests and plotlines (I won’t be spoiling anything in case someone hasn’t played it yet) which had this Slavic-pagan vibe to them and I knew that the music would also need to reflect that. Of course, the first Witcher game had its own Slavic references, but we wanted to do it a bit differently this time, because obviously it’s not about copying and pasting stuff. It’s about illustrating those things in our own way using modern technology, and also about making it harmonise with the new storyline.

The game features three main locations – Novigrad, No Man’s Land and Skellige islands. Each of them is different, so I had to come up with a way to make them stand out also in terms of music. And so for Skellige, we draw for Scottish and Irish folklore with slight influences of Nordic music. On the other hand, Novigrad was supposed to resemble the 16th century Amsterdam, so the music needs to be more civil and refined – in contrast to No Man’s Land, where we have this no-holds-barred pagan “grit”, something that people normally call Slavic-ness.

Obviously, this influenced the choice of instruments: on Skellige islands we can hear bagpipes, which aren’t present in Velen (No Man’s Land) or in Novigrad. In Novigrad, in turn, cimbalom and string instruments play a large role – and again, they’re not present on Skellige. But at the same time, everything had to fit together, because it’s one huge game, not three separate ones.

And Percival? Well, Percival had been on my mind since the time I looked around the Polish folk scene, searching for inspiration, for examples of music that could set my mind on the right track. Percival was one of the bands in our reference base, which we regularly listened to and discussed.

Gamers Listeners: Let me interrupt you for a moment, because you touched upon a very interesting topic. The choice of Percival, a representative of our Polish folk music, was a great move (and I’m not the only one to say that). You’ve just mentioned that the band was one of the references for the soundtrack. Could you tell us who else appeared on that list?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: I’d rather not reveal all of them, but I can tell you that the band Żywiołak was among them and we ended up inviting the band’s leader Robert Jaworski to collaborate with us and we did a few cool things together (he played the parts for some traditional instruments).

But to finish off the previous topic – at some point of our Percival-inspired work we thought that maybe we’d been doing it all wrong. Why should we pretend to be experts in this field if we can just call the experts and ask if they’d like to create something with us? So I made the phone call, explained to them what we were working on and asked them if they’d like to come to Warsaw to talk about some form of collaboration, you know, just to see if it works out. And work out it did. Turned out we’re all on the same wavelength and enjoy similar things. Mikołaj [ed. note: Mikołaj Rybacki] and the girls from Percival had such a positive attitude about the whole thing and our collaboration went smoothly and without any clashes. Of course, we were faced with some artistic challenges, but those, instead of blocking us, only motivated us to work harder and I think all this tinkering and improvisation resulted in something pretty great.

Gamers Listeners: And what was the story with Gene Rozenberg? According to the scarce press releases describing his collaboration with CD Projekt, he was mainly there to implement the game’s music generating system rather than to create the music itself. We even heard that he was supposed to use the technology created for Project Copernicus, which had been put on hiatus.

Marcin Przybyłowicz: It wasn’t exactly like that. Gene joined us when we were already working on The Wild Hunt and I was in the very advanced stages of my working on our proprietary adaptive music system (which – after a few iterations – was implemented in the game and it manages the entirety of the music). Gene was hired by CD Projekt as the audio lead, or someone who’s in charge of the whole team of musicians and sound designers. He worked with us for some time, helping us get through the production and making sure it goes smoothly and without unnecessary struggle.

When it comes to Mikołaj Stroiński – it was me who called him and invited him do join us. I don’t remember exactly when it was, but it happened in the advanced stages of production. I realized there was no way I could possibly finish such a huge game, especially when the whole thing actually grew in comparison to our initial plans. It was simply too big: some things required more effort and we also had some pretty neat ideas we wanted to implement. So we started looking for another pair hands to help, someone talented, who could not only fit the stylistic convention that I’d set out in the beginning, but also add to it creatively and make his voice heard. Mikołaj agreed, so at first we made a few sample tracks to see how our collaboration works out and again, just like with Percival, there was chemistry between the two of us. We understood each other and even the distance of a few thousand kilometres [ed. note: Mikołaj Stroiński works in Los Angeles] wasn’t particularly problematic.

Gamers Listeners: Let’s talk about music. A couple of tracks from The Witcher 3 were based on the motives from the first instalment, composed by Paweł Błaszczak and Adam Skorupa. That was a pretty cool idea – where did it come from? Does it serve as a compositional bracket of sorts?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: Yes, but it’s not only about this theme, this melody from the first Witcher, so popular among the fans. It’s true, it makes an appearance in the game, but there’s more to it. Just like you said, I really wanted to use some kind of a bracket. This is the culmination of Geralt’s story, the third instalment of a series in which the previous ones were very different from each other, both in terms of structure and atmosphere. I also had the impression that Witcher 3 would become the “cement” binding these games together music-wise as a trilogy. And so we don’t only continue and creatively expand the motives from the previous instalments (the main theme from the first one, the assassins of kings theme or sorceresses theme), but also – like in the world of cinema – we assign them to particular events or characters in the third game, as it was the case in the previous ones. We give these motives a second life, so that they can retell their stories.

Gamers Listeners: Let’s say it again – it took over 3.5 years to create the soundtrack to the Wild Hunt. It sure is a lot of time and plenty of opportunity for growth. So how did you manage to keep the whole thing consistent? In one of his interviews, John Romero (the Doom guy) mentioned that in level design, it’s best to leave the beginning of the game until the very end, when we have already gathered enough experience creating further levels. Can a similar approach be adopted in music?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: Sounds clever. I’m thinking about how it could work with music and I guess you could do it that way, although we didn’t. We couldn’t afford to think about music in a linear way, i.e. that’s the first level, that’s the second one etc. Our game has a completely different structure – the moment you finish the prologue, you’re free to do whatever you want. You want to do the main questline? Go ahead. Fancy slaying some monsters? Knock yourself out. Feel like having a 15 hour Gwent marathon? Sure, you could do that if you wanted. This is why we needed a broader perspective, needed to think in terms of stages that we wanted to finish.

Gamers Listeners: Let’s stop here for a moment. Let’s say you wrote a piece in the beginning of the production process and then you listen to it 3 years later and you don’t like it anymore, but you can’t improve it, because e.g. it’s already been recorded with the soloists. Are such situations a real problem or do you write music in a way that prevents that kind of dilemmas?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: Whenever you look back at something you created 2-3 years ago, you have certain life and career experiences that you didn’t have back then, and so your current self could tell your old self “you screwed up this thing or another”. Learning is a life-long process, after all. I mean, you could be mad at yourself like that, but I think it’s an unhealthy approach, because by doing so, you would entrap yourself in this vicious cycle of constantly improving things and never actually getting them done. In this world, in these times you need to say “enough” at some point. I like the way our team colleague Richard Dekkard summed it up: Sometimes good enough is good enough. You need to know when to let go. We can keep churning out iteration after iteration, but is it really worthwhile if all we get is an endless loop of adjustments? Because you can always improve something, and with this approach the production of The Witcher would take 20 years rather than 3 and a half.

Gamers Listeners: The premieres of the previous Witcher games were accompanied by the releases of promotional singles. We have our theories, but we prefer to ask you – why wasn’t it the case with Witcher 3?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: I don’t know if there even is a theory behind it. I didn’t pay much thought to why we don’t have a single. On the other hand, when you think about, you could say that the entire soundtrack is a promo single of sorts. Because you’ve got to admit: there are lots of songs in The Witcher 3.

Gamers Listeners: Yes, definitely.

Marcin Przybyłowicz: In the Assassins of Kings there were only classic vocalizes and no songs per se. In the first Witcher there was at least one – Adam Skorupa sang Elaine Ettariel, and Dandelion also sang something like Priscilla’s song from the third game, but there were no songs in the score. In the Wild Hunt we go all out – which is a new thing for us, a breath of fresh air – to have many songs in the game. If you think about it, you could treat them as separate works that can exist outside of the game and can fulfil the role of the singles you mentioned.

Gamers Listeners: Our theory involved a more mundane and down-to-earth reason for not having promo tracks – while the first single (Sword of The Witcher by Vader) is still fondly remembered by the fans, the two next ones (Forgotten Land by Riverside and Biały Wilk by Maciej Balcar) didn’t stand the test of time.

Marcin Przybyłowicz: I can tell you one thing: the reason why there are no singles in Witcher 3 isn’t because the previous ones turned out good or bad. We didn’t even think about it in those categories, and there was no deep rationale behind it, it just… happened. Some could say that Percival filled this gaping void nicely and I think it worked pretty well.

Gamers Listeners: Let’s talk about CDs. Aside from the collector’s edition, the music appeared on limited promo CDs. I’m not going to lie, we hoped for a double CD album, too. Are there any plans for releasing something else apart from digital copies and the CD you get with the game?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: I can’t tell you, really, how it’s going to be with physical copies, because these tend to be problematic. It’s not only about the manufacturing costs, there’s also storage involved, logistics, transport etc. Whenever you decide for a physical release, you enter this market with all its upsides and downsides. I don’t know whether we’ll want to go for it, it’s still undetermined. I can tell you, though, that we do have certain plans regarding digital releases (iTunes, Spotify and other streaming platforms). As for other options – I’m sure we’ll come up with something, we just need to settle down after the premiere. [ed. note: Percival have recently started adding limited W3 soundtrack to their “Wild Hunt” album]

350x550_WitcherKonkurs

Some time ago Marcin gave us a few limited edition albums. One of them is still waiting for a contest.

Gamers Listeners: Regarding the video that CDP has published quite recently – will Priscilla’s song be available for download? Something like the compilation of songs from Dragon Age: Inqusition?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: That would be quite a feat, to make a compilation out of a single song , but as I said – it hasn’t even been a month since the premiere and we’re still trying to calm down after the big day. Also, we’re still working on the Witcher, implementing patches, improving our creation. It’s not like the chapter called “Witcher 3” is closed. Just like gamers, we want the game to be as good as possible. So while I appreciate your awesomely specific questions, I simply can’t give you a definite answer.

Gamers Listeners: You’ve recently finished your festival tour – Digital Dragons in Krakow (along with the award for Ethan Carter), now the Krakow Film Music Festival and a discussion panel devoted to composing music for games, plus Critical Hit in the meantime. How did you find these events?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: It’s been a very hectic and busy time for me. Digital Dragons is more of an industry event – game developers from Poland and from abroad come to one place and have professional discussions about the art of game making. We’re in our native environment, talking about things we do every day. On the other hand, the Film Music Festival attracts film music enthusiasts, so it’s not a conference for orchestrators, conductors and soloists. Digital Dragon was really awesome, and FMF was pretty nice too, although you can’t compare the two experiences.

I immensely enjoyed the Critical Hit concert, these guys have incredible energy. Their arrangements were right down my alley, because we all obviously know the themes from Tetris, The Legend of Zelda or Angry Birds very well and we’re used to their original versions, but here the themes were turned inside out – brilliant job. Also, the chemistry between them and their musicianship were top-notch. If only you could see the things Tina Guo could do with her cello and how Caroline Campbell played the violin… pure professionalism. I hope we’ll have more opportunities to listen to them perform live.

Gamers Listeners: Now we’ve accumulated a lot of The Witcher music, including the pieces for symphonic instruments, prepared specifically for the Wild Hunt. So… when’s the concert? Do you think this year would be a good time for an event like this (considering the hype around the game’s release)?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: You know, as a composer and artist, not a CD Projekt representative, I’d very much like it to happen. Speaking from a developer’s perspective, that would be a pretty great thing to do, because we really are proud of this music. And as the music director and one of the creators I also think that we’ve done a good job. One of the best proofs is the fact that although this music is rather unusual, people acknowledge it in the reviews…

Gamers Listeners: …which still rarely happens.

Marcin Przybyłowicz: That’s the thing. Reviewers mention the music only if it’s either outstanding or terrible. Everything in between falls into a grey zone. I’m really happy that our music resonates with people, that it’s so distinct and original, and that it has its unique character.

Gamers Listeners: It’s especially likely to catch the attention of Western ears, because it’s something they’re not exposed to on everyday basis.

Marcin Przybyłowicz: Exactly. In Poland, folk music fails to impress (on its own), because at some point everyone has heard the Mazowsze folk group or Kayah’s collaborative project with Bregović, everyone knows Brathanki, Golec uOrkiestra etc. Our folk music is always present and it occasionally comes back to mainstream. I think it’s analogous to how we react to the music of the Middle East, Korea or China – it’s so exotic that it instantly draws our attention. I think our music resonates in the same way with Anglo-Saxon listeners in Canada or the USA, in France etc. For them, our musical character stands out, because they hardly ever encounter it in movies and games.

Gamers Listeners: Which, in combination with a game with high production value, surely makes it easier to digest as a whole.

Marcin Przybyłowicz: Yes, and I really appreciate the fact that people identify with this music. It doesn’t end with just listening to it; the music remains inside them for a bit longer and that makes me really happy.

Gamers Listeners: Let’s assume there are plans and funds for the concert. What would it look like?

Marcin Przybyłowicz: We’re getting awfully hypothetical here, but hey, why not. Given the opportunity, I wouldn’t want to just “tick off” pieces from the soundtrack one after another. Instead, I’d like to create an extensive suite in which we would use all of the game’s musical elements i.e. symphonic sounds, Percival and other folk soloists like Robert Jaworski with his hurdy-gurdy. In a suite, every part gets a chance to shine – first the symphony takes the lead, then it takes a step back to support the folk elements etc., but all in all, they’re all interdependent. This is something I’d like to see onstage. We also have a lot of themes, and it’d be great to use them as well, because they’re very useful as a narrative device. Although as I said before, it’s all a big “what if”, so it’s hard to really dive into details.

The Witcher Suite performed during the 4th Krakow Film Music Festival (a prelude to the Distant Worlds concert: music from Final Fantasy), 2011.

Anyway, I’ve always believed you should never say never. For instance, I didn’t expect our game would turn out to be so good. CD Projekt is a studio known for its painstaking attention to details, so I expected a pretty solid production, because I knew we had the ambition to make something better than what we’d created last time. But even in my wildest dreams I didn’t imagine we would make a game that even other people consider truly outstanding (the Metacritic score has remained at 92% since the release). I think that’s enough proof we did a good job.

Gamers Listeners: So to finish off, what now? A well-deserved vacation, probably.

Marcin Przybyłowicz: That’s correct, first the vacation and then the expansion packs. Two major plot expansions have been announced, so now we’ll have to make them. Understandably, they should feature new music. The first expansion will provide 10 hours of gameplay, the second one around 20 plus a new location. I guarantee I’ll still be a part of the Witcher universe for a long time. And once we’re completely finished with Geralt’s story, I’ll probably start thinking about Cyberpunk 2077. But that remains a long way off.

Gracze Słuchacze: That’s all we’ve got. Thanks for the interview and see you next time.

Marcin Przybyłowicz: Thank you.

 

Interview by Arkadiusz Haratym (30th May 2015). The interview was carried out in person (audio transcription) and published after Marcin Przybyłowicz’s authorisation. Feel free to visit the composer’s homepage and his facebook profile. Special thanks to Marcin Moń for translation.

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