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Bach, Monsters, and Medicine

by Pieter Smal on 09/21/17 02:08:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


1. Introduction
When I was asked to write a soundtrack demo for Monsters and Medicine (Cape Town: Clockwork Acorn), I orchestrated the opening of Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude and Fugue in A minor (BWV 543). Once the company formally agreed to hire me I considered soundtrack models on which I would base my own work.

With the theme of monsters in a puzzler setting, I consciously avoided any musical parallels to the soundtrack of Plants vs. Zombies. Instead, I aimed for a soundtrack with a playful character with a slightly serious tone. I used "A Hero Awakens" from Fable III [1] as a compositional model for my soundtrack for Monsters and Medicine.

With the track above in mind, I decided to score the soundtrack for Monsters and Medicine for chamber orchestra. The organ (pipe/electronic) and harpsichord would unify the soundtrack in a neo-Baroque style, used in all the tracks; although I favour the harpsichord as soloist in this soundtrack, I did not wish to imitate any Baroque form, including the concerto grosso; instead, I used recurring musical extracts alla rondo for to create unity within each composition. With the music of the demo in mind, I further decided to base the entire soundtrack (or at least large sections of it) on the works of Bach. The Bach-Works-Catalogue (BWV: Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis) will be used to reference specific works of Bach in this essay.

2. Artistic integrity
Reworking art music is often frowned upon - especially when used outside the artistic tradition. When used in popular music, quotations from art music might mock the original material or demean the original musical character as was intended by the composer. Video game music is postmodern and pluralistic, often remixing the old to make the new; that is exactly what I did with the soundtrack of Monsters and Medicine. My work does not mock the work of Bach, but often rework and develop exacts of his music whilst remaining true to the affect in Baroque music. By quoting and developing the musical material of the great composers I follow in the footsteps of the old masters. The medieval chant Dies Irae will also be quoted, unifying various tracks.

3. Analysis
3.1. The Haunted Forest

The Haunted Forest opens with an air of suspense: tacet that ushers in an anacrusis. The opening motif is the first four notes from Prelude and Fugue in A minor (BWV 543, bar 1) followed by a harpsichord and double bass pizzicato. Two clarinets introduce the second motif (based on the opening material) that is found in the Prelude (bar 11) (00:06). The interplay between these two motifs continue until two bassoons with celesta (non-Bach, inspired by the orchestration of Fable III: A Hero Awaken) shifts the tonality away from the tonic. A harpsichord version of Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565, bar 2) (00:33) returns the harmony to the tonic before the opening motif returns (00:38). After the clarinets repeat the second motif (00:41), pizzicato strings pronounce the start of a new section (00:55). The fugue subject (of BWV 565, bars 30-31) is shortened and repeated, as heard on a celesta (01:00). After the shortened fugue subject is heard three times an extract from BWV 543 (bar 4-6) is heard (01:16). The section comes to a close with a repetition of the opening motif at 01:22. Dies Irae is heard for the first time at 01:27, played on a bell [2]. After an organ joins the chant (01:39), the second motif from BWV 543 and the Dies Irae (in that order) is joined on clarinets, before organ and strings repeats Dies Irae (02:00); the section ends with a quotation from The Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1: Prelude and Fugue 2 no. 2 in C minor, Prelude bars 29-31) (BWV 847) (02:07). At 02:21 a longer opening quotation from the Prelude and Fugue in A minor is played, ending with the harpsichord and pizzicato ending (as is heard in the opening motif). Harpsichord and celesta quote the opening subject of A Musical Offering (BWV 1079, bars 1-9) at 02:28 before Dies Irae is heard again, played on strings (02:50). The track ends with strings and organ playing a plagal ("Amen") tierce de picardie cadence (03:00) 

3.2. The Fluffy Isle

This piece aimed to emulate the serenity of Vivaldi's Four Seasons concerto (Winter: II). I could have used Bach's Air on the G String (from the third Orchestral Suite), but I also wanted to avoid too much "cheese". Thus, the track opens with the opening extract from Bach's Violin Concerto in E (I, bars 1-2) (BWV 1042) as played by Friederike Scholtz [3]. The Well-Tempered Clavier returns (Book 1: Prelude and Fugue no. 1 in C major, Prelude bars 1-4) (BWV 846) on the harp (00:06), before the Violin Concerto opening is echoed on violin and harpsichord (00:20). The chorale Jesus bleibet meine Freude (from the Cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147), also known as Jesu, Joy of Man's Desire, is heard in part on an electronic organ (00:27). The Violin Concerto (as a shortened subject) is repeated and developed, whilst a juxtaposing accompanying harp plays another extract from the (Book 1) C Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier (00:49). The opening of Schlafe, mein Liebster (bars 1-8) from the Cantata Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (BWV 213) is quoted on flute with harpsichord accompaniment (01:24) before the Violin Concerto opening returns (01:44). The Aria from the Goldberg Variations (bars 1-8) (BWV 988) is played on harpsichord (01:51), before Schlafe, Mein Liebster is repeated on clarinet (02:26). The iconic second movement (Largo) from Harpsichord Concerto no. 5 in F minor (BWV 1056) is partly quoted (bars 1-3) on a flute (02:54), closing the composition.

3.3. The Ghost Island

The Ghost Island opens with a solo violin playing the subject of The Art of Fugue (bars 1-5) (BWV 1080) (Contrapunktus I). The bars (3-5) that follow is the introduction of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565), truncated and echoed by organ before the organ announces the 'classic' opening of the Toccata (00:26). Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147) repeats, but this time the fifth movement Bereite dir, Jesu, noch itzo die Bahn is partially quoted (bars 1-3) on a harpsichord (00:38). At 00:55 Jesu, noch itzo die Bahn is juxtaposed with The Art of Fugue, alla stretto. A solo harpsichord quotes the Italian Concerto (II, bars 1-8) (01:07), before The Art of Fugue is heard again (01:58). The Well-Tempered Clavier is quoted from Book 2: Prelude and Fugue no. 6 in D minor (BWV 875). The first 9 bars of the Prelude is played on an organ (highlighted by a harpsichord) (02:04). The subject of the fugue follows, repeated twice in a high and low register (02:22). A vocalist echoes The Art of Fugue subject (02:37) before the 3 echoing quotations of Dies Irae (02:45); first on celesta, then repeated on harpsichord and organ. A plagal cadence on an organ closes the composition (03:02).

3.4. The Swamp Town

In this piece, I aimed to quote the Orchestral Suite no. 2 (1067) as much as possible. The rondo theme is a truncated opening of the Badinerie (7th movement, bar 1-3), played on flute and echoed by pizzicato strings. An accordion [4] continues the truncated Badinerie (bars 3-5) (00:08) before the Badinerie opening is repeated on a flute (00:23). A bass guitar plays the first eight bars of the second movement, Rondeau (00:40) accompanied by celesta and harpsichord before the truncated Badinerie opening is repeated (05:59). At this point of the composition, the B-A-C-H motif appears [5] in the accompanying accordion (01:08). Two bassoons start in a dissonance, resolving into the harmony assigned to each note in the B-A-C-H motif. The dissonance in these notes points towards another composition: the Crucifixus from the Credo of the Mass in B minor (BWV 232). This is emphasised with a soprano singing "Crucifixus" whilst the bassoons mimic the introductory intervals between the soprano and alto choir parts in Crucifixus (bars 5-7). The accordion (01:38) then plays a section (bar 25-27) of the coda from the Prelude, Prelude and Fugue no .3 in C minor (The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book 1) (BWV 847). Dies Irae is heard (02:02), first on celesta, and then played on synthesizer in stretto with the truncated Badinerie opening (02:11). The Polonaise (5th movement) from Orchestral Suite no. 2 is quoted in a bass clarinet (02:21), before the Rondeau is briefly quoted on a flute (02:37). The composition ends in the dominant, with celesta (02:48) playing a brief quotation of the Praebulum from Partita no. 5 (bars 1-2) (BWV 829).

3.5. Lava Land

Bach calls on God three times: Her, Her, Her, once for each member of the Christian Trinity; this is the opening (Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist!) of the St. John Passion (BWV 245). Although I did not have the VST or sound libraries to use the exact words of Her, I use the exact same chords as used by Bach, now sung by choir.The Prelude and Fugue no. 3 in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 847) returns; the first four bars of the Prelude is played on harpsichord, whilst each bar is extended by repeating the harmony of each bar by string arpeggio (00:09). The subject of the Fugue from the same set is then played on the organ (00:37). Prelude and Fugue no. 12 in F minor (The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1) (BWV 857) is then quoted: bars 1-2 truncated in strings, and then repeated and doubled with a full quotation by a harpsichord (00:51). Dies Irae is quoted on organ (01:03) whilst accompanied by string arpeggioThe Well-Tempered Clavier makes one final appearance, Prelude and Fugue no. 20 in A minor from book 2 (BWV 889). Here, the subject is stated in organ, whilst the entry of each subject is doubled (and emphasised) by harpsichord; it is the only time in the entire soundtrack that a fugue is heard contrapuntally in full exposition (bars 1-8) (01:15). Finally, the Prelude and Fugue in A minor (BWV 543) is heard (01:43). This section not only bestows the soundtrack a cyclical quality (bringing the first and fifth track together) but is also the longest quotation of any Bach composition in the soundtrack (25 bars). This specific arrangement of the Prelude and Fugue in A minor is very close to the original demo that I first gave Clockwork Acorn when I started the project.

3.6. The Mutant Mountains

The Mutant Mountains is the oddball of the soundtrack - an ambient composition, unlike the other tracks. The B-A-C-H motif opens the track on a synthesizer, immediately followed by synth pedal points. A slightly longer extract (bars 1-4) of Praeabulum from Partita no. 5 (BWV 829) is repeated on a harp (00:29). Synthesizers are stacked on each other until a 'cloudburst' moment where an organ is heard (01:20). Whilst the synthesizers fade out, the third movement of the Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 (bars 1-3) (BWV 1050) is briefly quoted on a harpsichord (02:15).

4. Conclusion
My high school music teacher, Adrien Lubbe, used to say: "Bach is above us all" [6]. After weeks of research and labour, my collage of Bach works is a trifling contribution compared to the original works of the great master. I hope that my work sparks a new interest in art music through video games as an educational medium. The unique soundtrack of Monsters and Medicine complements an equally ambitious video game.

I would like to thank Nico Pienaar who recorded the solo violin playing of Friederike Scholtz - and both for their continual friendship.

1. The soundtrack for Fable III was denounced by various "soundtrack specialists", many who do not have any formal musical training. I do not agree with their mediocre views - en con tre, I believe that the score for Fable III is brilliant.
2. Dies Irae played on a bell refers to Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.
3. All violin solos in this soundtrack is played by Friederike Scholtz
4. Instead of a stereotypical bluegrass banjo associated with 'hillbillies', I chose to use an accordion to contrast this composition instead.
5. Transposed to A minor, the B-A-C-H motif comprises the following notes: G#, Fx, Bb, A.
6. Bach was a great composer, if not the greatest who ever lived. Thus, I feel obliged to add the following quotes about Bach to close this essay:

Study Bach. There you will find everything.
– Johannes Brahms

I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world’s music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.
– Niccolai Rimsky-Korsakov

If Beethoven is a prodigy of man, Bach is a miracle of God.
– Gioachino Rossini

The Well-Tempered Clavier is the highest and best school; no one will ever create a more ideal one.
– Frédéric Chopin

And if we look at the works of JS Bach – a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity – on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered. And in his works we will search in vain for anything the least lacking in good taste.
– Claude Debussy

Bach is a colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass. Mozart is the most beautiful, Rossini the most brilliant, but Bach is the most comprehensive: he has said all there is to say. If all the music written since Bach’s time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.
– Charles Gounod

If one were asked to name one musician who came closest to composing without human flaw, I suppose general consensus would choose Johann Sebastian Bach.
– Aaron Copland

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