Interview with composer Hamidreza Ansari
Listen to a “typical” video game score (whatever it is) and you’ll most often hear music steeped in the tradition of European classical music. Of course, it’s filtered through decades of film and pop music composers. Video game soundtracks that reflect world musical traditions are less common. A little ago. Cody Matthew Johnson’s score for Trek to Yomi uses only authentic Japanese instruments and textures, for example. Outside of Prince of Persia’s Persian-influenced rock, Iranian music does not appear in many games. This is one of the reasons why Hamidreza Ansari’s music for The Tale of Bistun caught my attention. I had the chance to speak to Hamidreza Ansari via email about his score. In case you missed it, The Tale of Bistun is a third-person action game based on a beloved Persian myth and epic poem.
A meeting of musical styles
Unlike Western music, which is largely based on a 12-note chromatic scale, Persian music uses microtones, or smaller intervals than the usual semitones. Hamidreza said that “The scales used in traditional Persian music are different from classical Western scales. These scales contain symbols that move a note up or down a quarter step, rather than the usual Western half-step. TThis is one of the key aspects that makes the traditional sound different to the non-Iranian listener.
The music does a great job of blending Iranian and Western musical traditions. “I found a main piano theme for the whole story of the game, I used a little touch of classical harmony to have an old classic love style emotion. The melody used a borrowed technique called “shahed”. It basically focuses on the most important notes of the scale. I knew that I didn’t want to base the harmony and structure of the score of The Tale of Bistun on the harmony of Persian music. I used Persian/non-Persian instruments to represent various characters and add flavors.
Hamidreza Ansari started thinking about the score of The Tale of Bistun in 2017, during the production of Children of Morta. “Two of my friends from the game studio Black Cube showed me a video of a first level progression sample. The visuals and atmosphere immediately captivated me. I did some sketches a few hours later based on the feeling I had at the time, and showed them to the guys. They liked my approach of combining Persian instrumentation with the orchestra and asked me to do the music for the game.”
Each composer has a different approach to finding the sound for a project. “First, I come up with a main theme to describe the central feeling I want, like a big picture. Then, I try to visualize the music and its dynamics on a graph, as the player progresses in the story of the game. Then, I invent my palette of sounds by answering lots of questions.
Hamidreza said that “I did not use any specific Persian scale or any specific rhythmic in the Persian musical repertoire. There are, however, many Persian instruments in the score. “I used one of my favorites, ‘Setar’ which stands for Farhad. It is a guitar-like string instrument with lots of exciting and poetic sounds. Wind instruments included the Ney and the Duduk. Percussion and popular Persian string instruments were also used.
Game and movie music is usually a combination of live players and digital samples. In the case of Le Conte de Bistun, all the sounds are sampled. The composer wrote hours of music but “45 minutes to an hour” worked its way into the final game.
Each score and project presents challenges for the composer. Hamidreza said a challenge was “come up with a combination of instruments and balance the whole narrative side with clues accordingly. Assign characters to instruments and compose music based on them. Another part was implementing adaptive music to sync the game music to player action, adding to that I also wanted to have key changes in order to darken or brighten the scene, like after a fight . It has therefore become difficult to sometimes choose the right chords and the right melodies for the transitions.
I asked Hamidreza to highlight his favorite lines from the score. He said that “Aside from the game’s main theme, “The Biggest Mistake” is one of my favorites. It is played in the prologue and I liked how the music approached the deep and charismatic voice of (narrator) Shohre Aghdashloo. “Until We Meet Again” is played in the seventh chapter of the game with Setar, Kuze and flute instruments combined in a conversational way between Farhad and Khosrow, trying to achieve a temporary peace.
A story of influence
Most composers are happy to talk about their influences and favorite composers, and Hamidreza Ansari is no exception. “I learned a lot from listening to classical music and studying many composers, but my three biggest influences are Beethoven, Gustav Holst and the infamous Igor Stravinsky. In gaming, my biggest influences are Russell Brower, Jeremy Soule and Jesper Kyd. He added that “my music is inspired by Ennio Morricone, Joe Hisaishi and Hans Zimmer because I respect their specific tastes and approach to music.
The Tale of Bistun is a unique, colorful and captivating game. It is based on interesting sources and made particularly effective by the moving, exciting and colorful music of Hamidreza Ansari. The game is available now on PC and Xbox.
Special thanks to Hamidzera Ansari. Answers edited for length.