Themes are Hard

I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been writing a new piece.The music is pretty much done, but I’m stuck when it comes to finishing it. It feels so close that it hardly seems worth writing about it before it’s complete. On the other hand, the piece has now been waiting for that one last thing for a while now, so it seems worth writing about that.The piece needs a theme. Not a musical theme, a game theme. I’ve done a lot of video game pieces lately. This piece is a contemporary board game. It probably falls somewhere near the eurogame genre, or possibly just contemporary designer boardgames in general.

If you’re unfamiliar with eurogames, Settlers of Catan is probably a good point of reference. It’s an early eurogame that has been around long enough and been successful enough that it has crossed over into the mass market. Most designer board games are best found at your local hobby game store, but I think they have a Star Trek themed version of Settlers of Catan at Target now. The original game has players on an island compete for resources and territory by building up roads and settlements.

Contemporary designer boardgames are a lot like compositions that include an element of improvisation. Designers are like composers: their name is on the box; the game is associated with the designer; designers who are especially good will develop a following and people will seek out new games by particular designers because they enjoy the game play experience. They are very different from mass market games like Monopoly where there is a huge element of chance and an arbitrarily long game. From a compositional perspective, the designer takes more control of the experience. Games certainly have random elements to so they are novel experiences each time, but they are constrained so that strategy plays a much stronger role. Games have a compositional arc. Different strategies can make a difference. Strategies that work against one opponent mightn’t work against another. You might just shake up your strategy to experience a different facet of the game. But the aesthetic feel of a particular game’s arc is essentially the same. If you were to map music onto one of these games somehow, you’d get a piece of music.

Board games are themed. The theme and the artwork significantly enhances the game play experience. They might be about anything: ancient civilizations, renaissance merchants, robots, and so on. Even Monopoly, which is not the most exciting game ever, is themed. You buy property and put houses and hotels on the property once you’ve collected a monopoly on a particular colour. Imagine how much less accessible it would be if you were acquiring sets and building enhancements on them. It matters that they are little houses and hotels. It matters that you are trying to bankrupt the competition. The theming is relatively loose: it’s not like in the real world no one is allowed to build a hotel in a spot that doesn’t have 4 houses on it, which must be torn down first. But the theme makes the game accessible.

The theme is an important part of the a game’s aesthetic experience. Some people pick games because they like the themes to the point where you can find the same game packaged with different themes for different markets. The artwork significantly adds to the experience as well. Awful Green Things from Outer Space and Race for the Galaxy both have science fiction themes, but one of them is goofy and the other is serious. So you play Awful Green Things from Outer Space when you are in the mood for something goofy and just a little absurdist; you play Race for the Galaxy when you’re in the mood for a short, modestly strategic game.

Bringing this back to music, I think composers who write game pieces are tempted to ignore theme because we think the music is enough. Xenakis blows theme off entirely. He sticks people with game theory matrices, calls them games, and expects people to play them like games. He’s taken out the fun of actually figuring out what the strategies are and how they interact. No one’s going to just go to the store and buy a game that is just some game matrices. Zorn’s Cobra isn’t strictly a game although he bills it as such–if you buy the game/toy distinction*, it probably falls into the toy category. But he gets more of the fun elements of gameplay into the piece. It isn’t strongly themed either, but it nods at themes: cartoon sounds, guerrilla tactics, hand signals, hats. These are tactile experiential things that bring a similar quality to the piece that a theme brings to a game. It’s engaging–you might play it for fun. I love Xenakis but I don’t get that from Duel and Strat├ęgie. I think it probably will sound cool because it’s Xenakis, but it doesn’t look fun on the face of it–I wouldn’t feel invited to play.

A board game should invite people to get their hands on its pieces and play with them. If I’m writing a piece of music that is generated by the playing of a board game, then I can’t just blow off that part of the game play experience. I want people to want to play it. And since one of my compositional concerns is to bring music performance to people who don’t consider themselves musicians, I want it to be inviting to people who aren’t enthusiastic musicians. It’s going to have to be something people play because it seems like it will be fun and result in good music, not something dry that people who like me as a composer will play because they trust me.

So I have to accept that the music isn’t enough. It’s not enough that I think this can be musically interesting. I need a theme that is inviting and I need it to fit the gameplay experience.


* Short version of the game/toy distinction: games have rules and winning conditions; toys don’t. You can’t win or lose at toys. You can make up games to play with toys.

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