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Behind the Music of Call of Duty: World at War
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The Call of Duty series has always taken music seriously, asking popular film and television composers like Joel Goldsmith (Stargate SG-1) and Harry Gregson-Williams (Prince Caspian) to score previous installments.  For this month's Call of Duty: World at War, composer Sean Murray assumed command of the musical duties, and what results is a score quite unlike anything you may expect from a typical WWII game.

Murray has been composing in Hollywood since the 1980s with a long string of films as well as a few television shows including a number of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes.  But it was his work on the True Crime: Streets of LA and True Crime: New York City videogames that led him to Call of Duty: World at War.  "Brian Tuey, audio director of Treyarch called me in last fall," Murray says.  "We had worked together closely on True Crime: New York City and he knew I would bring a fresh approach to Call of Duty: World at War."

"We developed the approach and music direction together with a lot of objective input from the Treyarch producers.  We also had close consultation with Adam Levenson, audio director for Activision.  The mission was to take a new approach to WWII and therefore we did not want it to sound like your father's WWII score.  First and foremost was to make the game fun to play with intense and exciting music, but we also had a specific musical path that follows the psyche of the gameplay."

Call of Duty: World At War Composer Sean Murray.

Gathering Vital Intelligence

Of course if you want to go somewhere new it helps to know where you've been, so while Murray was already pretty familiar with the subject, he took the time for a quick refresher course.  "I've always had a real interest in WWII history and so have watched many films that depict the era," he says.  "In prepping for Call of Duty, I rewatched a couple of war movies that I like and I also listened to some Japanese taiko drum CDs.  I listened to classical music to get a good idea of how I wanted my orchestra to sound – Mahler's 3rd and 4th symphonies were most inspirational."

But perhaps the greatest help to Murray on the project was his insight into the war itself.  "My father-in-law, Rudi Freimuth, was a WWII veteran who was born in Czechoslovakia and fought with the Czech army," he explains.  "He escaped to France after the Nazi occupation and fought alongside the British and became a colonel in the Czech army.  He and I spent many hours talking about the war – he shared so many of his personal stories of heroism that were infused with tragedy and humor.  Sadly, Rudi passed away in June, 2005.  This project gave me a special connection to his memory."

Working so closely with Treyarch, Murray was outfitted with an Xbox 360 dev kit so he could stay up-to-date on the game's progress and gain a much deeper familiarity with the project than the mere gameplay videos or concept art composers often have to work from.  "I worked very hard at making the music work sonically with the sound effect landscape," Murray also notes.  "I was always able to adjust the music mix to adapt to the particular guns and ambiences of each level."

Incidentally, unlike many Hollywood composers who haven't played a videogame since Pong, Murray is right at home on a console having picked up an Xbox after completing work on True Crime: Streets of LA back in 2003.  "I got hooked and played True Crime everyday for two months," he laughs.  "I was like a fourteen year old kid who would not go to bed until I beat the level.  Sometimes I stayed up until 4 or 5 in the morning.  My wife thought I was insane, but I loved playing!"

Drawing Up the Battle Plans

Once Murray had a chance to delve into things, the music gradually began to take shape.  "It's very wild," he says of the finished score.  "Treyarch/Activision placed no restrictions on style which gave me an unlimited palette.  From an orchestral perspective, it's rooted in 20th century and modern symphonic music, but we go everywhere from there – rock, metal, industrial, trance.  I try to musically follow closely the state of mind of the soldiers as they are subjected to more and more violence.  This psychological approach gave us a great amount of musical latitude."

The game features two campaigns this time around, one of which follows the American experiences battling Japanese forces – a first for the Call of Duty series.  "The Pacific theater is new to the American military and the American psyche," Murray explains of the scenario.  "It is an alien world and an alien kind of guerilla warfare.  I wanted to capture this unique and disorienting experience and translate it into music.  There is a constant dialogue between the Japanese and Americans.  It is warfare between horns and brass against taiko drums and shakuhachis.  I achieve the alien aspect with dark and creepy ambient synth textures and sound design."

The European branch follows the bold patriotism of the Russians at the start of the conflict in Seelow Heights as they slowly descend into depraved, vicious madness by the end of the campaign with the capture of the Reichstag in Berlin.  "I start the campaign with more traditional Russian orchestration using choir, balalaika, and gadulka," says Murray.  "As they reach Berlin, they meet the 'Angel of Death' – a beautiful German female siren voice that taunts the Russians at every turn.  As the fighting becomes more vicious, the balalaika turns to distorted hurdy gurdy, which morphs into eight-string heavy metal guitar.  The orchestral percussion then turns into industrial synth percussion.  The dark textures are enhanced with a beautiful mix of Russian choir and trance like rhythmic textures."

The City of Prague Symphony Orchestra performing Call of Duty: World At War.

Leading the Troops

Call of Duty: World at War ends up featuring well over two hours of music, and boasts performances by over 100 musicians from the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra and choir.  "It was particularly moving to able to record the score with the orchestra in Rudi's birthplace," says Murray.  "Walking the cobbled streets of Prague and viewing the monuments that Rudi had detailed in his stories truly brought his spirit into the score."

As mentioned, from time to time the score also incorporates electronic elements, folk instruments like the hurdy gurdy – a sort of mechanical violin with a sound reminiscent to a bagpipe – even electric guitar and vocals.  "The solo voice of LA-based opera singer Jane Runnalls is incredible," Murray enthuses.  "She added so much emotion and pathos with her haunting voice.  The other stand-out is guitar player and Treyarch audio team member Kevin Sherwood – he's a guitar hero!"

"I also had the pleasure of working with my long-time friend, Emilie Bernstein who orchestrated the score.  Emilie's father was famed composer Elmer Bernstein – she also orchestrated all of his later scores.  She brought an organic, non-synthesizer approach to the score that enhanced it tremendously.  Interestingly, Elmer's last recording was in the same hall in Prague."

Orchestrator Emilie Bernstein and Composer Sean Murray at the recording session.

Facing the Enemy

Besides the cutscenes that are scored much like a movie would be done, Call of Duty: World at War's in-game music is designed to flow with the action by having particular cues or sections of cues triggered by specific player actions and events in the game.  Although asking a composer to pick favorite pieces is like asking parents to choose between their children, "Trenches" always stands out to Murray.  "[It] captures the heroic intensions of the Americans landing on the beaches of Peleliu," he explains.  "We use a huge sweeping orchestral score that degrades into horrific dark sonic textures capturing the disturbing scenes of vicious jungle-trench warfare."

"Dog Fire" on the other hand really captures the essence of his take on the European theater.  "I start the cue with a hypnotic gadulka phrase leading to full 20th century orchestra with nasty industrial rhythms ending with a taunting German voice singing 'Die with me brave soldier; I am the angel of death,'" describes Murray.  Not your father's WWII score indeed.

Although any project of this magnitude is bound to be exciting to work on, the fact that this was a game gave it a special appeal in Murray's eyes.  "I like the change of atmosphere working on a game – there's a terrific sense of camaraderie," he says.  "In film I'm usually working with one creative voice – usually the director, sometimes the main producer.  With the Treyarch/Activision audio team, everyone had excellent input.  I spent a lot of time at the offices and interacted with writers, producers and programmers.  This made the experience of Call of Duty: World at War really special, giving me a greater insight into all aspects of game making."

"I also enjoyed how the project was constantly evolving.  With film/TV I work with a finished product – in a sense, a static project.  A video game is constantly changing and developing."  With the successful completion of this title, it seems a safe bet we'll be hearing more games scored by Sean Murray in the future.  Until then, one can only hope Activision will get around to releasing the soundtrack for this one.

Alex Van Zelfden

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