The Magic of Manor Lords’ Medieval Music

Interview with Manor Lords’ composer Elben Schutte

Unless you’ve been avoiding gaming news recently, you’ve probably heard of Manor Lords, the new city-builder sim from indie developer Slavic Magic. A huge hit on Steam, Manor Lords tasks the player with building a thriving settlement during the middle ages. Immersive, ridiculously deep but still accessible, Manor Lords is one of the best games of the year so far. Part of Manor Lords’ impressive authenticity comes from the brilliant musical score by Pressure Cooker, a small music production team headed by Elben Schutte and Daniel Caleb. Schutte generously answered some questions about Manor Lords’ music.

Manor Lords is set during the middle ages. Musically, it was a time in history dominated by two styles of music. There was choral music sung in churches and cathedrals. At the same time, there was a rich folk music tradition of improvisation. Of course, none of the folk music was written down. However, some of the folk tunes actually found their way into church music–much to the disapproval of church authorities.

Modern audiences have probably heard at least some medieval music thanks to movies and other forms of entertainment. It can sound pretty foreign to listeners raised on rock, pop, and rap. But deep down all music is built on the same components: melody, harmony, and rhythm. In skilled hands, arrangements of medieval music sound beautiful, elegant, and emotionally rich.

Balancing Act

The score for Manor Lords is split between actual middle ages music and original compositions. I asked Schutte how the team balanced the two styles. “We initially set out to write original music only, as is the natural instinct of any composer,” Schutte said. “However, as we threw ourselves deeper and deeper into the period music, we fell in love with some medieval pieces and felt it necessary to incorporate them to truly hit that authenticity.’

“We wanted to capture the authenticity of the period, but also capture the beauty of the game itself with cinematic elements. So it was ultimately always going to be a balancing act between writing original cinematic music and the interpolation of medieval music.”

Bringing Together Old and New

Squaring the ancient and still-developing sounds of medieval music with original compositions was a musical puzzle. Schutte said “This was indeed a big challenge, since we had two goals in mind, the cinematic capturing of the game and its environment, as well as the anchoring of the experience in the medieval time. We experimented with a lot of cross-pollinating the two music worlds, but this felt to us like it was interfering with the authenticity of the period music. We made the creative decision to allow the two sides their own space in the compositions instead.”

Harmony (i.e. chords) in medieval folk music followed different rules than we use today. Pressure Cooker found a brilliant bridge between the old and new by focusing on choral music of the time. “Some clues were drawn from the harmonic language found in the sacred choral music. The orchestral cues are thus a cinematic interpretation of harmonic choices that would’ve perhaps been made by composers of the period.” To casual listeners, the result is a seamless blend of ancient and modern styles.

Style Choices

There are obviously no recordings of music from the 14th century, and relatively few instruction manuals from the period. So, how did it sound? There is a lot of disagreement in the early music world (and yes, that’s a thing). I asked Schutte how they landed on the “sound” of the medieval selections. “The performers and musicians we chose to use really inspired us with their love and expertise of the music,” Schutte said. “We allowed our performers a lot of freedom to express the music on their respective instruments, so that we could capture something truly inspired and organic.’

“Our lute [an early instrument similar to a guitar] player would often use a feather to pluck at his instrument instead of just relying on fingerpicking, because this was often how folk music was performed. We did not know this initially, so we discovered details such as this along the way. The thing to get right for the singers was pronunciation, so we did a fair bit of research and collaborated with experts to get that right.”

Make It Up as You Go

People who study this sort of thing are in agreement that a lot of medieval folk music was probably improvised, a lot like jazz or rock solos. Improvisation plays a big role in the music for Manor Lords, but it connects to the written music very organically. “The performers were often given the cinematic music to listen to, to experience the feeling evoked by these elements and to draw harmonically from them, while maintaining the limitations of their instruments that gave them their unique sound and flavour. This required some experimentation!’

“Secondly, when it came to improvised sections we wanted them to feel unscripted and organic. We didn’t want to over-produce the parts and micro-manage them to death, but rather trust in our performers to carry the desired feeling we wished to evoke.”

Medieval Color

A lot of game music features electronics or digital samples. Obviously, this wasn’t an option for music written 800 years ago. As a result, Manor Lords’ music is almost entirely performed by live musicians on acoustic instruments: strings, fretted instrument, winds and percussion. Schutte said “We started out with sampled instruments, and added live instruments to sampled ones. As time went by on our quest toward authenticity, we landed up cutting all the samples . This definitely yielded the best result by far, both for the period and cinematic side of the music.”

Quite often game music is nothing more than an innocuous background to the action. While Pressure Cooker’s music does it’s scene-setting job in the game, it’s a great stand-alone listen. Calling it “beautiful” makes it sound a bit superficial. Schutte and Caleb’s score¬†is beautiful, but it’s also a musically rich, intriguing, and entirely successful synthesis of styles.

***Special thanks to Elben Schutte, Daniel Caleb and Pressure Cooker. Soundtrack for Manor Lords is available for streaming via Laced Records:***