Column: Giving Voice to the Skalds – Einar Selvik and Assassin’s Creed

As a 30-year old man who has played video games since the days of the Game Boy and the Super Nintendo, I can say that I have seen the medium evolve maybe more than most. From pixelated 8-bit janky messes to CGI-laden HD janky messes, there is no denying that gaming has been revolutionized many times over in the past two to three decades.

Of all the fond gaming memories I have from these years, few top when I visited an old friend and saw her playing the first Assassin’s Creed. This was some 12 years ago, but I still vividly remember how large the world looked, how complex the gameplay felt, and how bewildered I was that video games had come so far.

While I ultimately never really got into the series personally, the Assassin’s Creed games, published by Ubisoft Montréal and Ubisoft Québec, have become established as one of the largest video game franchises of all time, with over 140 million games sold in  the last 13 years. This already-impressive number is likely to rise quite a bit with the release of the newest installment of the series, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, which will be launched on November 17.

Set in a semi-fictionalized version of Viking-Age England, the game is the first in the franchise to be set in the world of Norsemen and Anglo-Saxons. If the various trailers and livestreams that have been released in the past few weeks are anything to judge by, Valhalla promises to be just as successful as its predecessors.

The series has, in recent years, received increasingly high levels of praise for its depiction of historical events and cultures – the previous two games were set in ancient Egypt and classical Greece. One would expect that a lot of work was dedicated to making Valhalla as historically accurate as possible. Indeed, in the process of developing the game, Ubisoft made use of a number of researchers, authors, academics, and artists to help shape the identity of the game.

Among these people are a number of individuals who, as Pagans and Heathens, had a unique perspective on contributing to the game. One of these creators is none other than Einar Selvik, the man behind the Nordic folk ensemble Wardruna, one of the most famous musical outfits in the genre. When it was revealed that he was to be involved with the music of the game, alongside seasoned game music professionals Jesper Kyd and Sarah Schachner, The Wild Hunt just had to talk to him.

In the following interview, which took place on July 21, he talks about his contributions to the game, his working philosophy, artistic approach and what he thinks Viking music needs more of right now.

Einar Selvik in 2018 [Tuukka Koski and Koski Syväri]

The story of Einar Selvik starts in the eighties in rural west-Norway, a rugged land full of tales, legends, and mighty nature. “I was very much exposed to history, growing up. I was told lots of stories, when out on the countryside or on walks in nature. These histories of the ancient past created some sort of connection with me. I can remember very vividly that quite early in my teens, when I was reading about these old myths, I became very fascinated, first of all because I could not easily understand them. Things moved in circles, there was no black or white thinking. It was more like nature, and it gave me this drive to try to understand it all better, and it still does.”

Over the years, Selvik became even more interested in the occult and esoteric aspects of religion and philosophy. He soon became heavily invested in the Norwegian Black Metal scene, a cultural microcosm that blended anti-Christianity, Heathenism, Satanism, shocking antics and extreme heavy metal.

For more than a decade, from the mid nineties to well into the two-thousands, Selvik, who by then had taken the name Kvitrafn (“white-raven”), was most commonly seen drumming for various extreme Metal bands from the Bergen region. This experience was instrumental in developing his artistic and philosophical affinities. “I was never into the satanic aspect of it, what interested me with Black Metal is that the thoughts behind the music were just as important, perhaps even more important, than the music itself. This is what I call the ‘nourishment’ behind the music itself, it gives it its energy and supports it.”

Even though Selvik achieved more than most in his time within this scene, it ultimately left him wanting more. “At some point, black metal became more technique-based. It stopped being about the message, and more about how fast you could drum or play guitar.”

Gradually, he dialed down his involvement in metal and started to focus more of his time fusing his age-old interest in the myths and legends of the Norse world with his musical activities. This process started to bear fruits in the late 2000s, when Wardruna, his folk-project, began making waves. In 2009, the band released its sophomore album, Runaljod – gap var Ginnunga, and attracted even more attention when they performed live at the Oslo viking ship museum, playing in front of a thousand year old longship.

In the following years, Selvik took his project to new heights, releasing three more albums, playing live at some of the largest music festivals around, and even licensing, then writing music for, and even starring in the History Channel series Vikings. The meteoric fame of the series introduced him and Wardruna to mainstream popular culture.

“They wanted this sort of hybrid mixture of modern distorted electronics versus authentic traditional instruments,” he says. “Some tonalities and instruments can automatically take the listener back in time, and I think the music of the show could have focused more on these authentic sounds, but I was just a small part of the musical team.”

In the years that followed, Selvik multiplied and diversified his work. He worked alongside fellow black metal veteran Ivar Bjørnson (of Enslaved) to produce a musical score celebrating the bicentennial of the Norwegian constitution, released a solo EP (Snake Pit Poetry), and was even invited to provide vocals for some gaming projects: Rend, whose score was penned by Neal Acree (Stargate SG-1, World of Warcraft, Starcraft), and League of Legends, on a track by Austin Wintory (Journey, Banner Saga). Then, in 2018, he was approached by Ubisoft to collaborate on their upcoming game, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.

“I had been asked to write game scores quite a few times at this point, for both Norwegian, and international companies, big and small. For some reason, it never happened, but it had been on the radar for some time.” In the eyes of Selvik, collaborating for any kind of music project is not something to be undertaken lightly. “I am very picky with collaborations or projects. If it does not resonate, I don’t say yes. It needs to feel right on all fronts.”

As far as this new Ubisoft-lead project was concerned, though, things could not have clicked better. Even though he had not actively played games for many years and only ever touched the first game in the series, his co-composers, chosen by Ubisoft fit the bill quite well. “I already knew about Jesper Kyd, I had heard his music before. Then, when I got the request from Ubisoft, I did a little bit of digging, to see what their soundtracks sounded like.”

Upon delving into the works of Schachner and Kyd, he was confirmed in his initial impression that such a project could go on. “In general, I don’t really listen to music, because I work so much with it. After a long day in the studio, I don’t go back home and put on some music. But sometimes I do, and I enjoy listening to soundtracks, all in all.”

When, following this initial first contact, it was time to discuss more specific matters, things seemed to fit just right. “We first met in late 2018, and spent several days discussing the concept, and what could be my role and my work. In the end, I am very happy to say that Ubisoft and myself had a very similar vision when it comes to the game’s music. It has been really great working with them. They let me go to the unpolished realm, try to use as historically accurate instruments and sounds as possible. They let me give voice to the skalds.”

On July 17, the first musical morsel from Valhalla was released. It took the form of a digital EP titled Out of the North, containing seven tracks that are to be played in the game. Three each were composed by Kyd and Schachner, and one by Selvik.

“We primarily work separately,” he notes. “I have my responsibilities and they have theirs. My work is very much based on the ‘ethnic’ aspect of the game. Some songs I pick and choose and they are edited to fit a game location, or a specific quest. Some of my stuff will be part of sound design as well, music you will hear in the game world, not just as background music. We did collaborate on something in the end, but this will be announced in early August.”

Interviewing an artist about a project that is yet to be released, especially within a market as prone to leaks as the video game industry does mean that a number of details are off the table. Thankfully, no NDA in the world could prevent Wardruna’s frontman from talking about his creative process.

“For the game, I did a lot of acoustic, minimalistic music based on Eddic and Skaldic poetry. I did work primarily in Old Norse, but also some in English.” While some of the songs recorded by Selvik are interpretations of historical medieval Norse poems, he nevertheless wrote a number of new skaldic poems to fit the game’s setting. “I can’t really go too much in that, but the new poetry is based on what the story of that region is in the game. For these, I tried to keep to old verse meters like ljóðaháttr and kviðuháttr. I am very lucky to have lots of friends within academia like Professor Terry Gunnell and Doctor Bergsveinn Birgisson who help me whenever I need assistance.”

Research is an important part of Selvik’s musical work, and does not end with looking at language and literature to write lyrics – it extends deep into his very compositions. “Some of the songs are based on authentic and primary sources. Every sound recorded comes from authentic instruments, even electronic ones.”

If this focus on historical accuracy and research has become near synonymous with Selvik and his various musical projects, it nevertheless remains an exception, rather than the rule regarding music that is generally billed as “Viking.”

“I have listened to some soundtracks of Viking movies or games, and these often miss out by playing old instruments on keyboards. Also tonality and rhythm are often overlooked. With these, you can determine if the composers has done their homework or not, and most of the time, they have not. The tonality and the rhythm are things I wanted to do right, do more according to the tradition.”

Selvik paints a picture made of long work days and near ascetic seclusion. “In the studio, I ended up doing all the music by myself. I was supposed to do several concerts, but those were cancelled because of the virus. I was in studio quarantine, it involved lots of practical challenges and logistics that had to be sorted out, but it gave me more time. The whole social distancing thing, I did not notice most of that.”

Wardruna’s 2020 lineup [Kim Öhrling and Koski Syväri]

Nevertheless, Wardruna’s frontman could not spend quite all of his time composing and writing music, as he had to get his hands on the game to figure out how his music would play out within its world. “I had to play the game, and I have seen lots of footage.” Making music for games is a bit different from writing songs for a TV show or a movie. “Both are types of visual storytelling, but games are more free. Shows have time codes, game pieces are more adaptable, but also need to be more flexible. While the expression can be similar, the execution is a bit different.”

When asked about the real meat and potatoes of this project, the game itself, the composer remains just as positive that it will be resounding success. “I saw the first footage of the game in early 2019, I have been part of the project from the start: it looks spectacular. You can really lose yourself in the game. The esthetic, the nature are so well done. It looks like people are gonna enjoy it.”

He is also optimistic when discussing the game as a piece of popular media focusing on pre-Christian culture and religion. “These media portrayals are often very stereotypical, which is understandable. People don’t understand animism or polytheism, which are much more complex than linear, black-and-white monotheism. Everything becomes simplified, but these things are getting better. Knowledge is more accessible now, and the interest for learning and understanding is much more present than just ten years ago.”

Still, it is far from Selvik’s mind to use his media as a tool of religious activism or proselytism. “My religion was never discussed with Ubisoft. Even in my music, my beliefs are not something I want to impose on people. I think it is very important to leave a lot of space in the music and the lyrics for personal interpretation. I try to never serve anything as truth in my music, I am throwing out questions instead.”

Still, working on a project of such a scale, and benefiting from a degree of fame relatively unheard of for a Pagan or Heathen musician, it would not be surprising that Selvik might end up touching a nerve in the minds of the future Assassin’s Creed players. Will any young gamer turn back to the old religion after getting all available platinum trophies or completing a hitless speedrun of the game? Who knows.

One thing that is certain, however, is that they will be met with some of the most spiritually heartfelt music to ever be composed for a game. At the very least, one can hope that they turn to Wardruna, whose fifth album is slated for release on January 22 2021, an album, one can hope, that will resonate with thousands, if not millions of new fans across the world, hungry to delve ever deeper into the mysteries and wonders of the world of ancient Scandinavia.

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