We talked with QVALIA's Michael Hazani about learning to code so he could make a playable soundscape, as well as how he transitioned from EDM toplining to creating his own immersive projects
QVALIA is a band—but only for performance purposes. Otherwise, the lyrics, production, and entire coding of the interactive “songscape” music videos that accompany the group's lush, transformative debut album, This is the Color of My Dreams, were all conceived and created solely by Michael Hazani.
His trajectory towards solo-artist started once he completed his mandatory Israeli army service and left the country two days later for an interview at Boston’s renowned Berklee School of Music. Hazani got in, and after four years of studying songwriting the musician moved to New York and became a EDM top-liner, helping produce and write lyrics for the high-budget genre. But with one year left on his visa, he turned down a Dr. Luke deal to create on his own—and it was time to indulge.
While working on the lyrics for the new LP, Hazani realized a physical space would be as important to the project as the sound and the words. If only he knew how to code, he could create lands as immersive as those he envisioned for each song. So he learned.
For his debut songscape, “Sound The Alarm,” premiering on The Creators Project today, players attempt to escape a maze for the duration of the song. But when the music stops, so do you. Players who make it out in time, however, are rewarded with a free album. It’s an immersive and depth-forming experience, a welcomed addition to a year filled with a multitude of music video-video game fusions—from Future's 8-bit "Move That Dope" to Rustie's Minecraft album stream.
We spoke to QVALIA about his newest playable soundscape, "Sound The Alarm":
The Creators Project: How do you pronounce QVALIA?
Michael Hazani: It’s pronounced kwah-LIA like the term that it’s named after.
It’s a term in phenomenology that means the inherent subjective way every being perceives sensory perceptions. It’s the way that this salad is going to taste differently for you than it is for me; we either don’t perceive it the same way or we’ll never know if we perceive is exactly the same way.
Where'd you learn it?
It’s something I stumbled upon through a YouTube video. I think it’s fascinating and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing the last four years—catering to other peoples tastes. I took real pride in that, whether it was music supervisor or producer for a commercial looking for just the right Plain White T’s ripoff, or with an artist.
With this, I decided that there are a lot of things I want to do musically, lyrically, conceptually that I’d never given myself permission to do because I always saw myself as a songwriter for other people. For the last year on my artist visa, I decided I’m going to give myself full permission to do whatever I can come up with and embrace the somewhat self indulgent element that happens to come with the territory. A few months after running across the term "qualia" I realized that’s exactly that.
What was it like working as an EDM writer?
There’s this phenomena of working-class topliners where you work through a third party and just churn out toplines that are later mixed and matched with beats depending on who’s looking. It’s so homogenous that anything can work on anything else. I just heard this YouTube video of someone playing four Martin Garrix tracks simultaneously and they work; same key, same BPM goes without saying, but the fact that the drops are at the same point...
What kinds of projects would you work on?
We would get requests, like, Justin Bieber’s "Beauty and The Beat" is huge now, give me something like that and then we’d spend half a day. I’m not complaining, it was a great studio with good people to work with and what not—but we spent half the day trying to distill what it is that makes that song work. What the formula, concept, melody and all these things were and try to reach something that’s, shall we say, kindly inspired by it, but not a direct rip-off. Then the typical feedback would be yeah, that’s not close enough. We need something that’s like "Beauty and The Beat." It was really soul-crushing.
I can imagine. How did you come up with the idea for the songscapes?
I’m a huge [Richard] Wagner fan. One of the things I admired most about him is that opera is traditionally written by collaborators—a libretto and a musician, the composer. The composer would usually be front and center and the libretto, the lyricist, wouldn’t really mean much. If you actually look at the lyrics of Mozart’s "Magic Flute" or "Marriage of Figaro," it’s gibberish. It doesn’t work on any level. It’s horrible and that was a convention. Not unlike pop today with the miniature backlash about how that Ariana Grande song doesn’t work grammatically. It was Wagner who first said he really wanted to write music. He didn’t just want to write the backing track, but he wanted to tell stories. He was a bit of a control freak, but he sort of had to be and he was one of the first people who wrote his own opera. He designed his own sets. He designed his own lighting. He did everyhing and that’s one of the most inspiring things. That defiance of conventions and just realizing how much freedom you have to do things.
When I was working on these songs, I used to take endless walks in the Hudson waterfronts and I would try to come up with lyrics and concepts. It led to the sense of environment and that I get the song's elements not only from the lyrics and instruments, but also where I am.
...And you just brought it to life.
At first it was wishful thinking. Like, I wish I could just create these vast spaces for every song and have people take walks through them to have that be another part of the sensory experience. But then I realized it’s all within reach. I don’t have to go to design school of have a degree in game design. I can just learn these things.
Was it easy for you?
Once I decided to put in the time, pretty much. A lot of the tools are free. YouTube isn’t just a treasure trove of kiddie videos, there’s a lot of tutorials. One of the things I learned in the army is how to learn. I was in the intelligence corp so we had a six-month prep course of 14-hours a day of Arabic and technology, so I know how to do something when I want to.
What were the programs called?
For asset design, which is basically just creating 3D objects and animations, there’s an open source program called Blender. You have to pay your dues to use the free program because if it's not money than it's time, sweat, tears and blood. I’m emphasizing that it’s free because privilege has nothing to do with this. It’s something anybody can do if they put their time into it. Autodesk has a whole suite of tools that allow you to take pictures and turn them into multimedia objects. And there’s a program called Unity, which if you’re a game designer you know about. There’s a free version of that as well. That involved a lot of coding, but it was worth it.
In "Sound The Alarm," the songscape we're premiering, players have to find a way to exit Theseus’ labyrinth. What went into that?
The biggest challenge was the concept. The ideas fell in one big spectrum. Total interactivity on one end, which is giving people total freedom to do whatever they want and use it exactly how they want, and the song would just be chunks of music that are totally responsive.There are a lot of cool things you can do, like have different stems different places and have people change the mix of the stems, so one side of the world is more drums and the other is more guitar. On the other hand, it's a regular music video where you have no interactivity. Both have their pros and cons. Apparently that’s the huge debate going back to the academic side of interactive media. You have traditional adventure games where you have to do X to get Y and you’re told a story through the game, but they also have open-ended games like GTA V, which is literally a never-ending world where you just do whatever you want. The question was where do I fit in.
What I really wanted to do was have that Greek myth as the total backdrop to the song and even if the intellectual connection doesn’t come across, which I doubt it will at least for everybody, at least it will be something emotional that will resonate. That’s why you have total freedom of motion, but you don’t have control of the music. There’s an objective, sort of. If you just walk around, trying but failing to find your way out, hopefully you still have a rewarding experience because there’s a lot to see and do. If you do figure out the way out—it’s pretty out of the box, but it’s understandable if you pay attention to clues—you get a free download of the album. I figured if someone spends that much time in it and really tried to get it, they probably like the music.
Click here to play QVALIA's interactive music video, "Sound the Alarm," and to snag your copy of LP This is the Color of My Dreams.