By Bryant Francis
On July 10, Video Games Live, in association with the National Symphony Orchestra, performed at Virginia’s Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts, bringing the music of such composers as Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori, Christopher Tin and Koji Kondo to life. These names are not the names of composers of classical music, but rather the names behind some of the biggest scores in video game history.
As gamers from a wide variety of backgrounds looked on, the two groups worked together to take the audience on a journey through a huge variety of musical styles performed by classical instrumentalists, mixing music, lights, and video in a replication of the multi-media experience of the basic video game. The styles ranged from the beeps and boops of Tetris to the more grand and sweeping movements behind the mega-popular Halo franchise.
Video Games Live was founded, according to Tommy Tallarico, one of the concert’s co-founders, “to prove to the world how significant video games have become and how culturally and artistically relevant they are. They are pieces of art, whether in itself or the characters or music or storyline.”
The concert moved through a variety of video games scores in no particular order. The best performances came from both familiar and surprising choices—the Halo Suite had the audience cheering as the soaring climax of the string section kicked in, while the theme from a little-known SNES game called Chrono Cross managed to surpass a few of the more modern games in terms of elegance and complexity, moving from a slow and haunting introduction to a fast-paced acoustic guitar sound in its conclusion. “Baba Yetu”, the theme from Civilization IV, gave the biggest surprise as it came right out of nowhere and enchanted the crowd with a beautiful rendition of the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili.
The diversity of the musical choices also stood out as one of the show’s strengths, and perhaps offers the explanation as to why the concert has drawn such a large crowd. The theme to Halo offered a strong, Hollywood-style scoring, while the Final Fantasy, Chrono Cross, and Kingdom Hearts themes blended music based in Japanese symphonies into the mix. Other musical styles, such as the dark, electronic noises of Metroid, stood apart from the more traditional sounds.
“Music style plays a role in selecting the set list each night,” Tallarico said, “because you don’t want too much of the same thing…we’ve created over 60 segments for Video Games Live, and over the years, yet we’ve never played the same show twice.”
The show also offered an interesting take on how classical music has transcended into modern culture. The National Symphony Orchestra ordinarily performs the classical Masters in the sacrosanct halls of the Kennedy Center. During this show, however, their performance was as crisp, clean, and vibrant as if it were Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
“When people think of an orchestral performance they may think upper class, sipping wine, staying 100% silent,” Tallarico said. “One of our goals is to change that perception and make it FUN again for people of all ages and walks of life.”
“A lot of the musicians we use have been classically trained,” said Tallarico. “There’s definitely some apprehension there. They’re leafing through the music and thinking, ‘Sonic the Hedgehog? What the hell is World of Warcraft? This isn’t Stravinsky!’ And then they play the music and you see them nodding to each other and thinking ‘hey this is actually legitimate music.’ And the reality is that all of us, as video game composers, draw inspiration from the masters.”
Of course, the orchestral performances weren’t the only highlights of the show. Tallarico, working with conductor and co-founder Jack Wall, helped keep the audience excited and laughing by pulling an audience member onstage to play Space Invaders as the orchestra provided the sound effects. And Jack, being the perfect comedic mime, interacted with an audio voice of the character Solid Snake and hamming it up for the camera during the dark “One Winged Angel” theme.
A few surprising guests also made some appearance—Sid Meier, creator of Civilizatio, and Tycoon series, (Zoo Tycoon, Roller Coaster Tycoon) came onstage to address the crowd. And Ralph Baer, the man responsible for the first “Brown Box” home video game system came in via Skype to thunderous applause.
Finally, there was the community experience. The performances themselves may have been superb, but half of the experience was just listening to the fan reaction as they heard their favorite music. From the dueling shout-outs of “For the Horde!” and “For the Alliance!” to the applause through various points of the Final Fantasy compilation, the audience turned the show from a classical performance to a rock concert.
“There are three or four thousand people cheering and clapping like it’s the second coming of the Beatles or something, and that’s when the magic really happens,” Tallarico said.
To sum it all up, Video Games Live managed to be a ton of fun, a fascinating eye-opener about gaming music, and an interesting chance to take a look at the community surrounding the show.
Bryant Francis is a sophomore cinema and photography major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.