Friday Review: Video Games Live Concert

Last weekend I performed with the South Arkansas Symphony for a program called Video Games Live. The show has been around for nearly 10 years, and has toured internationally. All of the music for the show is taken from current and past video games, and includes live and pre-recorded video footage, light effects, and other elements normally associated with a rock or pop concert. Here’s a nice promotional video for the show’s live broadcast on PBS with the Louisiana Philharmonic in 2010.

I played video games quite a bit when I was younger, and still play them occasionally, so the much of the music for this concert brought back some nice memories. Logistically the show is quite involved, and required lots of extra setup time for the crew. Once marginalized and considered purely functional, video game music has come a long way since the early days, and there are many game scores which rival those of the biggest Hollywood films. There were plenty of big parts for the horns and other brass, but the ones I remember the most came from these games:

  • World of Warcraft
  • God of War
  • Metal Gear Solid

The show’s creator told us that they have around 90 orchestrations of music from various games, and they pick around 18 or so for each concert to create a different experience each time. Some of the other numbers on our concert came from games in the Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Castlevania franchises. The concert was programmed to a click track, and the show brought along their own guest conductor. Here’s a shot from the horn section. Notice the earpiece hanging on the stand for the click track. Overall things went pretty smoothly during the rehearsal and concert. The conductor obviously knew the scores very well, and was able to quickly address any issues as they arose. The biggest issue throughout the show for me was being able to follow the click track during tempo changes.

Pops concerts like this one are usually popular with their target audiences, and I was pleased to see so many people actively engaged at an orchestral performance.   The show was interactive and fast paced, definitely geared towards a younger audience. However, these shows aren’t always well liked by everyone in the orchestra, and I can certainly see that side of the argument as well. On one hand, I tend to support shows that bring in new audiences and reach out to demographics that might not normally attend an orchestral concert – which this one certainly did.  But the other side of the coin is that these shows don’t necessarily build support for more traditional programming, or cultivate the idea of an orchestra as an educational and cultural institution. Pops concerts are a reality of the business, and are definitely here to stay, but finding the balance between popular and traditional programming can be tricky. The differing perceptions of what an orchestra is and how it functions in society have been, and will continue to be, a central debate in the future of classical music.  Do you have any thoughts on the subject?  Feel free to comment!  [Emotions can run high when discussing this topic, but please keep everything civil or your comment may not be approved.]

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The harsh reality of pops [holiday, video game, jazz] concerts like this one is that they put rear ends in seats. By filling the halls for concerts like this it often times allows for organizations to plan and execute concerts like Mahler and Strauss – much finer music, and far more enjoyable for the performers – with a less than full house.

Thanks Nick! I agree. One issue with smaller orchestras that give fewer concerts per season is the ratio of pops to classical programs. Sometimes as much as half of a season might be pops concerts in order to fund the other half.

James,

While I have limited experience with orchrestra performing, as a gamer, performer,and composer, I am a huge fan and somewhat of a connoisseur of video game music. From the awesome intro sequence to Final Fantasy VII to the soundscaping music of Halo, to me music is the most important aspect to video games besides story. If you’ve got great music and a great story, the gameplay will follow suit.

Currently I’m playing Star Ocean: The Last Hope on Xbox 360. The story is pretty good, the visuals are pretty good, but the music is lacking. A great deal of the game involves combat and there are a lot of enemies around. However, there is only one piece of music for every single battle that’s not a boss battle. It gets old really fast, then it gets annoying. Sure, the older Final Fantasy games are like this, but disc space was limited, plus you spend a lot more time either on the world map or in towns, so it’s not as bad. For a game that spans 3 DVDs, there’s no excuse.

The next thing I want to mention is that part of the reason the Video Games Live concerts are so popular is because it gives us the chance to listen to the great music of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, where everything was low-quality midi samples, performed by a real orchestra. The themes from older games like the first Super Mario, Zelda and Sonic the Hedgehog games really come to life. One Winged Angel, Sephiroth’s theme in Final Fantasy VII, blew my mind the first time I heard the live orchestral version, let alone playing it on a hacked Guitar Hero. Hearing the music I loved as a child with a real orchestra is better than I imagined when I used wonder what it would sound like with real instruments and not 8-bit chirping.

It also brings me back to my days in high school when my friends and I would play Sonic, Mario, Zelda, and even Tetris and Earthworm Jim music in a jazz combo we put together (Super Mario 2 was always a hit). We would always put our own spin on them. For instance, I have a recording we made of Casino Night from Sonic 2 ten years ago. In addition to jazz solos, instrument choice ranges from saxophone and trombone to distortion guitar and harmonica. Mike, the keyboardist played the same exact solo note for note every time we played the song. The ending is a mixture of a typical jazz and heavy metal ending combined with a train wreck. It sounds horrible, but it’s hilarious.

Hi Philip,

Good to hear from you, and I hope you are doing well. Overall I was very impressed with the quality of the scores and orchestrations from the VGL program. I agree that it is fun to hear to old MIDI themes rendered by a full orchestra.

I just played Legends of Zelda Live over here in Seattle, and I had a blast. Well, literally, since basically the whole show is f-fff. I thought it was a great way to get people to an orchestra concert. The house at Benaroya was packed. Plus, you can hardly deny that including visual images with a live concert enhances the whole musical experience. You could think of these concerts as “gateway concerts” into the hard core stuff (Strauss, Mahler, Brahms, etc.) Or, you could just let people enjoy their video game music. I think it’s cool that they still use full orchestra for these outlets.

Hey Gina,

Yeah, there were plenty of brassy moments on the program here! Did any audience members come in costume for the Zelda concert? I forgot to mention above that they had a costume contest at intermission for audience members…hmm, I wonder if something interactive like that could be incorporated into classical concerts:)

James,

Yes, there were plenty of Links and some Zeldas in the audience. There was no official contest, but I can imagine how a concert such as this might incorporate a bit of cosplay costume action.

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