Ode to Joysticks part 3: Why transpose game music into the concert hall?

Laced With Wax blog: Ode to Joysticks part 3: Why transpose game music into the concert hall?

In our final Ode to Joysticks excerpts piece, we hear from the likes of Jessica Curry, PlayStation, and C64Audio.com about reimagining video game music through live performance — and how a Game Boy is actually a versatile instrument.

By Thomas Quillfeldt and Ben Eshmade

The Barbican Contemporary Music podcast (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast) recently published a three episode run of video game music shows called Ode to Joysticks, which aired between 28th February and 13th March 2018. Producer Ben Eshmade lined up an enviable list of interviewees who spoke about the past, present and future of video game music. With his blessing, we teased out some choice quotes and edited them together with relevant musical examples.

In this third and final excerpts blog, we hear from various people involved with commissioning live performances of game music — including Merregnon’s Thomas Böcker, composer Jessica Curry, PlayStation’s Head of Audio Alastair Lindsay, and C64Audio.com’s Chris Abbott; we also catch up with synth artist Deerful, who harnesses the Game Boy like it’s a gamelan.

From the sound chip to the concert hall, game music is seeping into the wider culture. We also get a few wrap-up thoughts from a wide variety of VGM luminaries about the future of the medium.

If you haven’t already, do check out part 1 — “The early pioneers of video game music” — focusing on the work of legendary chiptune composers like Koji Kondo and Rob Hubbard.

Part 2 is now live — "How game composers create other worlds" — featuring Austin Wintory, Jesper Kyd, Eímear Noone and others musing on the value of game music in immersing players in otherworldly settings.

Classically framed

Concert producer Thomas Böcker has been a driving force behind the movement to get video game music into the classical concert hall; he’s also been an instrumental player in spreading the love for Japanese video game composers globally. His production house, Merregnon Studios (www.gameconcerts.com), is known for its classy classical concert suites Final Symphony and Symphonic Fantasies.

Böcker explains how classical game concerts became a thing: “The whole idea came from Japan. When I was a teenager I read in a magazine that they were doing game concerts — I thought this was a fantastic idea. For many years, I was waiting and hoping that something similar would happen in Germany so that I could attend… [It never happened] so I did it myself.”

The Symphonic Game Music Concerts series, begun in 2003, was the first of its kind outside of Japan. Böcker produced concert after concert of classical arrangements of game music, working closely with composers like Chris Hülsbeck, Masashi Hamauzu, and Nobuo Uematsu; and building a crack arrangement team including Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo.

(Be sure to check out our deep dive interviews: “Exploring the Final Fantasy VI symphonic poem, with Roger Wanamo” and “Breaking down the music of the Final Fantasy VII symphony, with Jonne Valtonen” [also in podcast form])

The London Symphony Orchestra perform Final Symphony at the Barbican, London, in 2013.

The London Symphony Orchestra perform Final Symphony at the Barbican, London, in 2013.

In May 2013, the Final Symphony concert programme (Spotify or Apple Music/iTunes), featuring music from Final Fantasy’s VI, VII, and X (and an original piece), enjoyed its world premiere in Germany; Böcker considers the London Symphony Orchestra performance at the Barbican later that month as a big milestone for him and the Merregnon team. “It was successful, and we’ve done 10 concerts now with the LSO.

“Uematsu writes really tuneful music. All the Final Fantasy soundtracks, especially the early ones, are very [melodically] rich. Because it’s a role-playing game with so many characters and locations, there are many, many different themes.” He jokes that “every stone has its own theme in the Final Fantasy series! This is a big pool of material [for our] arrangers to choose from. Then, with all these wonderful melodies, they can basically retell the stories of Final Fantasy musically. That’s fantastic for the concert hall.

“After a Final Symphony performance, one of the professional classical musicians said that it was one of the most attentive audiences they’d ever played for. That’s something very fascinating: during the performances it’s really quiet, sometimes more quiet than in classical concerts where they’re always coughing. Final Fantasy fans want to hear every note, every part of the music.

“But, after the performance, it’s like in a rock concert with a lot of big applause and shouting. Over the years, I learned that the orchestra appreciates that because they feel respected for their work. The whole production and programme — the orchestra is brave enough to try something new. In the end, everybody’s happy about it and feels fortunate to be part of it.”

Final Fantasy composers Masashi Hamauzu (second from right) and Nobuo Uematsu (far right) soak up applause at one of the many concerts showcasing their music.

Final Fantasy composers Masashi Hamauzu (second from right) and Nobuo Uematsu (far right) soak up applause at one of the many concerts showcasing their music.

Everybody’s gone to the concert

Having scored a presenter role at Classic FM, composer Jessica Curry is probably the best-known game composer outside of gaming circles. As well as being a champion of the games industry, video game music, and women in games, she’s also produced the goods in the studio, turning out fantastic scores for titles including Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. (Don’t sleep on her amazing score for Google Daydream VR game So Let Us Melt.)

Jessica Curry

Back in 2016, Curry got in touch with the contemporary music programmer at the Barbican, Chris Sharp, to stage the premiere of Dear Esther Live; a recent UK tour wrapped in early 2018. The show boasts a “cinematic scale game playthrough” (i.e. the game being played on a big screen) coupled with a live music ensemble and narration. Curry explains the rationale: “There’s quite a lot of snobbery about game music, especially in classical London. I thought [Chris Sharp] was going to say ‘go away, mad woman’, but he was so sweet, accepting, and curious after I pitched this idea.

“[After he said yes] I thought ‘how am I actually going to pull this off?!’ in terms of how the conductor, who doesn’t know the game, is going the cue the musicians and the actor. We [at development studio The Chinese Room] worked with Curve Digital [publisher for the re-release Dear Esther: Landmark Edition] to make us a new build of the game that has those trigger cue points visualised, so the conductor will be looking at the monitor and see ‘OK, it’s cue #4’.”

Dear Esther

Dear Esther, a desperately lonely, mournful poetry-em-up set on a Hebridean island, isn’t exactly full of sunshine and light.

Curry’s husband Dan Pinchbeck (also the writer and designer of Dear Esther) plays the game live on stage during every performance. She explains: “It’s not like a film score, where you say ‘I know what happens at this point.’ Dan could also choose to go anywhere in the game, at any point, so that’s really scary for the conductor. I didn’t ask [him before I] pitched it to the Barbican… [I waited until closer to the show, and asked] ‘how d’ya feel about playing the game live on stage in front of about 650 people?’ He gave me one of those looks that only married couples can give each other. It’s a really big responsibility for him — he is the author of the evening.

“It hasn’t really been done before. [Composer and conductor] Austin Wintory has done something similar with Journey Live, but this show it quite different. We are at the vanguard of live game performances; of course, game music is being performed around the world, but not with a live play through of the game. That’s the challenge.

“And, it’s one of those evenings where you go: ‘I was there’. It’ll be repeated, but it’ll never be quite the same. That doesn’t happen every time you go and see something live — I’ve had it at the Proms, where there’s a collective feeling [amongst] the audience, where you exchange a look and go ‘I was here’. I hope [Dear Esther Live is] one of those special nights for people.”

For the players

On May 30th 2018, Jessica Curry presented the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s PlayStation In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London; featuring, among other pieces, some of her Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture score.

The concert came about as a result of discussions between the Managing Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Alastair Lindsay, Head of Audio at PlayStation. Lindsay recalls: “They’d booked the venue, they wanted to do a video game concert and needed help…. We had a good long chat, and I proposed the idea that this would just be a concert of PlayStation music. We knew that there was a good amount in the catalogue… and that we could give a bit of a journey of how music that we’ve done on the PlayStation has shaped and changed. Also, we decided to make it a pure concert: no backing track, no click, no visuals.

“It’s the RPO’s concert, but we’re supporting them with our music. It has definitely been a challenge because… it was a bigger job than we thought it would be.”

More and more Commodore

Chris Abbott runs C64Audio.com — the “champion of lost and neglected” chiptunes. Founded in 1997, the site is dedicated to Commodore 64 music, and still sells its first CD of C64 re-arrangements, 1998’s Back in Time. Two recent successfully-kickstarted albums will see classics reimagined in the style of Jean-Michel Jarre/Vangelis (Project Sidologie); and full orchestral (Symphony 64).

Project Sidologie and Symphony 64

Abbott says of early game music composers: “No one got into this music to become rich or famous — they got into it because it spoke to something they needed to do musically. For instance, composer Richard Joseph had a previous career as a rock star and songwriter… Rob Hubbard had been gigging all across Europe… Every composer had a back story where they were bringing in other musical influences — until, eventually, composers that came later, their main inspiration was earlier composers on the C64. At which point, [it all starts] feeding off itself, with fewer new ideas coming in.”

His vision is to one day hire the London Symphony Orchestra to perform orchestral arrangements of SID chip music. The first step was working on those arrangements: “The brief [for our 2015 Kickstarter project] was to make it so that scores could be played by a symphony orchestra. It’s not just a case of taking a chip tune and making a thing out of it — it’s trying to get to the soul of the piece, liaising with the composer, and doing it justice. If it was supposed to be a big, sci-fi epic, make it sounds like John Williams; if it’s supposed to be a quiet rural piece, make it sound like Grieg.”

A wider musical movement

Conductor and composer Eímear Noone, known for her work around Blizzard titles, comments: “There’s an amazing movement of people making their own arrangements of famous video game themes. It’s huge. The US East Coast festival MAGfest [attracts tens of thousands]; there are so [different ensembles, like] rock bands, synth bands, classical ensembles, string quartets, woodwind ensembles, etc. People are writing their own arrangements of video game music and performing it, and it’s actually kind of massive.

“It’s really weird as a composer to hear one of your pieces being arranged and performed... weird, exhilarating, humbling, and amazing. It’s not just when you see [cover versions of] rock songs and pop songs — this is a whole festival and movement. There are some really good remixes out there [on sites like] Ocremix.org.”

Performers at the MAGfest video games and game music festival.

Performers at the MAGfest video games and game music festival.

Recently, composer, orchestrator, and soundtrack producer Penka Kouneva co-organised the World of Video Game Music concert in Bulgaria, performed by the Classic FM Radio Orchestra. “I believe with all my heart and soul that video game music is the music of the 21st Century. Not only that, but it’s the continuation of the grand tradition that we so love. I grew up in Bulgaria, and my mother started taking me to classical orchestral concerts as a very young child. I just loved it so much.

“We approached this concert with the idea of bringing the best orchestral music into the classical concert hall and showing how it is the continuation, how it revitalises the tradition.”

Conductor Amy Andersson and composer Neal Acree on the promotional artwork for The World of Video game Music concert in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Conductor Amy Andersson and composer Neal Acree on the promotional artwork for The World of Video Game Music concert in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Composer Jesper Kyd (Hitman, Assassin’s Creed, Borderlands) adds: “To see [game] music played in the concert hall has been… super exciting. [My music will feature in] three or four concerts [in 2018]. I’ll be in Krakow at the world’s biggest film and TV music festival [FMF]. It’s really awesome that there’s this much love for this music.

“People spend so long inside these video games: they can play a game for 20 hours, 100 hours. To go out to an opera house and to hear that music that you know so well, and hear a new live version of that music… that makes sense [as to why it would resonate].”

Game person

At the other end of the live music spectrum, the chiptune scene is a far cry from concert halls featuring giant 80-piece orchestras and choirs.

Deerful makes pop music using odd synths and computer game consoles, including for live performances. She explains the tech a little: “We have an original Nintendo Game Boy running some software called Little Sound DJ, or ‘LSDJ’. I mostly use it live — it acts as a backing track that I can either play stuff back from, or loop things and interact with.”

“It has four tracks, which is the number of tracks available to any cartridge running on the Game Boy. Because of the way that the Game Boy sound chip works, each of the four tracks can only play one note at a time; there’s no way that you can play chords, it doesn’t have the capacity or the brain to do that. But, you can get around that: it’s possible to programme very fast arpeggios where, if you listen carefully, you can hear separate notes; but your brain sort of [interprets it as] a chord. If you listen to pretty much any chiptune music, or music made in LSDJ, you’ll hear this.

“A lot of people who use LSDJ will link two or more Game Boys together, [and] there are people that will use a whole table full of them, and other things, as part of a live set. But, part of what I like about it is the compactness — it is actually possible for me to play a full set with just a Game Boy.” 

Deerful recommends an article on Sythtopia.com about making music on a Game Boy: “...think of LSDj like a city, [a note] being a brick, the phrase being a wall, the chain being a building and the song screen where we started being the city where we put all our buildings together.”

End game

Some final thoughts from various interviewees across the series:

C64Audio.com’s Chris Abbott: “I think games music is trying too hard to be taken seriously [and be grown up]... like film music.”

Podcast producer Ben Eshmade: “What seems important is that we don’t lose a sense of fun — [the continuing love of] 8-bit melodies, or [creation of] music for mobile games, will perhaps make sure we don’t take games music too seriously.”

Super Mario Bros.

Game music has come a long way since the 8-bit melodies of Super Mario Bros. in 1985.

Composer Richard Jacques:  “I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with VR and AR technologies. Mobile gaming is going to continue to grow also. Pretty much everyone has a gaming console in their pocket now — that’s something I didn’t predict,and it’s going to be interesting to see where that goes.

“The amount of players playing games online… is going to grow and grow — that might have implications for how we do music. For instance, if there’s 100,000 people playing the same game at the same time, do we do something creatively different with the music for each player? These sorts of questions.

“How we store music is probably going to change, how it is delivered… From seeing several console generations come and go, I can pretty much bet I’m going to have more channels, more storage to play with.”

Composer Inon Zur: “Eventually I think you will see more and more titles where the game will learn how you play, will learn your tastes and will adapt itself to you — and music will be part of it. This is very, very revolutionary. If you ask me how, where music — not style — but where music use is going to change, I think this is the direction that we will look at next.”

Laced Records Community Manager Thomas Quillfeldt: “People joke about video games having their ‘Citizen Kane moment’ — in terms of being a young medium, and not being as mature as cinema.

“In that regard, video game music hasn’t quite had its “My Heart Will Go On”/Titanic moment, where a piece of music drawn from another medium resonates so strongly with the public that it becomes a cultural moment in and of itself. We’ve seen that time and time again with film: “Everything I Do” from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, etc…”

Christopher Tin winning a GRAMMY for Baba Yetu

“Perhaps the strongest candidates so far were Austin Wintory’s Journey, or “Baba Yetu” by Christopher Tin [pictured above] from Civilization IV, which were nominated for Grammy awards.” (“Baba Yetu” won Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists six years after the game in which it featured was released).

“I don’t think we’re quite there, but it’s probably just a matter of time before something breaks through — a song from a popular game maybe gets into the charts, or something like that strikes a chord.”

Thanks to Ben Eshmade for letting us publish excerpts from the Ode To Joysticks podcast series.

There’s plenty in the episodes that we didn’t cover — listen to the full episodes via the Barbican Contemporary Music podcast feed (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast – you might have to search for the 28th February to 13th March 2018 episodes.)