Listening to classical music can be glorious, even life-changing, but it’s a field that’s daunting to navigate. We highlight some accessible (but still brilliant) classical works that fans of video game music will love — with the help of composers Jessica Curry, Austin Wintory and Lloyd Coleman, podcaster Emily Reese, and the Videri Quartet.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
‘Video game music’ is not one thing, and it’s certainly no longer just the sum of music directly produced for video games; it currently serves as a useful, if nebulous, umbrella term. As well as video game music being incredibly diverse of musical styles (e.g. orchestral pomp, big band jazz, chill electronica, country songs), there are also numerous overlapping areas of activity: soundtrack releases; live performances and experimental art projects; fan covers, remixes, and rearrangements; and a community built around critical analysis (writers, YouTubers, etc.)
‘Classical music’ isn’t a unified thing either, even though, viewed from the outside, it might seem like an intimidatingly vast body of work. ‘Classical’ is a similarly nebulous label under which we sweep (some might say dismiss, or condemn) vast quantities of music new and old.
Classical music is also, some would have you believe, both a dying art, and plagued by a defensive elitism — video game fans know a thing or two about the latter.
But those who know anything about classical music, like those who take an interest in game music, will attest that there are works of such emotional nuance — some grand, some intimate — that they can change your life. Melodies that reach into your chest and tug violently at your heartstrings; flourishes and virtuosity that leave you gawping in disbelief; passion-inflaming passages that will inspire you to want to kiss someone)
A musical venn diagram would show significant crossover between the two worlds, with a growing number of people and works sitting comfortably in the middle. Tendrils of inspiration stretch in both directions (clearly Dvořák would have dug the J-rock of Guilty Gear Xrd -Revelator-), but mostly from the work of the classical greats into that of game composers.
In order to help game music fans begin (or continue) their journey of exploration into the world of classical music, we asked composers Jessica Curry, Austin Wintory and Lloyd Coleman, podcaster Emily Reese, members of the Videri Quartet, and arranger David Peacock to pick video game and classical works that, for them, musically resonate with one other.
Jessica Curry – Composer (Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture); Presenter, Classic FM’s High Score
By way of her own growing profile as a composer and now presenter, Ms. Curry has, in some ways, become the spymaster general when it comes to infiltrating the classical world with video game music. A large part of that is down to her crafting game soundtracks that stand up as contemporary classical music in their own right, and recording them with world class classical performers.
In 2016, Curry staged the premiere of Dear Esther Live at the Barbican, a show featuring live gameplay, narration, and music. In 2017, she was hired by Classic FM to front the new series High Score, recognising classy game music, and helping to significantly boost its under-25 listenership. For some, this was an overdue recognition of the maturity of both video games, and the work of the composers that score them. And, she recently presented the PlayStation In Concert show, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at London’s Royal Albert Hall. (And she was named as composer-in-residence for the London Oriana Choir.)
tl;dr — Curry knows both worlds pretty darn well, and is finding success straddling them.
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture as an overture to Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem
Curry: “I sing in a choir, and at the time of writing Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, I was singing Duruflé’s Requiem, which is an absolutely stunning piece and one of the greats of the choral repertoire. Although there aren’t any direct harmonic comparisons between the two scores, there is definitely a profound connection between the works.
“The beauty of his choral writing pushed me forwards, and his extraordinarily clever use of plainsong was also incredibly influential and inspirational. You can hear that I was thinking about plainsong in the track “For Ever”.”
“Duruflé’s “Lux Aeterna” is a wonderful example of how simple writing can be so effective, and you can really hear that ethos in the ...Rapture score.”
“Duruflé has a deep understanding of how to write for choir — his scoring is so beautiful and otherworldly, and so lush as well. It is the most human of all the Requiems, and I do think that the ...Rapture score would have sounded completely different if I hadn’t happened upon this music at the perfect moment in my life.”
Lloyd Coleman – Composer, clarinettist, broadcaster (BBC Proms), Associate Music Director of the British Paraorchestra
The multi-talented Welshman Lloyd Coleman is a founder member, and now Associate Musical Director, of the British Paraorchestra — the first professional ensemble in the world comprised of disabled musicians.
The 2018 concert PLAY!, at the Barbican, saw the Army of Generals and the British Paraorchestra perform a mixture of video game music interspersed with classical favourites. Particularly impressive was Coleman’s own orchestral arrangement featuring classic game themes.
“Assassin’s Creed Theme” (from AC: Revelations) as a prelude to Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
Coleman: “I adore Lorne Balfe’s main theme from Assassin’s Creed: Revelations — when I first heard it, I was completely captivated by that tender, mournful voice floating across a sequence of beautiful string chords. Later, it builds to an epic choral climax, but it’s the vulnerable quality of that lone human voice that I find most stirring.”
“It’s a track loved by millions of gamers the world over, hailing as it does from one of the biggest game franchises of all time [100m+ copies sold]. Its emotional impact reminds me of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs — a remarkable work, written in 1977, by one the foremost Polish composers of the 20th Century.”
“In the second movement, the solo soprano sings the words of a young girl’s prayer inscribed on the wall of a Gestapo prison in 1944. Sustained strings, slowly weaving around the melismatic setting of these powerful words, makes for a devastating listening experience.
“Most of Górecki’s earlier music is unflinching and uncompromising in its avant-garde style, but his third symphony evidently resonated with listeners far beyond the contemporary music circles in which he was known; a 1992 recording by soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta sold over a million copies, and it remains a classic today.”
Austin Wintory – Composer (Journey, ABZÛ, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate)
The GRAMMY-nominated Mr. Wintory shouldn’t need too much introduction as he is, quite probably, the busiest person working within (and without) video game music (seriously — his Bandcamp page is a throng).
Wintory’s music has been performed countless times at concerts around the world, including at the aforementioned PlayStation In Concert. In 2016, fans pledged via Kickstarter to bring to life Journey LIVE, “the first fully interactive performance of Austin Wintory's Grammy-nominated score, responsive to live game play.” Fans are anxiously waiting to hear his music for The Banner Saga 3, as well as for (another) crowdfunded passion project A Light In The Void — the “world’s first concert to blend scientific stories with orchestral accompaniment and visuals.”
ABZÛ as an introduction to Gustav Holst’s The Planets, and Vaughan Williams' Flos Campi
Wintory: “I'm not sure there’s a specific ABZÛ moment I could point to, as the goal was never to duplicate anything 😉. It's more that the general handling of ideas in Holst’s The Planets is something I find so attractive; I try to learn from it. Certainly the main theme from ABZÛ, with all the harps creating a kind of haze, has its parallels in "Neptune."
"Again I can only think to use the word 'glittering.'”
“The overall, emotionally mysterious quality of “Mercury” is something I find endlessly compelling; it’s incredibly colorful and rich. Every instrument is used with purpose, and it has a kind of (again) glittering quality. All of that has, I think, been influential on me since I was a teenager.”
“I've also always loved Vaughan Williams' Flos Campi — the sensuous way that he places the orchestra and choir together (at 11:00 in the video below.) This is surely a presence felt in ABZÛ:
About composers Jessica Curry and Garry Schyman, Wintory adds: “Both Jess and Garry draw from the stalwarts of the 20th Century canon, but, ironically, are opposite sides of the same coin. The giants that came before Jess include Vaughan Williams and Samuel Barber. Garry, on the other hand (at least in the case of his BioShock and Dante’s Inferno scores), is a clear musical progeny of John Corigliano (especially his film score for Altered States); and the darker, more stabbing orchestral works of Shostakovich. At least, to my ears!”
Jeremiah Barcus – Cellist (Videri Quartet)
Jeremiah studied at the New England Conservatory in Boston, has recorded with the pop artists Will Knox, and has won several prizes, including the Boston Conservatory Chamber Series competition. He’s currently studying Cello Performance at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.
Founded in 2012, the Videri Quartet is a US-based, classically trained string quartet that focuses on performing
video game music. Whilst the ensemble performs standard repertoire, it also works with a team of arrangers in order to bring game music to life.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind as a curtain-raiser for Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra
Barcus: “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind holds place near to my heart. The many, many, many hours I spent with friends playing this game on the original Xbox after school are some of my fondest high school memories.
“Jeremy Soule captures such elegance and specificity in all of his scores: the soundtrack for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion embraces regality and magnificence; whereas that for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim embodies wild courageousness. However, Morrowind’s score captures the intense loneliness a hero must overcome on their journey — an understanding that it is only him against the darkness of the world.”
“In Soule’s music for Morrowind, one can hear faint traces of Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Bartók, a Hungarian composer from the late-19th/early-20th century, spent years researching and transcribing folk songs from the countryside, and incorporating them into his own music. Much of Bartók’s work often seems simple, but carries an air of gravitas — and reveals that this simple peasant music can be pure, beautiful, and strikingly complex. Concerto for Orchestra outlines the different instruments of the orchestra, and each section is given its own voice.”
“Jeremy Soule does exactly that with his soundtrack to Morrowind, giving weight to each instrument in the soundtrack: the low bassoon forebodes evil, trumpets blare regality, flutes exude simple soaring melodies.
“Any classical musician could tell you stories about Bartók: how difficult his music is; how it is so complicated to read and understand but sounds so simple; the intricate way in which he intertwines voices; the list goes on. As he is writing and transcribing the folksongs, he continually tries to incorporate the improvisational and metric nature of each song. This is why his music often has very complex metric patterns.
“Rhythm is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of video game music — it’s how we remember melodies so easily, and it suggests an ambience to the game itself (I’m thinking of intense fight music, soothing save point music, or an anticipatory beat in preparation for a jump scare in many horror games).
In Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra the second theme of the first movement (around 4 minutes 55 seconds in the above video), played by the first oboe, resembles a folk melody. It has a narrow range and seemingly random rhythm over a drone in the horn and strings. This theme reminds me of the ‘moment of waking from a dream, familiarity somehow coexist[ing] with a strange newness that can overwhelm the senses,’ that Jeremy Soule describes about the track, “Over the Next Hill”.
– Jeremy Soule’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind original soundtrack on Spotify
Emily Reese – Podcast host (Level with Emily Reese), presenter (Jazz88, MN)
Emily Reese seemingly leads a double life: as a morning show radio presenter in Minnesota; and as one of the most cheery and thoughtful interviewers of video game composers out there, via the podcast Level with Emily Reese (Apple Podcasts). She was previously a presenter on Classical Minnesota Public Radio, whilst also fronting the spiritual predecessor to Level…, the Top Score podcast (archives: Apple Podcasts).
Olivier Deriviere’s Get Even as a lead-in to Minimalism
Reese: “The [BAFTA-nominated] score for Get Even really flew under the radar last year, overshadowed by some fantastic scores for games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Cuphead. French composer Olivier Deriviere wrote the music for the game (also Alone in the Dark (2008), Remember Me, and more) — I get pretty excited every time he has a new score out, and he's also just done music for Dontnod’s Vampyr (Bandcamp).
“Olivier knows his way around an orchestra, as well as what's up with classical music. In the main, he writes in a minimalistic style, with lots of repeating rhythmic patterns, and harmonies that tend to move or change at a slower pace.”
“You can hear great examples of minimalist music in scores like Flower, BioShock: Infinite, and Dear Esther. In the classical music world, Minimalism was pioneered by composers like Terry Riley and Philip Glass in the 1960s.”
“Minimalism easily transferred over to scoring for film and other media, with composers like Michael Nyman and so many more. (Philip Glass also did several film scores.) I recently watched the BBC series Broadchurch, which has a lovely minimalist score by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnald.”
You can also hear on the radio every morning from 6:00 am - 9:00 am CT, hosting the Morning Show on Jazz88 in Minneapolis, MN.
David Peacock – Composer, arranger/orchestrator
Laced With Wax recently interviewed the young Mr. Peacock about how he became a noted video game music arranger who has worked with the likes of Austin Wintory and Disasterpeace; and how he feels about hearing his works performed live at events like game music festival MAGfest.
Masashi Hamauzu as an ‘in’ to John Adams
Editor’s note: Masashi Hamauzu grew up in Germany as the son of musical Japanese parents — a pianist and an opera singer. Before he became the lead composer for the three games under the Fabula Nova Crystallis (Final Fantasy XIII) umbrella, Hamauzu brought his impressionistic, angular style to a few titles in the SaGa JRPG series. He later became one of the regular arrangers for the classical game concerts team Merregnon, arranging the “Final Fantasy X Piano Concerto” as part of Final Symphony.
Hitoshi Sakimoto as an ‘in’ to Sergei Prokofiev
Editor’s note: Hitoshi Sakimoto, like Hamauzu, is one of the ‘other’ Final Fantasy series composers, whose beloved scores for Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII nonetheless exist in the shadow of Nobuo Uematsu’s classic scores. Sakimoto has been composing game music professionally since age 16 (he’s 49 at the time of writing), and has touched numerous gaming series including Tekken, Breath of Fire, Odin Sphere, Ogre Battle, Gradius, Valkyria Chronicles, and many, many more.
Peacock: “The amount of memorable, unique action music Hitoshi Sakimoto has written is impressive. So much of it feels like bite-sized, condensed Prokofiev-esque movements on their own.”
“Tracks like “Random Waltz”, "Companions That Surpassed Their Tribe”, and “Enemy Attack”, with Sakimoto’s use of contrasting textures in the orchestration and emotional tone, could complement Prokofiev well. (Especially if Sakimoto were given a sizable orchestra to work with!)”
Michael Hustedde – Violinist (Videri Quartet)
Michael is a Kentucky native, and has performed in orchestras and chamber ensembles around the world, including China, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Canada.
Ori and the Blind Forest Suite comp. Gareth Coker arr. David Peacock as an appetiser for Achille-Claude Debussy
Hustedde: “Upon playing through Videri’s Ori and the Blind Forest quartet arrangement for the first time, I was immediately hooked by its sonic world. The sprawling yet deliberate harmonic progressions, the contrast between lush, opaque, and transparent textures, and the grounded and expressive bass line all combined to produce this incredible sense of place and belonging. I have also experienced similar sensations while performing Debussy, and feel that echoes of Debussy can be heard in this particular Ori arrangement.”
“A piece that evokes similar sentiments is Debussy’s “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” (Descent of the moon upon the temple that is no more), the second piece in his Images Book 2 for solo piano.
“First of all, what a peculiar title! “Descent of the moon upon the temple that is no more” interplays both our sense of space and time as different aural perspectives — the motion of the moon, its growing grandeur as it nears ever closer, yet closer to a temple that once was, a distant memory. This particular feeling, one so elusive in its very definition and description, reminds me of Ori.”
“The music in our Ori arrangement has this feeling — both eternal and present-sounding, in the now and past/future. Its grand pulse, felt in large groups of one per bar and sometimes one per several bars, gives it this continuous, cyclical motion, similar to the Debussy. Repetition is prevalent in both pieces too, where melodies will be heard again, and harmonic progressions built upon and extended.
“These pieces transport me to a particular place and time, both ‘time present and time past’ to quote T.S. Eliot. ‘Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened…’, he continues. ‘What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present.’”
– The Videri Quartet’s Ori and the Blind Forest Suite, composed by Gareth Coker and arranged by David Peacock, is available as part of NIBEL: Ori and the Blind Forest Remixed, released by Materia Collective on Spotify and Apple Music
Thomas "practise is boring" Quillfeldt – Writer (this), lapsed cellist
I kept making little notes whilst listening to some of my favourite classical music in recent months, which all boiled down to: “This great classical piece sounds like that great video game piece.” Hence this article, which morphed somewhat when I realised I ought to reach out to proper classical people, rather than rely on my tourist’s knowledge.
“Memories of an Ancient Ocean” from Dragon Quest VIII as preparation for Debussy’s La Mer
Musical mastermind, co-founder of Yellow Magic Orchestra and occasional film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto recently said in a Guardian interview: “Debussy came into my ear. Music about a mood and atmosphere, and not east or west. Asian music influenced Debussy who influenced me - it's all a huge circle."
There are some occasions where game composers seem to borrow pretty directly.
When I first clapped ears on “Memories of an Ancient Ocean ~ Ship Theme” by Koichi Sugiyama (the ‘grandfather of video game music’, now in his late ‘80s) in the re-recorded Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra version of the score to 2004’s Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, I fell deeply in love with the main melody (at 0:44)...
...but I was also fairly certain that it was a knowing homage to Debussy’s La Mer (with a bit of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs intro — By the Sleepy Lagoon by Eric Coates — thrown in). Both “Memories of an Ancient Ocean ~ Ship Theme” and La Mer are swooshy (for lack of a better word), evocative of a grand oceanic journey, and the instrumentation makes you feel like you’re rocking back and forth with the undulations of the waves.
Final Fantasy as a gateway to Romantic-era composers Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and Chopin
As has been observed extensively, classic JRPGs, which relied on text for dialogue rather than recorded voices, were stuffed with highly melodic music to help what were relatively slow experiences feel more dynamic; and also explicitly to tell player what emotions were at play at any given moment.
And, as I and others have written about ad nauseam on this blog, Nobuo Uematsu, renowned for his scores to Final Fantasys I through X, is the Lord High God Emperor of video game melodies.
If you have a low tolerance for saccharine sentimentality, maybe don’t play this next tune, but “Love Grows” from Final Fantasy VIII is perhaps the most direct of many renditions of one of Uematsu’s most beloved melodies (ultimately from the game’s theme song, “Eyes On Me”).
Now, Rachmaninoff could also spin a tune or two, and I’d advise any fan of the softer side of Final Fantasy music to check out the third movement of his Symphony No. 2:
Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque has been fascinating me lately, and not only because of the incredibly famous third movement “Claire de lune”. There are so many melodies, counter-melodies, harmonic layers, and rhythms that remind me of golden-era Uematsu (Final Fantasys IV through IX) that I don’t know where to start. The first movement is just a glorious procession of interesting phrases:
Although it doesn’t particularly echo Suite Bergamasque specifically, there is plenty of Debussy in “Find Your Way”, also from Final Fantasy VIII:
Back to Uematsu’s “Love Grows” (this one is cheating slightly). Released more or less contemporaneously with the game, there is a stunning album of symphonic arrangements — FITHOS LUSEC WECOS VINOSEC: Final Fantasy VIII — by one of the unsung heroes of game music, orchestrator (among other things) Shiro Hamaguchi.
The “Love Grows” arrangement is pure Chopin, and a wonderful mini-piano concerto of its own. It’s got to be the schmaltziest (but good) thing I’ve ever heard, cheesier than a John Williams kid’s Christmas movie score; and at 2:20, there is an utterly arresting passage:
That sounds an awful lot like this from Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 #justsayin...
– Koichi Sugiyama’s Dragon Quest VIII original soundtrack on YouTube (mixed synthesised and symphonic versions)
Be sure to get in touch with your favourite video game songs — we’d love to hear them!
Coda: Gis a Prom, please
(If any of the following is incorrect, or leaves out important participants or milestones, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org)
Video game music has been seeping its way into the consciousnesses of those in the classical world, partly thanks to the efforts of Mark Robins and the guerrilla online campaign, launched in 2012, to ‘Keep Video Games Music in the Classic FM Hall of Fame’. (Twitter: @classicvgmusic; Facebook.com/ClassicVGMusic.)
You can draw a straight line from there to the 2017 commissioning of the High Score game music show with Jessica Curry as presenter (of course with help from several other video game music fan-activists, open-minded people in and around Classic FM, and milestone happenings like Dear Esther Live).
Over the period including the first series of High Score, Classic FM added 231,000 listeners under 35, and an increase in under-25 listenership of 30%. 🧐
Over the period including the second series, the station announced a 43% bost in under-25 listeners. 🔍👀🧐
We know game music can sell out the Royal Albert Hall and Barbican through game concerts like Distant Worlds.
The London Symphony Orchestra performed and recorded full-blown classical works — symphonies and concertos — based on Final Fantasy music for Final Symphony.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra approached the PlayStation music team to programme their recent PlayStation In Concert show (a rehearsal of sorts for a game Prom?)
The London Philharmonic Orchestra has a long history with game music, recording the Dragon Quest Symphinic Suite in 1986, and The Greatest Video Game Music series of albums (produced by Tommy Tallarico of Video Games Live.)
There was a Celebrating John Williams Prom in 2017.
There have been three(!) Doctor Who Proms.
All that to say...
By whatever appropriate (and polite) means, the message ought to be communicated to Alan Davey, Controller BBC Radio 3 (@armslengthal), and David Pickard, Director of the BBC Proms (@davidkpickard), that if they want to engage a new audience, a young audience (as well as some not necessarily classically-inclined middle-agers), and make some headlines…
It’s about time that there was a Video Game Prom. Make it so, Dave!
[Star Trek joke]
[Oh, forget it]