Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Megaman Music at the Kennedy

I might as well admit it publicly--my boyfriend is an avid, practically obsessive video game music fan and he's slowly starting to convert me. After five years, god knows how many tracks of blips, bloops, midi-rips, and Megaman remixes, I'm starting to appreciate the fact that the soundtracks to games I enjoyed during my childhood are experiencing a renaissance under the hands of some very creative, very talented, and very professional musicians.

Everybody knows the classic Super Mario Bros theme a sort of ragtime/calypso homage with a 6/8 back beat to keep the player moving forward. Well, here is just one example of how the hands of artists are making a more than 20 year-old game come to life again for new and old audiences alike.

What's more, the music produced for video games today is also some pretty sophisticated stuff, capable, in many cases, of standing on its own outside of the context in which the games are played. I remember when, I think it was the Outrun game series, developed an option where you could listen to different music as you played. It was only maybe something more jazzy and something neutral, and something metal rock I think--all the same theme.

Flash forward a decade or so, and Grand Theft Auto had several different soundtracks in the form of discreet "radio stations" you could turn on in your car as you played. Each station had pretty extensive song lists and usually funny DJ and commercial segments. GTA was really seminal, in my mind, of breaking through stereotypes of what kind of background music a game had and for good reason, the general public began to sit up and take notice of just how much an elaborate soundtrack can add to the gaming experience.

But don't ask VGM officionados. They'll tell you that although the memorable tunes may have started with Mario and Zelda, the industry has always pushed the boundaries in what people have often thought of as disposable electronica. Their hard work and some intrepid fan loyalty has paid off. Today, masterworks like those in the later versions of the Final Fantasy series, Halo, or Myst, rival something Ennio Morricone or John Williams might write.

And as filmmakers and video game executives become more and more interdependent, I wouldn't be surprised if one day, after it's finally released, Halo, the movie, actually did get an Oscar nod for best score.

And so we come to me being backstage with some some of the most prominent American video game music composers, Jack Wall and Tommy Tallarico during the Video Games Live concert here at the Kennedy Center in our nation's capitol.

The sold-out, two day concert featured the National Symphony Orchestra playing orchestral versions or medleys of some of the most popular video games of all time. Audience members often come in costume for a contest that, at least when I was there, pitted a cardboard, duct-taped, red Tetris block against a blue-spandexed Megaman. Tetris won, and I was just grateful to have my eyesight preserved after Megaman did a few too many revealing poses.

Here's a sample. That's Jack Wall conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

During the concert, montages from the video game featured play in sync with the orchestra. This may not only be a good way to reference how the music augments the game playing experience, but also a fabulous way to promote the games, themselves, not to mention keep the highly ADD audience interested.

There are also segments where audience members are selected to come up and play Frogger or Space Invaders, two dinosaurs of the gaming world that are so kid friendly and simple they'd bring a smile to even the coldest censor's heart. It truly is a show for all ages that doesn't seem to forget its roots, although much of the music from games I didn't know (God of War, Medal of Honor, Advent Rising etc...) sounded very similar in format and style. Maybe it was that all of it was orchestral, maybe it was that the sound mixing was so bad.

It was often hard to distinguish the chorus, female soloist, or Tommy playing his electronic guitar for the finale from the orchestra and that was pretty frustrating. It sounded like a lot of good stuff was going on that just went over my head because of the acoustics.

Given you have Tetris blocks and Megamen running around, you can guess that the audience is usually really enthusiastic, which I think shook a few NSO member's nerves as they were trying to play. On the other hand, they all realised it was probably the first time they'd played to an audience of 2500 (each night!) in many years.

As I sat in the backstage area for the NSO, surrounded by autographed photos of illustrious musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, with the Nat's game blaring on the TV in the background, I spoke with some members of the strings section.

While one violinist was a little bit snobby about it, the other musicians seemed to enjoy playing the music and were pretty generous with their praise. You could tell many were truly enjoying themselves on stage as well. One bassist even started head-banging with Tommy during a piece.

It was at this point, that I realised that when I'm old and my children are going to concerts of music that's probably a-tonal to me, old folks homes and elementary school bands will probably be playing video game music, where they once may have played Superman and Love Story themes.

Let's face the facts. Hollywood is becoming less and less profitable, and films are being released as DVDs more and more quickly. Video games are also becoming an increasingly important component to a film's merchandising offering. Steven Spielberg already knows this and has been getting his feet wet with a few select video game projects, most notably Medal of Honor.

Socially, we're bowling alone on our Wiis, texting instead of calling, chatting on AIM instead of hanging out, and logging on to play video games with people all over the world from our living rooms. Who knows if a few years from now, our trend toward self-isolation and personalization of our electronic world will lead to the triumph of the "choose your own adventure" video game over that of the summer blockbusters.

And the music will be there, bigger, better and more influential then ever, thanks to fans/musicians/artists like these:


YiQi C. said...

Dayam...that first clip is like flute-beatboxing. That's pretty cool.

Imagine doing something like that for a Juliard audition. Would you be rejected?

Ishtar said...

My cell phone, having previously belonged to my brother, is set to the Mario Brother's theme, and I haven't changed it.

Incubus worked on the Halo 2 Soundtrack, and I thought all in all it was pretty amazing. I've accidentally heard some great video game music on my brother's IPOD.

YiQi C. said...

A lot of people find their way to Jpop music via anime soundtracks as well as video game music. Could some people theoretically find their way to classical music through video game scores as well?

BlueToYou said...

larry has started to appreciate classical music more becuase of orchestral video game soundtracks, so it's highly possible. on the flip side, i know a classically trained vocalist who just got hired to do vocals for a vg soundtrack.

YiQi C. said...

That is way cool.

Larry "Liontamer" Oji said...

I always appreciated classical music, by the way. I don't listen to it on a regular basis, but my musical tastes have always been pretty open.

The Lady also means she knows "of" a classically trained vocalist who just got hired to do vocals for a VG soundtrack. :-P

She's my colleague, but those two ladies didn't get to meet in person due to Jill's boyfriend coming down with apendicitis just before the time of the concert!

You can check out Jillian Goldin's material at OverClocked ReMix as well as her homepage, JillianGoldin.com.