Lachlan Vass of The Artifice writes that the "effective use (or lack of use) of music in videogames has proven to be the difference between a defining emotional climax reaching its full splendor, and what would have otherwise been captivating moment achieving the poignancy of a dried tomato."
Through that emotional climax, an entire subculture centered around video game music has developed. These music fans joyfully listen to professional touring groups such as Video Games Live, covering the most remarkable video game tracks for live audiences to hear.
Yet, even more remarkable are the efforts put forth by the deeper denizens of this subculture. Here, you'll find amateur musicians who regularly arrange, meet and perform their beloved video game soundtracks.
In 2012, I was fortunate as a member of National Philharmonic Chorale to perform with Video Games Live. It was at this concert that I met my colleague, Steve O’Brien. He played in the University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra, a student-run organization of amateur musicians dedicating themselves to video game music. Some of their members had put together an arrangement that Tommy Tallarico, the founder of Video Games Live even featured in his local Video Games Live performance.
Since then, Steve has joined an offshoot, semi-professional Gamer Symphony Orchestra in the Washington, D.C. area, and I met up with him to talk about it.
J.I. Canizares: So tell me about the Gamer Symphony Orchestra
Steve O'Brien: I’m in the Washington Metropolitan Area Gamer Symphony Orchestra, which is somewhat of an offshoot of the University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra, which I used to be a part of. This was a community band -- a college club basically -- where some alumni from that group that had graduated didn't want to stop, so they made another one.
J.I.:Tell me about the original University of Maryland group. How did it all come about?
Steve: So I think it was spring 2005, a student and some of her friends wanted to play some video game music in a club with orchestral instruments. I wasn't there, but the kind of people who joined, we know how to generally play concert band or orchestral instruments and not the “traditional,” guitar-type stuff. They started doing rehearsals and finding midis and printing things out so they could play them. People began to join, there were concerts. I joined in the spring of 2007 on the trombone.
J.I.: So tell us a little bit about yourself and your instrument and your involvement with video game music.
Steve: Well I love video game music. I used to listen to it exclusively. Well, video game music and Weird Al [laughter]. and that only changed in… I think it was the end of ninth grade that I started listening to “real” music. So, I've always been a huge fan of video game music, I mean Donkey Kong Country 2, Super Mario RPG, a lot of SNES games. I had a program that could perfectly emulate the sound of a Super Nintendo on the computer. So I was very excited about the University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra. I actually didn't join at first because I didn't think I would have the time because I was in the marching band, but I later decided to find time.
J.I.: So after you graduated you and some other people decided to continue?
Steve: I’m really glad [we all] did because it’s pretty cool. It’s going to be a good bit different, I think. The goals, as well as the fact that it’s not college-oriented, are going to be way different. I mean, at University of Maryland, it’s very socially open. It’s basically first come first serve. If you are first on the waitlist and if you want to do it you can do it. It doesn't matter how good you play or if the last time you played was in seventh grade. I didn't necessarily always agree with that and in the Washington Metro Gamer Symphony Orchestra we are trying to be more musically competent.
J.I.: So you have auditions?
Steve. Yeah we do. Well, they call them auditions, but really you do a rehearsal and the conductor pays attention to how you are playing and judges you based on a rehearsal rather than singling you out. But, it is a playing test.
"It’s one thing to play classical music that you've never heard before, that’s printed and given to you, but it’s a whole other thing to just play something that you actually know, something that’s a part of you."
J.I.: How do you see what you do and what you've done with the Gamer Symphony Orchestra affecting gamer culture around you, and how are people responding to it?
Steve: For me it’s validating my love for video game music. You get together with a bunch of people who all love to listen to it, who are almost as obsessed as I am… some of them come close I guess [laughter]. It’s a positive cultural thing, it feels really good to be a part of that, it’s empowering.
J.I.: Why do you say empowering?
Steve: Well sometimes people like to marginalize people who obsess over games and stuff, it’s a way to counteract that.
J.I.: Well why do you think people identify with it so strongly?
Steve. Well you see, a lot of people in the group grew up playing lots of video games and, you know, they were kids so they kind of fell in love with the music. I know I did, and that seems to be the case with other people. It becomes part of your identity, and when you are able to express that by actually performing it it’s just an awesome feeling. I mean it’s one thing to play classical music that you've never heard before, that’s printed and given to you -- but it’s a whole other thing to just play something that you actually know, something that’s a part of you. It’s an awesome feeling.
J.I.: Is every single song you play associated with a particular set of memories or emotions?
Steve: For me, the music itself has become its own beast because, like I said, I listen to it on its own. I was pretty obsessive about it. Not all of the songs we play I knew beforehand, though many of them are thematically similar. We do the arrangements ourselves for the most part. I actually arranged two songs, one from Kirby and one from Donkey Kong Country, and now that, that is incredible. A full orchestra playing something you arranged from one of your favorite games? I’m not even musically trained at all, I’ve hardly had any private lessons even for trombone, mostly I just learned by playing in concert band.
J.I.: That’s cool! Was there a particular reason why you choose your pieces?
Steve: Oh I don’t know, for Kirby I was trying to do Megaman X, but that one wasn't coming together. I had pieces of it, but it just wasn't becoming a coherent whole. So I started transcribing one of the songs from Kirby Superstar that I always thought was really funky and groovy? [laughter] It was an unexpected style, it certainly didn't feel like most other Kirby songs, but it was really catchy. So I started transcribing that and then added one of the more recognizable songs for the finale.
J.I.: Would you say there is a great difference in terms of the experience between someone playing in the orchestra such as you and a person who just comes to one of these concerts? Have you been in that sort of place where you are just an observer?
Steve: Yeah, so I was only in the University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra for one semester after I graduated and then I wanted to leave more room for college kids to join and be a part of it. So I have seen a lot of Gamer Symphony Orchestra concerts that I was not a part of at all. It’s still awesome. I mean it can get pretty emotional for me.
"I always preferred local gamer orchestras because it’s a lot more personal. I mean we make a lot more mistakes, but it’s our music. We’re playing it our way."
J.I.: What are your thoughts on Video Games Live and other professional video game ensembles?
Steve: Video Games Live is honestly kind of disappointing for me.
Steve: Well they sometimes use recorded stuff out of speakers. I know in Shadow of the Colossus they actually used recorded tracts from out of the game.
J.I.: Well that’s interesting!
Steve: I could recognize the distinctive qualities of that recording and it just really disappointed me.
J.I.: Was the entire experience disappointing? Or were there parts of it you enjoyed?
Steve: Well…it was pretty cool. I would say I always preferred local gamer orchestras because it’s a lot more personal. I mean we make a lot more mistakes, but it’s our music. We’re playing it our way. Whereas with them, the arrangers and performers aren't always as invested in it. So it doesn't come out necessarily as genuine…I remember one song, there was a guy, I mean it was still pretty good, but it was something from Final Fantasy, and the way it goes is [hums melody] but the way it was written was in triplets and the guy was accenting the first beat of every triplet and it kind of ruined it honestly [hums melody with the different rhythmic accents]. It was a different song, they weren't playing the right song you know?
J.I.: So some of the people who are playing, you don’t think actually know the games that they are referencing the music from?
Steve: I sincerely doubt that a lot of the orchestral players do, from what I saw a lot of them look older and they wouldn't have had that kind of experience. In the University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra we used to go to all kinds of these things. I like what they are trying to do, but at the same time, I've seen a lot. Video Games Live and PLAY!, and a few other[s], those are the main ones. But for example, the [Video Games Live] Mario arrangement, it just didn't feel like they were fan[s], someone who liked the music, but it felt like it was an assignment. Whereas, we have some great arrangers, I am nowhere near these guys. Just the way that they make the pieces, it’s beautiful, they take what they love about the songs, the sound tracks, they take the parts that they absolutely love, whereas I feel like the arrangers for the professional orchestra versions just take the most popular songs, the most recognizable songs and then not necessarily want to do anything extra with them. When you are more emotionally invested in it, I think it comes out in the arrangement.
J.I.: Video Games Live remains popular and very well attended though. Would you say it's because the people who attend are not as emotionally invested, or don’t know the music as well?
Steve: I think that I am probably just a lot pickier when it comes to that, partially because I’m in these orchestras and can afford to be. If that was my only way to hear these songs I probably wouldn't be so critical, but I’m a part of something that does it as well. I do think that anytime you have an orchestra on a stage you shouldn't be using pre-recorded stuff. But I’m glad that they are there.
J.I.: But it’s not all pre-recorded.
Steve: True, not all of it. One of the really cool things about Video Games Live I have to admit though, the audience interaction when [Video Games Live] makes them come up and do the space invader thing, that stuff is really cool.
J.I.: Like playing the video games live on stage?
Steve: Yeah. I remember there was a live Guitar Hero one time and Space Invaders.
J.I.: So do you know of any other video game ensembles aside from yours in the area?
Steve: Well...the University of Maryland Orchestra has seeded a few high school Gamer Symphony Orchestras which I think is completely awesome.
J.I.: Spreading the love I see.
Steve: There’s the Baltimore Gamer Symphony Orchestra led by my ex, Kira Levitzky, and there are lots of other video game cover bands that do more rock or small group type stuff. I’m not sure what that space is like though.
J.I.: Like the Black Mages? Doing covers of Final Fantasy stuff?
Steve: Can it really be called a cover when Nobuo is in the band?
J.I.: This is true.
Steve: It’s a re-release!
"...I hope we inspire more groups like us to pop up. I hope that at some point people feel comfortable starting community groups that are full of amateurs and not sponsored by big companies..."
J.I.: Are you working on anything right now as far as arrangements?
Steve: I had a Mario arrangement which has stalled. The crazy thing is, the first song that you would expect a group like this to play -- which highlights what I said before about playing what you love versus what is expected -- we’ve never played the Super Mario theme. As often happens with creative projects, I stopped working on it.
J.I.: Well I hope you have more success on your Mario project. So what would you say your vision is for your ensemble? Where do you hope to see it going eventually?
Steve: I haven’t thought about it as much in depth, some people want to be able to go and perform at say Strathmore on our own. It’s not a bad thing, but not necessarily the main thing I want.
J.I.: What would you say you would like to get out of it and what would you like everyone to get out of it in the long run?
Steve: Well there was one song that we unfortunately had to drop that had a jazz section. I used to be in a jazz band and always wanted to do a solo but never did. It would be nice to work on my improvisational skills. But I’m not going to be disappointed if that doesn't happen, there is too much awesome happening otherwise. Beyond that, I hope I’m able to contribute more arrangements, and I hope we get to work on new music that explores different sides of video game music. I like to bring out the more obscure sides, lesser known games and music.
I hope we have a lot of attendance at our concerts and I hope we inspire more groups like us to pop up. I hope that at some point people feel comfortable starting community groups that are full of amateurs and not sponsored by big companies, I hope that grassroots organizations like ours can feel comfortable starting up. It’s art, man!
J.I. Canizares is a video games fanatic and musician. He sings in the National Philharmonic in Washington DC and co-leads a small vocal ensemble dedicated to making a form of strange music called overtone singing.