The Orchestra Reborn

The Phoenix Blog

Adjacent Cultures

"When all else fails use fire."

For the last few years Nintendo has been touring orchestral arrangements of music from the classic Zelda franchise. Started in 2012 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the legendary series, the tour was meant to run one year but was so popular it's still around. I'm not going to get into the incredible history of music in Zelda because… Well, I value sleep.

I had a chance to go to one of these concerts last year in Symphony Hall. The building was packed. Packed with high school students, young adults, young professionals, a crowd that defied the stereotypes that normally fill the hall. And in the middle of it all, an orchestra. Playing symphonic music. Music that this mass of people loved and simply couldn't get enough of.

There was so much energy in that audience. An audience not at all accustomed to orchestral concerts. People yelled when their favorite themes came in, composers talked to the audience about the music, the applause went on for days, and the music was at the center of everything. Sound familiar…?

"A Thing That Doesn't Change With Time is a Memory of Younger Days."

One of the things I often cite as evidence that classical music has a place in 2015 is the enthusiasm seen for similar orchestral music when it’s introduced to people in certain contexts. Like movies. Or video games.

I’m deeply in love with video games. I grew up with video games, and they never stopped being a huge part of my life. But the last few months I haven’t had much time to connect with my lifelong pastime. Since I don’t actually have time to play video games, I’ve decided to vent by writing about video game music for this post.

Before we get down to it, I should tell those of you who haven't spent your lives keeping up with video game news and criticism that these games have come a long way since Allan Alcorn created the training exercise that became known as “Pong.”

Over the last decade, video games have come into their own as an art form. One capable of dealing with serious and thought-provoking subject matter. And whether that’s examining the moral ambiguity of war or forcing players to make split second decisions that raise serious questions about their humanity, music always plays an integral role.

"Friends are a good thing to have."

In 2012’s Journey you play as a faceless robed figure. You can walk around by pushing different directions on the analog stick, and you can jump. There’s only one other control in the game: You can emit a short musical ping. The purpose? A little ways into the game you meet another robed figure. And you can communicate with that other figure through friendly single-tune codes. I ping once, they ping once. I ping twice, they ping twice! It’s stupidly adorable, and it’s amazing how quickly you begin to think of that robed figure as a friend.

You adventure with your friend through different stages and find out only at the end that the figure you’ve been playing with the whole time was not a computer character, but instead a random person from somewhere else in the world playing the game just like you.

Austin Wintory’s breathtaking and cello-focused score provides the background for the whole game. Its soundscape is an essential, living, breathing part of the aesthetics of the game. Much like great movie scores, it’s impossible to imagine Journey with different music. It accompanies monumental desert vistas but also serves as incredible momentum during the games faster sections. The score became the first interactive piece of media to be nominated for Best Soundtrack for Visual Media at the Grammys, a category normally reserved for film scores.

"My country lay within a vast desert."

One of the most talked about musical moments in video game history is the ride into Mexico from Red Dead Redemption. Developed by Rockstar Games, (Yep, the Grand Theft Auto folks) the first half of the game (about 20 hours of playtime) takes place in the deserts of southern Texas. The move to Mexico is often hinted at in those first 20 hours, and when it finally happens it’s presented with breathtaking artistry.

After a narrative twist I won’t give away, you find yourself on the south shore of a river. No instructions. Just a horse, a completely new color palette, and freedom. Get on the horse and start riding and in comes Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away”.

The thing that’s truly amazing about this moment is how easily it can go wrong. Video game developers often struggle with the problem of player agency. This ride into Mexico, so perfectly crafted, so painstakingly setup by 20 hours of play, can easily go awry if the player simply gets off the horse, or goes off the path, or falls off a cliff. But that’s part of the joy. You’re in control of the movie, you get to be part of creating the art.

"A ray of light shot out of the forest, parted the clouds and lit up the ground..."

When you sit down in a red chair, on top of a lighthouse, in the middle of an ocean, in Bioshock Infinite you have no idea what’s going to happen next. (Alright, honestly, if you’ve played Bioshock or Bioshock 2 you may be able to guess). You’re suddenly thrust up through the clouds, and when they dissipate you find yourself in Columbia: A floating city basking in 1910’s nostalgia and American exceptionalism.

An old timey piano kicks off Gary Schyman’s exceptional score, echoing out the tune of “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” an old 1900s Christian Hymn that weaves in and out of the game. The hymn is almost too perfect for the setting of the game. Not only does it hint at the game’s focus on the cyclical nature of human existence, but it literally asks, “Is a better home awaitin’, in the sky?” An all too perfect reference to the floating city of Columbia.

Schyman’s score gets even more exceptional when you put your feet on the ground of Columbia. The music here is a surefire homage to Charles Ives (A 20th century American composer). Gentle, melodic violin hovers over an underlying dissonance that not only makes for great music, but represents the unsettling racial inequalities the city of Columbia hides beneath its glowing exterior.

I’m gonna drop one more track from Bioshock Infinite on here, just because it’s too good to refuse. Throughout the game you encounter familiar tunes arranged in various ways. In this case the Beach Boy’s God Only Knows for barbershop quartet. These tracks give Columbia an odd sense of familiarity… And there’s a narrative reason for them I won’t give away as well!

Oh what the hell, here’s one more. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun on steam organ.

"Soon a day will come when all the islands are one, connected by earth and grove."

People love this music. And a lot of it is not that far removed from the Shostakovich and Beethoven that fills the halls of orchestras around the country on a weekly basis. As advocates for classical music, we should be connecting those dots. I guess the thing I’m trying to say by all of this is… Don’t be shocked if you find a piece of video game music on one of our programs. Somehow, I think you’ll know where it came from.

Matt SzymanskiComment