I fell in love with classical music thanks to video games
As a madeleine was for Proust, so this deep cup of the Uematsu vaults was for me. At 14, I had been researching the soundtrack for “Final Fantasy VII” after hearing a few tracks on AOL Music’s video game radio station. (That was in 2007.) I put aside the soundtrack and its blocky synthesized sounds when I discovered “20020220”, a live concert recording of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra performing orchestral arrangements by music from the first 10 games in the series.
And piano music! I scoured the fan sites and printed scans of Final Fantasy piano arrangement books for clues like “Dear Friends” and “To Zanarkand”, and rejoiced when my piano teacher deemed them suitable to live alongside Chopin and Debussy in my weekly homework book. Until then, music for orchestra or solo piano was something that others chose for me. For the first time, the choice was mine and the feeling of discovery was intoxicating.
Video game music can nurture a burgeoning appreciation for classical music. But more importantly, it feeds curiosity and rewards attentive ears. Just as video games reward exploration of what’s around the corner, behind a locked door, or in the next area of the map, so does music – and once a new area of the map opens, what reason is there to cover it again?
I needed more. Luckily for me, it wasn’t too far off from Uematsu’s climactic battle theme “One-Winged Angel” to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” or Mozart’s “Requiem.” But I haven’t abandoned music for consoles in favor of music for concert halls. I camped in the computer lab of my school’s music department and tried to arrange “The Promised Land” for an unaccompanied choir in hopes of convincing the director to include it in our next gig. (It did not work.)
When I recounted these experiences in a Zoom chat with Marco Cammarota, a former professional operatic tenor who now makes YouTube videos about gaming music under the name “MarcoMeatball,” he nodded vigorously. As a teenager, he wore out his Final Fantasy piano music CD by listening to it too much, he said. After beginning an opera career, he never stopped performing, but he was loath to talk about it openly. “It’s common now, but back then it really felt like something to be locked up in,” he said from his home in upstate New York.
The same goes for New Haven-based bandleader Tristan Rais-Sherman, who said that while studying music at the New England Conservatory and elsewhere, he couldn’t help but feel guilty when he played. playing games instead of studying. And it’s the same for me, although I’m sure I would never have become a classical music writer without the many hours I spent listening to all kinds of video game music.
It’s no surprise that the game music didn’t quite has shifted to mainstream listeners, especially those whose only experience has been the jingles of arcade cabinets or the short 8- and 16-bit loop synthesized compositions of early Sega and Nintendo systems.
“People look at video game music and still think ‘Mario’, or ‘beep-bloop!’ ” Rais Sherman mentioned. “But in some of these scores… ‘Breath of the Wild’ sometimes sounds like that weird, fantastic Debussy or Satie.”
As the games’ hardware and software have developed, so has their music. Now there are entire open worlds to discover.
Composer Austin Wintory has attended many live performances of his own music, often excerpts from his Grammy-winning soundtrack to the 2012 game “Journey,” an emotional exploration game. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been on stage at a predominantly classical concert and 80-year-old men and women have said, ‘I never would have guessed there was to this whole corner of the world where this work is being done,’” he said. “It’s like a new treasure chest of new things to discover as lifelong music lovers. And I shake their hands, and the next is a 10-year-old child, or even a couple on a date, who says, “This is the first time I’ve come to see an orchestra. ”
The “Journey” soundtrack was recorded with a small set and several electronic synth patches, but to mark the game’s 10th anniversary, Wintory recorded and conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in “Traveler – A Journey Symphony”, an album-length reimagining of the entire soundtrack that reworks the score into a stand-alone piece for orchestra.
Today albums of game music with live instruments, and even live orchestral concerts, have become almost commonplace – last September fans flocked to London’s Royal Albert Hall to hear the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra perform the music of “Final Fantasy VII Remake”. But such events are often presented as a novelty. Both Cammarota and Rais-Sherman see the possibility of changing that.
“What prevents large orchestras from programming this? Is it a lack of education or a lack of understanding? Is it because it’s modern or because the medium is video games? Cammarota asked. “There is no reason why [game composer] Yu-Peng Chen cannot be played by the New York Phil.
Rais-Sherman wants to find a way to produce game music events that could appeal to both gamers and symphonic subscribers. He was impressed with the emotional connection he sees listeners form with the game’s music. “The incredibly intimate memories people share of their connection to these soundtracks are breathtaking,” said Rais-Sherman, who was named conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra for the 2022-23 season.
Cammarota launched its YouTube channel earlier this year, but it’s already approaching 20,000 subscribers thanks to music-reacting videos from games like “Genshin Impact,” with its expansive orchestral score by Yu-Peng Chen, and the series ” NieR”, which features choral music in its apocalyptic genre mashup. When he reads the comments on his videos, he sees a community of listeners that he thinks mainstream classical music institutions don’t embrace. “They feel like they’re on the fringes, where they like to listen to music that’s not what we know as classical music,” he said. But “it is symphonic programmatic music in its own right. It’s this mix of classic and romantic, and its own thing, and it all falls into place. With this merger, he said, “we are in the future of classical music as we speak”.
His words stayed with me last Friday at the PAX East video game convention as the Videri String Quartet took the stage for the evening’s concert, a poster shared with a hip-hop collective and a math-rock band. After playing classic and modern game tunes, players returned to their concert musical roots with the first movement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8. The audience sat in rapt silence, listening. Suddenly the tempo and intensity increased – not in the second movement of the same quartet that my ears had expected, but in my old favorite “Final Fantasy”, “One-Winged Angel”.
I never dared to imagine this future, but now that we are here, I love the view.