It's April 29th, 2006. You, and about 20 of your friends are organised in the corner of a room just off a student union food court. Dozens of your student brethren are chewing down their lunch and gossiping about how stupid Nintendo was to call its new games console "The Wii".
Each of you has a classical instrument in your hand, and the sheet music to "The Legend of Zelda". You are about to start your first public performance. Your first private performance was only the day before, in front of 20 of your fraternal peers.
The butterflies kick in as you begin with the slow opener. A few curious faces peer over their copy of "The Diamondback". It builds to a rousing crescendo, then the chorus kicks in, and you have the attention of the room.
This was the beginning of The University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra.
Gamer Symphony Orchestra members pose in a basement classroom of the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center, April 22, 2006.
Founded by Michelle Eng, a viola player from The UM School of Music's Repertoire Orchestra, UMGSO was founded as a club in the fall of 2005, dedicated to the performance of orchestral arrangements of videogame music run by students, for students. That principle continues to this day.
The orchestra now boasts over 100 members (more than enough for a symphony), sell-out concerts and the respect and admiration of composers such as Johnathan Coulton, who complimented their 2008 performance of "Still Alive"in his blog.
I got in touch with Rob Garner, President of the UMGSO, and asked him about classical music, videogames, and the phenomenon that make the two intertwine.
During the interview I have included links to GSO performances from the games mentioned, all of which can be found on the GSO website.
What came first, your love of gaming or your love of classical music?
Gaming definitely came first. My parents got us a Nintendo Entertainment System when I was about five or six, so I pretty much grew up on "Duck Hunt", "Super Mario Bros." and "The Legend of Zelda". "Xevious" was another I remember spending a lot of time on.
I didn't get into music until I picked up the trumpet in fourth grade. I toyed with playing game melodies a bit in high school, but it wasn't until I was almost done with undergrad and I heard about the Gamer Symphony Orchestra that I thought seriously about combining gaming and music performance in an organized way.
Do you prefer to take on an 8-bit classic that you can remaster, or a modern piece that you can put your own take on?
With the classic tunes, you usually got a melody, a baseline and a click track. If you were lucky, there might have been some counter-melody or harmony in there. When reimagining those tunes for a full orchestra, you have a lot of room to play around. It gives you the chance to do something completely different. The drawback is how much time it can take to put those sorts together: I spent almost a year working on one of my most recent arrangements from a classic game. Modern games are usually more richly orchestrated, so it takes less work to "port" them to the orchestra, but it can be more difficult to change up the style. At a given moment, what I prefer depends on my mood -- and how much free time I have.
Which game has the most complex soundtrack to adapt? Are there any games you've had to avoid adapting for being too complex?
A great example is the original "Myst". Robyn Miller's score is amazing and fits the game environments perfectly. But that music is meant to be ambient; it's meant to help immerse you in the ages you explore. It's not meant to stand apart from the game. Adapting "Myst" music and ambient compositions from other games so that they can be the center of attention on a concert hall stage is challenging.
What is your favourite track to perform?
I'm partial to "Baba Yetu" because of its soaring horn parts. The fact that it became the first video game track to be nominated for -- and win -- a Grammy doesn't hurt, either. "Still Alive" from "Portal" is another favorite, just because it's great to hear the audience cheering and singing along with us while we play.
What's your favourite game soundtrack?
Picking a favorite soundtrack is a lot like picking a favorite child. I'm partial to the songs in the "Donkey Kong Country" games, especially "Diddy's Kong Quest" and some of the new material in "DKC Returns". The tunes are incredibly catchy and hummable.
What is your most requested track?
Everybody wants to hear "Still Alive", so we have to be careful to play it enough to satisfy our audiences, but not so much that it loses its punch. We get a lot of requests for everything from "Final Fantasy". "Halo", "Kingdom Hearts" and "Pokémon" are up there, too.
Who is your favourite composer, and your favourite videogame composer?
I have a lot of favorites. In the more "classical" realm, I'm big into Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughn Williams, thanks to how much of their work I played in band classes in school. I enjoy Aaron Copland and what I've heard of Leonard Bernstein's. Shostakovich, too.
More recently, Michael Giacchino, just because he's done so much stuff that I love, like the score to "The Incredibles" and the new "Star Trek" film. In the video game realm, he's done "Medal of Honor", so he's got gamer street cred, too.
In the gaming realm, I'm really getting into the music of Grant Kirkhope. He did excellent work on "Donkey Kong 64", "Banjo-Kazooie" and "GoldenEye" to name a few. He has a knack for composing catchy melodies, which really gets down to the heart of what I think made the tunes from classic-era games so great.
How significant do you think your work, and the international successes of shows such as Video Games Live, is in showcasing video games as a credible art form?
"Video Games Live", "Play!", and the like have been immensely important in drawing serious attention to video games and their soundtracks as culturally significant in the United States. We're actually latecomers to this. Germany's had the Symphonic Game Music Concerts since 2003, and Japan's had video game music concerts since the late 1980s.
A lot of credit is due the composers, who continue to show that video game music can be just as soulful as anything by Mozart or Bach. Case in point is "Baba Yetu" from "Civilization IV". Christopher Tin did us all a great service by composing this magnificent -- Grammy award-winning! -- opus.
I'd like to think the GSO plays a role in popularizing this music, too. We've spawned two high school video game orchestras in our own area, and music teachers from Minnesota and Arizona have approached us about our sheet music for concerts of their own. We're even collaborating with Uppsala University in Sweden on a show currently scheduled for later in March.
The orchestra and chorus, added in 2007, filled the Clarice Smith Center’s Kay Theatre at the Spring 2008 concert. The GSO proved so popular that secondary seating in the theater’s upper level had to be opened at the last minute to accommodate the crowd.
Everyone who's grown up playing video games knows how important they are, so it's been relatively easy to get that demographic on board with the orchestral game music concerts. The trick has been making the case to people who don't have much experience with video games, and I think we still have a long way to go in that regard.
Tommy Tallarico mentions at most VGL shows that some people still think video game music is just "bloops and bleeps," and I've had first-hand experience with those sorts of folks, too. But once you get them into a concert hall and you get them to hear how rich and evocative these game soundtracks are, they realize what the gamers already know.
My 91-year-old grandfather hasn't touched a video game in his life, but he absolutely loves the music at our concerts. A few semesters ago, I got an e-mail from an audience member: "My wife and I are in our 60s/70s and neither of us has ever played a video game. We came as an experiment. ... [We] were hooked from the first song."
"VGL", "Dear Friends", "GSO" ; we're all winning over the skeptics, one show at a time.
Hans Zimmer famously collaborated on the score for "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2", his first foray in composing for a video game. Why do you think it has taken so long for a movie composer of his calibre to work on a videogame?
I'd say timing has a lot to do with it. A movie may be two hours long, or so. But think about how much music goes into a modern video game. Even rushing through "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" at full speed could take you several hours, and you can easily spend several more exploring all the secrets. Scoring for all that takes a huge chunk of time, so fitting a videogame in between other projects can be tricky.
Johnathan Coulton will be reprising his role as songwriter for Portal 2. Is there any chance he could recapture the cult success of "Still Alive"?
We're all hoping! The bar is pretty high, but Coulton's magnificent. I'm confident whatever he has come up with will be great.
Finally, what are you playing right now?
In terms of games, my girlfriend and I are revisiting "Twilight Princess", and she's introduced me to "Tomb Raider", which I missed out on as a kid. I've recently gotten through "Donkey Kong Country Returns", and have been noodling around on "Crash Bandicoot" and "Super Mario RPG" here and there.
There'll be a few surprises, too. In terms of what I'm arranging, I'm trying to come up with something good for a "Pokémon" piece, and I'm making an attempt on "Mario Paint".
GSO's next big event is their fifth anniversary concert on May 7 at the Dekelboum Concert Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland. The event is free. Tickets are not required, but early arrival is encouraged. For more details visit the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center website.