The Beat Goes On

The Beat Goes On
Bittersweet Symphony

Kyle Orland | 16 Jan 2007 11:01
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In the late 16th century, a group of Italian intellectuals calling themselves the Florentine Camerata gathered together to talk about, among other things, contemporary music. They felt that the common practice of multiple singers singing the same lyrics at different times was getting in the way of the public's engagement with and understanding of the music. The polyphonic effect sounded good, but it made it hard for listener to be "moved by a true perception of the emotional content of a text," as Columbia music professor Susanne Dunlap put it.

To combat this problem, the Camerata developed a totally new form of musical performance called opera. Characterized by one distinct, highly emotional voice singing at any one time, the opera created the opportunity for a full narrative to be strung together through a sequence of songs. By the early 17th century, opera had become the standard form of musical production for the royal court, a fashionable alternative to the stodgy old style of polyphonic singing.

Fast forward to today and opera, indeed all of classical music, continues is in a rapid decline in popularity among the young. An entire generation associates classical music with fancy dress, stuffy theaters and polite applause. Less than eight percent of subscribers to online resource Classical Archives are 24 and under - nearly 60 percent are over 45. Financial constraints are forcing renowned symphonies around the country to scale back or shut down entirely.

Which is why it's surprising to see T-shirt clad 20-somethings rubbing elbows with polo-shirt wearing grandparents in a 5,000-person strong National Symphony audience at the Vienna, Va. Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. They're here to see Play: A Video Game Symphony, a concert that eschews the common symphonic fare of Bach, Mahler and Strauss for pieces by the likes Square's Uematsu, Nintendo's Kondo and Konami's Gregson-Williams. While parts of the audience have never played a game and other parts have never heard a live symphony, they've all gathered together to experience another world without fully leaving the comfort of the one they know.

Play is part of a small but quickly growing trend of videogame music performances by professional musicians. Japan has hosted such concerts since 1987, when Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama conducted a collection of his game music in Tokyo's Suntory Hall. The idea didn't reach the West until 2003, when the Czech National Symphony Orchestra performed a "Symphonic Game Music Concert" in Leipzig, Germany. Game concerts finally reached America in May of 2004 with "Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy," performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in LA's Walt Disney Concert Hall. Coinciding with E3, the performance sold out in a single day and eventually spawned the expanded Play concert tour, with music from games ranging from Super Mario Bros. to Blue Dragon.

The melding of a high culture symphonic orchestra and music from the traditionally low culture world of videogames is not always an easy task. "Usually when we first start - when the musicians first get on stage and they look at the sheet music and see Super Mario and Sonic and Zelda and Warcraft - they look a little on the skeptical side," says Tommy Tallarico, a veteran videogame composer and co-creator of Video Games Live, another popular game music tour.

The hesitance fades at rehearsal, when the musicians realize game music is "more than just bleeps and bloops," as Tallarico puts it. But the orchestra really starts to catch on once the show begins. "The real magic happens when we play the show ... and the crowd is cheering like it's the second coming of the Beatles or Elvis Presley or something," Tallarico says. "After the show the orchestra will come up to us and go 'Oh my gosh, we've never heard applause like this ever. ... When can you come back?'"

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