Oregon Symphony preview: Video Shame Music

While the classical establishment neglects its composers and conductors, video game scores bring a new form of classical music to new audiences

Nobuo Uematsu and Arnie Roth

Nobuo Uematsu and Arnie Roth.


I am obsessed with a piece called “Cascade.” My 10-year-old student wrote it, sorry he ever did, I’m sure, because he rolls his eyes every time I ask him to play it — which is at every lesson. What I’m particularly charmed with is his ending — out of the blue, two planned cluster chords terminate the catchy rhythmic episodes. He hunts for the same dissonant harmonies every time he comes to the end. And yet, he shrinks from all praise I gush, not because he’s shy; in fact, he’s a born ham. Why?

During Portland’s recent March Music Moderne, I attended an Oregon ComposersWatch event presented by Oregon ArtsWatch. One of the three composers invited to share their creative process with the audience spoke apologetically about the influence of one particular kind of music on his compositions. His music is accessible, nearly new age if it weren’t for the odd harmonic modulations I find in classical music, not in pop.  Other composers in the audience nod when he mentions the influence of a certain guilty pleasure on his music. One in particular also has a distinct, spare but not cliche harmonic style and one piece of his in particular (piano quintet) destroys the box this form once occupied for this configuration of instruments. But why the guilt?

In the program for this month’s Oregon Symphony concerts, you’ll find biographies of most of the composers whose music will be performed, from masters like Dmitri Shostakovich to contemporary film score legend John Williams — except for the composer featured on its April 26 program. Why?

There seems to be a reticence, a near shame emanating from the three situations above. In fact, my young student composer is crazy for  Legend of Zelda, a computer game series dating back to 1986 and one of the handful of superstar status computer games STILL drawing fans — 6.8 million games sold in 2011. Last year, the Oregon Symphony presented a sold-out concert featuring orchestral arrangements of Legend of Zelda, and my student attended with great anticipation. His mom apologetically broke the news to me with smiling but guilty bemusement. Why? I was thrilled! He is not inclined toward classical music concerts although he has been dragged to his brother’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony affairs where, according to his mom, he’s “usually bored during those concerts.”

Contrast this with the Zelda concert “where he was very attentive and could name the pieces of music they were playing (and from which video game they came!),” continued his mom. “He kept me and Dick [his dad] informed throughout the concert.” This student found a piano compilation at the music store of Legend of Zelda music — most of it written by one of the two giants and godfathers of gamer music, Koji Kondo— and has obsessively practiced his ass off through five tough pieces in this collection.

Legend of Zelda is also a fave of one of the abashed Portland composers I mentioned earlier, whose music sounds more early Debussy than Elton John and with an intuitive sense of harmonic grammar gleaned, I suppose, from years of gaming with Kondo’s soundtrack from LoZ  ever present. Kondo’s music influences: Prog Rock (the 1970s born music predicated more on harmonic ambience rather than pop-catchy cyclical rhythms) and Rachmaninov.

In the community of local composers here in PDX coming out of the closet with their craft, I am enchanted with the same stylistic quirk — harmonic savvy mashed up with other more pop(ular) forms, from Elton John riffs to Debussy among those who (bashfully) admit to loving gaming and the music accompanying it.

Beyond Donkey Kong

Computer game music ain’t your mother’s Donkey Kong  or your daddy’s  Pong  anymore. And while video games go as far back as the early 1950s, music was introduced thirty years later due to the limited sound channels available on chips — already in use for limited sound (effects).

Super Mario Bros. is where the real fun begins. Although some important and interesting music did precede the Super Mario games (Pac Man, Donkey Kong …) composer Koji Kondo would single-handedly pioneer the genre. In fact, Kondo’s brilliant merging of his music in relation to sound design created what could be considered the first atmospheric gameplay. Atop the electronic keyboard work and inventive use of “noise channels” to create percussion patterns, the composer also categorized every sound into distinct libraries meant to emulate all different stages of orchestral composition. Through his clever use of separating bass-lines, harmonics, percussion and melody, Kondo breathed a new lease of life into the repetitive and uniform world of video game music with his jazzy numbers and even classical music influences.” (mFiles: Video Game History

Creating miracles with 8-bit technology, Kondo gave/cursed us with the bloopy-bleepy earworm  Super Mario Bros, crafting with serial short hooks (with a maximum of three notes sounding simultaneously) a stand-alone universal sonic meme. This BEFORE Zelda!

If 1980s game music was about limitations, Nobuo Uematsu, the main composer of the Final Fantasy series, showed what could be done once some were lifted. Since 1989, he’s been the superstar of game music and probably the first game composer subject to a tribute album.” (The Atlantic: “From the Arcade to the Grammys — the Evolution of Video Game Music,” 2011.) 

In 1998, game composers broke into the orchestral realm. Heart of Darkness is the first game with music scored entirely for orchestra with film score composer Bruce Broughton crossing the blood/brain barrier into gaming music. Former Tangerine Dreamer Michael Hoenig, who worked on scoring Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi, has also successfully contributed music scores to games like Planescape Torment (1997- 99) and Baldur’s Gate (1998-2001). Then there’s Michael Giacchino, who crossed the other way, from gaming into films.

From Console to Concert

This Saturday, the Oregon Symphony returns to video game music, this time arranged for orchestra from the computer game Final Fantasy. Nowhere in the  program notes will you find a bio of Nobuo Uematsu, the other godfather of computer game music and composer and imprinter of Final Fantasy’s music and subsequent sound under other composers eventually hired to write for this game. Does his omission indicate that the program writers don’t consider the composer worth writing about? That the (mostly young audience) wouldn’t care about the composer, only the connection to the game? Or is it another case of shame and bashfulness? Like Kondo a self-taught composer, Uematsu is in addition a ravenous musicavore who devours genres from heavy metal to Celtic, and cites Elton John and Tchaikovsky (if he must narrow it down to two) as his inspirations.

Still from Final Fantasy.

Still from Final Fantasy.

In fact the only biography we find in the symphony program notes is of the conductor, one Arnie Roth — who????

Before we vilify Roth as a shameless self-promoter (which his bio certainly led me to suspect), here’s what I found after a lot of research, most of it via Wikipedia (I guess no one thinks it’s worth covering this genre except the grassroots denizens involved): “Roth took on the role of conductor for the series after trying to get the show to be performed by his Chicago Pops orchestra, and hearing that other tour locations were hesitant about putting on the concert.” 

Thank you, Mr. Roth and VideoGamesLive and Thomas Bocker and all other presenters promoting game music concerts (which have toured Oregon in recent years) for helping bring this genre from the shameful underground to the surface!

I think that computer games are doing more to revive classical music composition than all the academies in the world combined. Conservatively, 55 million copies of Final Fantasy  have been sold from its inception in 1987 thru 2011. Even assuming that some of those buyers upgraded from previous versions, that’s tens of millions of users, starting at early ages, playing  Final Fantasy  every day for at least an hour, listening to what I assert is every bit as much “classical” music as John Williams’s. It’s episodic, it has leitmotifs (themes that describe every character, common in classical composers such as Richard Wagner), it follows the narrative contours of the game rather than adhering to the standard verse/chorus/verse pop music (A-B-A in the jargon of music geeks).

What video game composers did was to back up, pan away, and give classical music a broader perspective. Instead of becoming more niche, more specialized, Kondo and Uematsu and those belonging in that first generation of pioneers actually grafted onto the library (Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky) everything else (prog rock, Celtic, Elton John, metal . . . . ). Those that followed had a healthy hybrid rootstock to further develop while still French-braiding other styles into their game sound sculptures.

At an age when I was listening to Tony Orlando and Dawn sing “Knock Three Times,” my eight-year-olds are WRITING coherent music fantasy structures (episodic rather than A-B-A) with harmonies other than the three standard power chords! (tonic – subdominant – dominant, in the jargon of music geeks). True, they are not aware of the theory but in the words of Daniel Kahneman, simply through immersion “at age four a child effortlessly conforms to the rules of grammar as she speaks, although she has no idea that such rules exist.” (Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, p. 5)

It’s not just my observation.

“One of today’s top video game music composers, John Wall, spent much of the 1980s pumping quarters into Pac Man machines. ‘Playing all those arcade games, I never even paid attention to the music,’ Wall tells host Andrea Seabrook. ‘It just sounded like sounds to me. However, you know all the tunes. It’s so funny. The bleeps and bloops, they kind of invade your brain.’” (NPR: The Evolution of Video Game Music, 2008.)

What computer game music has demonstrated is something the pop market always knew and the contemporary classical music promoters oddly practice the opposite of: REPETITION! Not only the repetition of daily use and contact with the music, but the carry over of themes to the next series in the game. Final Fantasy’s “Victory Fanfare” theme runs through most of the entire series with very cool tweaks from game to game!

While contemporary classical music fetishizes premieres and bemoans the low turnout at concerts, pop makes sure its hit singles (commissions) insidiously seep into the collective consciousness via advertising, radio play … whatever means possible in order to assure packed houses at concerts.

And it certainly plays out for these computer game music concerts, where sold-out-quickly is the rule — three days, in fact, for the very first video game orchestra concert held in the United States (Los Angeles, 2004, Final Fantasy). At this writing, Saturday’s Oregon Symphony concert had only a few seats left, with limited views of the video screen. (In another acknowledgment of 21st century audiences, it’s a multimedia concert.)

I would love to see this genre de-ghettoized. I would love to see music from computer games on damn near every relevant regular season concert the OSO programs because I will bet that the numbers attending will go up and the age of attendees will plummet —provided ticket prices are family friendly, as deemed by the families whose kids I and others teach, not by an organization’s opinions or research or standards.

And if they’re not, Arnie Roth is developing plan B. He’s scaling down computer game concerts to chamber music proportions.

How cool is this?? My students can go from learning piano solo scores to playing their favorite music in a band with other classical music instrumentalists!

Please take a listen to some of the Final Fantasy music arranged for orchestra embedded below:

(Final Fantasy – games one through three – Orchestral Album, 2002)

If you attend this or other video game orchestra concerts, let us know what you think. Do arrangements of game music belong in symphony concerts? If so, on the regular classical series or in separate concerts? Do you think listening to video game music will bring kids to classical music? And does that even matter? What’s YOUR favorite video game music score? And why? I’ll share my guilty-little-secret favorite in the comments below if you go first.

Arnie Roth conducts the Oregon Symphony and Pacific Youth Choir in “Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy,”  at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Saturday.

Maria Choban, ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch, is a pianist and teacher in Portland.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

2 Responses.

  1. Jeremiah says:

    Just a note, Zelda, Mario, and Final Fantasy are more often recognized as “console”, rather than “computer,” games, where as “video” is all encompassing.

    As for whether or not the music belongs in the concert hall, I can tell you that I would probably have continued to aspire towards being in an orchestra if regularly playing video game (or other less traditional) music had been a guarantee. Why? Because it’s music that I find to be more relevant to my life, and it’s music that’s more relevant to the lives of newer generations. By expanding the genre of classical repertoire, you have more people interested in making music and more people interested in going to a hall to hear music.

    As for favorite scores, I’d go with Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Katamari Damacy. SSBB is somewhat of a cheater vote because it’s essentially a Nintendo’s-greatest-hits. Katamari’s soundtrack may not even be practical for adapting to a stage, but it does great things for me.

    Thanks for the article, and cheers!

  2. Maria Choban says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Jeremiah!

    Also, I received an anonymous text yesterday – an insightful comment to this article. Here’s the quote:

    “What’s also interesting to explore in the FF or LoZ series, is that they are in themselves a very inspiring concept of “variations on a theme”. You take fixed points of elements, which are themes for the style of the series, and experience a story that has complex emotional landscapes, recurring and new characters, materials, tools, villains, language… you experience endless permutations of how to tell a story. They made me a storyteller instead of a minimalist. I feel like that lesson in videogames, shapes my compositional approach just as strongly as the music. Its amazing how lasting a series like Zelda can be, when you’re essentially telling the same KIND of story, every time.”

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