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Xbox Goes to the Orchestra

Will video game music be the only way to provide an enthusiastic, educated audience for tomorrow?

by Drew McManus
June 7, 2004

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Is there an inherent difference in quality between classical music written for the sake of art and music written for commercial purposes?  Most classical music purists would probably say yes, that Mahler and Mario Brothers will never meet on an equal artistic plane.  But times are changing and in a few decades that basic assumption may even be extinct.
On May 10th 2004 the L.A. Philharmonic performed a concert in Disney Hall that featured the music of Nobuo Uematsu that he composed for “Final Fantasy”, a successful series of video games.  The concert sold out all 2,265 seats in less than three days and some patrons purchased tickets on Ebay for as much as $500.00.
When I first learned about the concert I thought to myself, “Ah, the artistic managers (the people responsible for deciding what music the orchestra performs) at LA are finally realizing video game music might be a popular idea”, but I was once again incorrect.  As it turns out, the concert was presented by the video game’s developer, Square Enix Company, Ltd.  But first, the video game company had to convince the L.A. Philharmonic that the concert would be a good idea and wouldn’t damage the reputation of the orchestra.
The orchestra’s president, Deborah Borda, was quoted in the New York Times as saying “Surely if a musical institution steps for one night slightly outside of itself and has some fun and brings some new people in, what's wrong with that? Precisely being afraid of that kind of thing is what's going to destroy orchestras in the long run."  So why then did Square Enix have to convince a reluctant L.A. Philharmonic to participate in the project?
Sadly, this sort of behavior is typical for most orchestras.  They simply don’t understand the tremendous potential that programming video game music has for attracting and retaining the new audience they desperately need. 
So what exactly is video game music? 

Most people over the age of 35 have a concept of video game music that’s akin to a series of electronic “blips”, “beeps”, and “blurps” that used to accompany early video arcade games (remember “Pac Man”?).   My how times have changed; most video games today have dedicated music scores scored for full orchestra.  Since I am a member of the 30 something demographic, I remember back to the times when technology first allowed for a recorded soundtrack instead of strictly computer generated tones to accompany parts of a video game. 
One game in particular, Klingon Academy, caught my attention when it came out.  It included music from traditional classic music, such as Berlioz, and an inspired original soundtrack by composer Inon Zur.  Here’s a snippet from one of the pieces (.mp3) Inon wrote for that game.
While there, take some time to dig around and listen to some of the other works he created for video games.  If you’re a Star Trek fan you’ll also enjoy the video game music of Ron Jones, a wonderful commercial composer that also writes for the television show Family Guy (one of my favorites).
Although video game music isn’t accepted by classical music traditionalists as high art, it’s certainly anything but child’s play.   And ask yourself this, if given the choice, which do you think a child would rather go listen to: Mozart’s Toy Symphony or selections from the soundtrack to “Shadow Ops”, “Battlefield 1942”, or “Final Fantasy”?  Then ask yourself which music has better thematic development and complex harmonic structure.  If you think its Mozart, you’d be wrong.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen orchestra’s program Mozart’s Toy Symphony for a family concert in attempts to appeal to the children.  But instead of appealing to a new generation, all that happens is both parents and kids are bored to tears and wondering where all the toys are?  But fortunately there’s a new toy for composers to write for, it’s called an Xbox and there’s one sitting in most family’s TV room. 
It’s worked in the past

I remember back to my youth, growing up in a home with next to no cultural exposure.  My family never went to concerts, rarely listened to the radio or records, and certainly knew nothing about classical music.  Fortunately, I did watch a number of Bugs Bunny cartoons which, unknown to me at the time, was establishing a foundation for my future love of classical music. 
But I never realized that fact until a few years ago while watching a Bugs Bunny marathon on the Cartoon Network.  Of course everyone is familiar with the big Bugs Bunny cartoons that feature classical music: “What’s Opera, Doc?”, “The Rabbit of Seville”, and “Rhapsody Rabbit”.  But most people never noticed the great deal of exposure to other classical works that were imbedded into the soundtrack of many cartoons.
In the cartoon “Water, Water, Everyhare” you can hear Chopin’s Db Major Prelude for Piano - “The Raindrop Prelude” - arranged for symphony orchestra.  This is one of my favorite pieces to perform and while watching the cartoon I became so excited that I had to go get my wife (also a musician) so she could come and listen.  It was like the old “drop the needle” tests we used to do in music repertoire class.  The soundtrack would weave in and out of one classical melody to the next as required by the action on the screen.
Over the next few hours, we were both amazed at the sheer quantity of classical tunes we recognized in the soundtracks of those old cartoons.  There were dozens of selections that only a classical music enthusiast would recognize by name, but they were there nevertheless.  Since that time I use those cartoons to help educate some of my private students in how to listen for familiar works within cartoon, movie, and television soundtracks.  Then I use that knowledge to introduce a reason to go see the orchestra – it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
Looking Ahead

It’s a no-brainer to see how useful video game music would be to bring in a new audience.  What needs to happen, however, is for some events to help better legitimize this type genre among classical music traditionalists.  I think an interesting idea would be to not tell people (including the musicians) its video game music so you can gauge an honest reaction.  Bill the concert as simply a performance of music by contemporary composeres and see what people think. 
Given the predominance of classical music in video games, it’s hard to believe anyone that would say the younger generations don’t or can’t appreciate orchestral music.  Once you begin to help them see where the inspiration for the music from their video games came from, they’ll want to go hear music by Holst, Stravinsky, Mahler, Orff, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Berlioz, Beethoven, and the rest. And from there, you can build an entirely new generation of interested, interesting, appreciative, and faithful orchestra patrons.
But in order for this to happen, it’s going to take a greater willingness to change on the inside of classical music than the outside.  Oscar Wilde once said, “Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic.”  And I agree with that up to a point, but artists also need to realize that being popular doesn’t diminish the value of what they do.

I have to point out that with all of the commencements, memorials, and celebrations going on related to events of World War II, this would have been a wonderful opportunity for orchestras to pay tribute to those events while simultaneously attracting a new audience.  And to help tie those two goals together, they could utilize performances of music from two of the best selling World War II oriented video games available today: “Medal of Honor” and “Battlefield 1942”.  Too bad it never happened.

Comments (1)

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S.E. Shepherd from Chicago, IL writes:
June 8, 2004
In reading your article, I was wondering about movie scores as well. It seems quite a few John Williams scores are played when orchestras go pop for a night, so why not video game themes?

Also thank you for mentioning the use of classical music in the old Warner Brothers cartoons. By the way, the composer for most of those cartoons' soundtracks was Carl Stalling. Stalling was a genius in the way he blended classical music, popular tunes, and original work to create the mood for those shorts. I may not recognise the classical pieces as much, but I do recognize quite a few of the pop pieces.

If you think I'm giving too much praise to a cartoon composer, watch the credits during the old Bugs Bunny shorts and compare the scores of Stalling to those of his successors (usually later Bugs Bunny). There is a significant difference.

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