IN June, 2007, I sat in the packed-to-the-rafters concert hall of Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre complex to witness “Play! A Video Game Symphony”, a concert dedicated to the music of famous composers for video games, Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo, with full symphonic accompaniment from the Singapore Festival Orchestra and the National University of Singapore choir.
It’s 10 years on and the idea has reached Canberra where, by coincidence, Kenneth Lampl, the new head of the ANU School of Music, is known for his compositions for Pokémon.
In “Game On!” as part of the Canberra International Music Festival, tribute is paid not just to the flourishing scene for composers of gaming music, but to the tremendous talent among young musicians as the Canberra Youth Orchestra, led brilliantly by Leonard Weiss, presented a solid afternoon of symphonic virtuosity. And whether you appreciated the compositions or not, the sheer joy and enthusiasm for performing this works shone through. At times they even sang.
Given that this talent has been nurtured from a tradition of first-class music teaching in the ACT, was most unfortunate that the MC, Allan Sko, while enthusing about the concert’s sponsors, chose to praise Prof Lampl with the attribute: “Without whom there would be no School of Music”.
The idea of this concert was no doubt to draw in a new generation for music, and the quite respectable audience in Llewellyn Hall was a mixture of older concertgoers unfamiliar with this repertoire and young gamers, busy with their devices, murmuring from time to time in appreciation when they recognised one of their favourite games.
Some things haven’t changed since 2007. Without doubt it is the Japanese composers who dominate the field of gaming music, with Koji Kondo still at the head of the pack.
Indeed Kondo’s light-hearted, swinging orchestration for the “Super Mario” game was one of the highlights of the afternoon, first performed by the CYO and then with Brisbane quintet Topology joining for “Super Mario Bros level I” and a variety of other compositions with classical, jazz and klezmer overtones. And Kondo’s famously lavish music for “The Legend of Zelda” was billed to finish the afternoon, though a surprise inclusion followed it.
Other composers featured, such as Junichi Masuda, Hikaru Utada, Daniel Kimpton, Austin Wintory, Masakazu Sujimori and Akemi Kimura creating lush and dramatic soundscapes for the games displayed, thanks to Canberra’s Academy of Interactive Entertainment, on a very modest screen upstage.
But, with the exception of Sujimori and Kimura’s music for “Phoenix Wright – Ace Attorney,” where the score was well matched to the images and words, it was hard to detect the connection of music to image. And in spite of the rich orchestration for strings and occasional dramatic percussion and brass breakouts, there was a certain sameness to many of the compositions on the program.
The shining exception to this apart from Kondo was the work of visiting American composer Garry Schyman, whose “Journey Through ‘BioShock’”– six 1-2 minute pieces, showed marked sensitivity to nuances in the on-screen material, often forsaking drama for quietness as in “Eleanor’s Lullaby” and in “Pairbond” with a touching violin break offering scope for CYO’s first violinist Helena Popov. It was an astute move to feature Schyman’s work on the program, one that challenged the impression that orchestrating for games is simply a way of respectabilising the medium.
To whispers of appreciation from the young gamers, it was in fact music by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori from “Halo” that finished the day. It was notable that my computer spell check was able to predict the correct spelling of both composers’ names.