Video Game Heroes | Friday 2 September 2011 | Royal Festival Hall
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor & Arranger: Andrew Skeet
Presenter: Iain Lee
Lighting Designer: Richard Knight
Advent Rising: Muse – Tommy Tallarico
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion – Jeremy Soule
Call of Duty: Main Menu Theme – Stephen Barton & Harry Gregson-Williams
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2: Theme – Hans Zimmer & Lorne Balfe
Legend of Zelda – Koji Kondo
Super Mario Bros. Theme – Mahito Yokota & Koji Kondo
Little Big Planet: Orb of Dreamers: The Cosmic Imagisphere – Daniel Pemberton
Splinter Cell: Conviction – Michael Nielsen, Kaveh Cohen, Amon Tobin
Battlefield 2: Theme – Joel Eriksson
Final Fantasy: Theme – Nobuo Uematsu
Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty Theme – Harry Gregson-Williams
Dead Space: Welcome Aboard the U.S.G. Ishimura * – Jason Graves
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – Greg Edmonson
World of Warcraft: Seasons of War – Jason Hayes
Halo 3: One Final Effort – Martin O’Donnell & Michael Salvatori
007: Blood Stone: Athens Harbour Chase * – Richard Jacques
Grand Theft Auto: Soviet Connection – Michael Hunter
Bioshock: The Ocean on his Shoulders – Garry Schyman
Mass Effect: Suicide Mission – Jack Wall & Sam Hulick
Fallout 3: Theme – Inon Zur
Tetris – Alexey Pajitnov
Super Mario Bros. Gusty Garden Galaxy – Koji Kondo
Final Fantasy: Liberi Fatali – Nobuo Uematsu
Angry Birds – Ari Pulkkinen
Enemy Zero: Last Movement – Michael Nyman
* Exclusive new version for tonight’s concert
Last night’s extravaganza at the RFH was undoubtedly an enjoyable evening, and a successful project for the LPO. It kick-started the Vision Sound Music Festival, of which I wish I could see more. Iain Lee, fromRetro Gamer, was an amusing, if on occasion somewhat inappropriate host (I can only hope that the innuendo and drug references were lost on the considerable proportion of the audience who had not yet reached the age of 16). This highlighted the target audience, although it may not have been clear through the advertising, as predominantly teen and young-adult gamers, which was particularly evident when the theme from Final Fantasy was announced to be met with tumultuous excitement from a small sect at the back of the Rear Stalls. Much amusement and laughter was derived from the various arrangements of video-game classics such as Tetris and Super Mario Brothers, especially when the large orchestral build-up to the former resulted in a comically anti-climactic rendition of the theme on the middle-octaves of the piano. The audience was here to have fun, and many were clearly very relaxed (consistent chatter and rustling occasionally became an irritating distraction). I must say, the last time I attended a concert at the RFH, it was for Mahler 3, and before that, the complete Goldberg’s. The difference in audience behavior was interesting to me, as I wondered whether it somewhat undermined the attempts to breach the boundaries of mass-consumer culture and move toward more ‘serious’ ‘high-art’. I can safely suggest this was a partial aim, alongside having a great deal of fun (and, dare I say, making much needed money), as Iain Lee himself alluded to the issue, and emphasized how he felt he had finally ‘arrived’, standing alongside ‘one of the world’s best orchestras… with ‘London’ in their title!’ The complexity and craftsmanship which he quite rightly highlighted was well demonstrated, although, for me, it rarely crossed over into the realms of ‘art’. I’ll avoid the sticky and tiresome debate around defining that term. Suffice to say, I couldn’t help myself from trying to judge the music, and the only way I could seem to do it, was by imagining what impact it would make on the usual clientele of the hall.
Aside from the obviously lighthearted theme music already mentioned, the rest could almost all be categorized under ‘epic’. This meant an overwhelming tendency to employ one of three orchestral tricks (or more usually, combining them in sequence): pounding rhythms from the percussion and electric bass (with a considerable amount of additional reverb), rhythmic accompanimental ostinati in the strings under main themes in the horns, and quieter, tension-building passages with long sustained pedal notes. All well and good, but not especially original, and like spotting the formula in your favourite soap, a little tiresome and ineffectual. What was lacking was any sense of ‘development’, in the sense of the Germanic tradition (and here, I show my cards and highlight my own prejudices). In the end, I soon realized that this was an unfair comparison. I was listening to a ‘greatest hits’ album, not a soundtrack, and still further from the way the music is actually employed in its mixed-media context. In the same way film scores are ‘reduced’ to produce trailers and soundtracks, the pieces performed were snapshots of entire games, the main themes played in full, as in an overture. With an average duration of about 5mins, there was no room for any ‘development’ in any case.
So the problem was perhaps that this was just not targeted at me (understandably)! We were told at the start that Iain Lee would present a rough-and-ready history of the medium, and provide a little insight into the games and scores as they came up. While I enjoyed his entertaining compering and brief personal anecdotes, I don’t really feel this was achieved. It was fine for those who were familiar with a particular game–they had something to relate to, as I did with a few pieces. But otherwise, this whistle-stop tour of video-game music history was not quite as educational as it could have been. However, this is all, I would wager, symptomatic of a wider problem relating to the reception of video-game music. How many concerts do you go to in which they play a 5 minute excerpt from each opera in the contemporary canon? Could this in any way do justice to that music? It happens with film music concerts also, but perhaps less so (?). @Andrew Skeet: I look forward to a follow-up project dedicated to no more than two or three video-game scores!
Finally, I should just point out a couple of highlights for me. Aside from the very enjoyable renditions of early Nintendo music already mentioned, I was excited to hear the Battlefield theme live. The first exposition of the theme was great, but thereafter, became a little repetitive, as a few rather strained variations later, we hadn’t really ‘gone anywhere’. Much of the music left me feeling similarly bemused. Indeed, the audience frequently interrupted the orchestra with applause, not due to their amazement and excitement (although to be fair, at times this was palpable), but more down to the ambiguity in musical direction–you often could not tell when they were finished. Unfortunately, the orchestra finished on just such a piece, which seemed to randomly just float upwards and stop. I think the audience were slightly caught by surprise that it was all over, but perhaps the musical effect was also dampened by the clicking noise generated by the unnecessary and distracting lighting adjustments. (The lighting was generally welcome, amusing at times, but perhaps a little gimmicky. Perhaps footage/artwork slideshows from the games would have been better?) Only Jason Graves’ Dead Space really stood out as something that had ‘done something’, something I would want to hear more of. I don’t know precisely whether it would be fair to blame the music, arrangers, or the framing of the project in general.
For these reasons, while I enjoyed the evening, I found it slightly frustrating, but also fruitful and interesting. I look forward to more opportunities to see how things develop. Please do let me know your thoughts if you were there or have been to other similar concerts, and if not, feel free to comment on my sprawling stream of consciousness anyway!