Messrs. Oscar and Solid Snake

Tuesday, 23 January 2007 — 8:38pm | Animation, Film, Game music, Music, Oscars, Video games

Before I dispense my informed sentiments on Video Games Live, which I caught at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium on Monday, let’s get through a few brief notes about film.

As longtime readers know, I make a point of catching the Best of OIAF reel every year when they bring it to the Metro, mostly because I can’t justify going to Ottawa for the festival itself, and a digest is typically sufficient. That said, the 2006 selection was a mild disappointment. In the past two years, the touring programme has shown off films in competition in the various categories, but not necessarily the winners, and I think the decision shows. While some of the shorts exhibited some superb technique and story design – Stefan Mueller’s Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Hazen & Mr. Horlocker and Chris Choy’s The Possum being my favourites – they were typically the most conventional of a field that was often almost too avant-garde for me (which is really saying something), or at the very least, heavier than usual on the cruelty dealt to furry little animals.

Oscar nominations are here, and they indicate possibly the most unpredictable race in recent memory. Part of that may be because the Oscars are early enough now that the guilds haven’t reported in yet with their own awards; the picture should be clearer going into awards night. But consider the statistical aberrations. I’m hardly one to mistake correlation for causation, but I do think – judging from this year and the last – that the Academy Awards have become considerably more interesting since they were bumped a month earlier, as the nomination deadline arrives before any consensus congeals on the table.

Glad to see six nominations for Pan’s Labyrinth, my tentative pick for the best film of 2006 (though it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, and I still haven’t seen a few major releases I’ve been meaning to catch, notably Letters from Iwo Jima and Dreamgirls). Nothing at all for The Fountain, which is flat-out ridiculous but not wholly unpredictable, though I would have at least liked to see Clint Mansell show up in the Original Score category. Of the four Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, I would personally give it to Babel. As for who will win, I haven’t the foggiest.

I’m not going to offer any reasoning for the above. No time, no space, no space-time. Just heed my words and go see Pan’s Labyrinth.

Now let’s talk about video game music. It’s been awhile.

Last night’s performance of Video Games Live was the first symphonic video game concert in Alberta. That’s something to be celebrated, because damnit, it’s about time. Live concert performances of video game music have been going on in Japan for a decade and a half; North America didn’t wake up to the phenomenon until two years ago, with the original VGL performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, followed by the 2006 debut of Play! A Video Game Symphony (a programme that, with only a handful of global playdates in cities that matter, isn’t going to be here anytime soon).

A matter of personal background and credentials: I’ve been following video game music for years now, as an avid collector and occasional contributor to the remix and arrangement “scene,” even if I haven’t gone so far as to do a Lancastrian study that one can find online. I’m really curious as to when Summoning of Spirits is going to be released, because I whipped up a track from Tales of Symphonia that has been sitting around for a year and a half. In many cases, I’m much more familiar with the music than the games themselves – including a few selections on the VGL programme, such as Kingdom Hearts and a number of the Final Fantasy games. (Several numbers, in fact.) I found some of the best games of all time, Chrono Trigger among them, out of musical curiosity.

Suffice to say, I’m into this stuff.

So to cut to the chase, did I find VGL enjoyable? Yes, very much so. Was it some sort of revelatory, religious experience? No, I wouldn’t say that.

If there’s one thing that really separates a concert like VGL from the sort that was circulating in Japan in the early ’90s (and I’m thinking very specifically of the Orchestral Game Concert series), it’s that we’re firmly out of the chiptune era. While many games, Nintendo titles in particular, still store their music as MIDI data to be rendered by the console hardware (not so much to save space as to leave open the possibility of dynamic, algorithmic manipulation of the music to correspond with in-game events), the big-budget heavyweights in today’s game industry deliver orchestrated music fully formed.

Usually, the best of the game soundtracks are easily on par with the best of what is occurring in contemporary cinema. Two of the most interesting film composers of the decade, Harry Gregson-Williams and Michael Giacchino, got off the ground with music to games like the Metal Gear Solid sequels and Medal of Honor, respectively – both of which were represented last night. There really is no longer a significant gap in audio fidelity and the quality of the composition.

At the same time, I wager that tunes such as the theme from Super Mario Bros. are burned into our collective consciousness precisely because they operated so effectively within severe technical constraints. Composers such as Koji Kondo were tasked with making something chirpy and repetitive not only bearable, but outright fun to listen to. In an orchestral setting, these melodies are primarily interesting for how they are expanded and arranged, and what kind of ideas emerge in the overhauled instrumentation. In the case of a medley – a format often necessary for giving a classic game due coverage and introducing variety to melodies designed to be played in neverending loops – one of the defining elements is also the fluidity of the transitions, and how the piece as a whole functions as a unified suite.

VGL was heavy on faithful renditions of music that was orchestrated to begin with. The chiptune era, the epoch that inspires nostalgia, had a relatively minor presence: there was the opening medley of classic arcade tracks, beginning with the bleeps and bloops of Pong; The Legend of Zelda; accompaniment underneath guests invited to play Space Invaders and Frogger onstage; Super Mario Bros.; and a solo piano medley consisting of music from Final Fantasy, both before the switch to recorded audio in VII and after.

The music from the orchestral era, I have no complaints about whatsoever. Seeing the ESO and the Kokopelli Choir performing Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV made me a very happy man, even if it did remind me of my, my… my problem. In terms of the audio setup, from where I was sitting off in the Left Terrace, there seemed to be a few balance issues between the choir and orchestra. But I’m being picky. Overall, it was a fine selection of fine music, and it was an especial treat to hear the premiere of the music from Jade Empire as a nod to the local boys over at Bioware.

In terms of video game music, I would characterize the chosen titles as part of the recognizable contemporary mainstream. The curious thing is that what constitutes the mainstream in today’s gaming environment is deeply fractured, given the divisions between the three major console manufacturers and even the PC: we no longer live in conditions that would permit the release of a game everybody knows, short of Grand Theft Auto (where all the music is licensed). You could make a case that in the past few years, World of Warcraft and Halo came about as close as you can get to ubiquity nowadays, but that’s still peanuts next to Super Mario Bros.

So while it was neat to see a cute orchestral translation of the arcade era of game music, where the dominant paradigm was to think more in terms of “sound effects” than “soundtracks” per se, I have to register my profound disappointment with the already scarce representation of the 8-bit and 16-bit generations, which are really the heart of nostalgia as far game music is concerned. And my problem is not with the scarcity: the programme covered the major bases – Koji Kondo (Mario and Zelda), Yuji Naka (Sonic), Nobuo Uematsu (early Final Fantasy). My problem is with the orchestration.

I can’t speak for the Sonic the Hedgehog medley, as I haven’t located its source, but the arrangements of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda were ripped directly from the ones performed in Japan’s Orchestral Game Concert. This is a bad thing for a number of reasons. First, I think these two particular arrangements are becoming standardized as the orchestral suites representing their respective games, and quite frankly, I don’t think they’re good enough for that to happen.

I don’t mind the Mario suite so much – I’ve always liked the inclusion of the woodblock to punctuate the overworld theme, and while I don’t think much of the transitions or the ending, it’s functional. If you’ve ever downloaded an MP3 file of the orchestral Super Mario Bros. misattributed to the Boston Pops, you’ve heard it.

The Zelda arrangement, however, is one that I’ve never liked. I can think of no other series that has delivered such a wealth of great melodies, and yet this arrangement chooses to dote on the familiar overworld theme (and not very well; I find it to be quite cliché and generally stale). And I’ve heard it often enough in various places over the years that I fear it is legitimately and dangerously close to being the “official” interpretation. If anything, concerts such as Video Games Live and Play! should be opportunities to commission new and inventive orchestral renditions of NES/SNES-era themes and motifs. There are so many talented composers in video games nowadays that would leap at the chance to do it, likely including Koji Kondo himself, that the absence of talent should not at all be an impediment.

I’m not a huge fan of Martin Leung’s piano arrangements of Mario and Final Fantasy, which were performed last night by his sister Lee Ann. I admire them for their accessibility, and from his videos I can tell that he has the technical gifts as a performer to conduct his position as one of video game music’s foremost ambassadors (and his sister has every bit of that classical musician’s discipline, even if she exhibited brief flashes of rhythmic sloppiness; as someone completely undisciplined who also indulges in rhythmic sloppiness, I’m one to talk). I don’t think he’s a terrific arranger, though: with the Mario series, he often opts for displacing the MIDI onto the keys, and with properties like Final Fantasy where there’s a little more invention, the hit-and-miss Final Fantasy Piano Collections were there a decade ago.

It’s like whenever I hear lounge pianists take on Henry Mancini or Andrew Lloyd Webber: they demonstrate a predilection for fanciful flourishes and grand arpeggiating cadenzas to make everything sound oh-so-romantic, and they’re all people who have clearly graduated from the rites of passage commonly associated with the name “Franz Liszt.” And that has made them virtuosic performers, but what separates them from bona fide composers in the standard Romantic repertoire is this: a decided absence of depth and interest when it comes to harmony. Amidst all the fireworks and legerdemain, it’s easy to overlook the harmonic complexity of the great European composers. Even we jazz people like to think that our fourth voicings and modal substitutions over Richard Rodgers are so inventive and hip, but for the most part we’re just lifting from Debussy with one hand and the blues with the other. It’s still an improvement on the easy-listenin’ aesthetic of sitting on major and minor triads and leaving it at that.

But these are the back-in-my-day gripes of a grizzled vet, after all, and I’m sure it’s all really cool if you’ve never heard acoustic performances of classic video game music before. It was probably neat for me too, the first time. I can’t quite remember. People seem to tip me better when, after a few drinks, I stop being professional and start treating the piano as a party trick (i.e. play video game music). If you’re not used to it, it might just be novel.

I haven’t commented much on the VGL production itself, with the smoke and coloured lights and onscreen video game footage and what have you. In most cases I don’t think it was particularly necessary, and perhaps it was even a distraction, but where it really shone was in the arcade-era games, where the music really doesn’t stand on its own (when it isn’t outright plagiarized from the Romantics, which it often was back in the day), and is only effective in juxtaposition with the images. Maybe it was the selection of the images themselves: virtually every scrap of footage predating the rise of the PlayStation was inherently in-game footage, whereas afterwards, the focus was on full-motion video introductions. (Let’s face it: Civilization IV may be hard, hard crack, but it’s not exactly stimulating to watch somebody else play.)

As a project to demonstrate to everyone just how much video game music has evolved, and how fertile a ground it is for film-quality scores today, I would call Video Games Live a wild success. And perhaps that’s consistent with their objectives to move game music towards a certain mass appeal, objectives you can read about in the FAQ on the VGL website. It’s an admirable task, and given VGL’s splash in the mainstream press, the producers are well on their way to achieving it. I may sound rather critical, but in general, it was an excellent programme with some great music that can be enjoyed whether you’ve played the games or not. I do think the retro elements, in particular the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, were given short shrift in terms of quality and quantity; again, it might just be a matter of perspective.

I’m not necessarily inclined to see the show again when it hits Calgary next November. (For one thing, what equivalent does Calgary have to the Kokopelli Choir? Cowtown may be the better city, but if anyone were to make a case defending Edmonton, said choir would be one of the chief exhibits.) But I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing it, not by a long shot. Video Games Live is a worthwhile experience, and a positive step towards establishing mainstream recognition of where game music is today. The potential benefits are immense: every musician or budding composer-arranger who develops an interest in game music is a valuable addition to the community. But first, they need to know that the community is there. I could go on and on with analogies to the tremendous impact that Stefan Fatsis’ book Word Freak had on competitive Scrabble, but I’ve tread that ground many a time before. Take my word for it: the principles at work are the same.

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