Software symphonies

Jul 5, 2006 at 12:00 am

Back in the heady days of the quarter-sucking arcade, video game addicts were enthralled by flashing lights and a steady stream of electronic bleeps and bloops. They were thrilled by the merest hint of music highlighting their digital fantasies. Those ancient cabinets could barely muster a few tinny notes, making for primitive-but-memorable tunes like the plodding, staircase-climbing tones of Donkey Kong or the “love theme” that appeared in between every dot-munching maze of Ms. Pac Man. Near euphoria surrounded the 1983 debut of the Journey game, where players were rewarded for helping Steve Perry and the band defeat UFOs with a tape loop sample of “Separate Ways,” but the novelty quickly faded. As the years went on and the technology improved, so did the music, and eventually some games were sporting full-blown symphonic scores.

Though the complexity and quality of music in electronic gaming improved, the industry’s reputation as a legitimate art form lagged far behind. Even as the business boomed, becoming a multibillion-dollar juggernaut, video game music was treated as an afterthought in critical circles, and, in the rarefied air of the symphony, dismissed as nothing more than the soulless hums and buzzes of amusing computer trickery. Times change and so do perceptions, and there is no better representation of this than the arrival of Play! A Video Game Symphony. Under the guidance of creator of Jason Michel Paul and conductor Arnie Roth, Play! invades the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, with a program designed to offer a breezy alternative to musty old Mozart and Mahler.

The concert presents live, full-scale orchestral renditions of music from two decades’ worth of games including such titles as Sonic the Hedgehog, Halo, Chrono Trigger, World of Warcraft, Kingdom Hearts, Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill.

This year’s edition will debut the epic sounds of the recent Playstation2 instant classic, Shadow Of The Colossus, originally composed by Kow Otani. Pieces will be accompanied by giant video screen clips from the games, adding an exciting visual element to the aural delights.

But it’s not just for the kids. Nostalgic parents can enjoy such iconic themes from the Nintendo era as Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda, performed by full string section. Seems it’s this two-generation appeal that convinced conductor Arnie Roth to add Play! to his already busy schedule as music director and conductor of the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra, and his work with major recording artists like Charlotte Church, Diana Ross and Peter Cetera. For Roth, the best part of Play! is the new faces that are packing the seats, many of whom may never have ventured to a traditional cultural institution in their own city. Roth says of the crowds, “They are the best of many different worlds — they have the passion of a rock audience and better discipline than the average symphony audience. It’s ideal.” Roth is equally cheerful because shows like this reach new demographics, which has been a perpetual concern for the classical music world.

“Here’s a vehicle that can bring in a brand-new audience. Now, can the orchestras follow that up and bring them back in for their traditional programming? We’re going to have to work on that.”

As well as attracting new audiences, Play! has been an energizing experience for the musicians themselves. Roth says, “They really do appreciate it, it’s like a whole new world for them to get that kind of audience response.” After a sold-out debut last year at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Roth says that the Stockholm musicians jumped to their feet, stunned by the crowd reaction, and immediately booked a return engagement. The concept is translating well wherever it goes — dates are set for Philadelphia, Toronto and a 2007 stop at Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House. In fact, it has caught on so well that at least one competitor has appeared, and as video game fans well know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.