How Xbox fans could save classical music

Rebecca Armstrong tunes into orchestral renditions of video game soundtracks

Rebecca Armstrong
Tuesday 25 October 2011 15:08 BST
Sword and sorcery: 'The Legend of Zelda: the Minish Cap'
Sword and sorcery: 'The Legend of Zelda: the Minish Cap'

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Today a 70-piece orchestra and a full choir will be playing a one-off concert of classical music based on a mythical figure on a magical quest. So far, so run-of-the-mill. But the evening's entertainment isn't celebrating the gods and heroes of the Ring cycle or Orpheus's subterranean exploits but The Legend of Zelda. Not a Norse saga or a Greek myth, then, but a mega-selling video game. The concert marks the 25th birthday of the Zelda series, a range of games that follow the exploits of Link, an elf-like character, through a fantasy land peopled with demons, ghosts and princesses. So while the myth fits, does the music? Can the soundtrack to a video game convince in a classical context?

There are signs that what was once a series of bleeps accompanying pixilated figures on screen is evolving into an art form. The Video Games Live orchestra has been staging best-selling shows across the world, which merge the worlds of gaming and classic music, for the past six years. Is this a legitimate appreciation of a growing field of composing, or simply a case of culture-lite, a dumbing down of classical music to make it palatable for the Xbox generation?

Tommy Tallarico, founder of Video Games Live and a composer of video game scores with more than 20 years' experience (the concerts he hosts play compositions from a range of contemporary composeers, rather than just his own back catalogue) admits that the classical world is divided. "We get mixed reviews. But the reality is that the orchestral symphony world is starting to die out. Symphonies are going under and classical music is going away. If something can get young people exposed to this kind of music it's a positive thing," he says. "We've played to 100,000 people in China. People are screaming, clapping... that's when musicians come up and say that they've played the oboe for 40 years and have never had a reception like this." In a recent interview, the classical composer Nico Muhly, who has worked with Philip Glass and Björk, lent weight to the argument that video game music has a place in the classical world. "I'm positive I understand how augmented chords change an emotional texture because of Nintendo music."

Meanwhile, although Bafta has been championing video games and in-game music for eight years, last year was the first time that video game music scores were recognised at the Ivor Novello awards, which hail excellence in music writing. But should the music we play games to be garlanded in this way? Bafta judge and Radio 1's gaming expert Johnny Minkley believes so. "I think there's probably quite a sniffy attitude from certain quarters in the music industry from classical composers about game music but it's all part of the same long battle for games to be taken seriously as a creative art form."

The London Philharmonic Orchestra certainly isn't too proud to give video game music a good showing – on 8 November it will be releasing The Greatest Video Game Music album which features classical versions of music from Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft, Tetris, BioShock and Angry Birds that were recorded at a concert in September. While I'm not convinced that the Tetris theme is ever going to be able to take on Tchaikovsky and win, it's nice to see that the Philharmonic is willing to play with its repertoire.

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