At the start of the month, I was bestowed with tickets to see WASO perform a new composition by Tod Machover based on Perth (which was just as weird as it sounds). Before the inaugural performance blew the roof off, the orchestra delighted listeners with a few pieces from various video games. Playing songs from Grim Fandango, Uncharted, Bioshock, and Journey, the orchestra was accompanied by video footage of the respective game projected onto a screen above them. It was certainly delightful, but also a little weird.
This was the first time I’d ever seen music from a video game being played by an orchestra, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect apart from sitting down for a couple of hours. The way I tend to think of music is like Dan Harmon thinks of comedy; it’s just one giant reference. The Tetris melody instinctively reminds me of line pieces, Uncharted Worlds throws me back to seeing that map with all it’s promises of adventure, and just guess what Elizabeth reminds me of. How an orchestra can appropriately convey that experience without the interactive component baffled me. Until I saw the screen.
The first pieces came from the Uncharted series (which I’d never played), and as the orchestra flawlessly played the sweeping epicness of Nate’s theme, Nate himself was projected onto the screen above. There was no sound, just video to give listeners an idea of the aesthetic of the game. This really helped me appreciate the source material without it becoming the main focus, avoiding another ‘One does not simply…’ moment from when WASO played LotR. The video was usually comprised of cinematics, but every now and then a flash of gameplay would sneak in, which also helped me taste the interactivity without swallowing the game. This carried through into the next set of pieces: The Grim Fandango Suite.
I was familiar with the songs this time around, and I was not disappointed. The original songs had obviously been made with a mariachi shtick because the game was set during Dia de los Muertos, but hearing it translated into a suite for an orchestra made my bones tingle. The selection of songs was just right, playing songs from all across the game as footage of Manny getting into all sorts of trouble played above. I literally lost it when the drum kit entered, squeeing like a little undead carrier pigeon to my friend next to me, which should say a lot about the performance. It was fun, upbeat, and took exactly what needed to be taken from the game.
Next up was the world premiere of the Bioshock 1,2, Infinite suite, and I had psyched myself up for something incredible. What I got was something that just confused me. It was still an amazing performance to witness, but given the songs that could have been played, I was a little underwhelmed. We still had awesome pieces like AD, Lighter than Air, Pairbond, and Big Sister On The Move, but where was Elizabeth? You know, the piece that makes Infinite’s soundtrack? It felt like what was offered didn’t fully convey each game’s mood, like if you went to a NIN concert and got Nickelback instead. While WASO nailed what they were given, I thought it could have been more.
This was all forgiven as Journey: Woven Variations so beautifully wrapped it’s silken cello melody around my ears. Journey’s soundtrack is one that a lot of people hold in high regard, myself and my friend sitting next to me among the admirers, so hearing it live was a dream. This was probably the only piece written for an orchestra of this size, so everything worked together perfectly. Even the video being played worked harmoniously with the orchestra thanks to the cinematic qualities of the game. I almost went into denial when it finished, but what I had just experienced was magnificent.
This was all just an introduction to the main composition by Tod Machover, Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea: A Symphony for Perth. While it might seem a bit strange to talk about this on a video game website, I wanted to briefly point out the gamification at play in the second movement. Tod’s work has often tried melding technology and music; some people may even know him as one of the key players in developing Guitar Hero, but the evening’s piece showed off his latest creation called Hyperscore. As it was described by Tod himself, the software allows anyone to make music by plugging in samples or instruments through an easy to use interface and ‘draw’ music. If that doesn’t sound like a game, then Pro Tools is the Riemann-Zeta function.
Pieces composed by fellow Perthians were integrated into the symphony during the second movement, and they didn’t actually sound too bad. As they were played, the names of the compositions and their respective creator was put onto the screen, as well as a screenshot of the piece in Hyperscore’s UI. One of the more memorable ones was composed by someone in year 7, entitled ‘Mitchell Freeway at 4pm’. I find it interesting to see new compositions that WASO are willing to use in a performance can be created through something akin to a game. Obviously traditional means of composition will always exist, but as more alternatives to traditional music notation rise and easier to use composition software is developed, how might they affect music in games? Will we see more professional sounding songs in games created by coders and less experienced musos, or will there always be the need for pros like Danny Baranowsky or Garry Schyman? I got no clue, but it’s still very cool to think about.
In the end, it was a fantastic performance on WASO’s behalf. Those looking for a night of video game music, it may have been disappointing, but I found their inclusion to be a nice break-in to what would otherwise be a symphony I’d skip entirely. I’m sure that as WASO continues exploring different ways to perform (they’re doing another LotR movie~!), we’ll see more video game music being played, and perhaps a whole evening of it. Until then, we can just wait for Eminence to eventually come to Perth. One day.