Video Game Orchestra, March 5

By 
Nick Balkin
February 9, 2009
From left: Kian How, Simon Lee, and Shota Nakama
From left: Simon Lee, Shota Nakama, and Kian How.
From left: Simon Lee, Shota Nakama, and Kian How.
Photo by Nick Balkin
Photo by Nick Balkin
Photo by Nick Balkin

Donkey Kong will swing (Duke Ellington-style) and the music of retro Nintendo titles and PlayStation mega-hits alike will come alive when the Video Game Orchestra (VGO) hits the stage, March 5, at Berklee. The 90-member VGO comprises a 45-piece orchestra, 40-piece choir, and 5-piece rock band, with players from more than 20 countries who are students at Berklee, Boston University, Boston Conservatory, and New England Conservatory. 

Prominent game industry composers have arranged music for the show and will be in the audience, including Gerard Marino (God of War), Keith Zizza (Caesar), and Duncan Watt (Brothers in Arms). Jack Wall, Mass Effect composer and co-creator of the Video Games Live tour, will guest conduct the VGO for one of his pieces. 

The concert is $10, open to all ages, and takes place on March 5, 8:15 p.m., at the Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Ave., Boston. Please call 617-747-2261 or visit berkleebpc.com for more information. 

Berklee alumnus and VGO producer/music director Shota Nakama '08 created the group in April 2008. Initially, he struggled to get the project off the ground, but the group evolved quickly after he found two partners—alumnus Simon Lee, VGO coproducer/marketing manager, and student Kian How, VGO administrative and production assistant—and got the backing of the college. The group's most recent show, held in a Boston church, drew a crowd of more than 600. The ensemble provides a valuable learning experience to its members, who not only perform the material, but also arrange and produce it. They have 20 songs in their repertoire, including music from such titles as Final FantasyMetal Gear SolidChrono Trigger, and Silent Hill. For more information, visit vgo-online.org/live

A native of Okinawa, Japan, Nakama grew up a game-obsessed youth who would use his phone to rewrite the music to Final Fantasy and other games. After getting his first degree in math, he enrolled at Berklee to study film scoring, but switched his focus when others said his music was better suited for games. Nakama was also the first vice president of Berklee's Video Game Music Club, which sent an ensemble to perform at last year's Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. 

Berklee has been quick to recognize the career opportunities the video game industry presents to its students and alumni. Last year, the college offered a Music for Video Games weekend summer program, and held a panel discussion with established game music composers. Many alumni have found success in the industry, including Olivier Derivière (Alone in the Dark); Norihiko Hibino (Metal Gear SolidZone of the Enders) Chuck Doud, music director, Sony; Dan Lehrich, creative lead, 7 Studios; David Collins, audio lead, Lucas Arts; C. Paul Johnson, sound designer, Microsoft; Christian Kjeldsen, sound designer, Rockstar Games; Michael Sweet, founding partner, Audiobrain, and Berklee faculty member; and others. 

Despite the economic downturn, global sales for video games reached $32 billion in 2008 (eclipsing DVD and Blu-Ray) and budgets continue to skyrocket. Composers receive as much as $2,000 for each minute of music they write, with a typical game requiring 60 to 90 minutes of music. The genre has entered what is believed to be a golden age, worthy of comparisons to the heyday of film music. Video game music must drive both the players' actions and the action of playing the game, a different challenge than writing for film and TV, where music plays a more supportive role.