The Virtual Drawing Room: A Video Game Chamber Music Concert

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Wednesday / September 26, 2012 / 7:30 p.m.
David Friend Recital Hall
921 Boylston Street
United States

The Virtual Drawing Room presents music from and related to the interactive medium of video games, scored for an ensemble not typically associated with gaming culture: the string quartet. As the concert’s title evokes the intimate space of a 19th century salon, the program examines popular assumptions about video game music, illuminating the genre’s unique properties and questioning to what extent the conventions of concert music and film music apply. 

The program features music from the 2001 role-playing game Arcanum by Berklee professor Ben Houge (Tom Clancy’s EndWar, King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity), Lacrimosa from the 2011 space horror game Dead Space 2 by Jason Graves (Star Trek series, Silent Hunter), and Init by Monolith/Warner Bros. composer Nathan Grigg (F.E.A.R. series, No One Lives Forever series).  Also featured is John Cage’s Four (1989), which exemplifies principles of non-linear organization that are at the root of video game music design, in honor of the composer’s 100th birthday earlier this month. 

The music will be performed by the Berklee Chamber Players, a crack ensemble drawn from Berklee’s talented community, comprising violinists Mimi Rabson and Helen Sherrah-Davies, violist Melissa Howe, and cellist Ro Rowan.

Between pieces, in salon style, professor Ben Houge will talk about the concepts underlying the works and the unique exigencies of composing for interactive media. 

About the music

Music from Arcanum (musica arcana) (2001) by Ben Houge

            The Demise of the Zephyr


Berklee professor Ben Houge’s music from the 2001 role-playing game Arcanum has been widely performed since the game’s release, continuing to garner acclaim. Earlier this month Forbes published a list of the 12 Best Video Game Soundtracks of All Time that included Arcanum, and last spring PC Gamer magazine specifically cited the soundtrack when listing Arcanum as the 60th best PC game of all time. Upon the game’s release, the Seattle Times praised the soundtrack as “sophisticated enough to pass muster on its own as an extended suite for string quartet.”

Arcanum conjures a Tolkienesque world of elves and ogres that has undergone an industrial revolution, pitting the ancient ways of magic against newfangled flintlock pistols and steam engines. The music of Arcanum reinforces this historical anachronism by evoking the modes and contours of early choral polyphony, but incorporating an ensemble that came into its own much later, during the Industrial Revolution: the string quartet. As Arcanum is a role-playing game that allows players to pursue a path of good or evil, the soundtrack is deliberately ambiguous in tone.  In a unique marketing gesture, scores for the soundtrack were released on the original website for the game. To download scores and recordings, and for more information, visit


Lacrimosa (2011) by Jason Graves

Jason Graves’ Lacrimosa could be read as a compendium of avant-garde compositional techniques, and yet this 10-minute germ of thematic material from Dead Space 2 is one of the most popular pieces of music from a video game in recent years. The work contains harsh dissonances, long passages of glissandi, extremes of tessitura, extended techniques, unspecified harmonics, and ends with a triple forte “very high scratch” for all four instruments, with the performance instruction “con carne.”  “Lacrimosa” is Latin for “weeping,” as in the “Dies Irae” text from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass: “Lacrimosa dies illa,” or, “That tearful day,” certainly an appropriate sentiment for Dead Space’s unfortunate protagonist Isaac Clarke.

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last March, Jason presented a talk entitled, “The Art of Noise: Incorporating Algorithmic Techniques into your Scores,” in collaboration with composer Gary Schyman (Bioshock). The presentation demonstrated a number of aleatoric techniques, with examples from scores by Krzysztof Penderecki, George Crumb, John Corigliano, and John Williams. In many cases, they showed, a shorthand notation that provides the outline of a shape can be more efficient for both composer and performer than an intricately detailed notation. The emphasis was not on formal or structural applications (as in the Cage piece on tonight’s program), but on relatively small scale textural events, flourishes, gestures, and textures, which can then be stitched together to create larger structures, an approach that can be traced in Lacrimosa.


Four (1989) by John Cage

Video games are an inherently indeterminate medium—you can never predict how long a player will take to finish a level or complete a given task—and no composer is more closely associated with exploring the incorporation of indeterminacy into music than John Cage.  Cage wrote that, for him, the goal of art was “to imitate nature in her manner of operation,” which is exactly what many video games seek to do in developing realistic game environments. 

In the years before Cage’s death in 1992, he wrote a great number of pieces for which the title is simply the number of performers (ranging from “One” to “108”), often collectively referred to as “the number pieces.”  The notation in these works is flexible, with a musical event contained in brackets, indicating a time range in which the event should occur.  In “Four,” the order of the three sections is not specified, nor is the instrument to play each part, allowing for parts to be swapped between performers. This kind of variable, modular organization directly presages the types of operations game composers employ to respond to real-time events and to avoid repetition by ensuring that the music is different each time the game is played.  In “Four,” these techniques conspire to create a slow-moving, ambient, ethereal texture.


Init (2003) by Nathan Grigg
            I. Initiation - Larghetto, Presto, Andante, Presto
            II. Rebellion - Andante
            III. Integration - Presto

The composer writes: “Init is a three-movement string quartet that juxtaposes traditional, ‘abstract’ forms of thematic development with the more ‘concrete’ forms of development inspired by digital editing and electronic manipulation. The theme is a series of 15 notes, varied in the abstract - retrograde, transpositions, etc. By contrast, the accompanying material is varied in a "cut-and-paste" fashion, as if it were constructed from pre-sampled loops that have been sliced, re-ordered, muted, soloed, filtered, and pitch shifted. Bowing position changes on repeating patterns create "filtering" effects, high-pitched portamento motifs suggest the sound of gliding monophonic synthesizers, wide glissandi emulate pitch envelopes, and pizzicato and slaps provide syncopated bass and percussion.

Init premiered in the fall of 2003 at the Sound Currents 2 concert in Town Hall, Seattle. The piece was performed by odeonquartet, who continued to play the work in several concerts in the Pacific Northwest over the following two years.”


About the performers:

Berklee Chamber Players

The Berklee Chamber Players is a group of versatile Berklee performers committed to the art and craft of chamber music that honors the past, present and future. In addition to the time-honored compositions of classical music, this ensemble's repertoire includes original music by Berklee faculty, contemporary chamber music from around the globe, and contemporary genres incorporating the innovations of electronic sound design. Founded by String Department chair Melissa Howe, the BCP showcases the vital and innovative art music scene at Berklee. 

Mimi Rabson
Mimi Rabson has distinguished herself as one of Boston's most creative and versatile musicians. She appears regularly in classical, jazz, Klezmer and other eclectic performances. She is a first-prize winner of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in composition. Rabson was a founding member of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and appeared with Itzhak Perlman on the recording called “In the Fiddler’s House” and on The Late Show with David Letterman. Rabson is a Stringletter Press composer and arranger providing many pieces for the String Charts catalogue. She is an associate professor at Berklee College of Music and a sought after clinician.  More info is at

Helen Sherrah-Davies
After many years as a classical performer and educator in her native Britain, Cambridge educated five-string violinist and composer Helen Sherrah-Davies relocated to Boston, graduated from Berklee College of Music (summa cum laude) with the “most valuable player” award, winning praise for being “one of Berklee’s most original voices.” She earned a master's (with academic honors) in contemporary improvisation from New England Conservatory.  

International credits include recording with Herbie Flowers (Sky/T Rex) in the UK, performing with Jon Lord (Deep Purple) in Switzerland, at the wedding of Posh Spice to David Beckham in Ireland, Montepulciano Opera Festival Orchestra in Italy, and recently at an International Music Festival in the West Bank, Palestine, also teaching at Al Kamandjati in Ramallah. Stateside credits include performing with Simon Shaheen, with the Arabic Fusion ensemble, ZilZala, Mimi Rabson’s Power Trio Project, singer-songwriter Alan Williams’ “Birdsong at Morning,” and the J Way Jazz String Quartet. Summer 2012 saw her explore microtonal notes between “the notes” with monster guitarist Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski’s unique “Planet Microjam Institute” at the Jazz Festival in Genoa, Italy. 

She is an assistant professor of harmony at Berklee College of Music.  More information is at

Melissa Howe
Violist Melissa Howe is chair of the String Department at Berklee College of Music.  She specializes in performing new music of many styles, ranging from Aerosmith to opera, Bjork to ballet.  Howe recently completed a string quartet recording project with the Berklee Chamber Players, featuring quartets by Berklee composers Mimi Rabson, Francine Trester, and Kari Juusela.  At Berklee, she specializes in teaching viola, ear training, and introducing classical players to improvisation. 

Ro Rowan 
Although Ro studied classical cello and spent most of her youth in orchestras, she has brought her rich tone to a vast landscape of genres within the Los Angeles and Boston music scene since 2002. 

In the early 2000s, while attending UCLA pursuing a degree in musicology and playing in the UCLA Symphony Orchestra, Rowan began to focus on her longtime interest to play the cello in non-classical settings. Since then she has played live shows with numerous bands and singer/songwriters in Los Angeles such as Taylor Dayne, Fee Waybill, Zander Schloss, and Francisco Aquabella at such well-known venues as the the Viper Room, B.B. Kings, Hotel Cafe, the El Rey, the Whisky, and Silverlake Lounge. In addition to performing, she has worked as a studio musician. Her cello and vocals can be heard on over 100 tracks on albums for artists such as Tiffany, Bob Forrest, Sparklemotion, and Lunar Click, and major motion picture soundtracks Disney/Pixar’s Brave, Blood and Chocolate, and Henry Poole Is Here. She also had the unique opportunity to play on Deepak Chopra’s meditation CD, The Secrets of Healing. 

Rowan continues to write and record her own material and plans to release an album sometime next year.  wo of her singles, “The Drive” and “Slow Motion on the Streets,” can currently be found on iTunes.  More information is at

About the composers:

 Ben Houge
Ben Houge has been developing audio for video games since 1996. In seven years at Sierra, he contributing to titles including King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity, Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail!, and Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura. In 2004 he moved to Shanghai to take a job with French developer Ubisoft, and most of his four years at the company were spent heading up audio for Tom Clancy’s EndWar, for which he devised an innovative, cell-based music deployment system.

Parallel to his work in games, Houge has been active in music composition, concert production, performance, sound installation, and video art. In Seattle he founded the Sound Currents concert series and was a member of Stranger Genius Award-winning composer collective Seattle School from its inception. During his six years in China from 2004-2010, Houge was an active participant in the underground sound scene, performing alongside musicians including Yan Jun, Torturing Nurse, Li Jianhong, and Wang Changcun, as well as visiting artists like Elliott Sharp and Owl City. His work has been presented at the Shanghai eArts Festival, Beijing Today Art Museum, Suzhou’s True Color Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, Chapel Performance Space in Seattle, Studio Z in Saint Paul, and the Boston Cyberarts Festival. Last winter he was a visiting artist at MIT, working with the Media Lab’s Responsive Environments group on the sonification of data from ubiquitous sensor networks.

Houge teaches video game music at Berklee College of Music, and this year he is collaborating with the music21 team in MIT’s Music Department to develop computer models for musicological analysis. He continues to consult on audio for games and is currently working on a new project with game music pioneers Harmonix Music Systems. 

Jason Graves
Jason Graves is a British Academy Award-winning (BAFTA) composer who has brought his passion for music to video game franchises such as Dead Space (EA), Star Trek (Bethesda), Silent Hunter (Ubisoft), and Command and Conquer (EA). His music has become synonymous with unique, cinematic textures combined with modern aesthetics and he is renowned worldwide for his cinematic, immersive and award-winning music.

Grave's groundbreaking score for Dead Space has been hailed by critics as a "truly original soundtrack" and "the best score of the year." It was recognized with a myriad of worldwide nominations and won two BAFTA awards: one for Original Score and one for Use of Audio. For the latter, the Academy stated, "It's the music soundtrack that boasts horror and tension."  In addition to two BAFTA's, his music has been honored with three Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Award (AIAS) nominations, winning "Outstanding Achievement in Audio" for Dead Space. He has received 21 G.A.N.G. nominations and four wins, including "Audio of the Year" for Dead Space and Dead Space 2, "Best Original Theme" nominations for Dead Space 2, Star Trek: Legacy and Blazing Angels 2, and "Music of the Year" nominations for Dead Space and King Arthur

Current projects include Bethesda Softwork's highly anticipated Prey 2 and the Sony title Resistance: Burning Skies, plus multiple sequels for unannounced flagship game franchises.  

John Cage
John Milton Cage, who would have been 100 years old this year, was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, and his revolutionary ideas about sound, chance, and intention continue to reverberate throughout the arts. Many of his concepts that were once considered radical are turning out to be surprisingly prescient as we learn to navigate our digital age.

The details of Cage’s biography and oeuvre are amply detailed elsewhere, but a few of his aspects of his work are worth mentioning here for their relevance to video games:

  • Pieces that allow performers to make decisions about how to proceed while performing (“indeterminate with regard to performance”) reflect the agency a game player has over the outcome of a game.
  • Pieces that are generated by employing chance operations at the time of composition (“indeterminate with regard to composition”) presage developments in data mapping (deriving music from star charts or imperfections on a sheet of paper) and algorithmic composition.
  • Many of Cage’s works present material in a modular form that can be reassembled in any number of ways, just like a game soundtrack.
  • Cage used radios to generate unpredictable, real-time input, essentially showing how a the same pre-defined form could be applied to any arbitrary material; this also shows how a piece may be written to accommodate the unpredictable input of a game player.
  • Cage blurred the lines between music and sound design by accepting all sound as music, a practice that has become commonplace with the ubiquity digital sampling technology.  Many works, such as the marathon “Empty Words” incorporate recording of natural sounds into their fabric, resulting in a sonic structure that subsumes distinctions between sound effects, dialog, and music.  In this way, Cage could be considered a kind of audio director for large-scale, multimedia events.

Nathan Grigg
Nathan Grigg is the senior composer at Monolith and WB Games Seattle. His career in game scoring spans 19 years, dating back to the age of 16-bit consoles, when 6-voice FM chips reigned supreme. He has worked as an independent composer, audio lead, and sound designer for games and reference media, and as a music supervisor for MSN and Microsoft Studios, implementing adaptive music and audio technologies on the web. Grigg joined the game developer Monolith Productions in 2001, and has spent the past 11 years composing music for titles such as Gotham City Impostors, F.E.A.R./F.E.A.R.2/F.E.A.R.3, Condemned/Condemned 2, The Matrix Online, TRON 2.0, No One Lives Forever 2, Aliens Vs. Predator 2, and the upcoming Guardians of Middle Earth. As a music director he has worked with Don Davis, Jason Graves, Laura Karpman, Jeremy Soule, Guy Whitmore, Inon Zur, and many other critically-acclaimed composers.

Grigg received his bachelor of arts from the Evergreen State College in 1992, studying music composition with Peter Winkler, Janice Giteck (at Cornish College of the Arts), Peter Randlette, and Terry Setter. He currently lives in Seattle with his wife Elizabeth, and his sons Elliott and Owen. 

Program notes written, adapted, maimed, and centonized by Ben Houge.