Video Game Music Scores Big at the BPC

Danielle Dreilinger
March 17, 2009
With conductor Yohei Sato in charge, it's clear the Video Game Orchestra is a serious endeavor.
The night puts about 90 people on stage, including the 45-member Berklee Chamber Choir Club.
Singer Rio Hara and organizer Shota Nakama perform a selection from <em>Chromo Chross</em>, the score that first made Nakama realize "that video game music has come this far."
Composer Duncan Watt tells the orchestra, "You people are a composer's dream. Everything sounds so wonderful."
Nakama isn't the only enthusiastic one&mdash;the full house gives the orchestra a standing ovation.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Video game soundtracks have come a long way from Game Boy-era bleeps and bloops. Just ask the Video Game Orchestra, which packed about 90 musicians onto the BPC stage on March 5.

It was the biggest concert of its kind Berklee's hosted so far—and it showed how far Berklee has come in the emerging video game music world.

Shota Nakama '08 founded the VGO in the spring of 2008, bringing together musicians from Berklee as well as the Boston Conservatory and the New England Conservatory of Music. (To be fair, the orchestra itself comprised a mere 45 or so players; Berklee's Chamber Choir Club provided the rest.)

Non-gamers might not realize the quality of music backing video games now. "Video game music is really underrated," Nakama said.  

Technology changes helped. "Ten or fifteen years ago, the groups of sounds you were working with were so dismal," said Kari Juusela, dean of the Professional Writing Division and, with Nakama, the concert's codirector. It's only in "the last five or eight years that all these big orchestral things have come out."

Although alumni already work for video game companies such as Harmonix (Rock Band), this past year Berklee jumped on the bandwagon. The Film Scoring Department held a summer video game music workshop and brought on alumnus/sound engineer Michael Sweet to start developing curriculum. Students were ahead of the game: staff advisor Jeanine Cowan estimated that the Video Game Music Club had 150 members.

Nakama thought Berklee had an important role to play in the emerging field. "Berklee can be definitely cutting-edge, and they can lead the industry."

Sweet agreed. "There aren't a whole lot of universities around the country that are putting a program like this into place," he said. "Now is the time when real innovation is happening, and Berklee has the opportunity to seed that innovation."

Composer Gerard Marino, there to hear the orchestra perform his God of War 2 score, made a practical point. "If you're going to write music for a living, you've got to look at every possible way to make a dime," he said.

The video game industry "as a whole is $21 billion" per year, Sweet said—far larger than the movie industry. "It's a viable career option for a lot of people. And people are hiring."

Juusela, however, pointed out the artistic merit: "The first time [Marino] was asked to write for an 80-piece orchestra was for a video game."

The March 5 show put that artistry front and center. It's rare you see a symphony orchestra rock the house.

Though Nakama had the audience chant the old Sega on-chime before the orchestra launched into Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the show was classical, not kitsch.

"Time's Scar" from Chrono Chross kicked off with a virtuosic piccolo solo. When "Theme of Laura" from Silent Hill 2 switched to an electric-guitar–intensive part, the concertmaster could be seen bobbing her head. A selection from hit soundtrack Final Fantasy VII drew cheers.

In the encore, the choir thundered behind soloist Rio Hara, whose voice sounded like running a finger around the rim of a wineglass.

Four composers in the house introduced their pieces and lauded the experience. Duncan Watt told the orchestra, "You people are a composer's dream. Everything sounds so wonderful." (The admiration went both ways: in a pre-show reception a small crowd gathered, rapt, around Marino and fellow composer Jack Wall.)

Berklee's activity in the video game music field is only increasing. Film scoring major Nick Papadimitriou, excited for the show, was set to perform at the Game Audio Network Guild Awards in late March with his band. Video Game Club members are sharing their transcriptions of scores online, he said, "building the first video game music library."

A Grammy or an Oscar for Best Video Game Score? As the BPC audience came to its feet, widespread recognition seemed like only a matter of time.