Video Games Live: Symphonic Video Games Come to the Capitol

There are plenty of ways to get your fix of video game music these days. You can find midis online if you want to get an authentic feel, or you could download one of the many songs available from OCRemix. If you want to go the live route, you could check out a band like the Minibosses or the Neskimos (if you’re lucky enough to live near a show) and get a dose of rock-flavored video game music.

But there is another option. There’s a way you can get the authenticity of a midi file with the sheer power and awesomeness of a live performance. And, luckily, this show tours in more than thirty cities in the US and around the world.

Of course I’m talking about Video Games Live, and the show just happened to roll through Washington, D.C. this past weekend. This is the first time a video game music concert of this caliber has come through the capitol, and it wasn’t a show to miss.

I even managed to sit down with the creators of Video Games Live, Jack Wall and Tommy Tallarico, to learn more about their music and their concert. Wall is probably most famous for his work on Myst III and the upcoming Mass Effect. Tallarico should need no introduction for his work on Earthworm Jim, Metroid Prime and Advent Rising, among many others.

So what is this Video Games Live thing all about? “The real message of Video Games Live is this: It’s not just for gamers,” says Tommy. “This is the opportunity to show them how artistic and culturally significant video games have become.” That’s easy to believe hearing the thousands in attendance at the Kennedy Center erupt into applause when Koji Kondo, creator of the music for the Super Mario and Zelda franchises, appears on screen to introduce one of his scores.

But just how culturally relevant is it really? We all know that the market to be in for video game scores is in Japan, at least as far as album sales go. But according to Tallarico, “No one’s selling albums right now.” “It’s all about downloads,” says Wall, “it’s all about sharing of music.”

This attitude is reflected in the Video Games Live performance as well. In between the hooded druid chorus singing Warcraft and the Italian opera of Advent Rising, for instance, Martin Leung, made famous through the video sharing service YouTube, performed an amazing medley of Final Fantasy music. Members of game music remixing site OCRemix were even on hand to give out prizes.

The fact that sites like OCRemix exist attests to the sheer popularity of video game music as a genre. “What I find amazing about that is that people like to compare the video game industry to the film industry,” says Tallarico. He asks, “How many websites are there where they remix movie music and there’s thousands of downloads available?”

The movie industry is the perfect watermark (for now) for the video game industry. They are both entertainment mediums and they both require huge sums of money to produce. They also both spend a large portion of their budget on quality original music. In fact, film music just happens to be the largest influence on Jack Wall and Tommy Tallarico.

“I think film music is a big influence on me,” says Wall. “Mozart’s fortieth symphony is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. I love how all that stuff has influenced modern film music and now game music.” Likewise, Tallarico has been touched by classical and film music. “Beethoven and John Williams are my two biggest influences,” he says.

The classical influence is evident when his score for Advent Rising played on Saturday night. The main theme was originally conceived as an Italian opera in three parts. Hearing it performed by the National Symphony Orchestra drives home the fact that this is as respectable a piece of music – if not more so – as anything currently being produced in Hollywood.

The night’s best song had to be the montage they created for the Steven Spielberg–produced Medal of Honor series. The music is reminiscent of many war movies, but instead of the standard screen shots used for the other game compositions Wall and Tallarico decided to collaborate with the History Channel to produce one of the most powerful World War II montages I’ve ever seen. It takes guts to replace game footage with historical film footage, but the effect was more moving than any one medium alone.

Aside from film scores and classical music, these two powerhouses of western video game music can credit many other artists to their influences. “I also have deep classical rock roots with my cousin being Steven Tyler [nee Tallarico] from Aerosmith,” says Tommy Tallarico. “I grew up listening to Aerosmith, Van Halen, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin,” he says.

Jack Wall also has roots in classical rock. In fact, before he began to write scores for video games he worked on movies with Velvet Underground founding member John Cale. “I think I’m a fan of what they did to music,” he says. “The Velvet Underground was one of those bands that basically sold 100 records, but those 100 records went to the right 100 people. Working with John and watching him work as a musician changed my life as a composer. I wasn’t even a composer before I started working with him.” (This is from the guy on stage conducting the National Symphony Orchestra!)

Working with world-famous musicians may have changed his perspective on creating music, but it was the game Myst that finally pulled Wall into composing for games. “I played the game and was blown away, and I realized video games are going to be something soon,” says Wall. From that experience, of course, he went on to score Myst III and Myst IV.

Both Tallarico and Wall have worked extensively on sequels and licensed works like Spider-Man, Evil Dead, James Bond and Unreal II, to name a few. So how is it working with compositions created by someone else? “I love it,” says Tallarico. With regard to Bond, Tallarico says, “When I worked on the Bond series, I said ‘I’ll only work on it if I can use that theme. I don’t want to have to create a whole new theme for James Bond. I’m not interested in taking the project.’ Same thing when I did Jaws.”

This philosophy is evident in the show as well. Classics like Zelda, Super Mario and Sonic were performed while montages of the many incarnations of the game were projected onto the overhead screen. Seeing Link or Mario in their humble 8-bit beginnings drives home how far we’ve come graphically in the past twenty years, while the music never seems to age or grow dull.

Tallarico goes on to say, “It’s funny, because when you get a title like Beavis and Butthead or when I did Earthworm Jim, the whole idea was to have as much fun as possible. When you work on titles like Earthworm Jim,” he says “it’s like ‘Hey! Let’s write a banjo tune’ because why not? Because no one’s ever done it before.”

And that’s exactly the attitude that brought Video Games Live about. Gamers have always known how important the music is to the game, and thanks to Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, a lot of people’s eyes are being opened. “The best letters that we get after a show are from non-gamers,” says Tallarico. “We created this concert to educate those people who aren’t the hardcore gamers,” he says.

Video Games Live will be stopping in the Houston area for the weekend of July 13 and 14 and tickets are still available. If you have tickets to Blizzcon this August, you will also get a chance to see the show. Check out their website for more information about their tour dates.