8-bit Bach: There’s more to video game music than bleeps and blops

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Composer Christopher Larkin is aware that some people still assume video game music is an assortment of bleeps, bloops and blops – 8-bit electronic sounds that serve only as background noise to the game itself.

Yet for decades now video game music, from Zelda to Mario, has proven itself fit for the stage. Later this month, Larkin’s own work, alongside five other Australian and international composers, will be performed by Orchestra Victoria at Hamer Hall. The first concert in Melbourne to present independently developed video game music at a symphonic orchestral scale, Indie Symphony’s 60-plus musicians and singers will bring eight beloved game scores to life.

Composer Christopher Larkin says video games are popularising classical music among younger audiences. Credit: Ben Searcy

Larkin, who created the music for Australian 2D action-adventure game Hollow Knight, says it’s not just classical music finding its way into digital worlds. “You have games like Ape Out scored by an interactive drum kit, big band jazz in Cuphead, and an interactive musical in Stray Gods.”

Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical was only released last month, yet its track Adrift (created by Colorado composer Austin Wintory, best known for creating the score for Journey and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate) already has over 156,000 views on YouTube.

“There’s a story behind the music, and we all love a good story,” Larkin says. “But there’s also something more personal. When a particular piece of music starts playing, it marks the player’s own discovery of a place or thing in the game. So, when they hear that music later, their own memory and imagination, alongside the game’s world and narrative, is felt again.”

Adelaide-based Larkin has over 546,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, with his track Dirtmouth claiming over 15 million streams.

“Games are now accepted as a major form of entertainment alongside film, some might say even above it due to the fact that it’s interactive and the immersion that comes with that,” Larkin says.

Orchestra Victoria’s artistic planning and engagement manager, Elise Lerpiniere, says game music is a natural extension of the orchestra’s 50-year history of performing narrative art forms like opera and ballet.

The concert will feature music from independent games such as Journey, Hollow Knight, Celeste and Necrobarista. Lena Raine, an American-Canadian composer who created the soundtrack for the platform game Celeste, says these concerts demonstrate to those who may not play video games how diverse and sophisticated video game music is.

Lena Raine performing her video game music live in Vancouver in 2019.

Meena Shamaly, a composer and presenter on ABC Classic radio who will present Indie Symphony, agrees.

“We used to think that sophisticated music, aka classical music, was music made without electronic technology, forgetting that the term technology just describes any sort of advancement in tools. For example, the piano was a technological advancement on the harpsichord,” Shamaly says.

“It’s all part of the continuum of classical music … You could draw a straight line from Bach to Cardi B.”

Earlier games did draw directly from classical music. Nintendo’s Tetris features an electronic arrangement of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, while music in Donkey Kong 64 was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue In D Minor.

Shamaly believes many electronic video game scores – from the themes of ’80s classics like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy to pieces featured in Indie Symphony – lend themselves to orchestral arrangements because they’ve been well-conceived at their core.

For many gamers, Indie Symphony – which was arranged by Jessica Wells and Austin Wintory, and will be conducted by Vanessa Scammell – may be their first encounter with live orchestral music, and for many non-gamers it may be an introduction to the artistry behind gaming scores. Lerpiniere says she would be delighted to see the event travel to other parts of Australia after Melbourne, but no concrete plans have been set.

“To see firsthand the making of music by a live orchestra – with one’s own eyes and ears – it’s a great thing,” Larkin says. “Video game music is a great entry point.”

Indie Symphony: Video Games in Concert will take place at Hamer Hall, Melbourne on September 8. Tickets are available here.

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