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VGM Outside of It’s Original Context: Live Performances.

December 13, 2010

Being aware of the multitude of contextual, technical and creative issues that factor into the creation of video game music, and also bearing in mind why video game music exists in the first place and the functions it was originally created for, I think live performances of video game music are significant, for a number of reasons.

One of the reasons I think it’s significant is because it helps to bring a sense of legitimacy to the art form. Play! – A Video Game Symphony and Video Games Live are bringing video game music to concert halls all over the world. Not only does this imply that the music is of significant quality and appeal to be played by international orchestras but, perhaps more importantly, that there is an audience for video game music inside the concert hall.

Obviously hearing video game music in a concert hall is a vastly different context and experience from listening to it in its original context or even listening to the soundtrack in isolation. And in some ways they are worlds apart. If you compare the main demographic and environment for playing video games (a TV and a games console, for example) with that of the concert hall, it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that they are very different.

The very fact that the music is being played live, completely devoid from the reason it exists in the first place (the video game) changes the context completely; now it is not being judged on how well it fits the game, but purely on its merits as a piece of music and on the performance of it. It is quite important to mention, however, that the majority of people that go to see video game music being performed live are well aware of the music’s original context; indeed, it is because of this very reason that they are going to see a live performance of it in the first place.

Here is a video of a Video Games Live! Performance, containing orchestration of classic 8bit video game music:

Here they have used visuals from the games and timed certain cues to tie in with what’s happening on screen for a more dynamic listening experience. It also shows that a concert hall performance of video game music is a bit tongue-in-cheek and is maybe not as ‘serious’ as a standard classical music concert, which I think perfectly represents what video games are all about, they are after all, a form of popular entertainment and not ‘high-art’.

So it goes without saying that a live performance of some video game music is contextually going to be very different from someone that is aware of the source material (and from what it was taken from) to someone who doesn’t. For the latter, one can only amuse that they would approach the performance as they would of any other live performance of music they were not familiar with.

But it’s for the people that are familiar with the original games and music that these live performances become something remarkable. While it is happening more than it ever has, live performances of video game music, in the concert hall, are still somewhat of a rare and special occasion. To hear music so embedded in your consciousness (as video game music becomes due to the shear about of time people spend with these games) brought to life by an orchestra must be a wonderful experience. I’ve never been to an orchestral performance of video game music myself, but have seen videos and heard recordings, so I can get some sense of what it’s like.

While for the most part the original music is kept as is, for some pieces that were electronic originally, like much of the music from video game’s early history, will be adapted and arranged for the orchestra. But the arrangement will only usually go as far as transposing it for the orchestra, it will not have changed in a significant way, unlike in video game remixes, which I look at in another post.

While the concert hall is the main venue and outlet for big performances of video game music, there are also many small instances where video game music is being performed live. YouTube has literally thousands of videos of musicians performing video game music for ensembles and instruments that the original music was not originally written for.

Here is a performance of Morrowind’s main theme (and while there is no physical audience in the video, I would argue that it is still a performance. Of which 316,000 people have seen):

Obviously this is in a different context from the previous video, as we only have one performer in, presumably, their house, as opposed to an entire orchestra in a concert hall. But even so, the amount of views attests that people are interested, even in smaller performances of video game music, as well as they are for the full-on orchestral experience.

I think that any performance of video game music is significant, be it by a full orchestra or by a single musician. I think the fact that they are performing it at all is the most important thing. That people have taken the time to learn to play video game music and want to perform it, as well as having a ready audience for it, is significant to the genre of video game music. While in most types of music performances are taken for granted, video game music is an exception to this rule and I think any performances of it should be celebrated.

Another reason why live performances are significant is the fact that the original composers writing the music never considered or expected that there would ever be live performances of it. This raises the question of the suitability of this music in a performance setting. Which seems to be largely redundant, as such a vast amount of video game music is being performed live that it wouldn’t seem to be an issue.

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