All Consuming Music: New Applications of a Classic Profession

All Consuming Music: New Applications of a Classic Profession

Rebecca Winzenried
Photo by Molly Sheridan
Location courtesy the Oliverius Game Room

One of the hottest tickets to be had in the symphonic music world this year was for a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert of music by an obscure Japanese composer. Obscure, at least, by American standards, although fans of Nobuo Uematsu who flocked to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in May to hear a concert of his music from the Final Fantasy video game series have followed the composer’s work for years and had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to hear it played live. Tickets sold out within hours and some inevitably found their way to eBay, where at least one buyer reported purchasing a pair for $500.

Like hard-core fans everywhere, the Final Fantasy audience members were already well acquainted with the music, having lived it, breathed it in, through endless repetition while playing the Final Fantasy games. There are currently 11 games in the series, which was first introduced in 1987. But what’s notable here is how Final Fantasy made gamers fall in love with the music. Their demand for more sounds from Final Fantasy spawned sales of game soundtrack CDs and even sheet music; an estimated 48 million people own a Final Fantasy title and several concerts of the music have been performed in Japan over the past decade. No wonder that the composer himself was a little underwhelmed at the prospect of hearing his work performed by the LA Phil in the orchestra’s shiny, new concert hall, telling The New York Times, “just because it’s being played by an orchestra does not mean it that it surpasses any other form of music.”

So why should we care about a concert of what might be more readily equated with imported pop/movie music? Because as the magnitude of the Final Fantasy concert sellout demonstrates, video game music has quietly staked out territory in the hearts of U.S. consumers. There’s also been a seismic shift in the quality of game music. As the onscreen action has gotten better—thanks to ever-more-sophisticated electronics—so too has the audio capacity. Over the past couple of years, synthesized soundtracks have been replaced with fully orchestrated scores, recorded by orchestras with 80 to 100 or more players. These trends have spawned some interesting new opportunities for composers. Music from Christopher Lennertz‘s score for Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (often described as John Williams-esque) was performed last summer by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra as part of the GC Games Convention Concert at the Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig Germany, the first such concert in Europe. Lennertz, 32, has been kicking around Hollywood as a film and television composer for some time, but he credits the game soundtrack with providing him with an opportunity to write for a large orchestra. Rising Sun was recorded in Hollywood with a group of 88 musicians and in Prague with a choir of 32 voices—something only more established, older composers typically would have the chance to do.

Andy Brick conducting the Czech National Symphony Orchestra at the GC Games Convention Concert in Leipzig.

That thought rings true with many young composers, whether they are working in filmdom or in concert music. In any given year, how many will have the chance to hear a fully orchestrated performance of their work, much less the chance to conduct it themselves, as Lennertz did for the Rising Sun soundtrack?

In the realm of game music, producers are willing to invest ever-increasing amounts in compositions and recording sessions because they are perceived as adding such significant value to the end product. Players are starting to expect “real” recorded music from video games; they say a good score enhances the experience in the same way a well-crafted film score heightens the action on screen. Video games sales now top $10 billion annually in this country alone and the average game soundtrack budget has risen accordingly, from $50,000 three years ago to $150,000 today. At a panel session dubbed “The Art and Business of Music for Videogames,” presented during the Global Entertainment and Media Summit earlier this year in Los Angeles, Steve Zuckerman, GEMS executive producer, noted the impact games are having on the entertainment industry and asked “how are emerging artists and established composers taking advantage of this huge marketplace?”

How indeed. One way to take advantage of the market might be to push the boundaries of the music and its performance. Andy Brick, a game composer who conducted the first GC- Games Convention Concert in 2003, and who will reprise his role at the second concert this month in Leipzig, sees a real need for better-trained composers in this industry. He points out that producers have expressed concern that many game composers, accustomed to working solo with MIDI, do not have the skills necessary to orchestrate their music properly.


Brick has addressed the problem head-on by serving as music director of the Merregnon project. There actually isn’t a game component at the heart of this venture despite its fantasy entertainment-sounding title. Organized by producer Thomas Boecker, a fictional storyline was created solely as the foundation of a CD recording relying on the kinds of imagery popular in the game world—which is to say it’s heavy on Lord of the Rings-style themes and travels through misty, dragon-filled landscapes. The project was designed to boost the skills of young composers who have never dealt with a live orchestra.

For the Merregnon 2 recording, released in July, Brick and Boecker spent time working with a group of composers, most under 30, on the nuts and bolts of composing for real-life musicians, not computer. They came face-to-face with such realizations as—humans have to breathe. “Sounds strange,” says Boecker, “but if you are working with samples for a trumpet, you actually would not really have to think much about: how long could a real player do this without getting too exhausted, or simply when would he/she have to breathe?”

The goal is to make sure composers will be equipped to handle the next assignment that involves writing a score for an 80-plus piece orchestra. Fixing things in the recording studio, where time literally is money, is not an option. It becomes easy, then, to see how composers with more traditional classical training, who already know when a horn player might need a rest or what instruments might be doubled to add more color, can have an advantage. Not to mention that a composer who already has the basic skills in hand, and has the chance to explore new instrumentation or toss in a classical reference or two, can add complexity to a score. The grandmaster of game composition, Uematsu, became popular because of his free adoption, and adaptation, of music from any number of genres—from classical motifs to electronica. The resulting quirky, hodgepodge brew became a hallmark of the Japanese game sound.

Game developers have circumvented orchestration problems by turning to film composers, many of whom have conservatory backgrounds or who, like Juilliard-trained Laura Karpman, split their time between composing for concert hall and commercial projects. Karpman has been commissioned to write works for the American Composers Orchestra, New York Youth Symphony, and Los Angeles Opera. She also wrote the score for the soon-to-be-released Everquest II game, which will be featured in the GC Games concert this month.

Karpman, too, relished the chance to work with a large orchestra; the Everquest score was recorded with an 85-piece orchestra, double the size of the largest group she’d worked with on any film project. Even more, Karpman was given free reign to take the music in whatever direction she felt appropriate, using basic scenarios outlined by the game developers. Mid-20th century composers served as inspiration. To express the idea of “Babylonian Fascism” for one, she turned to the works of Shostakovich, Britten, and Stockhausen.

But the composer also discovered that games are more complicated projects than one might imagine. Forget creating a linear structure. Musical sequences can go in any number of different directions, depending upon how the play progresses. An online game like Everquest is particular fluid, as it unfolds without any set time restrictions. In more traditional video games, musical sequences can be heard over and over again if a player gets stuck on a certain sequence.

Heard. And heard. And heard. If you accept the idea that listeners become more comfortable with new music through repeated hearings, games are a bona fide way to leave a lasting impression. Ponder this: one study of college students found that 66 percent could hum the Super Mario Brothers theme, even through they hadn’t played the game since its heyday in the 1980s. Hours spent following the antics of Mario and Luigi imprinted the music on their brains, in the same way earlier generations were imprinted with Top 40 songs.

Those same college students didn’t have a clue who composed the Super Mario Brothers tracks (that would be Koji Kondo, whose work has also been played in Japanese game music concerts). The new wave of gamers (average age 28) aren’t only able to name their favorite composers, they follow the latest soundtracks releases with fervor, facilitated by the simultaneous release of games and their soundtracks. A study last year by the marketing firm ElectricArtists found that 40 percent of video game consumers between ages 13-42 had bought a soundtrack after hearing the music in a game.

The only questions right now are about the preferred delivery system for that music: CD, iPod, computer, cell phones. The latter are rapidly lining up as all-purpose information conduits, with options including delivery of digital music files. In the meantime, there are ringtones. As we’re all too acutely aware, declaring your interest and/or musical tastes to the world through the few simple notes of a cell phone ring has become a major priority. Sales of downloadable ringtones already constitute a market that’s projected to top $4.5 billion worldwide this year, and a recently launched U.K. chart tracks the most of-the-moment selections.


Chart toppers tend toward pop tunes, movie and TV themes (Danny Elfman‘s The Simpsons theme has been a fav). Classical music fans have their ringtone choices, too — provided the tune is something by a long-dead white guy by the name of Bach or Vivaldi. A fairly substantial web search for classical music ringtones turned up one option from the past 20 years—Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Millennium Fantasy 2000—along with a blogger who has posted edited, ringtone-length downloads of the Philip Glass works Modern Love Waltz and Music In Similar Motion.

Apparently part of the problem lies with the complexity, or simplicity, of the music itself. A successful ringtone needs to be instantly recognizable and have an infectious hook. Beethoven’s Fifth works; Glass and company may be a little too subtle to get our attention on a busy street corner. Composer Jean Hasse recognized those limitations when she began composing for the cell phone as musical instrument in 2001. The Oberlin-trained composer has carved out a singular niche for herself by writing hundreds of 20-second ringtones to reflect different moods and attitudes. The elliptical, jazzy little tunes, with names like “Ouch,” “Get Out of Bed,” and “Wait for Me,” don’t sound anything like typical ringtones, yet they don’t sound as if they could be anything else, either. Like any dedicated composer, Hasse has figured out the quirks and character of her instrument: She knows where to place a pause for best effect; she’s learned that cell phones will raise the pitch of a melody and that tempos can go astray. Hasse has gotten so into the process that she wrote a suite for mobile phones, premiered in 2002 by Royal Academy of Music students using 10 mobile phones.

“Ring tones are not high art,” she told the BBC. “I’m just trying to share my music with people.” Indeed, ringtones aren’t her life. Hasse’s solo and chamber works have been performed at Tanglewood, Carnegie Hall, and the Hollywood Bowl. But she has also created sound logos for websites and music for audio books.


She’s just one of the composers out there who are exploring the everyday music of life in the 21st century, those little tunes that invade our brains. Like the five-note signature used in ads to signal that a computer has “Intel Inside,” which is probably bopping around in your brain already, just from the mention of it. You can thank German composer Walter Werzowa, who created the Intel signature in 1994, setting off a craze for corporate audio “logos.” The three-second Intel signature blends a number of sounds, including tambourine and anvil for the opening “clink” alone. Werzowa’s firm Musikverguegen has gone on to create audio branding logos for Nokia, CNN, HBO and others.

Taking that concept even one step further, electronic musicians like Bevin Kelley (a.k.a. Blevin Blectum) spend their days exploring ways to recreate the sound of gurgling water or the swish of leaves. Kelley’s specializes in sound design for electronic toys, reveling in the minimalist audio and often low-fidelity equipment she has to work with. Pick up a Fisher-Price talking book and you might just hear her work. On any given day, Kelley might be asked to come up with a way to make a dog express human emotion, while still making it sound dog-like, or to create the sound of “a crocodile eating a smushy banana.” The daily challenges of recreating life-like sounds is good mental exercise, she says, and the results often bleed over into Kelley’s own sample-happy audio projects.

Such sounds are everywhere, so embedded in our routines that we don’t even notice them much of the time. The tones that greet me as I startup and navigate around the Macintosh computer come courtesy of San Francisco sound-design firm Earwax. Co-founder Jim McKee was responsible for creating all the clicks, saves, and assorted sounds of the Mac’s operating system. On the Microsoft side, Brian Eno contributed the ubiquitous startup sound packaged with the Windows 95 operating system, a 3.25-second, slightly otherworldly arpeggio that fades to nothingness.

Do those little musical marks constitute compositions? McKee and crew at Earwax Productions, who work from the premise that sound design is composition, would argue yes, if perhaps in a different way than the film scoring work they’ve done or the musical environments they have created for museum installations. That clicking sound a Mac makes while scrolling down a menu isn’t necessary to the application, but it gives users a sense of place and helps them navigate more easily, taking the place of running a finger down the page. Like a custom ringtone, it’s a humanizing musical component that eases our way in an electronics-driven world, making the journey a more pleasant experience. At the very least, perhaps they’ll serve as an introduction for listeners who have never heard a composer’s work. Hasse cheerfully admits that ringtones are a “weird and wonderful” way to present original new music to perfect strangers. “I can carry around my phone and play them a tune—anywhere in the world.”

For the composers who create them, such out-of-the-box musical explorations are also a means to an end beyond a paycheck—a way to look at composition from a fresh new angle, practice their craft, and fit their music into everyday life. As the inevitable consumers of the aforementioned entertainment and electronics, why shouldn’t we apply standards similar to those we apply to the art we appreciate if the talent and budget are available to support it?

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.