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Guest Host: Mark McDonald
They’re the melodies behind the games many of us spend hundreds of hours playing. The musical arrangements behind video games like “Super Mario Bros” and “Halo” are burned into our memories in ways that few tunes are. We explore the place video game music occupies in our culture with a composer who writes for games, a classical conductor and local group of gamers who’ve formed their own symphony.
- Zoe DiGiorgio Vice President, The Gamer Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland
- Joel Guttman President, The Gamer Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland
- Susie Seiter Conductor, Orchestrator
- Chad Seiter Composer
Gamer Symphony Orchestra’s Super Mario World
Gamer Symphony Orchestra’s Halo
MR. MARK MCDONALDWelcome back. I'm Mark McDonald sitting in for Kojo on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" this afternoon. Some pop songs get so big they reach a degree of inescapability. If you were around any radio at any point say in 1996, you didn't have a choice in the matter. You were going to hear "The Macarena." I remember that. But there's a special group of melodies that may have quietly reached more ears than any other during the past 30 years, the music from video games.
MR. MARK MCDONALDIf you played the "Legend of Zelda" on Nintendo for hours at a time, you can probably still hum back its basic theme note for note. And the music from "Halo" may have reached as wide an audience as any pop song that climbed the charts in the X Box era. Video game music has evolved since the days of the 8-bit Nintendo to the point where accomplished classic composers now pull their energy into big ticket titles. But melodies like this one remain trapped into the collective conscious of gamers and non-gamers around the world.
MR. MARK MCDONALDJoel Guttman is the president of the Gamer Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland. He's with me in the studio. And Zoe DiGiorgio is the vice-president of the Gamer Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland as well. What on earth was that?
MR. JOEL GUTTMANIt's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. We are an orchestra of 120. We have a full chorus which is about 30 people. And we arrange and perform video game music and we perform in orchestral setting. And we've been around for seven-and-a-half years now.
MCDONALDSo that was an example of the sort of compositions that you guys do. And it's kind of like such a different kind of experience to any other music really certainly that we play on this station. Does it follow any particular formula or, you know, is it like Beethoven? It just comes from the soul.
MS. ZOE DIGIORGIOWell, all our songs are orchestrations of video game music so it wouldn't be as, you know, chippy and beepy as the Mario theme. Pattern-wise, I don't know, what would you say about that?
GUTTMANIt really varies because everything we do is an arrangement of what's been composed for a video game. And because video games really span so many genres, the music itself is incredibly diverse. So some of it very well could sound like Beethoven and some of it sounds like more contemporary. And there's everything else in between.
MCDONALDSo for video games these days -- I mean, I have to admit my experience is just a deeply irritating kind of thumping sound when my son plays one of his Leggo and Nintendo games on the computer. How do you actually make the transition from people like me who've got music videos in their heads and stuff from the '70s and '80s into, you know, getting me to like the kind of material that you guys are writing?
GUTTMANPretty much what we do is we just show people that it's not that different from what they're used to. That anyone can appreciate good music. And it doesn't really matter what the point of origin necessarily is. So we just take the best music that we can find from video games and put it out there. And people realize it's just as good as anything else. And it's not even that different.
MCDONALDSo say if you're writing a score for -- well, let's take an example. We aired on Sunday a broadcast of the Lean and Hungry Theater's production of Julius Caesar, and they had a specially composed score. You would look at a video game and compose around that?
DIGIORGIOYeah, video games like -- even now in the past several years, I guess I would say -- video games have totally stepped up their game musically. They don't just do kind of, you know, irritating background ditties. They are full orchestrations. So we have a lot to work with from that level, which is exciting. And we can add our own flair, mix in some different styles.
MCDONALDRight. So -- and mix in the different styles -- are your ideas formed from listening to particular genres of music?
GUTTMANIt really depends. The way the gamer symphony orchestra works is anybody can arrange, that you don't need to pass a certain test or be a certain tenure in the orchestra. That if you want to arrange a piece, you arrange it. And we then have what's called the music committee who makes sure, all right, this piece is in fact viable, that we can theoretically play this. But it's very much up to the individual arranger. And our arrangers are many in number and there are more that volunteer every semester.
MCDONALDIf you're excited by this new genre -- or as you two are telling me, not so new genre, you can call us at 800-433--8850, 800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. Don't forget we're on Facebook and Twitter. The Twitter handler's @kojoshow. With me, Zoe and Joel. So tell me about the orchestra and how it got going and how many people are involved.
GUTTMANWell, the orchestra was started in late 2004. The first performance was in spring 2005. So it's seven-and-a-half years old now. They started with half a dozen members and now it's 120 with a full chorus. So people have really flocked to the idea over the years and the performances have gone from a few dozen people in a room at the student union at Maryland to over 1,000 who pack into the largest concert hall at the university every semester.
MCDONALDAnd they're -- they're all students at the University of Maryland who are involved?
GUTTMANThe vast majority, that we are open to community members. We give preference to students but if we need a tuba player and there aren't any students who volunteer, if a graduate student or if somebody from the community gets wind of us, we're not going to turn them away as long as it's not taking away opportunities from students.
DIGIORGIOWe also have a strong alumni base which is really cool. And the alumni base has spun off into its own GSO. So we don't really have them as a resource this year but...
GUTTMANActually they spun off into two.
MCDONALDWe’ve got two people joining us from L.A.. Chad Seiter is a musical composer, arranger and director. And the orchestra will be performing one of his pieces at the fall concert on December the 7th at the Clarisse Smith Performing Arts Center. Hi, Chad.
MR. CHAD SEITERHi, Mark. How are you?
MCDONALDI'm good. And with you is Susie, right? Susie Seiter is a musical conductor and orchestrator. She'll be conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performance of the Legend of Zelda: The Symphony of the Goddesses on Thursday, November 21. Welcome to you, Susie.
MS. SUSIE SEITERThank you so much.
MCDONALDWhere do you sit into this format as musical composers and conductors?
SEITERWell, when, you know, you had played the original Super Mario Brothers theme, which I actually kind of considered to be one of the greatest compositions of all time, only because I feel like a melody is something that should kind of permeate your soul, you know, something that you'll always remember. And I think most people in the world probably know that theme by now. So what we wanted to do with Symphony of the Goddess is, we're huge Zelda fans and we wanted to bring those phenomenal melodies -- you know, we wanted to update them and bring them into the modern world.
SEITERAnd in doing that we thought in orchestra would be the best way to do it. I love the orchestra. It's a passion of mine. And to be able to take these wonderful melodies and present them in a cool modern way is -- it's so much fun.
MCDONALDSo describe musically when you say cool modern, what does that mean? Is it a particular combination of instruments or is it the usual instruments that we would expect to see in an orchestra?
SEITERIt's the usual instruments. I've kind of done little things to modify it to the way I kind of like it. We have -- you know, a standard classical orchestra has four French horns, we have six. A standard orchestra has one harp, we have two. The harp is a primary instrument in the Zelda video game mythology. And so we wanted to be able to do lots of interesting eclectic patterns and rhythms and melodies with the harp with it, which turned out really great. We have a 66-piece orchestra.
MCDONALDOkay And I was happy to see that Joel brought a trombone with him today. And we're going to ask him to play a little bit of it and let's kind of hear how this is going to sound.
MCDONALDFantastic. And as a struggling trombonist at college many years ago, I know how hard those instruments are.
MCDONALDSo describe that piece of music that you just played.
GUTTMANThat's sort of the main riff of the Legend of Zelda theme, that it appeared in , to my knowledge at least, every Legend of Zelda game that has ever actually been produced. So it is a very central melody of the series. And luckily the trombone is a good instrument to play it on, that it's a heroic fanfare. And it's become very iconic and it's really exciting. And I've had the opportunity to see Symphony of the Goddesses in the past. And it definitely appears multiple times throughout the concert.
MCDONALDChad, as the composer, what kind of conversations do you have with the orchestra? I mean, particularly thinking about the concert on December 7.
SEITERWell, I think when you talk to the orchestra, what's really important is that they have a good time playing the music. It kind of -- if they enjoy playing the music they play it better. And so when we go into it we kind of explain to them that -- how this music has really affected people's lives. It's really important to them. And in one small part, the feel of orchestral music has been decreasing over the years unfortunately. And we explain to them that this show is getting an entirely new audience. There are tons of people who have never seen an orchestra before who come to the show.
SEITERAnd that's one of the most wonderful things about this project is it's -- because orchestras are struggling around the world. And it's hard to sell tickets because it's also for a younger generation, a very intimidating place to be. And...
MCDONALDBut -- I'm sorry, go ahead, Susie.
SEITEROh, it's just an intimidating place to be. People don't -- young people don't buy tickets to go see Mauler and Beethoven. And so this project, because of the approachability of it, is bringing new audiences into the concert hall. And, you know, it's fun. You can cheer and it's stimulating music too.
MCDONALDBut you've got the...
SEITERThe orchestra loves it.
MCDONALDIt was just -- that was exactly what I was going to Susie. You've got the BSO there who are used to playing Mahler and Beethoven, how do the musicians receive it?
SEITERYou know, I think that they are skeptical at first. Baltimore Symphony is actually my hometown symphony that I grew up listening to when I was a kid, because I grew up studying classical music, and I went to the Meyerhoff and sat in the audience at the BSO, and so I think they're skeptical at first because they're not familiar with it, and they're not familiar with the content. Some of them might have kids that play the game, you know, but the game has been around for, you know, almost 30 years.
SEITERAnd I think once they do play it though, and it's -- like I said, it's stimulating and it's beautiful, I think they really come around to it, and they also love seeing, you know, people in their teens and twenties, you know, coming in costume and cheering at an orchestral concert. They feel like rock stars.
MCDONALDAnd do they then go home, and does it encourage them to play the game?
SEITERYou know, I don't know if it encourages them to play the game, but it definitely opens up a dialogue among generations.
MCDONALDYou're -- we're talking about musical scores for video games and the effect that they're having in transforming orchestral concerts among other things, and you can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850, or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's take a call from Terrence in Germantown. Terrence, you're on the air. Terrence, are you there?
MCDONALDHi, what's your point?
TERRENCEYes. I'm sort of an old schooler. I grew up pretty much with this music back in the late 1980s, early 1990s back on the Nintendo system. And there was something -- and I was a big fan. I was actually part of the online community, and there was a big schism, I think, that took place right around 2000 between, I guess, people like me who sort of grew up appreciating sort of the old masters who were working with cartridges and synthesizers and sort of the newer guys, the guys who were using CD-ROMs to create -- and these newfangled video game systems to create music that sounded more conventional, something more appropriate for Hollywood, and frankly, stuff that probably was better suited for a symphony than the old music which wasn't really meant to be in symphonic.
TERRENCEIt was really sort of meant to come from a cartridge. So I've always sort of wondered how people felt about hearing -- if they preferred hearing old music sort of given symphonic arrangements, and hearing conventional video game music as opposed to say old school video game music that was sort of more intentionally more electronic, more synthesized.
MCDONALDChad, do you want to take a stab at that?
SEITERWell, I definitely think that the old synthesized music is much more nostalgic, but to that I always say it's kind of like the standard complaint that people get it's just they don't make it like they used to. Times have just changed and evolved and people have done new things as the technologies have grown, but I don't think that diminishes the past. If anything, I think back on it with reverence as the birth of modern game scoring and current video game trends. Everything's based on what cam previous to it.
TERRENCEI do have another question actually.
TERRENCEI was going to ask if symphonically if you prefer doing sort of the newer music, or if you just -- or if you sort of prefer sort of rearranging sort the old electronic music.
SEITERWell, as a composer, I like writing new music quite a lot, but as an arranger, I think that there's nothing better than the old school video games. That's actually how I got interested in writing music to begin with because there's just -- there's infinite possibilities. Those things were never actual sounds. They never emulated real sounds and so it's like putting together a tiny puzzle for me, lots of cool little things I can do to come up with interesting new ways to tell the same story musically.
GUTTMANWe've actually noticed something with our arrangers. When people want to arrange a more modern piece, it's usually a relatively direct transcription that it's a fleshed out piece that you know what goes where and it's -- I don't want to say simpler, but it's more straightforward, whereas we've seen with our arrangers when they want to redo a more classic game piece, they end up with something much more creative because back then technologically they were only able to get three or however many tones out at a time.
GUTTMANSo in order to make it fit for an orchestra, they have to flesh it out and that's where new ideas are able to come in and they're able to create something really new and different.
MCDONALDGreat call. Thanks so much. Let's go to Matt in Reston. Matt, you're on the air.
MATTHi. Can you hear me, Mark?
MCDONALDYes. We can hear you.
MATTOkay, great. Thanks for taking my call.
GUTTMANAnyway, just a few comments and a question. I'm kind of a lifelong gamer too, and lover of music, you know. So I grew up on the classics like NES games like Zelda, Mario, Final Fantasy. Actually, when you played that trombone, you know, just all these -- evokes a lot of feelings of nostalgia riding Epona across the fields, all that stuff. But, you know, just as a reference, my cell phone ringtone is "Frog's Theme" from Chrono Trigger.
MCDONALDThat's a good one.
MATTBut anyway, I'm really hoping to see again "Symphony of the Goddesses" at some point, so thanks for bringing that to us. But I guess my question is kind of about, you know, main stream success and the broad appeal of this kind of music because, you know, obviously in the last few years, the Journey soundtrack, you know, was nominated for a Grammy. I think Civilization 4 actually won one. Do you see kind of positive trends in that even bridging kind of the niche of like the videogame culture or symphonic culture, and then kind of maybe even -- even more broad stream appeal and what can be done for that, and how would you -- or are you doing certain things like that.
MATTAnd -- and then, just quickly, I guess, what's your favorite videogame soundtrack?
MCDONALDLet's hear from Zoe first.
DIGIORGIOAll right. What's interesting is, a couple years ago GSO got the amazing opportunity to perform at the Smithsonian for the Art of Videogames exhibit, and for us it was a really interesting experience because it was kind of almost like a rock star moment. We -- like videogame music had made it. It's becoming accepted as an art form. So as far as mass appeal goes, I think that almost symbolizes the legitimacy of videogame music as an art form because you have the nostalgia appeal, you have the gamer appeal, but then you also have people who come to our concerts like parents who are just, you know, they listen to this piece and they're like, that's really cool, you guys did a good job.
DIGIORGIOSo there's a lot of reasons people get into this, and I think that the legitimacy gaming is gaining is causing a lot of people to come into the music in their own way.
MCDONALDChad and Susie, do you have the experience of attracting, you know, sort of old Neanderthals like myself into the music?
SEITERActually, I remember I think it was our opening year in 2012, there was an Easter weekend concert in Colorado and, you know, and there were generations that came. There were grandparents, parents and children that came to the "Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses." And they all came together for different reasons. You know, the grandparents and parents were probably subscription holders to the Colorado symphony, and the children had never been to a symphony.
SEITERSo for three generations to be able to come together into a concert hall and enjoy, you know, really interesting music, is really why we do it. You know, and I think it's why all composers -- all film composers and videogame composers do this.
MCDONALDThanks. We're going to carry on this conversation in a moment. We have Joel Guttman who's the president of the Gamer Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland and Zoe DiGiorgio the vice president at the Gamer Symphony Orchestra. They're in the studio with me. Chad Seiter, a composer, arranger, and director is from a studio in L.A. with Susie Seiter, musical conductor and orchestrator. You can join the conversation by calling -- where's the phone number? 800-433-8850, or email us at email@example.com. We'll be back in just a moment.
MCDONALDWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5. I'm Mark McDonald sitting in for Kojo today. With me talking video game music is Joel Guttman the president of the Gamer Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland, Zoe DiGiorgio the vice president, Chad Seiter, a composer, arranger, and director, and Susie Seiter, musical conductor and orchestrator. She'll be conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performance of the "Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses" on Thursday, November the 21st.
MCDONALDWe're going to take a couple more calls for everybody. First of all, here's Jake in Annapolis. Jake, you're on the air.
JAKEHey, Mark, how's it going?
MCDONALDIt's going well. How are you?
JAKEDoing well. Doing well. So, you know, I'm -- I'm someone who is sort of getting into, you know, shifting from adolescence into sort of young adulthood, and I don't play nearly as many video games as I used to, but one of the video game sort of franchise that I always come back to when there's a new one that comes out is "The Legend of Zelda." And one of the key pieces, you know, that I get most excited about is the really great use of sort of recurring musical themes throughout sort of the history of the game franchise.
JAKEAnd, you know, I can think of latest game that came out, you know, some of the beautiful orchestration that was put together elicited sort of surprisingly emotional responses in me. I found myself sort of maybe ashamed to say it, a couple times sort of almost near tears having some of these themes that I've heard over, you know, three or four different video games sort of evolved through a musical time into these beautiful pieces.
JAKEAnd so, you know, generally for the folks at the University of Maryland, and then more specifically with the "Symphony of Goddesses," I'd just like to hear folks thoughts on the audience's sort of emotional response to the orchestration and sort of the hearing of these themes in different and new ways, and sort of calling up the nostalgic aspect and that sort of thing.
MCDONALDI think it's real brave of you to share that. Thank you very much. Let's get some response to that.
MCDONALDZoe, ladies first.
DIGIORGIOOh, thank you. The nostalgia is kind of why I got into GSO because I don't have that much musical experience personally, but they have the chorus, and I figure I could, you know, croak out a couple notes. But yeah. I saw what the GSO did before I joined and just -- they did some of my favorite songs. They did "Hikari" from "Kingdom Hearts," and that's just -- hearing it just made me feel so astounded that this is something that I could do.
DIGIORGIOThis was something I could be a part of, and that definitely I think is motivating a lot of people, especially when we do some of the older songs in our repertoire.
GUTTMANOne thing, I don't know if I mentioned it earlier, but out of 120 people in our ensemble, about five of them are music majors and that's it. People really come from all over and they flock to it because of the emotions, and even for people in the audience, it's similar to the emotions you might relate with a movie score or a movie soundtrack, but whereas you're passively watching a movie for about two hours, you're actively involved in a video game or multiples of that time.
GUTTMANSo the music becomes much more engrained in your memory and you develop these types of emotional connections with these pieces. So you can be sitting next to someone in the concert hall when we start playing this piece that you know, you'll look over to them and you'll lock eyes, and even though you've never met them before, you've never spoken with them, you know you have that share experience, that connection with the music.
MCDONALDRight. Jake, thanks for your call. I want to get in a little clip here, because we haven't heard much of the music, but this is about the technology behind the games. This has evolved to the point where players hear music that's every bit the same quality as an orchestral arrangement. And I want to take a listen to the music that Chad wrote for the newest Star Trek game with the Maryland Gamer Orchestra is going to play at their fall concert in a few weeks.
MCDONALDAnd Chad, Joel tells me that's not the piece that they'll be playing.
SEITERNo, that's not, although...
MCDONALDIt sure sounds good.
GUTTMANIt's still a good piece.
SEITERI'm very proud of the score. No. We're going to be doing a piece from "Final Fantasy VI." It was actually funny though, we recorded that at the same -- I did an arrangement of "Terra's Theme" from Final Fantasy VI, and we recorded that at the Star Trek recording sessions in Slovakia. It was recorded with a 120-piece orchestra which is one of the largest recorded ensembles in video game history which was very exciting to both Susie and I to work with. It's a rarity.
MCDONALDWhere does this go from here? I mean, we've heard all about the Gamer Symphony Orchestra. What's the rest of the scene like in terms of gamer orchestras around the country?
GUTTMANActually, that's one of our big points of pride that -- the way I got involved, the GSO has been around for seven-and-a-half years. I'm currently a senior at Maryland. I've been there that entire time. When I as a junior in high school, I saw a GSO concert and it led to several of my friends and I co-founding a GSO at our high school. So what I've been doing since I got to Maryland, I've made a big push for expansion, so including my own high school, we have now aided in the creation of ten other orchestras actually at the high school, community, and collegiate levels.
GUTTMANSo really we've become established in Maryland, and the next stage for us is helping other achieve that same success.
MCDONALDAre there other states, other big universities who are at your level?
GUTTMANUniversity of Delaware.
GUTTMANThe two community ones are the Baltimore Gamer Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Metropolitan Gamer Symphony Orchestra. Those are the alumni that we talked about who have sort of spun off and made their own thing.
MCDONALDGuys, thank you so much. It's been a really lively conversation. Chad Seiter over in L.A., composer, arranger and director, and Susie Seiter, musical conductor and orchestrator. In the studio here, Joel Guttman, the president of the Gamer Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland and Zoe DiGiorgio the vice president. Thank you all so much for joining us today.
GUTTMANThank you for having us.
SEITERThanks for having us.
MCDONALDAnd thanks for being a companion listener with me today on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I think Marc Fisher will be presenting the show tomorrow. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney and Kathy Goldgeier with assistance from Elizabeth Weinstein and Stephannie Stokes. The managing producer is Brendan Sweeney. The engineer today has been Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones.
MCDONALDPodcasts of all our shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts, are available at our website as ever, the address is kojoshow.org. And you can also see there some of those wonderful pictures from the yoga exhibition that's currently showing that we talked about earlier. We encourage you to share questions or comments with us always. Not just while the show is on, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, by joining us on Facebook, or by tweeting @kojoshow. I'm Mark McDonald sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" today. Thank you so much for listening.
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