Local Guys Make Good With Video Game Orchestra

Hmm. Video game soundtracks have always been a hit and miss kind of affair to me.  While iconic tunes from the Mario games and the recent trip-inducing numbers from Space Invaders Extreme 2 are really cool (in my book), on the other hand, RPG soundtracks are a major factor in my dislike for the genre as a whole. Listening to them while playing a RPG game puts me to sleep if all the constant talking hasn’t done its work.

So when a friend of mine mentioned that Play! A Video Game Symphony is coming to Singapore this June, I actually dismissed the idea of watching it, knowing full well I would doze off. However, there’s another video games orchestra making its rounds, going by the name of Video Game Orchestra (could have named it better) and interesting enough, it’s co-produced by a couple of Malaysians.

The Star newspaper carried an article about them and the orchestra last Sunday. The group’s Facebook profile carries their repertoire, and while it’s smaller than Play!, it features Final Fantasy soundtracks prominently. This is reason to watch for many, and even though those soundtracks aren’t exactly my favourite, I would be curious to see them in action if they would be performing here in KL (likewise with Play!).

Here’s the article from The Star:

Two Malaysian men are part of a unique orchestra that is making waves in American classical music circles. A FEW weeks ago, a pair of talented young Malaysians made history on the other side of the world. Performing to packed halls in Boston, Massachusetts, KL boys Simon Lee, 24, and Yoa Kian How, 23, are making a name for themselves as co-producers of the Video Game Orchestra (VGO).

This unique configuration of musicians – comprising a 45-piece orchestra, a 40-member choir, and a five-piece rock band with performers from more than 20 countries! – is fast making a name for itself in the United States through a series of concerts featuring video game music.

It may sound like a zany idea, but it has gone down a treat, and it remains to be seen how far the VGO can go. A few days after the concert, I quizzed Lee and Yoa via e-mail about their future plans for their current venture.

The pair have been involved in music almost their entire lives, having begun lessons even before starting primary school here. Multi-instrumentalist Lee graduated from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music recently and is now a freelance performer, writer, producer, and teacher in the city. Yoa, who focuses on guitar, is currently in his eight semester at Berklee, double majoring in Film Scoring and Music Synthesis.

The pair were enthusiastic about this project that is the brainchild of their friend, Shota Nakama, a Japanese musician who had attended Berklee alongside them. Lee had worked with Nakama in co-founding an earlier project called Jams@Berklee in 2006, and he was involved with the VGO from its inception, although, interestingly, he had originally intended to help his friend only with the marketing.

“I work best with people with dedication and responsibility and yet who are humble and have a sense of networking abilities to serve and help the community, and Shota is one of them. I grew to love this project more and more, and dedicated more and more time toward this orchestra, and soon Kian, who is one of my closest friends, joined, too, which helped the VGO tremendously.”

The VGO was founded in April 2008, and held its first concert in June in a church, where Yoa was in the audience: “As an avid fan of video games and their music, I was thrilled to hear about the existence of such a group. I was also extremely surprised with the crowd turnout. “I joined the group shortly after the concert because of my passion for video games, and also my lifelong dream of wanting to be a video game music composer,” he explains.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the VGO’s success is that so many young people identify with the genre of music. “I had longed to be part of a struggle to legitimise the video game industry in both the public eye and the music industry itself, because in the past, a career in the video game industry was looked down on,” says Yoa.

“I was also attracted to Shota’s idea of orchestral reform and popularising a student orchestra. Most classically trained students find it hard to break into the fiercely competitive orchestral scene, and even if they do succeed, they’re strictly bound to classical music and its aesthetics. VGO’s idea of an orchestra is to provide its audience with a good blend of both entertainment and performance.”

And the process of establishing the VGO was taken just as seriously as it would have been for the more traditional classical music orchestras, with prospective VGO members having to pass an audition in which they had to show not just their chops but also passion – “The musicians have to be technically convincing and also passionate about video game music,” says Yao.

The unusual combinations that Nakama came up with meant that the VGO really is quite unique. “The balance between an orchestra, choir, and rock band offers arrangers the freedom and choice of orchestration with a diverse set of instrument combinations,” points out Lee. “In a marketing sense, think, ‘Would you rather watch an orchestra, or a choir or a rock band – or all three of them?’”

Indeed, both Lee and Yao are confident that the VGO will not prove to be a novelty that dies out as quickly as it arrived. “I see the VGO going far as long as we continue to gain support from the people we work with as well as the places we go to in terms of performances and in terms of ideas,” says Lee.

Yao concurs: “The sky is the limit! The video game industry outgrew the film industry in recent years, so the future of video game music is well assured, and VGO is definitely here to stay as we have solid missions and objectives to accomplish.” Incidentally, as Malaysians involved in such a unique group, VGO would love to hold the first video game music concert in Malaysia, and are actively seeking sponsors!

I must admit to being sceptical that an audience would want to sit through a whole evening of such music, but apparently there has been very little to burst the VGO’s bubble. “I’d never thought about it until Shota brought it up,” says Lee. “I then realised straightaway that it is not a bad idea at all, and I knew that there would be fans all around the world who would definitely want to sit through a whole performance of video game music. “And if it is done right and is updated just like video games, they would definitely want to sit through our next performances to stay updated.”

It’s amazing to think how far the lads and their project have come in such a short time. Yoa, who credits Metallica and his cousin Gavin Foo with his obsession with music, is simply enthralled by the opportunity to transcribe and arrange the music from classics such as Medal of Honor Allied Assault, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, and Super Mario Galaxy, and to “dive in deep to analyse the construction of these masterpieces”.

“Good video game music composers are likely to be the most versatile musicians you can find, they’re trained to compose in various styles of music to fit the needs of the visuals on screen. Unlike regular composers who construct a piece with a common form template and fill in with chords, melodies and instrumentations, video game music composers often have to compose music according to the form of the game.”

Lee, too, is really warming to the challenges posed by the VGO’s growth. “I personally feel that original compositions are more satisfactory since it is purely from your own ideas from almost every aspect, but it has to be done well from a lot of angles.

“Video game music is very diverse, it might be simplistic in terms of melody and ideas at times, but putting together the simple melody and ideas takes years of experience and learning from each other, which is often times very taxing in terms of hours, focus and dedication.”

Got to the Facebook page at facebook.com/group.php?gid=27956232307 for more information on the Video Game Orchestra.

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