For at least a generation of pop-culture consumers, the soundtrack of their lives has included themes from the likes of Mega Man and Super Mario.
As they've grown up, the music of video games has branched out — to solo piano, to rock concerts and to symphonic performances. Among the developments is the University of Maryland's Gamer Symphony Orchestra, whose 100-plus members will take to the stage at College Park's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Saturday, May 4.
"The quality of video-game music has grown exponentially over the years," says Joel Guttman, president-elect of the group, which specializes in arranging and performing pieces taken from the background music on video games such as Halo, Sonic the Hedgehog and Final Fantasy. "It's just really great music."
Consider how pervasive video games have become in today's popular culture. College students who rarely go to movie theaters anymore play video games regularly. And like the movies that those games are supplanting in the hearts and minds of younger consumers, these increasingly sophisticated visual spectacles use background music to propel the action.
"You have some very talented professional musicians who are writing the scores for these games," says Derek Richardson, a professor of astronomy who serves as the group's faculty adviser. "Some of these games are pulling in more money than movies, meaning every single aspect of the game is getting the same attention you'd expect for a motion picture — and that includes the score."
The popular-music world has incorporated gaming music. Local aficionados began the annual Bit Gen Gamer Fest of video-game music in 2005; the organizers have recently joined with Washington's larger MAGFest.
Classical pros have taken note as well. Both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the D.C.-based National Symphony Orchestra have performed programs of gamer music, and the audience response has been enthusiastic.
"The music composed to accompany today's video games boasts rich harmonic textures and soaring melodies that rival even the greatest of film scores," says Matthew Spivey, vice president of artistic operations for the BSO, which is planning a July 27 concert featuring music from The Legend of Zelda.
"Hearing the powerful music performed live offers an entirely unique experience that you can't get in front of your home TV or computer screen," Spivey adds. "I'm thrilled that the UMD Gamer Symphony is also sharing this inspiring music with a wider audience."
Take a listen to the pieces posted on the group's website, umd.gamersymphony.org, and prepare to be impressed. With soaring voices, jangling keyboards and gliding strings, the overall effect ranges from abusive to ethereal. And while these musicians may not be ready to compete with the BSO or the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, they sound perfectly professional.
Not bad for a group whose members acknowledge that they aren't sure whether they're primarily musicians, gamers or just a bunch of kids who enjoy hanging out together.
"We're not asking for an incredibly talented group of people," says Alexander Ryan, the group's departing president. "We're aiming for a really interesting group."
Auditions are rarely, if ever, held, Ryan says; pretty much anyone who wants to join the orchestra is welcome, provided there's a spot for their voice or their instrument. And there's always a waiting list of students looking to join, he says — a list that has grown as large as 200 would-be players and harmonizers.
"We always wanted this to be a club of people who just happen to get together and perform orchestral arrangements of video game music," Ryan says. "We've always tried to be inclusive."
Which means you don't have to be a music wonk to apply. True, Michelle Eng was a violist in the UM Repertoire Orchestra when she founded the orchestra in 2005. But Guttman is majoring in marketing, Ryan in mechanical engineering. Of the 120 members in the group's current incarnation, Ryan guesses, only three are music majors.
"I always considered myself, at best, an amateur musician," he says. "I was pretty much going to drop music altogether, but when I heard about the Gamer Symphony, I picked it back up again.
"For a lot of our members," he adds, "this is pretty much their only outlet for performing music at the collegiate level."
Both Ryan and Guttman admit to being gamers first, musicians second. But being a gamer without developing an appreciation for the music involved would be almost impossible, they say.
"I remember turning up the volume on my Game Boy, holding it up to my ear to listen to a particular theme I liked," Guttman says. "Some people, even if they haven't played a video game in years, they still remember that one tune."
Eng had grown up playing string instruments in orchestras — and video games as well. She was a fan of Martin Leung (known popularly online as the Video Game Pianist) as well as two concert series: Video Games Live and Dear Friends — Music From Final Fantasy.
"I wanted to combine my passion for video-game music and orchestras," says Eng, who has graduated, lives in Montgomery County and works as a patient-account coordinator at a physical therapy clinic. "I wanted to create a more active role rather than just sitting in the audience."
Looking at the example of Leung, she says she thought: "What if I could do what he did and make it to an orchestra where I could participate?"
Thus the orchestra was born. It boasts of being the first collegiate ensemble devoted to applying orchestral arrangements to video-game music. Other colleges, however, are taking note. Ryan says he's heard of similar groups being organized at Ithaca College and the University of Delaware. For his part, Guttman counts himself a true pioneer in the genre; while an 11th-grader at Montgomery County's Magruder High School, he co-founded a gamer orchestra there.
Richardson, who agreed to serve as the orchestra's adviser when one of his graduate students asked him — "All right," he remembers saying, "that sounds cool" — maintains the idea of an orchestra devoted to video-game music makes perfect sense. Anyone who thinks gamer music is basically the sound of a dying Pac Man — well, they're clearly behind the times.
"I was born in 1968, I got my first computer at age 10, and I sort of grew up with video games," he says. "Maybe the generation that grew up before is not as familiar with the art form. It's not just blips and bleeps — it's full orchestral sounds.
In fact, Richardson suggests, something like the GSO makes for a perfect generational meeting ground. "The fact that it's video games appeals to the younger generation," he says, "while the fact that it's orchestral music appeals to all generations."
If you go
The University of Maryland's Gamer Symphony Orchestra performs at 2 p.m. Saturday at Dekelboum Concert Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Stadium Drive, College Park. Free. umd.gamersymphony.org