Editorial 2011/2: Playing Music - Video Games and Music
von Melanie FritschNovember 2010. We are in a cinema. The lights have been turned off, and, as at the start of so many movies, the "Universal" theme begins. But something is different today. Although the movie has not yet begun, most of the audience is already mesmerized. Why?
The reason has to do with the sound of the theme we are hearing, which is presented in the 8-bit aesthetic of early video games. This evening's movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on the graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim, uses video game aesthetics on both visual and narrative levels and also features music from video games. During a dream sequence, when light, tinkling music is heard, someone next to us whispers in an enraptured voice: "Oh my, this is from Zelda!"
In an interview for the magazine Wired, the director Edgar Wright comments on this scene as follows:
We had to get his [i.e. the holder of rights Shigeru Miyamoto's] permission to use this piece of music from The Legend of Zelda for that dream sequence. So when I was writing to Nintendo to get permission, I was saying, "This music is like nursery rhymes to a generation."1
And he is absolutely right: Since video games go back some fifty years now, several generations have been raised entirely on video games, their aesthetics and their sound and music.
Also in other media besides video games, we find references to video game music or even hear the music itself, for example, when the protagonists Turk and JD from the TV sitcom Scrubs play Space Invaders with their interns (season 7, episode 7) accompanied by the game's characteristic soundtrack; likewise, when the character Peter Griffin from the animated TV series Family Guy plays Dance Dance Revolution with former U.S. President Bill Clinton (season 5, episode 13), or when Swiss artist Guillaume Reymond (of the NOTsoNOISY creative agency) performs video game classics with humans in his "Game Over" project,2 or when we watch a performance of the Dubai Fountain at Burj Khalifa Lake accompanied by the song Baba Yetu from Sid Meier's Civilization IV. Video game music is performed in concert halls in front of huge audiences of young people. Sometimes this takes place within the framework of specialized projects, such as the "Video Games Live" series (www.videogameslive.com) or "Play! A Video Game Symphony" (http://www.play-symphony.com/). Other times it is heard in the concert series of a resident orchestra, such as the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln (e.g. http://www.symphoniclegends.com/). Similarly, we encounter video game music in advertisements, such as when the Tetris theme is used in a German car commercial to refer to the eponymous game and thus emphasizes the space available in the trunk of this car. In these ways, even people who do not play video games listen to their music.
The current year 2011 had only just begun when a milestone was reached in the history of video game music: On February 13, Christopher Tin's aforementioned song, Baba Yetu, became the first piece composed for a video game to win a Grammy Award in the category "Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)" – significantly, not in the category "Film/Television/Media." The song is the game's menu theme and was originally performed by the Stanford Talisman a cappella group. Its lyrics are the Swahili version of the Lord's Prayer (the official video is available on the composer's website: http://www.christophertin.com).
In light of all of these examples it hardly seems an exaggeration to say that video games, their aesthetics and their music have arrived in the midst of our society and are strongly influencing our culture.
Scholarly research is responding to this influence by becoming more and more interested and involved in game studies, particularly, in the field of video game music, which has begun to arouse growing enthusiasm. Pioneered by Karen Collins, Kristine Jørgensen, Zach Whalen, Kiri Miller, Axel Stockburger, Mark Grimshaw, and many others, research into video game music is still in its early days, so to speak, and, as Karen Collins pointed out in her keynote speech at last year's conference "Music and the Moving Image",3 is in search of a proper vocabulary, analytical techniques and fitting approaches to the subject.
With this issue of Act, we would like to contribute to this discussion. In his article "Playing the Tune," Tim Summers proposes a genre-based approach to video game music by briefly examining three different genres (survival horror games, strategy games, fighting games) in order to demonstrate how musical-strategic similarities can be seen to weave through game genres. Jason Brame offers a Schenkerian-like analysis in his article "Thematic Unity Across a Video Game Series" to identify structural and motivic relationships between the various themes, which appear throughout the Legend of Zelda video game series. The article "Chaos in the Cosmos: The Play of Contradictions in the Music of Katamari Damacy" by Steven Reale traces the musical theme that serves as the game's idée fixe as it appears and is transformed in the music.
1 http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/06/ff_cerawright/all/1 (accessed May 25, 2011).
2 http://www.notsonoisy.com/gameover/ (accessed May 25, 2011).
3 Karen Collins, "Implications of Interactivity: Where Do We Go From Here?", keynote speech presented at the "Music and the Moving Image" conference, NYU Steinhardt, New York, May 25, 2010. Slides are available on: http://www.gamessound.com/ (accessed March 18, 2011).