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Scroll over Beethoven

Video Games Live is not trying to kill the symphony. Quite the opposite, in fact. The hugely successful, American-based video-game-music-playing concert series—touring internationally since 2005 and finally making its first visit to Montreal this week—is trying to get everyone excited about orchestras again. It just so happens this orchestra will be playing the collected works of Mario instead of Mozart.

“Our goal from the beginning was to show the world, not just the hardcore gamer, how culturally significant and artistic video games have become,” says Video Games Live co-creator and host Tommy Tallarico, a video game composer for almost 300 games in the past 20 years. “The most positive comments we’ve been getting have been from parents and grandparents who have taken their kids, and they tell us they never realized just how rich and emotional this music is. Now they know why their kids are into video games. And the younger people, maybe, will feel the power of a 100-piece orchestra for the first time. Maybe they’ll come back next week and see Beethoven.”

Combining the power of a symphony orchestra, the energy of a rock concert and the interactivity of a video game, Tallarico and conductor Jack Wall (a fellow game composer) grew up idolizing Mozart and Holst, but as men in their late 30s, they also loved Star Wars, MTV and Atari. They were the first generation to grow up on video games, says Tallarico, and as much as they appreciate the classics, they are a visual, visceral audience. The Video Games Live show, with an orchestra and choir made up of local players, features a light show and a big screen where selected gamers will play the source material. To distance the event even further from your grandfather’s symphony, there will be a pre-show costume contest and prizes.

Retooling Mario

Gaming music has evolved from 45-second looped beeping noises in the 1980s to full, complex orchestral arrangements today. Tallarico himself used a 70-piece orchestra on his award-winning soundtrack to 2005’s Advent Rising, and big-budget games such as Halo 3 spend more on music than most Hollywood blockbusters. Tallarico suggests that if Beethoven were alive today, he would be composing for video games rather than television and film, since creating game music is less restrictive.

“When George Lucas sits down with the great John Williams,” says Tallarico, “he tells him the music has to sound like this at 55 seconds because Darth Vader enters the room, so even within the context of writing music for film, composers are restricted by the linear medium, whereas a game designer will tell me to write a three-minute piece for a scene about being chased by 100 guys on horseback, and I can go wild.”

Many of the 40-plus pieces currently in the Video Games Live repertoire are devoted to recent games, although Tallarico and Wall also pay homage to the more simplistic game music of yesteryear. For Mario Bros., they began with the original theme and eventually branched off into the sequels and alternate themes, such as the underwater and cave levels, creating an extended montage of all their favourite Mario hits. “The task of orchestrating it, and figuring out what instruments should play what—that’s the easy part,” Tallarico says. “It’s like bringing these pieces to life.”

Straight to the source

Video-game cover bands such as the Minibosses and the Advantage have effectively bridged the gap between rock music and the interactive medium, and Montreal DJ/producer Amon Tobin wrote the soundtrack to Ubisoft Montreal’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, but Tallarico and Wall are in the unique position of being predominantly video game guys making a foray into live music. As renowned game composers (Wall is known for his work on the Myst series), they know the people behind the memorable tunes are often unheralded. Few would recognize the name Koji Kondo, whose influential 25-year resume includes all the Super Mario Bros. games and the unmistakable Legend of Zelda trumpet theme, so Tallarico collaborates with the composers themselves on the piece introductions and the visual presentation. It’s what makes Video Games Live so authentic, says Tallarico, because it’s gamers who envisioned the ambitious project, far away from music executives who now view game music as a potential industry-saver.

“For the Metal Gear Solid segment, I actually got to sit down with [series creator] Hideo Kojima and work on the segment together. That’s why myself and Jack are there every night. It wasn’t just about us creating a brand and sending it on its way.”

Fans play an important role as well. Tallarico keeps a spreadsheet of the 25,000 Web site members, where they live and their song requests. Tallarico also has special plans for gaming-rich Montreal—although he wouldn’t divulge what locally based pieces they may be working on.