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Game Music Ensemble reminisces on childhood video games in final concert

(Nicole Anisgard Parra/Daily Bruin)

"Game Music in the Garden: Outdoor concert with UCLA's Game Music Ensemble"


Botanical Garden

Free with RSVP

By Claire Locke

May 28, 2019 12:21 a.m.

Most may think of video games as an indoor activity, but UCLA’s Game Music Ensemble will bring game soundtracks to life in the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden on Thursday.

Christopher Thai, the chamber music director of GME, said the ensemble will play music from games including Pokémon, Mega Man and League of Legends. Since this is Thai’s last year with GME, he aims to make the year’s final concert his biggest one since becoming chamber director last year. An avid video game player himself, Thai thinks the audience Thursday will be excited to hear the soundtracks of their favorite games brought to life.

“For example, let’s say Zelda has a very special place in your heart,” Thai said. “You probably know a lot of different musical themes from Zelda, and then you see this symphony and choir about to perform your favorite childhood piece live, and it’s very exciting.”

In the upcoming concert, alumnus Jose Daniel Ruiz, the GME director, said some of the musical scores come from communities that make their arrangements accessible by uploading them online, including on MuseScore and Final Fantasy Shrine. The GME directors are then able to clean them up and adapt them to mimic the original sound through the instruments played by GME members, layering in harmonies as well. Ruiz said most of the scores that will be played Thursday were either arranged by GME musicians or adapted from online scores, but in the past he has had to transcribe scores by ear only.

“Sometimes you can take a piece that already sounds pretty orchestral, and it’s just a matter of simple transcription, where you listen to it and dissect it,” Ruiz said. “It’s called harmonic and melodic dictation, and anyone who has taken music theory will probably have nightmares of it.”

[READ: Game Music Ensemble spreads love of gaming with ‘Super Smash Bros.’ concert]

Adapting video game music for a live ensemble performance can vary in difficulty based on the game, Thai said. The music from games like Skyrim are more easily adapted given their orchestral sound, whereas others such as Mega Man require more work because the songs tend to be more digitally based, he said.

“We have a lot of creative freedom with writing scores,” Thai said. “(The directors) take these sounds and try to think about what real instrument will make it sound good.”

Because many of the pieces include synthetic sounds, the directors are afforded a certain level of creativity when selecting how to mimic certain sonic qualities. For example, in past performances, Thai said the ensemble has used a Therevox synthesizer, which makes a warbling sound similar to those in sci-fi video games and movies. Additionally, Ruiz said he restored a Hammond organ to be used in the upcoming performance of a Persona 5 suite. Ruiz said the organ was intended to sound as close as possible to a church organ, but later models include vibrato and tonal percussion effect, which make it a common sound in gospel music.

“(Persona 5) has this amazing soundtrack based around a Hammond organ and a Fender Rhodes keyboard,” Ruiz said. “I went out of my way to buy one and play it for this soundtrack, because that’s the specific sound you hear in the game.”

[READ MORE: Club provides platform where students can create video games together]

Jonathan Salman, a first-year electrical engineering student and musician in the ensemble, said he enjoyed that GME used eclectic objects to make strange sounds. In a past concert, he said the ensemble used the cowling of a Boeing 747 airplane – musicians would hit it with mallets or use string instrument bows on it, creating a variety of noises and pitches. Ruiz said this generated spooky sounds one would hear in a horror movie.

“It was so cool how many different sounds you can get from one piece of aluminum,” Salman said. “It was interesting to take something you don’t see as a musical instrument and make music out of it.”

Salman said he thinks the GME concert will particularly draw audiences who have a personal connection to gaming, and will instill a sense of nostalgia through the classic game soundtracks. Hearing an old favorite soundtrack played by a massive ensemble with full strings and percussion in a live performance setting, he said, brings the digital world to life in an accessible way.

“For a lot of kids who spent their childhoods on Gameboys and DS’s, they listen to the music and don’t really pay attention to it,” Salman said. “When they hear it performed at such a high caliber by a big group, it brings a lot of nostalgia back.”

Email Locke at [email protected] or tweet @claireml1997.

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