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The student-founded UCLA Game Music Ensemble celebrates its 10-year anniversary

(Kimi Jung/Daily Bruin)

By Gavin Meichelbock

Feb. 24, 2024 10:17 a.m.

The Game Music Ensemble has just completed its 10-year anniversary speedrun.

The ensemble is preparing for its toughest level yet, its 10th-anniversary concert, “Achievement Unlocked: Ten Years of Video Game Music at UCLA.” Founded in 2014 by alumnus Jose Daniel Ruiz, the student-run ensemble has grown to consist of hundreds of members spread across jazz, orchestra, chamber ensembles and a choir. For the past 10 years, students from all over campus have come together nearly every Friday night to play the music from beloved video games, Ruiz said. While this niche interest has leveled up to build a community all over campus, it got its start with Ruiz and a handful of his friends in 2012, Ruiz said.

“Some of my roommates and I and some other friends all decided to put together basically a cover band to go and perform at different venues,” Ruiz said. “The thing that I personally really liked to do, that I thought would be great to do at these things, was video game (music). That’s something I’ve always liked. It’s always been the reason I got into music to begin with.”

After practicing in his apartment for a year, Ruiz said, he reached out to his friend, Jill Cassaboom, who was a student at the time. Cassaboom let them hold rehearsals in the organ studio and Ruiz said they practiced in the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music during Fall 2013. Ruiz said he and his friends started advertising the group around campus and amassed an ensemble of around 70 students.

Since the idea of an orchestra that solely plays music from video games was relatively novel in the United States at the time, Ruiz said they were grateful to have received help from the University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra. With their help in providing musical arrangements, scores and inspiration, the GME hosted its first full concert in Powell Library on April 11, 2014.

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Ruiz said the GME has not only allowed him to make new friendships with the directors of other game music ensembles around the world, as well as notable video game composers but has also deepened his relationships on campus. Because of the GME, Ruiz said he became good friends with School of Music professor Adam Gilberti.

Ruiz said Gilberti joined the group after a colleague, whom Ruiz bought a viola from, introduced them and prompted the two to start talking about Gilberti’s arrangement of the “Super Mario Bros.” soundtrack. Gilberti has since become the co-director of the GME, which Ruiz said is the best choice he’s made for the group.

The GME’s ability to make steadfast friendships is what current Executive Director and Jazz Director Kelly Wong said has helped her feel welcomed and consequently grow as a musician. Since the group is founded on a shared love of video games, Wong said, it provides students with an instant connection to one another that they might not get from a traditional ensemble setting. However, having played video games is not a requisite to join the orchestra, Wong added.

“Sometimes it’s hard to connect with other people in other sections (in an orchestra) … I wouldn’t really be sure what to ask,” said Wong, a doctoral student in chemistry. “But I think that with video games, everybody kind of has a point of connection. Everybody has something they can talk about.”

The non-traditional nature of the orchestra is in part why many members have stuck around, Ruiz said. Video game music is not held to the strict instrumentation of a conventional orchestra since it is a currently evolving medium, Ruiz said. The GME will accept anyone of any instrument type and musical talent, and will find a place for them in the orchestra, he said. GME has also worked to adapt its performances to include unconventional instruments such as kazoos and melodica, Ruiz added.

“All our arrangements are done with two things in mind – to be inclusive, but also be authentic and respectful to the original tracks,” Ruiz said. “We take some creative liberties there (for pieces that were not originally made with an orchestral sound) and it is something I think people enjoy.”

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Director of Libraries Alex Luong said the GME is more than a group of video game lovers coming together to play music, but shows the level of passion of the student body. The fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student said seeing students from all over campus bond in the pursuit of a shared niche interest is very heartwarming.

“I think it’s my best experience here at UCLA,” Luong said. “It’s just amazing to see how far we can go because we’re not music majors. Definitely, sometimes music does get hard, but everyone practices, so it’s really enjoyable.”

Having planted the seed over 10 years ago, Ruiz said he is grateful for everyone’s hard work that has allowed GME to grow into a display of passion and creativity. Ruiz said their weekly rehearsals have become known as “Friday Therapy” to its members. Ruiz said over the decade, various students have told him that GME is one of the things that keeps them going during their stressful undergraduate careers.

Ruiz said though he may have cultivated this community, he owes it all to the dedication of the people he has met along the way. The hard work of friends, faculty and the executive board over the past decade will allow the GME to continue to grow and provide a home to students long after he is gone, he said.

“I feel nothing other than just this immense gratitude, and I’m just happy to be here for the ride,” Ruiz said. “This is the reason I’m in music and something that the world, particularly here at UCLA, wants and again, just happy to be part of it.”

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