The S.F. Symphony Gets Its Video Game On

Mark MacNamara on July 18, 2013
Video Games Live

Next Thursday and Friday, July 25 and 26, the San Francisco Symphony, and chorus, presents Video Games Live at Davies Symphony Hall. Video game music concerts are the Barnum & Bailey, Busby Berkeley escapade of our era, musical burlesques about monsters, shooters, and seekers, sprung from the brows of nerds, but now ever cooler, and increasingly with the black-tie imprimatur of name symphonies. Indeed, these concerts have become very sophisticated syncs of music, image and pyrotechnics — with that game lingo underneath that only the likes of William Burroughs could truly appreciate, the vocabulary world of twitchy, skins, party sharks, turtles, and tweenies, and he who would be pwned.

And out of it all, out of these games, have come some leet music scores. Or have they? Is the music ‘elite’? Is it more than 21st century pops; is it new music to new opera? What is the cultural relevance exactly? And is it the cure for the audience-attrition blues? Is it as Tommy Tallarico, the impresario/composer/musician/host behind Videogames live, would say, just what Beethoven would be doing if he were in SOMA or SOHO looking for a gig? That’s a question for the future.

In the meantime, it’s interesting how this music has become a discrete form of its own and is catching on around the world. “We’re where movie music was when The Wizard of Oz won Academy Awards in 1939 [for best song and best original score],” says Tallarico. “We’ve been around for 30 years, and we’re not nearly at our peak. In another 15 or 20 years my generation will have an entire planet gathered around this music.”

“At no time have so many people started coming out to see a symphony. No more just old, white, rich people. I’ve made it fun.” - Tommy Tallarico, composer and impresario

Tallarico, 45, has seen the future firsthand. In the last 10 years, he’s done 250 shows, in front of hundreds of thousands of people: He claims 10,000 people at a concert in Brazil, 30,000 in Dubai, and perhaps 100,000 in Taiwan. “We were at the equivalent of what would be the Lincoln Memorial in Taipei. This was a free show to launch the Taiwan Music Festival. We were it. Only us. And 100,000 people came to see it.”

The concert is certain to sell out Davies Symphony Hall. And that success leads to the impresario’s pitch: “At no time have so many people started coming out to see a symphony. No more just old, white, rich people. I’ve made it fun. I'm in the first generation to grow up on video games. We’ve known interactivity all our lives; we’re also the first generation to be so tuned to tech and the cutting edge. And now we’re putting all this great music in the hands of a symphony and offering something that’s a combination of theater, music, interactivity, and everything synchronized so that you have the power you’d find at a rock concert.

“But think about it: In [the 1812 Overture], Tchaikovsky had live cannons. This is the same idea and I really think that if Beethoven were here he’d be a video game composer. Sure he would. He wouldn’t want to write for film because he wouldn’t want people talking over his music.”

Music for (Your Character’s) Life

Video Games Live

Tallarico, who created Video Games Live in 2002, was the first musician to release a video game soundtrack worldwide and has become somewhat of an icon in the game industry. He describes himself as the person most instrumental in “changing the game industry from bleeps and bloops to real music.” His personal story is nearly legendary: He arrived in Hollywood from Springfield, Massachusetts at age 21 and was briefly homeless before being “discovered” in a music store. He says he has been most influenced by Beethoven and John Williams, followed by Mozart and Jerry Goldsmith.

“The emphasis in game music is on a strong melody. And this is one advantage game scores have over movie scores. In most films, the music is in the background; the storylines come first, and the composer is writing for that particular sheen that underlies a scene, whereas in games we’re always focused on the action scene, which drives the energy and emotional content.

Think of it this way. Think of Avatar. Beautiful images, great story. Can you hum the music? Do you remember the melody? I can’t remember it. And that’s because we are outside the story; we’re the observers.

But with games, you’re the character and the music becomes the soundtrack of your life, and when you’ve accomplished some goal, that victory theme triggers synapses in your head. I think this is one reason you hear stories of people crying while they play these games.

That’s my main goal to prove to the world how culturally significant video games are, how personally significant they are and to demonstrate their relevance. And so we take a rock star approach to it. It’s a kind of a Vegas system, a Cirque-du-Soleil attitude. But at the same time, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

“By the way,” he added, “here’s an exclusive: you may know that the score for the new game Destiny is coming out. It was written by Marty O’Donnell who was originally a jingle writer and did things like The Flintstones, but then got into this. But he and Sir Paul McCartney did the music for Destiny and we’re going to debut it in San Diego this weekend and then in San Francisco.”

Violence and Social Acceptability

One question we have is how much the music’s success depends on whether the games themselves become socially acceptable; whether it can escape the association with addiction and violence. Which never became an issue with film. We asked Tallarico, who recently did a TedTalk on the topic.

“Here’s my take,” he said. “video games are addicting, and I always say you have to have balance. I don’t think it’s a great idea to play 30 hours nonstop. Some of these kids play for days on end. Of course, you have to go out and play, take a break, you have to read books. I don’t have kids, but I wouldn’t allow them to play so many hours a day. Balance is the key.”

As for the violence, he said, “Remember that Cain didn’t kill Abel from playing too much World of Warcraft; Hitler didn’t play Pokemon. Do video games trigger violence? No. They do draw very intense emotions, they get the adrenalin pumping. Do these games intensify life? Absolutely. In 1977, with Space Invaders the programmers played with using the rhythms of the human heartbeat to intensify the experience. I think it was somebody at MIT who recorded accelerating heartbeats as you played particular games.

“There’s so much to read on this topic, but here’s the only stat that matters: Among teenagers in the U.S. over the last 20 years, the number of kids playing video game has gone up dramatically and the hours played quadrupled. But teen violence has gone down. You can’t say that video games are ‘healthy,’ but if there’s any correlation between game and behavior it’s exactly opposite from what you might think.”

We went to the entertainment software association website which includes a 2012 Texas A&M longitudinal study published in The Journal of Psychiatric Research. A sample of 165 mostly Hispanic youth were surveyed over three years. The results “indicated that exposure to video game violence was not related to any of the negative outcomes. Depression, antisocial personality traits, exposure to family violence, and peer influences were the best predictors of aggression-related outcomes.”

A More Personal Symphony

Tallarico's favorite composition is the score he did for Advent Rising, a third-person, shooter game that premiered in 2005. It was written by sci-fi writers Cameron Dayton and Orson Scott Card, a Hugo Prize winner. “In terms of artistic quality,” says Tallarico, “ that’s my greatest work. In essence, I wrote a three-hour Italian opera.”

The plot of Advent Rising, which is no longer available, focused on situations in which the protagonist is faced with horrific choices. One is whether to save his wife or his brother. In addition, twists in the story resurrect people thought dead and vice versa. Tallarico believes the game was over hyped. “The publisher said it was the next Halo, and they may have been right, but it was the wrong message to gamers. You raise the expectations too high.”

“That’s my main goal to prove to the world how culturally significant video games are, how personally significant they are and to demonstrate their relevance.” - Tommy Tallarico

Which leads to the question, where are these games and the music going?

“I think audio tech has reached a peak. We have 5.1 channel streaming; we’re doing 48 kilohertz now. Eventually, you’ll score videos yourself. Which is all part of a great emotional attachment to the games. I think that's the real change. We’re getting deeper into the stories. I don’t think people realize how personal these games are becoming.”

Tallarico gave an example. “I think it was in Pittsburgh. Big symphony. Woman comes up to me and she has tears in her eyes. ‘I just want to let you know that I’ve been playing in the symphony for 20 years I’ve been trying to get my 17 year old son to come see me just once and he never has. But tonight not only is he here to see his mom but he’s brought all his friends. It’s huge deal and he’s bragging to all his friends, my mom’s going to play Halo. Thank you so much for what you’ve given us.’”

”But Is It Art?

Nevertheless, with all the success Tallarico has had personally, and with all the momentum that game music has gained, still there’s a question of relevancy and acceptance within the rest of the music world. Tallarico is a terrific hawker for the genre, but his tone changes when he thinks of critics.

“I’m not saying we’re better than other music genres, but you should give us the respect we deserve. And this is where some people fall short. Roger Ebert once came out and said, ‘video games are not art and never will be. They don’t inspire people, they’re just toys and just because you play Monopoly doesn’t make it art.’ But I would say, video games do inspire. Go to and see the kinds of artwork these games have inspired.

“I think gamers already love symphonic music even if they don’t know it. They and the game developers appreciate, even crave the drama — the heroism, the tragedy — that only a symphony can deliver.” - Laura Karpman, composer

Tallarico would add that, critics aside, the ‘establishment’ — schools and media — is accepting game music, if not in ‘the canon’ then surely as more than fad or bangle. After all, he debuted on PBS in 2010. The concert sold out the Royal Festival Hall in London. It sold out in Sydney. The government financed their performance in Brazil. The Met is coming, and a Super Bowl half time? Why not?

And by the way, Tallarico has donate all his scores for free to the Alfred Publishing Company, which serves some 85,000 schools.

And last fall, Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras, did a notable piece, a cover story written by Dan Visconti, which included a quote from Laura Karpman, a Juilliard graduate who went on to score such games as Everquest II and Halo 3. “I think gamers already love symphonic music even if they don’t know it. They and the game developers appreciate, even crave the drama — the heroism, the tragedy — that only a symphony can deliver. I think, if pointed toward classical music, they would feel the same way about Strauss, Wagner, Sibelius, Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartok, Britten, and many others.”

So here’s the idea that perhaps the game audience can be the heirs apparent to the current classical music audience.

“When I say to people, ‘don’t judge it by where it came from, judge it for what it is and what’s it’s becoming.’ It’s modern day classical music. The only thing that’s different is that all of the composers are still alive. The truth is, we’re just as relevant as Beethoven or Mozart and we’re just as good.”

One last question: We asked Tallarico if he could see Michael Tilson Thomas conducting this music one day.

“He better, if he wants to stay relevant.” Tallarico replied, half kidding. “No, seriously, I hope he’s in the audience; I hope he comes to see this.”


Thursday, July 25, Friday, July 26, 7:30 p.m. One hour prior to concert, there’s a Guitar Hero competition; the winner plays on stage with the Symphony, a costume contest, and following the concert ticket holders can chat with gamers extraordinaire. Tickets: $30-$100 at, or (415) 864-6000, and at the Davies Symphony Hall Box Office..