Video games in symphony hall

How classical orchestras started experimenting with video-game music.

By , Staff writer

An unexpected album topped the online music charts in November. For about a week, the London Philharmonic Orchestra pushed aside pop megastar Taylor Swift to seize the No. 1 slot on Amazon's most-downloaded list. What was this breakthrough hit? Not Brahms or Beethoven, but "The Greatest Video Game Music 2."

The album covers more than two decades of video-game tunes – from the 16-bit beeps of Sonic the Hedgehog to the viking horns of Skyrim.

Game and movie soundtracks have opened up classical music to a new, younger audience, says composer Andrew Skeet, who arranged the album. But translating this wide swath of music into something appropriate for the London Philharmonic presented a challenge.

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Newer games, such as last year's Assassin's Creed: Revelations, already feature fully orchestrated soundtracks. Those songs were easy to record. However, Mr. Skeet had to rework the older selections, expanding the melody of synthesized "chiptunes" to take advantage of a choir, strings, and woodwinds.

After the release of its first video-game album – which sold more than 100,000 copies – the London Philharmonic performed the music live in concert. "A lot of people that went told me that they'd never been to an orchestral concert before," says Skeet. Many said they planned to attend more.

Orchestras around the world have experimented with performing video-game and film soundtracks. The website Movies in Concert has tracked more than 4,000 such concerts over the past three years. While most of these draw from cinema, concert series such as Video Games Live, Distant Worlds, and Nintendo's Legend of Zelda anniversary concerts have launched world tours.

And last year, the theme song for Civilization IV, "Baba Yetu," by Christopher Tin, won the Grammy for best instrumental arrangement accompanying vocalists – making it the first video-game song to receive such an award.

Skeet says this recognition is not just good for video games, but also for classical music. He thinks the classical recording labels rely too much on reissued albums and old masterpieces.

"Classical music needs to find a new audience," he says, "not just become a museum."

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