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Our Season Opener: Music from Video Games!

7:30pm Mansfield Theater

October 7 2023


"Video game music is one of the most dynamic and creative musical genres today, rich with beauty, diversity, and innovation." ––Grant Harville

Why You Shouldn't Miss It

Music director Grant Harville chose some of his all-time favorite game tracks and arranged them to take advantage of our full orchestra.


Traditional / J.S. Bach

LINE PIECE!! from Tetris

Tetris, the Russian "killer app" on Nintendo's Game Boy (1989) is forever linked with a Russian folk tune and a Bach suite, depending on which game mode you play. The music is as iconic as the game itself!

Gareth Coker

Symphony of the Spirits from
Ori and the Blind Forest

One reviewer called Ori's ethereal music "almost too beautiful to bear." The composer also scores films, evident in his orchestration, harmony, and leitmotif. Coker jokes, "Emotionally manipulating people with music is what gets me out of bed in the morning."

Lena Raine 
Celeste: Prologue and First Steps

Retro chiptunes meet uplifting, aspirational and peaceful themes in Celeste, the game that made its Seattle-born composer famous. The transcendent music explores emotional depths while tempering the difficulty of the game.  

Shira Kammen 
Downstream from Braid

Developer Jonathan Blow licensed existing music to mirror his surreal, cerebral game. Wired's Jean Snow wrote that Braid's "beautiful symphonic melodies contribute to what is already an impressive and unique vision."

Toby Fox 
Suite from Undertale

Like Celeste, the music of Undertale mixes '80s-style 8-bit (think Mario Bros!) with 21st century sophistication. The game promotes empathy in its pacifist approach, reflected in themes of safety, comfort and humanity.

Single Tickets Now Available!


The 2018 platformer Celeste - the game which made composer Lena Raine’s name - too marries its gameplay and visuals to its music. Rather than exploring an idyllic woodland as in Ori, in Celeste the player must work to the top of a forbidding mountain, overcoming spikes, chasms, high winds, a psychotic hotel owner, extremely unsettling one-eyed squid monsters, and, in a very literal way, one’s own personal demons. The muscular physics feel very different from Ori’s wispiness, and the pixelly retro graphics call back to the Nintendo and Sega heyday of the '80s and '90s.


Celeste is also simply more difficult moment to moment - you die many, many times playing this game. But Celeste also goes out of its way to inspire the player, offering motivational messages between levels and lore exploring issues of mental health. Taken together, Celeste’s general vibe is blocky and athletic, but always uplifting. The music from Prologue and First Steps, the game’s first two stages, reinforce this uplift in a very literal way, with ascending perpetual-motion passages providing constant support to its guileless and aspirational main theme.


The soundtrack to 2008’s puzzle-platformer Braid went a different route, employing existing licensed music rather than music composed or adapted specifically for the game. Lead designer Jonathan Blow has claimed this decision was made for both budgetary and artistic reasons, believing that the game composers of the day would have been unable to produce the requisite affect - a notion which feels insultingly quaint 15 years on.


Blow pulled from a variety of musical sources to find appropriate matches for Braid’s painterly, Van Gogh-like art style. This program features one of these tracks: Downstream from the album Music of Waters by California composer and fiddler (among many other things) Shira Kammen. Kammen’s background straddles the worlds of traditional and early music (including a stint with the Boston Camerata, a particular favorite of the GFSA’s music director), and Downstream’s folky, pastoral quality complements the rocky meadows of Braid’s early stages.


While many games have famous and beloved soundtracks, there may be no game whose reputation lies so much with its score as 2015’s Undertale. This in no way reflects any kind of inadequacy of its gameplay - the game is a delightfully weird retro RPG which packs a lot of player freedom into a short playtime - but rather the background of the developer Toby Fox, who is arguably a composer first and game developer second. In fact, one might be forgiven for wondering if the game had been deliberately structured to allow for as many musical tracks to be crammed in as possible. The complete game score - again, for a relatively short game - includes over 100 tracks, and while many of these tracks are short, there is an undeniable glut of great tunes.

This program’s suite includes “only” twelve tracks from the game. These include environmental cues which accompany the player’s exploration of the underground monster-infested setting (Fallen Down, Snowy), under-scene music (It’s Raining Somewhere Else, Reunited), and the game over theme (Determination). But most appear in the game’s famous boss fights, each reflecting the character of monster being fought: Asgore’s nobility, Undyne’s righteousness (Spear of Justice), Mettaton’s rock-star narcissism (Death By Glamour), the questionable sanity of the possessed Dummy, the laughable overseriousness of Papyrus (Bonetrousle), and the vengeful contempt of Sans (Megalovania).

–Program notes by Grant Harville


Every musical style is, in part, shaped by the technological constraints of its era. Mozart’s songful keyboard lines would not have been possible without the subtle dynamic shading possible on the (relatively) new piano. Wagner’s big brass passages could never have existed without the invention of the valve in the early 1800s. Stadium rock isn’t a thing without amplification.


But there may be no musical genre as obviously tied to its technology as video game music, and no genre where the technical advancements have been so dramatic in so short a time. What many listeners think of as the typical “game music sound” - often referred to as “chiptune” - comes from the arcade games and home consoles of the 70s and 80s, whose soundchips had extremely limited memories. This inability to store large amounts of information at once had two principal effects: The sounds themselves had to “simple” (sine-wave-type beeps, rather than overtone-rich violins, for example), and the tracks couldn’t be held in memory in their entirety - the chips had to “perform” the music in real time, note by note.


The move away from chiptune was made possible in the 90s with the increased memory capability of that era’s chips, along with new CD-ROM technology. By the turn of the millennium (the era of the so-called “sixth generation” consoles), the one-note-a-time approach was no longer necessary: The consoles had the ability to store game tracks as single digital files, like tracks on a CD.


That may seem like a small change, but the impact on game audio was enormous. Whereas previous generations of game composers had to be expert computer programmers, now anyone who could produce a digital audio file had, if nothing else, the basic skill required to come up with a game soundtrack, though plenty of game-specific knowledge would still need to be learned. As a result, the last twenty years have seen the skill set of game and film composition converge. Game composers now record in studio, license music from their favorite artists, and put the finishing touches on their audio with the same digital tools as film composers.


This program features only one game from the chiptune era: Tetris. Invented by a Soviet programmer in the 1980s, Tetris endured a mind-scramblingly complicated series of licensing deals (as dramatized in a recent film, also titled Tetris) before finding its way to an international audience. Countless releases, ports, and knock-offs later, Tetris has become one of the most influential and best selling games of all time. Probably its most important release was for Nintendo’s Game Boy in 1989, which brought about a chicken-or-the-egg situation: either the Game Boy’s popularity made Tetris a worldwide phenomenon, or Tetris did the same for the Game Boy.


One thing is certain: The Game Boy Tetris brought international fame to a couple of tunes that might have never found it otherwise. Players had a choice of three audio tracks to accompany their gameplay. The second of these (“Type B”) was composed in-house by a Nintendo staff composer, but the other were adaptations of existing music. Type A, the Russian folk song “Korobushka,” has become so associated with the game that it is known to many simply as “the Tetris song.” Type C comes from a rather different source: the minuet from J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 3 of 1722.


LINE PIECE!! leans into the Russian-ness of “Korobushka” by giving it the theme -and-variations treatment of Reinhold Gliere’s Russian Sailors’ Dance - with a taste of the Bach minuet thrown in for good measure.


Gareth Coker’s soundtrack to the 2015 Metroidvania Ori and the Blind Forest is the most “cinematic” of this program’s scores, and for good reason: Coker studied film composition at the University of Southern California and wrote dozens of scores for film and television before moving principally to game composition. Ori infuses its sylvan setting with a particularly “soft” aesthetic, filled with gentle light and particle effects, alongside appropriately floaty movement physics. Coker’s score matches the mood brilliantly, with singing oboe lines and points of light from the mallet percussion - but bringing the necessary heat when the lava starts to flow.

From the romantic orchestral sound of Ori, to the sweet folk melodies of Braid, and the driving rock of Celeste, you’ll be surprised by the depth of these works. 

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