How do you tune a joystick?

If video killed the radio star, ‘Video Games Live’ may herald a new world for symphony orchestras

The Louisville Orchestra goes gaming: Image courtesy of videogameslive  The Louisville Orchestra goes gaming — look for them to play tunes from Halo, Myst and even Donkey Kong.

The Louisville Orchestra goes gaming: Image courtesy of videogameslive The Louisville Orchestra goes gaming — look for them to play tunes from Halo, Myst and even Donkey Kong.

Gaming culture has come a long way since the early 1980s, when the state of the art featured titles like Pong and Pac-Man. In recent years, that culture has exploded and now encompasses all sorts of things, including the music that accompanies the action. Believe it or not, composers are now exalted in the video-gaming world.
More recently, that music has left the video screens and become the centerpiece of touring productions that include partnerships with symphony orchestras, carrying the music to a much wider audience.

This Friday, the Louisville Orchestra plays host to one such tour, “Video Games Live,” the official press release for which promises “the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra mixed with the excitement and energy of a rock concert and the technology and interactivity of a video game, all completely synchronized to amazing, cutting-edge video-screen visuals, state-of-the-art lighting and special on-stage interactive segments with the audience.”

WOW. No kidding?
As if that is not flashy enough, there are also solo performers and electronic percussionists.
This fantastical affair — at least according to the people who created it — is obviously a win-win situation for the Louisville Orchestra. New audiences, mostly gamers, experience an LO performance, quite possibly for the first time; our musicians explore new repertoire; and the orchestra’s pocketbook receives vital extra padding.
When it comes to this new world order, Louisville’s own is in good company; other orchestras have partnered with “Video Games Live,” including powerhouses such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra.

Implicit in that reality is that all of those groups must see the benefits of such one-off concerts in a nation where arts funding could be the topic of the next Michael Moore documentary.

Friday’s program features music from games such as Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Warcraft, Myst and Final Fantasy. If those don’t ring any bells, the show will also take you down a virtual memory lane with the “retro Classic Arcade Medley.” The nostalgia meter just might short circuit as the audience basks in the soothing sounds of Pong, Donkey Kong, Dragon’s Lair, Tetris, Frogger, Gauntlet, Space Invaders and Outrun.

What, no Pac-Man?
No worries here. “Video Games Live” producers — composer Tommy Tallorico and conductor Jack Wall — seem to have assembled a compelling and seamless concert. Both are quite familiar with the genre, having themselves composed widely for video games. And the genre has produced excellent and serious music, as noted in “John Cage’s Xbox,” a 2005 article from the music Web site Pitchfork (

What does concern me is how this program relies so heavily on visual special effects to get people to pay attention to music, which they may or may not do. Our culture’s obsession with dazzling visual effects, paired with the swollen budgets of video-game companies, could translate into a proliferation of these sorts of spectacles. Composers who work for these companies have significant resources at their disposal, things like full orchestras and the latest sound-design technology. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if more composers, after toiling for years in composition programs at prestigious conservatories, finally get hip to where the big audiences really are. Which means they may find much less time and resources to devote to classical music.
Is this a harbinger of the day when composers and orchestras are provided resources only when the music is paired with another medium? And to what extent might this scenario induce young and talented would-be composers to eschew years of education and the wisdom of the classical music tradition?

I will admit that some of the ideas behind “Video Games Live” push certain buttons for me. I recently finished my first orchestra piece and will consider myself lucky if a reputable conductor leaves a coffee stain on it.
I do believe composers should embrace the role of technology as an expressive tool, but not to the point of elevating spectacle over the music itself and undermining the art of listening. Music should always have the capacity to captivate the imagination on its own, a feat I truly believe the classical repertoire accomplishes as a singular entity.

So, if you are still with me, I urge you to close your eyes during Debussy’s “La Mer” and just float away. Get caught up in the imagery (shifting shapes of clouds for me) that Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” conjures.
Herein is a challenge to the attendees of the “Video Games Live” concert (and to everyone else): Go to a Louisville Orchestra concert sometime this season and close your eyes. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s “Fifth Symphony.” See where it takes you. (LO is performing it in April.) LEO can’t issue a money-back guarantee, but we can promise you won’t be any worse off for doing so.
Nor will the Orchestra.

Contact the writer at [email protected]

‘Video Games Live’
Featuring the Louisville Orchestra
Friday, July 20
Kentucky Center, Whitney Hall
$28-$75; 8 p.m.