Why Video Games Live and Tommy Tallarico are damaging video game music

I’ve been listening to video game music for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I spent a lot of my allowance on the Final Fantasy soundtracks. When I was in college, I did a radio show that comprised largely of video game music.

While there have been video game music concerts in Japan since the early nineties, it’s only been in the last six or seven years that they’ve made their way to western shores. Arnold Roth brought the Distant Worlds (Final Fantasy) series to America, and also led Play! for many years. John Michael Paul, who produced Play!, also put together the Zelda: Symphony of the Goddess series. And then there’s Tommy Tallarico, who has been putting on Video Games Live. Video Games Live has been performed to sold out audiences around the world. It’s attracted thousands of gamers and is sort of its own empire.

It’s also ruining video game music, and Tommy Tallarico solely deserves the blame. He has singlehandedly ruined video game music.

First, some credentials: I’ve seen Video Games Live twice. The first time was at the Beacon Theater in New York in 2008; the second was at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, CT in late 2013. Both shows were very different; the Beacon Theater seats just under 3,000 people, whereas the Playhouse seats a mere 500. I’ll briefly explain the experiences. The Beacon Theater was a night of highs and lows for me. I got to meet Jack Wall, who is an awesome composer, and I got to hear some really great pieces played live. Well, when I could hear them. Much was drowned out by the most obnoxious crowd I’ve ever sat in. One particular lowlight was the girl behind me, who, when the World of Warcraft suite started to play, screamed, “HORDE!!” about as loudly as she could for a full fifteen seconds. The Playhouse was, by comparison, a much more sedate audience. I rather enjoyed hearing the music to Journey (!) and Skyrim (!!), and I could actually hear it after the initial cheers. The biggest detriment was a guy a few rows back who was talking more than he probably should have – but the girl next to me kept shushing her friends, which was much appreciated.

But in both venues, I had to sit through Tallarico’s shenanigans on stage. Tallarico is a showman. His cousin is Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith – you guys remember that band, right?), and I get the sense that he wants to be that cool, only with video games. What this means for the audience is that you get to watch him jump around on stage with his guitar as he rocks out while playing the lead in the Castlevania suite. (I recall cringing rather hard when he calls out, “Ladies and gentlemen… boys and girls… please put your hands together… for the one, the only… Castlevania!” before that piece.) Or listen as he tries to make the introduction to a suite as badass as possible. The whole time, Tallarico riles the crowd up into a frenzy about the pieces that they’re about to play and encourages people to yell, cheer, and shout.

At the beginning of the Playhouse show, Tallarico came out and tried to rationalize the night. He said something to the effect of, “I put this show together to show the world that video games and video game music are culturally relevant, and that they should be taken seriously.” In literally the next sentence, he says, “I know this is an intimate (read: small) venue, but if you hear something you like, feel free to cheer, shout, and scream at any point!” This is really indicative of how incongruous his philosophy about video games music and the show itself are. He wants the world to take video game music seriously, but then wholly encourages the audience to scream over the pieces. I’m pretty sure an audience full of screaming people does not indicate to the world that you want to be taken seriously.

As I said, there are a few other video game concerts out there, and they are all better than VGL. Play was an actual _concert_ with a respectful audience who applauded when it made sense to do so. It felt classy and mature – almost as if people were there to hear their favorite themes and music being played well. Distant Worlds was a few steps closer to being VGL than Play!, but it had an air of respectability around it.

I think the biggest issue is that Video Games Live can’t decide what it is. Is it a concert, or is it a show? If it was a show, it would be performed at large, open venues with standing room, where people stand around and drink beer. But it’s performed at concert halls, so unless I’m mistaken, it’s a concert. That comes with its own set of expectations: namely that you will sit in the hall, you will hear pieces of music from beginning to end, and you will be respectful. Last year, the CEO of the Brooklyn Philarmonic wrote that he thinks audiences should be allowed to cheer and clap whenever they want. After people got angry at him, he clarified: “‘I don’t want bedlam to break out’, he said by telephone. ‘I’m not at all suggesting I want people to yell and scream and clap…'”. He should probably skip Video Games Live, then, as that’s really all it is. It’s just chaos. People came together to hear music played, but if the sixteen year olds around you are screaming the whole time, then you can’t hear the music – so what’s the point in going at all? If you want to express your geekiness, great – go do it at a convention or something. It has absolutely no place at a concert.

I’ll give an example to better illustrate the impact. Imagine you played $75 to see Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed at Lincoln Center. The orchestra starts playing, and by the time the first motif is played, people start cheering. This continues on and off for roughly the whole time. Half the fourth movement is ruined by some person next to you whooping with glee. The whole atmosphere of the performance would be ruined, and you’d probably ask for your money back. That’s what Video Games Live feels like.

Also, I’m pretty sure people who see the Ninth Symphony performed live show their respect to the music and the performers by being quiet and respectful.  It’s not like the audience is necssarily raucous on their own – Tallarico encourages it. He’s somehow managed to work out deals to get the rights to play well-written pieces of music, and then desecrates them by encouraging the audience to yell over their being played. It’s disrespectful to the pieces, the authors of the pieces, and to the people playing the music.

The other part is that video game music has, for a long time, not actually been considered music. People may look back on early video game music with rose-colored glasses, but to a lot of people it was just bleeps and bloops (actually, Tallarico discusses exactly this in the introduction to the show). Video game music has come a long way since then. Scores are now recorded live by orchestras and are professionally produced; film score composers and regular musicians have started to compose video game music. Probably the biggest achievement for video game music is Austin Wintory’s Grammy nomination for the amazing soundtrack to Journey. While I don’t think we’ll ever hear video game music on a top 40 station, it’s certainly making its way into being relevant. To me, Video Games Live feels like a step in the wrong direction. Music that is objectively good and interesting to listen to is being used as the backdrop for an otherwise tawdry event.

Sadly, I think Video Games Live is probably at its best when sitting at home listening to the studio recordings of the pieces. Way better than seeing it live, at the very least.

This video pretty succinctly summarizes my feelings on Video Games Live and its audience. I’ve never actually been able to fully watch it, though, as I end up cringing so hard that I have to turn it off. We left the Playhouse before they went into this so that we didn’t have to suffer.

Sunday, November 17th, 2013 11:32 pm - essays, video games

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