A reader offers his review of the BBC’s Gaming Prom and considers how it will affect the mainstream popularity of video game music.
Earlier this month, the 21st concert of this year’s BBC Proms season concluded with the first Gaming Prom, From 8-Bit to Infinity, with Robert Ames conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. For my over 10 years of attending video game music concerts, I have always viewed this event to be a goal that would be unachievable, with video game music being looked down on by the traditional classical music community as a contemporary oddity. Then all of a sudden, this year, both Classic FM and the BBC announce two concerts within two months of each other – it’s certainly made me shift my expectations very quickly.
For the benefit of Metro’s international audience, the BBC Proms is an eight-week festival of classical music held every summer in London for almost 130 years, with the BBC taking control of the programme since 1927. Its purpose is to provide an accessible route for the general public to experience the many forms of classical music, with pricing being significantly lower than that typically paid for a standard concert (e.g., standing tickets being sold on the day at £7).
Concerts are regularly broadcast both on radio and TV, embedding this festival as an unavoidable part of the British way of life, whether or not you deem yourself as patriotic. Because of the broadcasting element of the Proms, views of the orchestra can be obstructed by the increased lighting effects and constant moving of television cameras, but I personally found it to not be a distraction.
The concert started with an original piece by classical composer Matt Rogers, commissioned by the BBC, showing appreciation towards the ZX Spectrum and its contribution to many a British childhood during the 1980s. However, as pleasant as it sounded, I couldn’t pin down a single game’s soundtrack throughout its 10 minute duration.
Only close to the end did something strike me: a series of buzztones played out that were characteristic of a specific musician prominent in the 8-bit era, that being Tim Follin. My trigger was well-founded, as the piece was revealed to be an interpretation of Chronos, an obscure shoot ‘em-up released on a budget label in 1987 with the music composed by Follin himself, showing his talents with what was extremely limited hardware.
With the benefit of being able to discuss this with the composer himself after the performance, I discovered that the original intention was to produce a medley of up to 30-odd games, but rights issues led to the need to reduce that to only one. Extending a solitary three minute soundtrack to 10 minutes required a lot of creative freedom, and listening back, I can detect the occasional nod to the tape loading process of these games.
Loading Chronos was the first of two commissioned pieces for the concert, with the second being a medley of three soundtracks representing the cartridge era of the 1990s, tasked to the non-binary, contemporary composer, Cee Haines. Their medley consisted of Pokémon Red/Blue, Ecco The Dolphin, and Secret Of Mana and, although a somewhat peculiar trio to attempt in combination, was performed so smoothly together that halfway through, I just seemed to be lost in my own imagination.
However, the concept of honouring the original sound of the Game Boy through ‘electronic enhancement’ of the woodwind instruments in the orchestra (specifically the oboe and cor anglais) gave mixed results in my opinion: the reedy warbling sound felt more of a parody, possibly insult, to the limitations of the console’s hardware, almost like the Pokémon theme was being played through kazoos. However, that discordant noise added so much to the spooky and discomforting sensation behind the background music of Lavender Town that I’ve never heard in any other rendition or remix.
That wasn’t the most gut-wrenching performance of the night – I have to applaud all that went into the selections from Battlefield 2042, with its dystopian atmosphere really hammering home the horrors of a futuristic war. When you’re sitting way high in the cheap seats and can still feel your chair vibrate from the bass notes, you know you’re witnessing something special.
Other pieces played that evening would have been more familiar to those who have attended video game music concerts in the past, such as those from The Legend Of Zelda, Final Fantasy 7, and Kingdom Hearts. These were simple, straight-up performances that lacked any real depth or added sweetness that would usually be added in, say a Distant Worlds or Video Games Live concert. But it didn’t matter, since everything sounded…well, appropriate.
Prom 21 really did attempt to consolidate over 35 years of video game music history into a concert that would appeal to both those who were familiar with the history of video games and a typical Proms audience that are more familiar with 350 years of classical music. There was always going to be a tricky balance in trying to appease the desires of one side of this spectrum without alienating the other, and for the most part this was successful, with positive reviews from serious classical music journalists at Bachtrack and The Telegraph outweighing the only negative review I could find: a brief and snarky review from The Times.
However, the real litmus test to me comes from the radio critic for The Observer, a self-confessed non-gamer who listened with no prior knowledge of the games represented – her positive review leaves me confident that this first Gaming Prom was a success.
We’d like to know – how would you like video game music to be presented in concerts in the future? Do you like mixes of different gaming soundtracks, or music from just one video game favourite? Or would you want to hear it alongside its classical inspirations?
— Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (@rpoonline) August 2, 2022
So with this concert performed, filmed, and broadcast nationally on both radio and TV, video game music in the UK has now dipped its toes into the mainstream. So where do we go from here? There are a range of possibilities, such as further exposure on TV and radio outside of specialist slots, celebrity endorsement or maybe even a commercial release that makes its way into the music charts.
I think these would be steps too far and the genre will lose some of its charm, but life rarely stands still and now that the BBC has accepted video game music as part of its roster of classical music genres, its future is uncertain. One positive thing to realise though is that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is showing a greater commitment to performing something similar to these Proms again in the future, asking their followers to suggest how they should go about it.
For those who were unable to attend the Gaming Prom (or wish to relive it), the TV and radio broadcasts are available through BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds until October 10. Finally, highlights of the concert will also be broadcast to multiple countries worldwide through the shortwave frequencies of the BBC World Service this weekend.
By reader GGEuDraco (Steam ID/Pokémon Go: 5678-1979-9408)
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