5 Interviews

Interview: Symphonic Legends producer on the state of video game music

By Chris Scullion on Sunday Jan 26th 2014 at 3:00 AM PDT

Thomas Böcker has been producing video game concerts for the past decade.

Thomas Böcker

He's the man behind the Symphonic Game Music Concerts, a series of orchestral events celebrating the finest video game compositions.

Having worked with the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in the past, Böcker is once again teaming up with the LSO for Symphonic Legends London, a one-night-only performance of music from the Legend Of Zelda series.

With the concert certain to be another success (it has sold out already), Böcker is keen to continue fighting the good fight for video game music, arguing for its validity in a world that doesn't yet see it as an equal to classical music or even film scores.

We sat down with him to discuss the history of his concerts and his views on the current state of game music.

CVG: You've been producing the Symphonic Game Music Concerts for over a decade now. How did this all come about in the first place?

TB: At the age of seven I was fortunate when my father bought a Commodore 64 for the family. Soon I found myself addicted to its music, especially the soundtracks composed by Chris Hülsbeck. That's how my love for video game music was born.

The premiere of Final Symphony (featuring Final Fantasy music) in Wuppertal, Germany

Years later I got a Commodore Amiga, and thanks to my brother I was also surrounded by different gaming consoles such as the Super Famicom and the Nintendo 64. I learnt to know about other composers such as Yuzo Koshiro, Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo.

One day I read an article in a German video game magazine about concerts in Japan that featured video game music performed by orchestras. I found that idea simply brilliant! Unfortunately, nothing like that happened outside Japan.

So, back in 2002, when the Games Convention in Germany started to become a respected event for the gaming industry, I proposed my concept and budget plan for a video game music concert to the management of the Leipziger Messe.

They agreed - and in August 2003, the first video game music concert in the Western world was performed at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, as their official opening ceremony. It was a huge success, and four annual concerts followed in co-operation with them.

CVG: After those ended you started focusing on individual themed concerts - each based on the music of Chris Hülsbeck, Square Enix, Nintendo and the like. What's the main factor in deciding which of these to do next - commercial viability, personal preference, rights availability, something else?

TB: It certainly is a combination of many aspects, but the most important part is personal preference, I would say. The reason is that you need a burning passion, as obtaining all required licenses and permissions can be quite a lengthy process. Without a connection to the topic, without a strong motivation it would maybe be too tiresome.

Having said this, I always discuss concepts with my composers and arrangers Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo. I have to make sure that the music works well in a live concert situation, and they are experts with the knowledge to judge.

"You need a burning passion, as obtaining all required licenses and permissions can be quite a lengthy process"

CVG: Symphonic Legends will feature music from the Legend Of Zelda games. Nintendo is famously protective of its IP - how much communication did you have with Nintendo during the production of the concert, and how smoothly did it go?

TB: Fortunately I have a long relationship with Nintendo, one that started back in 2003. We have worked before on different projects, such as a Nintendo chamber music concert and school concerts featuring the music of Super Mario Galaxy.

For our Nintendo tribute concerts in 2010 and 2011, I went to its office in Kyoto to discuss my plans, and I got fantastic support, with Koji Kondo being especially helpful. Until 2010, there had not been any officially licensed (live) broadcast / video stream of Nintendo's music, and seeing so much trust in my work and getting that unique permission was a great honour.

The work on Symphonic Legends London is very similar. Of course, every move has to be approved by Nintendo, and all work is reviewed by its staff, but it gives us all needed artistic freedom to create arrangements in our style, following our vision on what a video game music concert should be.

CVG: When composing concerts like this, there clearly has to be a degree of interpretation in which the composer deviates from the original work. For example, the 2010 performance of Symphonic Legends included a Symphonic Poem incorporating many Zelda themes. Is it difficult to keep the balance between staying true to the original composer's work while putting a unique spin on it?

Symphonic Fantasies (music from Square Enix), performed in Tokyo

TB: I think the trick is not to worry too much about it. Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo are gamers themselves, they have played all the titles we are performing in our concerts. It has always been our goal to create a concert that is enjoyable for people who know the games - and people who are just curious experiencing new music.

Imagine the process of arranging like the translation of a poem into another language - you have to keep the intent, the meaning - but at the same time, you need a certain freedom to make it working well in its new environment.

The original game music has been composed to support the action on-screen, and in my opinion, you cannot just take this and try to orchestrate it. It won't work too well, it needs a new layer for the live concert situation, one that expresses the emotional, the story-telling component that gives a guide to all people who are not familiar with the games.

Koji Kondo himself expressed that he likes especially the Symphonic Poem a lot - so I believe we are on the right path with our approach.

"Imagine it like translating a poem into another language: you have to keep the meaning but you need freedom to make it work in its new environment."

CVG: Are there any game soundtracks over the years that you feel are underrated and overlooked, and that you'd like to feature in a concert one day?

TB: I always try to feature music in my concerts that I have a connection to, so naturally I am quite happy with the current status. Having said this, I am well aware of the video game music that hardly gets played at this moment, mainly as the games might not be as popular as Final Fantasy or The Legend Of Zelda.

I believe that the more concerts we see happening worldwide, the more diverse it will get. Remember that twelve years ago, there was no symphonic video game music concert at all while today, you can choose between different local events and world tours. It is quite an achievement, and a growing movement.

CVG: In recent years video game music has slowly infiltrated the annual Classic FM Hall Of Fame reader votes, but when they do much of the feedback from fans of 'proper' classical music is negative. Do you feel video game music has a place in these polls?

Rehearsals for Final Symphony at the London Barbican Centre

TB: As these polls also feature music from movie scores, I think that yes, video game music has a place there. Of course taste in music differs in any kind of genre, and you will find discussions within the group of classical listeners about their love and hate towards the compositions of Bach, Beethoven and Bartók as well.

At the current state, video game music sometimes exceeds the quality of movie scores, and it should be our goal to make that the norm. To give you an example, while classical listeners are usually sceptical towards movie scores as well - not only towards video game music - there is some kind of consensus about the quality of John Williams' work. They might not love it, but they respect it.

This respect is something we can probably expect for video game music too: one day. Making people familiar with video game music with polls such as Classic FM is a very good way of achieving exactly that.

People need to talk about it, think about it. After all, it is about art - and art needs discussion. Heated debates are a very good sign in my book.

CVG: Is there a clear snobbery against video game music, in your opinion? Is it justified?

TB: In music you have masterpieces - and music that probably does not meet the standards one would expect. Snobbery is, however, something that should be avoided, and different tastes in music tolerated.

This should not stop composers from developing and using the medium of video games even better in the future, though, there is definitely room for improvement.

Personally I find the snobbery within the industry towards 8-bit and 16-bit video game soundtracks almost more disturbing. I love some of the older works a lot, and just because playback was limited by technical restrictions back then, it does not lessen the achievements of the composers. In fact it needs quite some skill to produce music when you only have three or four audio channels at your disposal.

CVG: In 2013, Journey was the first video game to be nominated for a Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media, a category that used to be solely dedicated to film and TV. Do you see a video game winning a Grammy sometime in the future, or do you feel these nominations are token gestures and they're still a long way from proper acceptance?

TB: It will happen for sure, I have no doubts. Today we see video game music released by major labels such as Universal Music already. The promotion of video game music is developing at high tempo, so it is only a question of time before we see a game winning the Grammy.

I believe video games are already an accepted part of the entertainment industry, with a lot of financial power and potential. High production values are a must in a highly competitive world, and we have seen huge investments in the audio aspect of video games for quite some time now.