When Erik Jung, Peter Wooley and I worked at US Digital as the company’s first internal design team, our office established a small but fun tradition. Every day, control of the room’s sound system would rotate between us. From 2-4pm, the DJ for the day would subject his co-workers to the music of his choosing. It started discussions, inspired creativity and was just plain cool.
All three of us had overlap in our musical tastes (we all dig Daft Punk, for example) but with very broad deviations. I dug a lot of punk and art rock. Erik had a passion for film soundtracks and rare, vinyl-only recordings. And Peter enjoyed video game soundtracks.
I hated video game soundtracks. They seemed to lack any context whatsoever, naked without the gameplay they were composed to support. Experiencing them on their own felt pretentious, incomplete, a mere novelty. Put simply, I just didn’t get it.
Peter and I attended Video Games Live at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this past Saturday, and I think it changed my mind.
Any reader of this blog knows how big a fan I am of live shows. Many of the bands I love today didn’t come alive for me until I saw them perform. You can’t know how textural Will Sergeant’s guitar playing really is until you’ve seen Echo and the Bunnymen live. Ray Davies’ pure craftsmanship, certainly audible in Kinks recordings, somehow ignites when performed to an enthusiastic and energized crowd. There’s something about the experience of music that is inherently visceral, perhaps even vital.
In Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne suggests that we’re hard-wired to feel this way:
In the past, music was something you heard and experienced — it was as much a social event as a purely musical one. Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context. Epic songs and ballads, troubadours, courtly entertainments, church music, shamanic chants, pub sing-alongs, ceremonial music, military music, dance music — it was pretty much all tied to specific social functions. It was communal and often utilitarian. You couldn’t take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity (except as sheet music, but that’s not music), or even hear it again. Music was an experience, intimately married to your life. You could pay to hear music, but after you did, it was over, gone — a memory.At Video Games Live, I experienced the history of gaming in sight and sound with the aid of the Oregon Symphony and Pacific Youth Choir, conducted by Jack Wall (Myst, Mass Effect) and hosted by Tommy Tallarico (Earthworm Jim, Metroid Prime). As I sat among my fellow geeks, cheering at the site of Sonic the Hedgehog creator Yuji Naka, the opening title of the NES Metroid, footage of Ralph Baer testing an early version of Pong in 1968 and Martin Leung playing the Super Mario Bros. theme blind-folded, I realized what we all were really responding to.
We’ll always want to use music as part of our social fabric: to congregate at concerts and in bars, even if the sound sucks; to pass music from hand to hand (or via the Internet) as a form of social currency; to build temples where only “our kind of people” can hear music (opera houses and symphony halls); to want to know more about our favorite bards — their love lives, their clothes, their political beliefs. This betrays an eternal urge to have a larger context beyond a piece of plastic. One might say this urge is part of our genetic makeup.
It was the experience of these games, the fun and adventure they provided, and the soundtrack that is intrinsically linked to our memories. This music, thoughtfully composed and lovingly executed, is no more shallow than any other genre strengthened by the energy of a live performance.
Needless to say, the show was a wonderfully geeky good time.