Concert Review: Video Games Live! Bonus Round

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A few weekends ago, Tommy Tallarico and his merry band of video game composers headed into Vienna, VA, to play Video Games Live! Bonus Round at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. Excitedly, Jen and I went with a couple of friends to see the show, which was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.

Disclaimer: Jen’s camera ended up breaking so I don’t have pictures from the actual show [insert here your vision of a crying man]; the ones included are from the VGL press page.

wolftrapIf you have never been to the Wolf Trap, it’s a beautiful venue. Every time I’ve been I have opted to get a lawn ticket, which has been lovely simply because you can set yourself up a little picnic spot. Granted, your spot is going to be squished between all of the other picnic spots, especially if you want a good seat, but to be real, the spaces between you and your neighbors on the lawn are still larger than they would be if you sat next to them in the seated area.

Even though we were pretty far up on the lawn (which is a hill that leads down to the seating area, as you can tell from the picture), we still had a pretty great view of the symphony. Aside from experiencing this music played by a live orchestra, another main part of the VGL show is video, and while we were too high up to see the video behind the symphony itself, Wolf Trap had set up a second external screen that was large and very visible once it got a little darker outside. Deciding whether to focus on the orchestra or on the screens was a minor dilemma at times, but one that was certainly overcome by ability to bring and eat Triscuits and cheese.

As the show’s host, Tommy Tallarico, who looks and dresses like some people that I hung out with in high school, acts like a goofy, energetic kid—and I mean that in a good way. The show, though it is based around a serious concept – the one of symphony orchestras performing music from games, those things that are often seen by people as a horrible, mind-numbing alternative to going outside –, is extremely light-hearted to the point where it is almost like an old-school game itself. Tommy bounds around on stage, hyping up the audience and shredding on his guitar, reminding us that this music, while sometimes serious, is also serious fun. More


Playing Catch-up


Aside from my review of Journey, for the past month and a half you all haven’t heard much out of me, and I apologize for that.  My full-time job is running the operations/logistics of a show in Norfolk, VA, called the Virginia International Tattoo, which is essentially an annual international military band and cultural act show that features around 850 performers in groups from various countries (this year we had eight: US, Canada, UK, Australia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Belgium, Albania).  In short, the groups are here for ten days doing rehearsals, education outreach events, and performances, but it takes all year to nail down the details.  Work really starts to get busy in February, exponentially increases from then through their stay at the end of April, and remains busy through May and the beginning of June as we do wrap-up.  Here’s the first eleven minutes of this year’s show on YouTube–try it; thousands like it!

I’d like to relax a bit and plan things out and get going full speed ahead with the blog again, but I think I’ll have to build up before I hit my stride ala three posts a month.  Not only did I lose touch with the blog, I lost touch with the rest of the gaming world, not to mention my musical endeavours.  In fact, it was actually quite a miracle that I was able to focus on and get out the Journey review on time.

That being said, I’m playing catch-up.  I have one of those reading list aps on my browser, so I’ve been going through the links I’ve accrued… lots of the stuff is actually from January, heh.  Here’s what I’ve been checking out:


VGM Review #5: “Journey” OST


Starting today you can purchase the Journey OST on iTunes or on the Playstation Network!  *Spoiler alert for the review*: Do it. 

I had my first experience with the music from Journey back in early January, reading composer Austin Wintory’s own words regarding the creation of the music (check out the post).  It was from that that I had the chance to listen to his “Woven Variations,” an “extrapolation” and development of the music found in the game.  I was immediately captivated by both the ideas behind his approach to the music and by the music itself.  Thus began a long two and a half months of waiting to listen to all of the music that Wintory had been composing for the last three years for this game.  Journey was finally released on the PSN to the non-Playstation Plus masses on March 13th 

The first thing I did after the game installed was just scroll to the game’s icon on the XMB.  The theme, represented by Tina Guo’s powerful solo cello, emerged from my speakers and I simply basked in the beauty that flowed from start to finish.  Please, allow yourself to listen to it below.  The track is entitled “Nascence,” and it is fittingly the first track on the OST.  Shut your doors, set your phone to OFF (not silent—a vibrating object on your thigh is just as bad as your “Safety Dance” ringtone), press play, and close your eyes.  Wait—throw your phone out your window.  Okay, now press play and close your eyes…


Everything is right about this piece both as a stand-alone and an in-game work.  Guo absolutely kills the theme in rubato and thus sets the precedent for the rest of the soundtrack.

The bass flute, as played by Amy Tatum, acts as perfect follow-up to Guo both sonically and emotionally.  The robust sound of Guo’s interpretation is brought to a much more mellow state with the entrance of the harp (as played by Charissa Barger), triangle, and Tatum’s flute, but despite the vibe “mellowing,” Tatum easily continues the flow of strong emotion through her part, melodiously melding her rhythmic vibratos with the natural breathy voice of her instrument.

My favorite instance in the song starts at :58, where Guo ever-so-delicately re-enters the mix atop the resolution of the bass flute and harp.  The dynamics of her playing are absolutely spot-on, complementing the features of the previous instruments while at the same time putting a sense of power into the sweetness of her tone.  This power is what leads the other strings of the orchestra in from 1:01 to 1:04.

Austin then shows off an ability of his that I admired from listening to his work from flOw: his willingness to lead the listener to that which is unexpected in a subtle manner.  At 1:16 the strings sound an intense sensual sweep behind Wirtz, and instead of having the cellos follow the lead of the violins by decrescendoing little by little, the cellos sound as if they just drop out at 1:20.  The decrease of their volume coupled with the brightness of the violins’ upper register blanks the lower instruments, allowing them to creep back in, providing the support necessary to push towards a beautiful resolution.

One of my favorite quotes from Wintory about this music from the article I had read in January – the quote that got me most excited and wanting more than just “Woven Variations” – applies directly to the prior paragraph.  Here it is again:

And yet for how ‘high-tech’ we were, this music is utterly unconcerned with technology. It is all about emotional meaning. This is part of what makes Journey itself so special. The game has no fluff, no filler. I think of it like a poem.”

The only way that I believe that Wintory could have accomplished what he aimed to do was to do exactly what he did: record live musicians.  To create something that is “all about emotional meaning” and that is “like a poem” in the most optimal sense, one cannot rely on electronic samples.  Guo, Tatum, and Barger deliver that message right from the beginning—their performance is unabashedly human, lifting Wintory’s score as far away from being technological as an instrumentalist lifts a piece away from being mere notes on a page.


As for the soundtrack as a whole, I’ve had three totally different experiences listening to this music: one from my first play-through, another from listening to the actual OST, and the last from a second play-through.  I beseech the reader to bear with me until s/he reads about my final experience and understanding.


VGM Review #4: flOw


I couldn’t help myself.  After listening to and talking about the previews of Austin Wintory’s work for the upcoming Journey, I needed to buy, play, and, most importantly, listen to the soundtrack to flOw, the other game from thatgamecompany for which he has composed VGM.  And now, having experienced the music in a variety of ways, I have to review it and spread the news of its greatness to those, like myself, who are unfortunate latecomers to the game and its sound.

Unfortunately, there is an issue that exists: my numbering system is going to be all out-of-whack now.  My last review was the Halo OST “Part I,” and I haven’t done a second part since.  It’s hard to finish it when it has a total of 14 views.  Even the first Mega Ran post I did has more views, and you don’t even need to click through from the main page to see the whole thing.  Anyway, “Part II” will happen, just not before I publish this, as you can now plainly see.  But I digress…

The first time I listened to the music from flOw, there were two problems.  The first one was that I went in with extremely high expectations.  After having listened to and having allowed myself to be captivated by music from Journey, I went to Wintory’s website hungry for more excellence.  So I listened to the track once.  And once again.  And I was dumbfounded because I simply didn’t understand it.  Go ahead and take a listen for yourself.

I would describe what you just listened to as being very “transparent.”  I was at work when I first checked it out and typically, even though I’m busy doing something, there will be a part of whatever I’m listening to that pulls me way from my work, even if only for an instant.  There was no such pull with the flOw sample.  It passes through and is over before one even realizes it, and it certainly did so before I was able to grab onto something in it.  Much of that is due to how the reverb makes the piece sound like it’s being performed underwater in a fishbowl.  The result is an effect opposite that of Journey’s.


“Journey” VGM looks to stun


Today the Playstation Blog featured an article by Austin Wintory (composer of flOw) that talks about a lot of behind-the-scenes information regarding his musical work for an upcoming release by thatgamecompany (flOw, Flower) called Journey.  Coupled with gorgeous visuals, the game looks to have a beautiful soundtrack.  If you’d like to check out the whole article, you can here, but here are some highlights:

Check out “Woven Variations” and listen to it as you’re reading–the music really gives substance to Wintory’s words.  Wintory’s own description of the piece:

In April 2011, I wrote a miniature cello concerto for Tina [Guo, his “dear friend and cello superstar”]… The piece is not really a suite of my music from Journey, but more of an extrapolation. It’s an exploration of the material, taken to entirely different places.”


One of the inspirations for Journey was Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey.’ The knee-jerk assumption is that something this big demands epic music on the most towering scale yet my gut led me in the opposite direction. While there are definitely some big moments, I would actually describe it as intimate overall.”

I love this idea.  Personally, I feel that “epic,” as a word and as a sound, has grown stale.  These days, the tendency to use it so much undermines its “epicness,” so, naturally, something else needs to take its place.  From the sounds of Wintory’s work, “intimate” might just become the new “epic.”