Lorain, Ohio would have been gorgeous in the ‘50s. Walking down Lorain’s Broadway Avenue, you can sense the family-owned storefronts that used to light up their ten foot tall display windows with holiday decor. Now they’re empty space and the city appears worn. That’s in great contrast with what happened across the street at the 90-year-old Lorain Palace Theater on Jan. 30 2015: Tommy Tallarico’s explosive, vibrant traveling show, Video Games Live.
The audio/visual video game music concert began a decade earlier with a show at the Hollywood Bowl. Since, cities like London and Dubai have given the show a home. That cold January day, one day after playing Mannheim, Germany, Video Games Live jumped into Lorain for an evening. The next day, Video Games Live was in New York. A show in Lorain seems improbable comparatively, dwarfed by those monster-scaled performances. Still, led by the avidity of Video Games Live co-creator Tommy Tallarico, the show has spirit and exudes energy. The venue is irrelevant.
The Lorain performance led Tallarico to Toledo, Ohio one year later. Toledo is a touch different from Lorain. It’s a video game town, a city overwhelmed with ten-too-many GameStop stores. Yet it still has capacity to support seven locally owned video game resale shops too. Toledo likes games. A poll in the mid 2000s marked Toledo as one of the highest consoles-per-capita cities in the United States. It’s remarkable that Video Games Live took over ten years to find the city, and it might have been passed over again were it not for Lorain. Symphonies, it turns out, criss-cross on ideas in their efforts to keep the arts a viable business and even adapt to the change Video Games Live can bring.
A TIRED PERFORMER
Tommy Tallarico is audibly tired. He groggily answers the phone from his California home when I call him in August 2015. No one can say he doesn’t have reason to be exhausted. He’s teetering toward 50, decades removed from his gig as the voice and composer of the classic video game Earthworm Jim (among others). The night before our call, he landed from a four night stint playing Video Game Live in China. Prior, it was a four night engagement in Germany. Eight shows, only five days off, and a few of those were travel. Tallarico lives the rock star life, albeit with video game music and symphonies.
He earned his place. His prolific soundtrack output of 16-bit and 32-bit gems are iconic. From smooth beach grooves in the playful 7-Up tie-in Cool Spot to the ferocious electric guitar of Terminator on Sega CD, he was everywhere. His masterpiece is the haunting if technically plagued Advent Rising, a one-off space opera without the legs to become a full franchise. For a time, he was even a playful critic on Electric Playground for the now defunct cable network G4. Then came Video Games Live.
Tallarico loves what he does. To go further, he’s also an efficient marketer and voracious self-promoter. Early in our interview, Tallarico tells the story of the first Video Games Live show. “And they thought I’d be lucky if 500 people show up. Well, 11,000 showed up for that first show.” In Lorain, he opened the night with the same story. In Toledo, the same words again. The statement is a proud one, but burned into his head after 350+ performances. It’s clear he runs on pure marketing instinct (or it’s the lack of sleep). It’s difficult in the interview to work around those stories.
As Tallarico puts it—again, quite often—the show began as a means to bring video game music into new cultural significance. “We’re not only using video game music to show how far video games have come, but also the visuals and the graphics and storylines and the characters and the art.” That means away from what he calls “bleeps and bloops.” Bleeps and bloops were referenced six times during the interview. He’s become a master of speaking to mass media publications, toning down the video game industry vernacular for a bunch of easily digestible phrases.
He’s smart and built the show beyond its potential capacity by pushing video game discussion away from the usual places of discourse, all with the same lines. No matter the age of Video Games Live, articles always slink back to how it all started. He has a way of guiding conversation. Speaking to the Toledo Blade, Tallarico gave the paper his “bleep bloop” angle. Lorain’s Morning Journal too. A mass market crowd still expresses surprise that Video Games Live is even a thing.
Symphonies who take on a Video Games Live show tend to come to the same sudden realizations, according to Tallarico. “When we write symphonic music, you’re going to hear quality. Any film composer would tell you the same thing. So you see them [orchestras] going, ‘Oh, this is actually good music. I thought we were going to be sitting in our chairs going, bleep bloop all night long.’ Then you hit 'em with Skyrim and they’re like, ‘Holy shit.’"
There’s that bleep and bloop again.
As the interview rolls on, Tallarico wakes up. Questions shift a bit. Either coffee is kicking in or he’s emphatic about what he’s doing. There’s a new energy in his voice as video game music becomes the focus of conversation, away from the marketing angle, but there are still stories from the road slipping in.
“The first time we were playing the Pittsburgh Symphony, a woman who played in the woodwind section comes up to me before the show. She has tears in her eyes. And she says, ‘Hey Tommy, I’m a single mom and I’ve been playing in this orchestra for 20 years. I’ve been trying to get my 17 year-old son to come and see me perform for his whole life and he’s never seen me play—until tonight. Stuff like that hits you.”
Video game music is given lyrics through gameplay. Raiding Dr. Wily’s castle in Mega Man 2 is exhilarating—small in stature visually but uplifted by the background theme. The ragtime jive of Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. melody adds bounce to the scenario. Metal Gear Solid is punctuated by jarring screeches and tense violins. Street Fighter II draws everything from its ethnic musical cues.
Times have altered how video game music is performed and composed. The identity changed. Technology brought the need for film-like compositions rather than more measured loops of, well, bleeps and bloops. Tallarico still sees merit in all of it, old and new.
“Uncharted, Journey, Halo, anything from Warcraft, League of Legends; there’s some amazing music being done now, much more complex and just as memorable. The opening theme from Halo”—he pauses to mimic the recognizable monastic chanting—”is just as iconic, especially to the generation of millennials, as Mario or Zelda is to us. There is merit, just it’s done in a different way because the games are more cinematic. It’s not just, here’s a 45-second loop and it better be fucking good or else it’s going to be annoying and people are going to shut it off.”
He does have some gripes with how modern games play. “It always pissed me off that like, just because people got 3D they stopped making 2D platform games. What the hell is up with that? Even Mario abandoned its shit. The worst example would be Sonic. Sonic was a great 2D game and all the 2D Sonic games were freakin’ awesome. The second they stepped into the 3D world and changed the gameplay, they lost it. And I can say that because I’ve worked on some crappy Sonic games.”
He’s really awake now.
Video Games Live is a mixture of sounds. Remixed clips of Mario are jammed together with bombastic choirs belting Final Fantasy VII’s “One Winged Angel.” What plays depends on the where. Toledo skewed retro. Of the 19 tracks, nine were vintage in nature, stretched to ten depending on the definition of “retro.” That would not be the case for a place like Dubai.
“When you play the Middle East you have to remember that 15-20 years ago the place didn’t really exist in regards to how it’s been built up,” says Tallarico. “Nintendo wasn’t even around. So everything is like PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3; so a lot of God of War, Metal Gear Solid, Halo, those type of things. When you play Mario or Zelda, they don’t really know it.”
Video Games Live puts the music in-sync with video to draw on the sensation of play. Those screens, the stage, Tallarico jamming, lights projecting gold rings onto the ceiling during a Sonic the Hedgehog piece; sensory deprivation this is not. There are lighted Video Games Live t-shirts flickering green in the distance. Cosplayers are loaded with LEDs. Someone in the front row keeps their full-sized Mega Man helmet lit for the duration.
A volunteer usher becomes curious before the show as to who a specific cosplayer is supposed to be. It was GLaDOS from Portal. I likely left the woman more confused, but being surrounded by the multitude of demographics seemed to keep up her spirits. The dynamism of video game fans around her is infectious.
Attendees such as the cosplayer skew younger, but generations can be equal. A child next to me in Toledo, 11 years old at the most, was lost in his own head trying to stay interested in Castlevania tracks from the '80s. He failed and skimmed the free program they handed out at the door. An elderly gentleman on the deck below never moved, stood, or clapped, seemingly confounded by the laser lights, fog machine, and special guest metal rocker “Viking Jesus.”
Note these specific instances were visible solely for their inaction in a sea of action. Those who get it—and to be clear, it’s a staggering majority of the near 1700 seated in Toledo—are as jazzed as Tallarico. They’re hollering, they’re clapping, they’re screaming, they’re yelling for songs. An even younger child below the balcony section sent his hand into the air and head banged through a heavy metal rendition of Pokemon.
A glance away from the two projected screens to the orchestra reveals professionals who never flinch. The players don’t seem bothered by the splashy, ADD off-setting surroundings. Performance from these orchestras is never less than astonishing.
Within Video Games Live is a touch of vindication. Suddenly, there is legitimacy in video games and the social embarrassment of enjoying their music evaporates. Those of us who grew up accessing or searching for hidden sound tests on discs and cartridges to hear each track knew quality—before it was cool. This music is worth sharing now and some 1700 people in the same room agree.
PATCHING IT TOGETHER
Putting together a Video Games Live show is an undertaking. Certainly, the processes and the set-up have become second nature to the traveling crew. Live uses sizable video screens—two in Toledo’s case—a full orchestra, a choir, and sometimes stage acts to accentuate the music. Metal Gear is usually accompanied by a soldier with a light-up exclamation point wandering around stage. Clips online reveal additional on-stage shenanigans, location dependent.
The Toledo show took place in the city’s lavish art museum, which around one year prior hosted another traveling exhibition: The Art of Video Games. Inside the Toledo Art Museum’s peristyle, a horseshoe shaped bowl with luxury architecture mimicking a coliseum, a nearly sold out crowd came to cheer the Toledo Symphony. Violinist Merwin Siu enjoyed the bombast overall, despite the challenge of following a click-track in his ear while the stage exploded around her.
Rehearsals happened once before the show, at 4PM prior to the 8:30PM start. But even the setlist was a mystery until go time. Asked the day of performance what would be played, Siu stated, “We’ve been given parts. They’re pretty protective of their setlist.”
At least the show offers rest periods unusual to the orchestra world. It leads to a performance which, despite the outpouring of energy, ended up being a smaller physical drain on Siu.
“We got a couple of times to take a break. A slightly longer intermission, Viking Jesus did some stuff where usually we’re playing. What’s different is when the lighting is done really well, it’s helping you. You’re not having to create excitement with just acoustic sound. You can work a little less hard.”
There are other sides to a Video Games Live show. Marketing for the Toledo Symphony organization is handled by Robert Cummerow. He’s not tired on the Thursday before the show. If anything, he sounds ready to go. This first time event for the symphony represents a changing of the guard for him, a shift away from print media advertising and a move toward social media across digital platforms. Video Games Live becomes the forcible push these organizations need to stay relevant.
“In the past, we’ve been focused on print, but we’re seeing value in digital ads, billboards, Facebook. Those are the way of the future, especially if you’re trying to market to this generation. That generation is more willing to spend money on seeing live performances than in the past and those people are really involved with FB and Instagram. They’re not checking the paper. We really had to revamp how we look at things.”
That’s not to say the older generation is being pushed away. Cummerow mentioned a nameless patron and his four friends who were coming from a local retirement home. That generation appreciates what Video Games Live is able to do, states Cummerow.
“When we have a good student turnout and there’s a whole section full of young kids to see Tchaikovsky, that gets them [older patrons] so pumped up and so many certified letters written in fountain pen to tell us how excited they were to see so many young people. [Video Games Live] might not be something they want to see but they love the idea that the peristyle…is going to be sold out and filled with primarily people under 40.”
“We’ve had it on our radar for a little bit,” Siu, who also serves as Artistic Administrator, says. “The art museum’s video game exhibit was the turning point. Having [the museum] be involved in something like that lent this legitimacy to our symphony group. We didn’t get a lot of resistance but if we had done this three years ago, we would have. It’s a timing issue. Now video games are part of every arts section. That wasn’t the case five years ago.”
Alongside Video Games Live, the museum is concurrently holding an exhibit on sneaker culture—Air Jordans in a museum. While Video Games Live is not the direct catalyst or even related, there’s a sense the show’s existence has broken down generational culture barriers, in addition to the swell of support for video games as legitimate artistic endeavors.
Leaving Video Games Live, crowds are chatty as they exit the peristyle. Many hum their favorite tracks. Merchandise stands are full. A line forms for a free autograph session with Tallarico and company, primed to scribble names in silver sharpie on any number of black and green CDs.
Just prior, Tallarico had stepped up to the microphone, still promoting and probably tired again even if his fatigue doesn’t show. His last words from the stage are, “We’ll see you next year.” Maybe he’s right. Siu sees a possibility.
“We still have to crunch numbers. It looked like a good crowd and we were happy with it. Based on data we got and how it felt, it seems like something people would be interested in.”
In our interview, Tallarico reflects on how it started:
“I grew up on bleeps and bloops, but I also grew up on rock and roll and loving symphonic music like John Williams and Bill Conte’s Rocky music. I thought, why can’t we have that in video games? Why are we cheapening ourselves and saying, ‘Oh no, video game music is just this bleeps and bloops, 80s pop synth crap.’ There’s some really great crap but it didn’t have to all be like that…When you come up with the idea and the concept, you never know the ancillary things that could happen.”
He’s right, because those ancillary things have convinced museums and symphonies to hold video game concerts. They’re not playing bleeps and bloops, either. Times change. Bleep, bloop.
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