Video-game music advances to next level

by Luke Taylor, Minnesota Public Radio
January 14, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — "There are extremely talented composers who are classically trained and are writing scores for video games," says Classical MPR host Emily Reese. "You can hear that reflected in their work."

From Jan. 14 to 18, Classical MPR will give listeners a chance to hear those reflections when it features video-game music throughout the week. Rex Levang, Classical MPR's music director, says this special programming was inspired by what he calls "the nice success story" of the Top Score podcast, in which host Reese (who loves gaming almost as much as she loves classical music) talks to composers about their experience writing for video games.

Launched in 2011, Top Score enjoyed a banner year in 2012; the weekly podcast has seen record downloads and has welcomed video-game music luminaries such as Jesper Kyd, Richard Jacques, Jack Wall and Martin O'Donnell. "They're just eager to talk about what they get to do every day," Reese says of her guests. "They really appreciate the way that we in radio are able to mix in music to give people a concrete, listenable example right away."

Beyond the studio, Reese represented Top Score and Classical MPR at the Penny Arcade Expo — aka PAX Prime — in Seattle, where she moderated a panel of video-game composers (Kyd among them) for a crowd of 600 enthusiasts. Gamers are clearly enjoying the music they're hearing as they play. "People come to classical music through all different doorways, from music lessons to Looney Tunes," Levang muses. "Maybe video-game music is going to be a new way people will discover classical music."

Reese has witnessed these discoveries first hand. "It's really fun to interact with the Top Score audience while I'm doing an air shift on Classical MPR," she says. "It's nice to be able to say, 'If you liked the score to this game, which is like baroque music, you might really like Bach. Check out his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.' "

The music industry has also noticed video-game music. Composer Austin Wintory's soundtrack for the 2012 game Journey is now the first complete video-game score to be nominated for a Grammy Award. Reese says the music to Journey is so popular that Sony released a collector's edition CD of the soundtrack. "It seems like each year, we're able to get access to more and more of these scores [on CD]," Reese notes.

Both Reese and Levang insist video-game experience is not a prerequisite to enjoying these newly composed works. Levang says the featured tracks will emphasize the composers' classical training and the inspiration they draw from the classical canon. Reese believes listeners will find similarities with another medium. "This music sounds very cinematic," she says.

To help introduce the music to listeners, Reese will be Alison Young's guest each day at 10 o'clock for Morning Glories, where the featured piece will be drawn from video games. Reese will also visit Classical MPR hosts John Birge, Steve Staruch and Bill Morelock on different days throughout the week. "I'm excited about it," Reese says. "And I'm interested to hear what listeners have to say."

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