Friday, June 3, 2011

No, but if you hum a few bars...

Your Critic was four years old when she had the privilege to meet John Williams (at the time, conductor of her hometown Boston Pops), and informed him -- to his face -- that she thought the Star Wars music superior to that of Superman.  Her simultaneously mortified and proud parents report that he agreed.

By the time Your Critic was seven, she was ardently insisting that, when given the chance to pick a band instrument in fourth grade, she was going to go with the French horn.  And at age nine, she made good on that threat.

There are two main reasons, as a young child, that I was so desperately in love with the horn.


In high school I made a mix tape (well, a tape, not so much a mix) pulling out all of the leitmotif themes I was able to find on the newly-released expanded Star Wars trilogy soundtracks.  (I came up with 53, if I remember correctly, although some might have been variations.)  In college I devoted much time to writing an (at the time, very popular) accessible analysis of Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings scores (for non-musicians), that I posted first on LiveJournal and then on my now-defunct first website.  Until this blog, it was easily far and away the most-read thing I've ever put on the internet.

So.  I may have become a passionate gamer fairly young, but before the games there was music.  (The music came before everything, in fact, as my mom was a performing choral and opera singer while pregnant with me.)  And so here I am, with close to three decades of intense movie score fangirlism behind me, and over twenty years of experience as a musician (choral singing in addition to the horn).  Film scores are what put me on the path that eventually led to film school.  And now I am a writer on the subject of video games.

Oh, what fun!  Mwhahahahaha.

Game music is shamelessly manipulative (as is film music), but that works and I love letting it.  Music is what takes a ridiculous trailer or cut scene and makes it genuinely gripping.  It's that extra layer that punches through the player's armor of cynicism and grips his heart.  At least, ideally.  Too minimal, and the player doesn't buy it.  Too over-the-top, and the player walks away in disgust.

So here's what I've been listening to over and over at work:

I can't help it.  I don't even like Halo or own a 360, but this track has everything I love to groove to right now.  It's in an almost nautical 6/8 time, with crazy bass, men's chorals, heavy percussion, and many layers moving at once.  (Bass and percussion will get me every time.  See also: Battlestar Galactica and Bear McCreary.)  And in fact, the first time I heard it was at Video Games Live -- and their version had a cello duel.  A CELLO.  DUEL.  That is a thing that always makes me happy.

I won't be making a formal series of this or anything (like "Beyond the Girl Gamer" is), but music in gaming is going to become a definite regular feature around this place.  There are so very many things to talk about in the kind of scoring that goes with a film or game, and in gaming it's made much more complicated by the player's ability to manipulate time and point of view.  Howard Shore knew, to the second, how long the battle of Helm's Deep was on screen and what was being showcased in it, frame by frame.  Jack Wall had no way of knowing exactly how long a player would take to retrieve the Reaper IFF, or what that player would stop to look at while doing so.

There has been no time in gaming where the soundtrack was totally unimportant (the same is true of film: in the silent film era, the music was played live in the theater).  But narrative gaming in the modern era borrows so much of its artistic philosophy from film that the score becomes ever more prominent.

I'm not sure what game I'm going to write about first, although in this household we've been talking a lot about the evolution of the score in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 as we played through them so I may end up starting there.  In the meantime, here are some things to read:


  1. The game's reception was mixed, to say the least, but I loved the way Spore handled music. Brian Eno designed a series of tracks? components? that the player picks out that worked as generative/emergent music.

    And Minnesota Public Radio has a classical music podcast about video games specifically called
    "Top Score." Heh.

  2. Murray Gold's work on Doctor Who - particularly any music to do with Martha - I've been listening to that a lot lately and I often find myself wondering what you'd have to say about it.

  3. oh, hang on, for some reason that didn't post the way I wanted it to.  I meant to say, I remember the analysis you did of the LOTR music and I loved it.  And then the part about how I'm currently enjoying the Doctor Who scores.

  4. No worries, I figured the first half there was implied, hehe.

    And if that's not a reason to go back and watch some older DW stuff this summer in between the first and second halves of series 6, I don't know what is!  ;)

  5. Thank you for this.

  6. I could hear that Star Wars clip in my head just from seeing the youtube screen cap - that's definitely one of my favorite John Williams bits.  I love all the original Star Wars soundtracks in general but another favorite is the Throne Room track from the end of A New Hope - as the youtube comments say, if I'm ever given an award, I want them playing this at the ceremony!

    I love a lot of video game soundtracks as well - Mass Effect definitely has a great one, I'll be interested to see what you have to say about that when you get to it.  

    I haven't been to a Video Games Live but did get to a Final Fantasy Distant Worlds concert a few years ago with Nobou Uematsu himself in attendance - two of my favorites of his are probably the Zanarkand theme
    and Terra's Theme from FFVI

    Also, the MGS2 theme

    Looking forward to more of these posts!

  7. Well, the Throne Room music is the exact same as the binary sunset music -- just in a different tempo and orchestration. ;)

    Also we did the Nerd Thing and used the Throne Room cue as our outro at our wedding.  I mean, what else does a geek do?  Terra's theme was our prelude.  (I entered to the Princess Bride "Storybook Love" theme, because, well, duh.)

    There's an interesting thing with the MSG2 theme where it turns out to be very similar to an obscure Russian symphony no-one had heard of.  I might have to dredge it up to write about.

    Man, now I'm really looking forward to writing more of these posts! ;)

  8. Hah, wow, even listening to those back to back I hadn't realized that, but you're totally right.

  9. The specific bit I'm thinking of is, I think, part of the piece called "Martha's Quest".  On the soundtrack it comes about in the middle of the track, and one of the places where it's played is right after the Doctor, Jack, and Martha have their TARDIS keys and then they go out, "like ghosts", to find the Master.  If I'm remembering it right it's played with a French horn.

  10. Hey, thanks for the link! Looking at that list now, I'm kind of embarrassed by how much my output has dropped off recently...yikes.

    Anyway, I'm really looking forward to these posts! I'm particularly excited to hear that you have a background with film scores; I've always found them interesting -- and, as you mention, they're increasingly relevant to games -- but I don't know much about them myself. I'd love to learn more!

  11. Thanks!

    Your pieces on irregular meter in particular got me thinking, because rather than the reliable 4/4 or 6/8 (or 12/8) marches of old, these days our game characters' heroic moments and stirring missions seem, often, to happen in 5/4 or 7/8, which is such a delightfully weird thing that I can't help but getting into wondering why. :)  Especially after how much time I spent with LOTR writing about how it's bad guys who get the uneven and off-kilter marching rhythms, hehe.

  12. Count me as someone who thinks of Wagner's Ring Cycle as the greatest fantasy RPG score ever made.   And there's lots of horn...

  13. Deb the Closet MonsterJune 4, 2011 at 7:35 PM

    I've just started listening to the Halo clip. I love it! This is exactly the kind of thing I need to start putting on my iPod to get back into running.


    Also, I love the anecdote about John Williams--both for the anecdote itself and for the picture it paints of a very little you!

  14. Extra Credits did an episode on music that I enjoyed.

    Back in my SNES days, I used to make sure to keep a save game in Chrono Trigger while Zeal was still around so I could listen to the music whenever I wanted.

    Looking forward to the series.  Is there a working link to your old LoTR analysis?

  15. I'm planning to get the LOTR analysis and some other old stuff I did (a Heroes 3 map, a Myst walkthrough) up here in the not so distant future. :)

  16. Remind me sometime (shoot me an e-mail) and I'll see if I can't come up with some running- and walking-tempo badass game and movie music suggestions to send you.  :)