BBC Proms reviews

Prom 21: From 8-bit to Infinity – gaming music comes to the Proms

1 August 2022

Ready Player One. Fun and games (music) at the Albert Hall.

Prom 21

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Robert Ames (Photo: Mark Allan)

One of Monday evening’s presenters described the music from computer games as “innovative”. While it’s arguable that the process of getting the early software and hardware actually to store and reproduce sound files was an innovation, it’s probably true to say that the musical content is far from that. This is not a reflection on quality or enjoyment, but simply on the nature of the medium; like its older siblings, music for film and television, the very purpose of gaming music is to conjure mood and atmosphere, and, by definition, this means calling on well established melodic, rhythmic, harmonic and timbral tropes: driving rhythms and an exultant minor key for a journey in which time is limited or pursuers are closing; a solo woodwind instrument over slightly directionless strings for nostalgia or contemplation; sonorous brass and tuned percussion for grand vistas; a bit of a folk tune in a vaguely Percy Grainger style for ‘we’re having a jolly time in the tavern’.

Much of the music at Monday night’s Prom exhibited all of these tropes – the harmonic material ultimately derived from the compositional styles of late 19th / early 20th century composers form Eastern Europe who emigrated to the USA and worked for the big Hollywood studios. Mixed in with this were some jazz and Latin rhythms and some Walton-influenced, John T Williams-type material for the triumphant marches. All cracking stuff, designed to stir the emotions – and, thanks to the first-rate playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Robert Ames, absolutely succeeding in these goals.

Not a small amount of gaming music comes from Japanese composers; logical, really –  the big electronics companies in Japan developed the consoles and software, and the fusion of Japanese and ‘Western’ elements in Animé, Manga, J-pop, and Yōshoku (cuisine) are very much part of modern popular culture. The music from Final Fantasy VIII (Nobuo Uematsu), Shadow of the Colossus (Kow Otani) and Kingdom Hearts (Yoko Shimomura) in orchestral arrangements by Andrew Skeet, Tomomichi Takeoka and Kaoru Wada respectively were enjoyable examples of this genre, presented with accomplished élan by an orchestra and conductor who clearly understood the idiom, with its need for agile dynamic shift and just that touch of rubato. The Uematsu was full of galloping themes, profound brass chords and some splendid fruity textures from the trombones; a more gentle introduction from a sad birdsong flute over diaphanous strings was brought to the more complex emotional world of Shadow of the Colossus; the lush Disneyesque environment of Kingdom Hearts was summoned by a whoosh of harps, warm brass and the silvery tinkle of a mark tree to be followed by the ‘Hikari’ theme delineated in the strings and adorned with a counter-melody in the trombones.

“…cracking stuff, designed to stir the emotions…”

Prom 21

Robert Ames (Photo: Mark Allan)

There were some quirky moments, though: the opening piece, Matt Rogers / Tim Follin’s Loading Chronos, was a delightfully constructed fantasia (beginning in chaotic, swirling strings, out of which brass tunes emerged) representing the booting sounds of Chronos on the ZX Spectrum. The whirling corrugaphones and electronically enhanced oboes brought us to a half-space between pure electronica and ‘live’ instrumentation for CHAINES’s Tribute to Pokémon, Ecco and Secret of Mana, three of the 1990s generation of games where the sounds were originally purely (and crudely) synthesized.

The most intriguing (and challenging) work was the collection of excerpts from Battlefield 2042 by the Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir in collaboration with Sam Slater (and arranged by Robert Ames). Here, the influences were clearly from the experimental world of 20th century modernism: the sirens of unfocused strings; swiped harps, electronic foghorns; squeaking, rustling, booming and ticking from tuned and untuned percussion. All of this gradually coalesced into a simple theme on a ground and the insistent and pervasive percussiveness of tramping boots to conjure the dystopian, grunt-heavy landscape of the game.

• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.

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