Exploring The Great Video Game Songbook With Charlie Rosen

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It’s no wonder that video game music has a very special place in the hearts of gamers. Beyond just serving as aural madeleines—they’re highly dependable triggerers of happy childhood memories—they’re also an evocative reminder of the uniquely immersive and often emotional experience of losing oneself in video game world. (A film score is the soundtrack for the onscreen characters’ journey; a video game score is the soundtrack to the gamer’s.)

That said, a lot of the time the music is just great music—as tuneful and emotional and inspired as any other kind. In fact, to call video game music a “genre” feels too narrow—it’s a category, after all, that encompasses every kind of music, from primitive chiptune bleeps to ambient electronica to immense choral-orchestral pieces. As one video game composer has put it to me, video game music may be “the last bastion of melody.”

Charlie Rosen, a New York-based lifelong musician and lifelong gamer, thinks of video game music as a musical tradition unto itself: the “Video Game Songbook.” Mr. Rosen’s arrangements of video game tunes are brilliant, boisterous, and—befitting the medium—delightfully playful. Next Monday 27 January in New York, he will lead the 8-Bit Big Band, a 35-musician jazz/pops orchestra, in a performance of tunes from such beloved video game franchises as Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the Legend of Zelda.

Charlie, how would you explain the appeal of video game music?

In the past, people created these collections of music. For example, we refer to the Great American Songbook, which originated in American culture in the 20s, 30s and 40s. There are Broadway show tunes. Movie scores.

Today, there’s a whole new generation of people that grew up with a new kind of songbook – the Video Game Songbook: a collection of themes and melodies and music that we associate with the experience of playing video games. It’s a touchstone for a generation of people that grew up with digital media and interactive media, a big focal point of their upbringing.

Also, in the last seven or eight years, we’ve just gotten to a place where, technologically, video games can employ the same quality of audio as we can expect to hear from great orchestral music. We no longer have a limitation on what video game music can sound like in the media itself.

“Banjo-Kazooie” composer Grant Kirkhope has called video game music the last bastion of melody.

I can see where he might be coming from. A lot of games have these incredibly recognizable melodies.

Video game composers of the past were so limited by the technical limitations of consoles that they were forced to be incredibly melodic. You look at the NES and the work of [Super Mario and Zelda franchise composer] Koji Kondo—he really only had two voices of basic synth sounds to convey melody, harmony, rhythm and style. Some great melodies came out of those limitations.

Now we’re at a point where I, as a professional arranger, can take those melodies and fully realize them musically at a high professional musical level. It’s my job to hear the potential of a piece of music.

One of the things I love about your arrangements is they’re not literal translations—they take creative liberties and imaginative detours: a rendition of the “Gerudo Valley” tune with a flamenco influence, say, or the “Tetris” theme with Russian-inspired music weaved into it.

I think the problem with one-to-one translations of video game music is that, in the world of the video game, its function is as underscore, and it’s not meant to be the primary focus. When you remove it from the game and present it, it needs some other contour. I want the listener to experience a composition with a beginning, middle, and end.

Sometimes the idea of how to reinvent them just jumps out at me, and I think, I’m going to run with that idea as far as possible. Like my “Chocobo” arrangement: part-Rocky theme, part-surf rock, with other 60s pop quotes and textures.

You’ve said that Koji Kondo’s score for “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” is your favorite?

I’m always drawn to Koji Kondo. The melodies that he wrote are so infectious and have so much character, it really inspires for my arranging brain. Like, what if I did this? And what if I did this? And what if I did this? I listen to that soundtrack truly nonstop. I feel like I could give a sort of PhD dissertation on it.

Is it just me or is video game music, and the appreciation of it, really booming these days?

I have truly never experienced an audience that was so just so hungry for this content and had such an appreciation of it. From what I’ve learned online, the fans of video game music are such quality fans. They just love the medium and they love the music associated with the medium. It’s a pretty amazing time to be creating and arranging and appreciating video game music.

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