Should we take video game music seriously?

The New Statesmen has just put up an article by Caroline Crampton on why classical purists should start taking video game music seriously. One gets the impressiom that more composition graduates write film and video game scores than concert music. The first name that comes to mind is Bear McCreary. He has written the soundtracks for two of my favourite shows — Battlestar Galactica and Outlander — and was student at USC Thornton School of Music in a film department that, believe it or not, choral composer Morten Lauridsen helped set up. McCreary is reaching a far larger audience than he otherwise would. This track from the Outlander soundtrack has 2.7 million views:

Film and TV soundtracks are doing extraordinarily well commercially and benefit from modern production values. But I wonder whether artistic standards have declined. Recently I watched the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, and Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack is more impressive than what I’ve heard from Bear McCreary. (Though apparently McCreary actually studied under Bernstein.) Don’t get me wrong, McCreary’s soundtracks aren’t bad, but separated from the shows the music loses its effect. The repetitive, glossy style becomes irritating — the somewhat cliched use of percussion to stir the listener, how it all sounds so digitized… In her article Crampton nearly reveals this disparity between old and new:

Just as Hollywood film studio executives turned to established composers like Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich in the early twentieth century, today’s games designers are using the best composition talent to augment the experience of playing their titles.

Where are today’s Coplands and Shostakovichs? (Hint: they’re not writing for video games.) Anyway, here’s The Ten Commandments overture:

The video game composer Crampton most discusses is Jessica Curry, who is returning to ClassicFM, a UK classical music radio station, for another programme on video game composers. I am somewhat familiar with Curry’s music. Some years ago the game Dear Esther was released with many people praising it as the future of interactive storytelling and an example of ‘games as art’. I don’t recall being persuaded by the media brouhaha, but the premise was indeed alluring: you, the player, get to walk around a gorgeous virtual Hebridean island. Sadly, the novelty wore off quickly. Walking along a forced path by holding down a key on your keyboard — while listening to some rambling narrator — is a terribly boring experience.

(As a quick aside, by sheer chance I just today bought a copy of Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, and so far it provides a far better tour of the Hebrides than Dear Esther. Fine writing arouses one’s imagination in a way that makes CGI seem surprisingly dull.)

The Dear Esther soundtrack is alright, I guess. The best way I can describe it is crossover minimalism for piano and strings with some eerie sound effects splashed on top. Einaudi-level tedium is prevented thanks to an attractive violin part. The trailer will give you a sample, as well as some footage from the game, which I must say still looks impressive years later:

Should we take this seriously? Not really — there’s not much of substance to discuss. It is spare, relying heavily on sound effects, doused in reverb, and based around two repetitive, unchanging chords. The violin melody is welcome, but I’m not bowled over. I’m much more impressed by the Tetris theme. Writing a clever little tune is much harder than writing a soporific, ‘atmospheric’ soundtrack.

Crompton also links to an article about the Baroque music influences in the video game Assassin’s Creed Unity: Dead Kings. The article is nonsense. We are told that the game ‘takes place in revolution-era France, and its developers wanted a soundtrack that reflected the period.’ Do you see the problem yet? According to the article, his influences are Bach (d. 1750), Vivaldi (d. 1741), Handel (d. 1759) and Telemann (d. 1767). How is one supposed to take video game music seriously when its composers and advocates don’t seem to know that the Baroque era ended decades before the revolutionary era? The composer should have been listening to Haydn, not Handel. What’s worse, he attempts to make the soundtrack sound Baroque in the laziest and most useless of ways. Rather than assimilating Baroque style, he simply writes the same music but with some Baroque instrumentation. If one plays Beethoven on a harpsichord it doesn’t make it Baroque, and if one plays Bach on piano it still remains Baroque. Here’s the soundtrack:

Considering that she’s writing for a left-wing journal, it is amusing how Crompton justifies video game music in a drearily capitalist way: ‘Above all, [video game composers] have a vast global audience listening to their music. An art form that is so widely consumed deserves to be taken seriously.’ Notice the use of market language like ‘consumed’. You could say this about any product. What does extent and volume of consumption have to do with aesthetic value?

Still, it is an interesting question as to why soundtracks are popular. I would suggest they are enjoyed mostly for the memory it evokes — playing the video game. While I remember a great deal of soundtracks — film, games, TV, or more general soundtracks to life — I remember them because of their context, whereas I remember Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony almost totally for the musical content. Music is increasingly auxiliary to life; we celebrate it as a memory aid, a mood-setter, and video game music is a continuation of that. I take interest in the music that is essential — loved for its own sake.

So video game music doesn’t belong alongside classical music. Crompton has a little dig at BBC Radio 3 for not being ‘broadminded enough’ to play video game soundtracks. I doubt Radio 1 or Capital FM will be broadminded enough to have a classical programme. Tolerance and open-mindedness are usually one-way streets. I’m no ‘purist’ but I do fear that the few remaining havens of classical music will be forced to capitulate to the dominant culture and will get nothing in return. There’s no evidence that soundtracks and crossover music expand the reach of classical music.

Okay, so I don’t seem like a total curmudgeon, here’s a video game theme I like. It’s a pleasant enough tune, slightly stirring, cheesy and dated, but I only really like it for the memory of my younger self playing it on a decrepit old laptop; the laptop was so awful that, though it was the late 2000s, I couldn’t play anything made after about 1998. This game was made in 1995. Charm and nostalgia are invariably for things that were quite imperfect. Flat screen televisions will never seem charming in the way boxy old monochrome CRT televisions are. But anyway, here’s the theme — synthesised strings, heavy reverb and all:

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How can I handcuff a blooming shirt?

I am just recovering from a cold, and the great thing about a cold is that it enables you to enjoy guiltless leisure. I took the opportunity, such that it was, to do something I almost never do and watch a couple of films: The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Invisible Man (1933). For some reason I got it into my head that I should watch some old films. I probably thought they’d be a safer bet. What has weathered the fashions of the past several decades and is still admired must be good.

I was captivated by The Ten Commandments from the first moment when a screen appeared with ‘OVERTURE’ written in big letters, and we are treated to exactly that. I was not aware such operatic conventions had survived into the Golden Age of Hollywood (there is also an entr’acte). Clearly there has been a progression from opera to musical theatre to film overtures to title credits.

The film is grand and almost pompous. Incredible sets of sphinxes, temples, obelisks and Egyptian statues. The special effects are astonishing, from when Moses turns water into blood to the raising of a giant obelisk to that famous, brilliant moment when the Red Sea parts. All these moments are driven by Elmer Bernstein’s invigorating score. Bernstein was a prolific film composer, also composing the scores for The Magnificent Seven, Airplane and The Great Escape, among many others. It is refreshing not to hear plodding electronica or screeching orchestral horror in the score. This is pure, unapologetic splendour — cheesy, perhaps, but more artful than Hanz Zimmer or John Williams. Here’s the overture, which someone has set to clips of the film:

The most striking thing about the story, which I must admit I was not intimately familiar with, is that it is full of argument. There is always someone, usually the slimy Dathan, giving the counterarguments we are all thinking. Each point is rebutted. The story is argued and won.

The Invisible Man is the Ten Commandment’s antithesis: understated, set in a small town, and characteristically English. The premise is simple: a scientist has managed to make himself invisible, but the chemicals involved have also made him starkers — in both senses. I didn’t notice much music, perhaps being distracted by the mesmerising, hilarious acting of Claude Rains as Dr. Jack Griffin, the ‘Invisible Man’. Take this scene of Griffin prancing about in only a shirt (don’t worry, invisible remember), laughing maniacally. Then he merrily causes havoc about the town.

The effects are ingenious for 1933. He really is invisible. It is as convincing as any computer generated imagery, if not more so, for unlike with CGI all viewers ask themselves that magical question, how on earth did they do that?