Video game tunes get symphonic lift

Show brings lights, sounds of gaming to Spokane orchestra audience

When he was 10 years old, Tommy Tallarico started putting on “video game concerts” for the kids in his neighborhood. He’d traipse down to the local arcade, armed with his father’s bulky cassette player, and record hours of the blips, bleeps and bloops emanating from his favorite wood-paneled machines.

“I’d splice the tape together and invite my friends over,” Tallarico said, “and I’d jump in front of the TV set with my favorite games playing behind me, grab a guitar and pretend that I was putting on a show.”

Not only was he channeling his famous cousin, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, but he was also combining his two childhood passions: music and video games. More than 30 years later, Tallarico has turned that living room hobby into a nationally touring sound and light show. He’s the co-creator and host of “Video Games Live,” a visual concert series that will bring the greatest hits of the arcade to the Spokane Symphony this weekend.

The idea behind “Video Games Live” is to bridge the gap between two generally disparate demographics: those who cherish symphonic music and those who love the engrossing world of video games. The Spokane Symphony and Chorale will be performing well-known pieces from dozens of titles – everything from “Tetris” to “Legend of Zelda,” and franchises such as “Final Fantasy” and “Halo” – accompanied by synchronized images from the corresponding games.

Tallarico has been in the video game industry since he was in his early 20s and has worked as a sound designer and composer on hundreds of games – “Prince of Persia,” “Earthworm Jim” and “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” among them. “Video Games Live” debuted with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, and it continues to travel to symphonies around the globe (future tour stops include China, Sweden and Mexico).

“I wanted to prove to the world how culturally significant and artistic video games had become, but I also wanted to help usher in a whole generation of young people to appreciate the symphony,” Tallarico said. “Not a lot of young people are going to the symphony, and that’s why I applaud the Spokane Symphony for going out of their comfort zone with this.”

And don’t expect a traditional symphony experience, either: “Video Games Live” relies on rock ’n’ roll lighting, giant video screens, audience participation and as much crowd noise as possible. “Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky – they were the rock stars of their time,” Tallarico said. “I grew up loving this music, but I felt like I wasn’t a part of it, like it wasn’t being presented to my generation.”

Part of the reason this music is so meaningful to gamers, Tallarico said, is that it enhances the experience of immersion. “When you play a video game, you become that character, and the music becomes the soundtrack of your life,” he said. “When those bad guys are attacking your village, that battle music becomes yours.”

Video game soundtracks might not receive the mainstream attention of, say, Hollywood film scores, but Tallarico says the tide is starting to shift as more nongamers start to recognize the symphonic qualities of in-game music. “And besides,” he said, “movie music is being talked-over 80 percent of the time. Our music’s out front. It’s foreground music, not background music.”

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