Gamer Symphony Orchestra brings video games to the mainstage

Journey composer Austin Wintory bowed his head and paced slowly as the Ithaca College Gamer Symphony Orchestra played “Apotheosis,” a track from Journey‘s soundtrack. As senior cellist Hamadi Duggan released his bow from the last note, Wintory approached the conductor’s podium and turned to Duggan.

“First off, what’s your name?”

“Hamadi,” Duggan said.

“Hamadi.” Wintory paused, then held out his hand. “Well done. No mortal should have to follow in [professional cellist] Tina Guo’s footsteps, but you did it very well.”

The Grammy-nominated composer then went on to give a forty-five minute talk on the ensemble’s performance of his work, the composing process, and the value of video games and their music. Composers like Wintory and ensembles like the ICGSO are significant contributors toward the recognition of video game music.

Grassroots GSO

ICGSO was started by senior composition major Michael Samson in the fall of 2012 in an effort to “bring the music to a wider audience and to help expand the public’s view of video game music as a legitimate art form,” as indicated by the mission statement. Despite issues with recognition and participation within the music school, the ensemble has excelled, furthering its mission with its concert on March 20 in Ford Hall. As this space is normally reserved for class ensembles and guest artists such as the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, being there was a significant win for the group as well as video game music as a whole.

Samson decided to create the ensemble at Ithaca after speaking with members of the GSO at the University of Maryland, which started in 2005 and was the first collegiate orchestra that played only video game music. Rob Garner, who was part of the founding crew at Maryland and helped create the Washington Metro GSO, said it was a life-changing experience.

“There were a lot of challenges, but it was at the same time immensely satisfying to take part in something that hadn’t been done before,” Garner said. He enjoys being able “to look back at that and really say that we got in on the ground floor of this … I won’t say movement, but this general shift toward video game music being appreciated as a legitimate form of art.”

Capturing the audience

Both ensembles have received very positive feedback for their performances. Garner said he received an email after a Maryland concert in 2008 or 2009 from an elderly couple who had attended the concert “as an experiment” having never played any video games, yet they were blown away by the music.

“In terms of the artistry of the music itself, thankfully video game music does a really good job of being its own advocate,” Garner said. “Once you got people to take more than just a casual look at what we were doing, the music stands really well on its own footing.”

Similarly, performers and audience members alike said the concert on March 20 was the best the ICGSO has performed; junior cellist Shauna Swartz said on Twitter that it was “absolutely wonderful from start to finish.” For many, it’s the emotional component that makes these concerts so great.

“For me personally, and I think for many others of our age bracket, our generation, the music from video games touches a part of us that’s very much a part of who we are,” Garner said. “For a different era, the works of classical composers or romantic composers served as the most salient, the most culturally relevant music, and video game music is sort of that for our age bracket.”

A pre-edited version of the March 20 concert can be downloaded here; “Apotheosis” is the last track.

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