Over the course of the last few decades, the definition of what constitutes “classical music” has gradually been changing.
When I was a child, “classical music” was pretty strictly defined as art music for its own sake — or perhaps as a companion piece to another medium that was also defined as fine art, such as ballet or opera. Soundtracks, of course, existed, but despite sharing a lot in common with “classical music” as defined by popular culture at the time, they were regarded as something… if not lesser as such, certainly different.
Whizz forward to today, however, and we have established classical musicians putting out albums that consist entirely of video game music. Who’d have thought it?
I must confess I haven’t really followed the professional classical music “scene” for a long time, but when I was growing up and we often had Classic FM or the cover-mounted CDs from the BBC’s Music magazine in our house, your average classical musician tended to be, more often than not, a middle-aged white dude, probably from Eastern Europe. At the time, we were just starting to see the rise of the young, fashionable virtuoso — this was the time of Nigel Kennedy’s rise to prominence, among other things (and I just looked up how old Nigel Kennedy is now and got a bit depressed) — but for the most part, classical music performances were the domain of a very specific type of person: someone you could look at and think “yes, they probably play the piano really well.”
Tina Guo, the artist behind the album we’ll be looking at today, is the anthithesis to all that. Young (well, 33, which is younger than me, so that absolutely counts as “young”), Asian, incredibly attractive, seemingly extremely enamoured with provocative, borderline erotic costumes and with a penchant for the less “conventional” side of classical music, she’s been doing bits and pieces since about 2007 or so — including both traditional classical performances as well as appearing alongside acts such as Foo Fighters.
She is apparently well-known for distinctly theatrical performances — hence the elaborate costumes, which tend to make an appearance in her videos — as well as an improvisatory style, bringing some of her own personality to her interpretations of established works.
But how does she do with some of the most iconic video game melodies of all time? I stuck her Game On! album right in my CD player’s slot and decided to find out for myself. If you want to listen along, you can find the album on Spotify, as well as on a variety of digital and physical music storefronts. As ever, I will be enjoying the music on CD from start to finish, writing my immediate thoughts as we go along.
1. The Legend of Zelda
Going into this album, I wasn’t sure whether or not a track called “The Legend of Zelda” was going to be a medley of Zelda classics, or just one theme in particular.
The track opens with a vibrant rendition of the iconic Zelda theme, with Guo on cello taking the leading role in the melody. It’s quite a bassy mix, so you’ll probably want to tweak your equalisation settings a bit if your stereo can kick out as much beef as mine can!
The track starts pretty conventionally, but gradually builds in complexity as it progresses, with additional parts from Guo being layered over the top of one another, and the backing from the orchestra thickening up its texture as we proceed through that iconic melody line.
About a minute in, I start to see what people mean by Guo having an improvisatory style — beginning with some arpeggios complementing what the orchestra is up to, she segues effortlessly into a brief cadenza before the track transitions to the Zelda I dungeon theme. This part of the track, once again, begins relatively simply and builds layer upon layer as it progresses, with the ultimate effect being that of being utterly engulfed in the gloom of a deep, dark dungeon.
The backing builds to a climax, with choir sounds and powerful orchestral percussion emphasising the drama of this composition which, as Zelda fans will know, is actually pretty simple at its core.
After that, we move to the theme of the fairies. Guo once again takes the melody lead, unsurprisingly, with the constantly moving arpeggiated backing being handled by pizzicato strings. After a single cycle around the melody, the upper strings of the orchestra take over, and Guo gets another chance to demonstrate her improvisatory proficiency… just before some more intense percussion kicks in, and we move into a pretty spectacular rendition of the Gerudo Valley theme.
The cello is a great instrument to handle the lyrical melody line of this distinctive track, and once again we have plenty of opportunity to admire her mastery of the instrument while a driving, straightforward but effective backing complements her melody well.
In a delightful touch, the Gerudo Valley segment concludes with Guo playing the original Zelda theme as a counter-melody to the orchestral backing — an excellent way to finish, and the whole thing ends with a suitable bang.
2. Final Fantasy VII
We open with the iconic Final Fantasy prelude that has been part of the series since the very beginning. Guo keeps herself to herself for this opening section, allowing the orchestra and harp soloist to shine before coming in when the main melody starts.
Once again, she provides an improvisatory countermelody rather than simply replicating the “standard” theme here; the orchestra in the background continues with the piece as you’d recognise it, but Guo’s work over the top complements it and builds on it without being obtrusive.
Shortly after, we move into the Final Fantasy VII boss theme, “Fight On!”. Distorted electric guitars and Hammond organ provide a nicely authentic feel to this start, with Guo once again fading into the background for a bit; it’s not long before she provides her own contribution to the mix, however, with the distorted sound of electric cello initially sounding like another guitar entering the mix, but quickly picking up its own identity.
We’re back into gentler territory afterwards, with Aerith’s theme. Since the original incarnation of this track made use of a cello for its melody line, this is, of course, a natural fit for Guo, accompanied by the orchestra — and after the chaotic cacophony of Fight On!, it’s blessed relief to have a bit of time to relax.
The theme segues nicely into the main theme of Final Fantasy VII, with Guo reining in her natural tendencies somewhat to provide a bit of pleasant emphasis for the melody line, doubled by the upper strings. And the key change in this one still gives me the absolute shivers — the effect emphasised somewhat by it being on real instruments.
The juxtaposition between the different parts of this track provide a great summary of what you can expect from the Final Fantasy experience in general — moments of fast action, high drama and emotional turmoil. An excellent adaptation.
3. Chrono Trigger
To my shame, I don’t know Chrono Trigger super-well, so this is one of the more unfamiliar tracks to me, but I recognise a few elements here and there. We open with the game’s main battle theme, featuring heavy processed drums accompanied by Guo on melody duties once again; the strong resonance of the cello really bringing a bit of “meat” to the performance.
We then segue into a section I don’t recognise (I know, I know, I’ll play it properly one day) in which Guo’s melody is accompanied by some distinctly militaristic melodies in the background — and some rather Final Fantasy XIII-esque harmonies along the way. Yasunori Mitsuda knows his stuff.
This is one of the shorter tracks on the album, clocking in at less than three minutes. Not a bad effort, but it didn’t feel quite as stirringly iconic as the others we’ve had so far; perhaps this is simply because I don’t know the music quite so well.
4. World of Warcraft
It would have been easy to just jump right in and do a straight orchestral adaptation of the World of Warcraft theme, but this opens with a surprising synth adaptation that works really nicely; the tempo is bumped up a bit from the original version in the game, and the harmonies of the orchestra are complemented by electric guitars and amplified drums.
After the initial drama, we move into a mysterious, lyrical section where Guo’s cello line and a haunting, subtle vocal line — drawing the Night Elves somewhat to mind — weave and intertwine around one another, emphasising the air of mystery surrounding this strange other world.
After that, the synth line is back again, but it moves on to a slightly different variation after this rather than simply repeating the opening of the track. The wailing guitars and Guo’s electric cello build in intensity and fury… until suddenly the chaos passes.
Now we’re in a rural setting, Guo playing a syncopated, rather Celtic melody line, with traditional instruments joining her after a few phrases. It’s been a long while since I played World of Warcraft so I can’t quite remember what zone this would be associated with, but I’d guess something like Westfall or Goldshire. It’s definitely got that “rural human world” feel to it, gradually building in majesty and intensity as we proceed through this section of the track.
I don’t like Skyrim as a game, but Jeremy Soule has done a fine job with the main theme to the Elder Scrolls series over the years, starting with a relatively gentle rendition in Morrowind and gradually building to the overdramatic tempest that is Skyrim’s main theme.
Oddly, Guo’s rendition of the theme here actually reminds me more of Morrowind than Skyrim in a few places; the mournful cello line definitely reminds me of trudging around endless volcanic rocky areas, hoping that Cliff Racers wouldn’t see me and praying that I wouldn’t have to engage with that terrible, terrible combat system.
Once again, we get a bit of a twist on the original formula by incorporating some electronic and electric instruments into the mix. They’re not overused in this case, however; the electric guitar is used to provide a bit of subtle thickness to the texture as the track progresses, and Guo’s leading role is a good fit for this well-known tune.
The track concludes with a pleasingly ambient section, suggesting that the chaos is passed and everything is going to be all right — that is until the slightly unsettling last two drumbeats suggest another storm is on the horizon.
6. Uncharted: Nate’s Theme
Again, it’s been quite some time since I played Uncharted, and before listening to this album I’m not sure I would have been able to hum you Nate’s theme. In fact, as I type this, listening to the track, I’m still not entirely sure I could hum it to you now!
That said, Guo handles the melody line deftly as always, initially on cello before moving to erhu, another of her specialist instruments.
Uncharted always had designs on being a movie, and there are few places that this is more apparent than in its soundtrack; it’s not that it’s bad or unmemorable as such — it just doesn’t really sound like “game music”. But then I guess the same could be said for several of the tracks we’ve heard already.
At about 02:50 we get to the bit of the theme I actually probably could hum to you. Oh, yeah, it’s that one. Unfortunately the track ends at 3:10 so there’s not a lot of time to enjoy it!
7. Super Mario Bros.
Now you’re talkin’. What we have here is a pleasantly simple arrangement with a straightforward drum line, a subtle orchestral backing and Guo on melody duties. With each cycle around the main chorus, the texture and complexity of the backing builds somewhat, adding to the overall energy of the piece. Guo also seemingly can’t resist a bit of improvisation here and there, either; this is such a joyful piece of music generally that it fits perfectly.
About a minute and a half in, we transition to the underground theme, which makes heavy use of electric guitar for a performance that absolutely has its own identity while still remaining recognisable as its original source material. We also get some cool “metal”-style fills in the background on this one.
After that, we shift to Bob-Omb Battlefield from Super Mario 64. Once again, the cello is a great instrument for this comical, joyful melody, with the orchestra coming in to complement Guo’s lead with a bit of call-and-response. And, of course, a nice bit of improvisation to cap it all off.
The whole thing concludes as you would probably expect a Super Mario Bros. track to finish. I’ll leave that to your imagination.
Pokemon has some catchy music, though it’s not quite as well-known as some of Nintendo’s other titles. This track certainly starts strong, with “that one Pokemon theme everyone knows” (no, not the theme from the TV show) — again, the arrangement is such that Guo’s melody line works well, before segueing into a battle theme.
Here, Guo performs some rapid ostinato patterns over the top of the orchestra getting the main melody line. It’s quite a chaotic sound that I’m not 100% sure works as well as it could, but it’s not long before things get back into order and we’re joined by Guo on electric cello… playing “that one Pokemon theme everyone knows”. And yes, I do mean the TV show theme this time around. Gotta catch ’em all!
Distorted electric cello is a weird sound, but I kinda like it.
Journey is one of those games I remember enjoying the experience of while playing it, but not thinking back particularly fondly on it after the fact. And I absolutely do not remember any of the soundtrack, aside from it being mostly mournful strings and vaguely mysterious “deserty” sounds. That is indeed what we have here, with Guo on mournful strings duty while an orchestra with a lot of reverb provides the mysterious atmosphere, the intensity building as we progress through the track. There’s a real sense of a… well, of a journey throughout the music, if nothing else.
It’s a pleasant enough track, but after the one-two combo of absolute bangers that was Super Mario Bros. followed by Pokemon, it’s hard not to feel like this is one of the less interesting tracks on the album. Again, it’s an example of a track that feels more like film music than game music — and probably a good case study for Eastern versus Western approaches to this kind of thing.
10. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher series has always had pretty good music, combining some distinctive melodies with rather Celtic and European-inspired influences and instrumentation — but again, we have a touch of the “film music” issue again, in which the tracks sound great in context, but aren’t super-memorable when listened to in isolation like this.
Out of all the tracks we’ve heard on the album so far, this one is probably the closest to its original incarnation in the game — though the addition of a subtle hint of erhu in the background adds an interesting Asian flavour without being overly obtrusive. In fact, as the track progresses, the Eastern angle is played up even more — to such a degree that I’m not sure this is entirely representative of Wild Hunt’s soundtrack from what I remember.
The Halo theme was great, combining a bit of mystery with drama and memorable melodies. Here, Guo takes the melody line that is handled by the choir in the original version of the track, before we move into the distinctive driving rhythms that everyone who’s played the game will remember all too well — usually from a particularly difficult firefight in which they’d have to hear this over and over and over again!
The arrangement of this one actually sounds a little “thin” compared to the original; the backing orchestra does gradually build as it progresses, but there feels like there’s a bit of a gap in the mid- to upper end of the audible spectrum for much of this track; Guo’s cello line (which later moves to electric cello) and the driving drum rhythms are very much the focal point here.
We have an interesting bit of chaotic, discordant improvisation laced with feedback partway through the track before moving into a section with a completely different feel. Again, it’s been a while since I played Halo so I forget the original context, but I suspect this atmospheric part relates to The Flood. But it’s not long before we’re back to that initial mournful line, which wraps up the whole track.
12. Metal Gear Solid
This is one of my favourite pieces of game music of all time, so you better not fuck this up, Guo.
This is another good example of a slightly different arrangement providing an interesting twist on an established piece of music. The melody and harmonies are recognisable, but the underlying rhythms are a little different from what you might recall, giving the whole thing a slightly different “feel” from the original.
Just shy of two minutes in, we come to an almost complete halt and the drama is replaced by a simple, mournful piano ostinato with Guo’s lyrical cello playing over the top. It’s still recognisable as the Metal Gear Solid theme, but again, it’s a different take on it; a more contemplative angle that gradually builds to a triumphant finale and a haunting fadeout with heavily processed, compressed cello sending shivers down the spine.
Short version: no, she didn’t fuck it up. Good job.
13. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Another game I’ve played but couldn’t recall any of the music of, this composition has some decent pedigree behind it, being the work of Hans Zimmer. This track is a good complement to the previous Metal Gear Solid track, too; both were by Western composers, but one was from a quintessentially Japanese game, the other from one of the most well-known Western games of all time.
There’s actually more of a melody here than I remember there being in the game itself — yes, I did indeed play Modern Warfare 2 and moderately enjoyed it, even! — but once again we’re back to the idea of “film music” versus game music again. And this is very much in the mould of “great in context, not quite so memorable after the fact”.
It’s an interesting piece, mind you; it’s not all jingoistic military marches as you might expect from popular stereotypes of the series. It’s got quite a nice atmosphere to it, putting across the idea of war being hell. There’s a distinctly Russian feel to at least part of it, too — unsurprising, given the presence of Russian antagonists — that is quite pleasing to the ear. Of all the more “movie-esque” tracks on this album, this is one of the better ones.
And what better way to finish than with one that everyone knows? And what better way to handle Tetris than by being as ridiculously overdramatic as possible? That means kicking off with a huge orchestral sound accompanied by choir… the sort of thing you’d expect to hear opening a final boss fight.
This is followed up by Guo performing the iconic melody slowly by herself, only accompanied by a simple pizzicato line, gradually accelerating as the first cycle around the tune completes. After this, the rhythm kicks in, with a rapid four-on-the-floor beat underlying everything and the orchestra taking on a rhythmic role before responding to Guo’s melody themselves.
Although the melody is simple, the track progresses through several different treatments of it, providing a sense of “evolution” as we proceed, capping things off with a pleasant bit of freeform improvisation from Guo along with some rather unconventional, almost Middle Eastern-style instrumentation for a brief period before building to a rapid, dramatic climax.
A fitting end to the whole experience.
I enjoyed this! Guo’s obviously got an appreciation for some of the classics of gaming as well as a few of the slightly less well-known ones, and her improvisations don’t detract from the experience by being too overcomplicated or anything like that.
The overall mix of the album is pretty solid, though as I mentioned at the start, it is quite bass-heavy so you may want to tweak your EQ settings a bit before listening all the way through. There are also a couple of tracks that sound a bit “thin”, but this is more a matter of the arrangements than the mix itself, I feel.
One area where things are a little weak is in the use of drums; it’s very obvious throughout that any drum parts are synthesised and programmed rather than played live. They have that distinct “MIDI sample” sound to them that detracts a little from the effect — though certainly not enough to ruin the tracks in which they appear. It just feels to me like if Guo could get a full orchestra to back her up, she and her team could have probably sprung for a session drummer. But who am I to question creative decisions?
On the whole, I enjoyed this album. There’s a good mix of tracks and the overall structure is rather pleasing — the finale to the Tetris track in particular concludes the album absolutely beautifully. The tracks chosen along the way are iconic enough for people to recognise, but also provide enough in the way of interest and variety to capture the attention of more traditionally-minded people who are perhaps more familiar with the old school of “classical music” rather than this brave new world in which we find ourselves. Play it to your nan and see what she thinks.
Now, I have a sudden urge to go and play fourteen very specific games… well, maybe thirteen. I still don’t like Skyrim.
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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