Another day of E3 is a done deal, and once again, while there’s crazy motherfuckers drenched in sweat and hubris running around talking about going to whichever developers’ party that night (these are a lot of the same folks who head straight to the media lounge the next day, and fall asleep on their laptops), there’s always an alternative for those looking for a break from the cacophony for a few hours. Last night, as was the case for a couple of E3s prior, that alternative is running to the hills to see the Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses concert.
For the uninitiated, Symphony of the Goddesses is a tour, much like Play! and the Final Fantasy Dear Friends tour where game music is given the proper orchestral treatment with a major symphony. In this case, it’s all focused on the Zelda series’ long musical history of high adventure, lilting melodies, and simple, straight-to-the-heart fantasy storytelling.
It’s actually a wonderful contrast for more than just the obvious reasons of hearing Koji Kondo’s wonderful scores musically realized to their utmost. For one thing, just for the medium itself, it emphasizes just how much this music, above most series’, really, works its magic as you play. The themes here have been reworked, slyly sewn into the context of operatic movements, and even in slightly mutated forms, the essence of these games, the feel of the game itself and the tone of it all, you find yourself remembering, envisioning the places, the moments, within bars, and that’s even if the video screens showing off the gameplay weren’t above the symphony going to town. Thinking about it more in depth, this is becoming rarer in gaming. It has been with most film scores for a while now, but, with games trying to be movies, it’s affecting this side too. Scores now are aiming for tone and nebulous, subliminal background noise. The music isn’t its own character more often than not.
There are still exceptions on both sides. In gaming, Martin O’Donnell’s Halo scores are absolutely brilliant at evoking haunting majesty when the games don’t keep up their side of the bargain. Nobuo Uematsu kills with this every single time he sets pen to paper. Akira Yamaoka knows how to straddle the bar, delivering oppressive, unsettling atmosphere one second, moody, trip-hop infused melancholy the next, melodic, catchy rock the next. Much as Michiru Yamane’s stuff is still unparalleled for giving Castlevania its true, gothic soul, Óscar Araujo’s score for Lords of Shadow was a striking, underrated, epic piece of work. These, however, are exceptions, no longer the norm. No one’s going to hear the score for Modern Warfare show up somewhere, and automatically have visions of major American landmarks getting blown to shit, or be able to pick score from Resident Evil or Assassin’s Creed out of a lineup without being told where its from. Meanwhile, while getting seated for Symphony of the Goddesses, the 8/16/64 bit counterparts of all the series’ music are playing in the Greek Theater, and the tunes playing just once means half the audience is humming it for minutes after the fact. It’s inexorably tied directly to stages, to dialogue, to characters. It’s part repetition, for sure. It’s also part needing to use this music to delineate one setting, one event from another when you didn’t have the processing power to let a cutscene tell the story for you. Losing the limitations of chiptunes feels like it may have ironically hamstrung gaming a bit in that regard.
The other thing that strikes you as you sit down is the audience itself. I’ll likely be going into this once E3 is said and done, but the folks walking around the LA Convention Center all week, the vast majority are here on business. They’re having fun, for sure, but this is walking from booth to booth, asking “What have you got to sell me?” The remainder are here either by nature of being tied to retail, or just by luck. These are the folks waiting on lines for hours to see one game, which is likely all they’ll have time for. It’s dedication for sure. Insanity, maybe. The word the industry settled on is “Hardcore”.
The audience for Symphony of the Goddesses is not the same. It is hardcore gamers, it’s girls who haven’t touched a system since the GBA. It’s fanboys/girls. It’s children. It’s teenagers. It’s moms playing Candy Crush Saga on their iPad during intermission. They all know this music, and they all smile seeing Link get run off by chickens, and cheer seeing the iconic “It’s Dangerous To Go Alone, Take This!” screen. An overwhelming majority are in green. Not necessarily Zelda related gear, though there’s plenty of that, but green. Any other event, it could be a Flogging Molly concert on St. Patrick’s Day. It just, instinctively, was the right thing to don for this show. And again, all of them can sing this music in their sleep.
What strikes you is that, no matter how goofy, traditionalist, and dated Zelda games get, they are inclusionist in ways very little in the industry is anymore. I gave Nintendo a fair amount of shit the other day for not bringing anything new to the table, and I don’t feel the need to necessarily backtrack from that, so much as at least qualify that Nintendo still has their hooks into what viscerally brings everyone to the table when it comes to video games, and there’s got to be a way to keep that while still leveraging a lot more imagination in creating it.
That’s all, of course, preamble to simply saying that the music itself is brilliant. Again, this isn’t so much just setting the old tunes to a 50 piece orchestra, but more in line with each game having its own suite, Link’s Awakening, Spirit Tracks, Twilight Princess, Link To The Past, Ocarina of Time, and Wind Waker are the main titles. New material from Skyward Sword is part of the encore, as is a dissonant, ominously beautiful suite of the Majora’s Mask score. A few minor pieces are kept separate; Fully orchestrated renditions of Ocarina‘s Gerudo Valley theme, and a dramatic retooling of the tropical Dragonroost Island theme from Wind Waker break up the sets to allow some breathing room. It’s powerful, evocative stuff, when talking about Link trekking across Hyrule Field, traversing Link To The Past‘s Dark World, or any of the tense, adrenaline pumping scores when Link fights Ganon in the newer titles, but almost heartbreaking in their beauty when talking about Zelda’s Lullaby, or the melancholy forest themes when Link talks to Saria in Ocarina. The themes are, again, reworked to milk every ounce of latent emotion out, but they are very much meant to take the listener on a condensed version of each game, and eyes shut, every location you spend time in, even if the theme is barely represented, is smartly laid out for the memory to pick up on. Skyward Sword closes the show for good, which is the one title I’ve yet to lay hands on, but what we do have there are soaring, stone-set themes, that make an already huge, epic feeling series sound like the music of Mount Olympus. It kinda make me want to run out and buy that game the second a Gamestop opens. And, yes, the damned Motion Control Plus to go with it.
Quite simply, it’s one of those experiences a gamer should get to see at least once if the opportunity arrives, just for the sake of seeing just how much of this music works its way into your DNA. Music I haven’t heard in ages (the Link’s Awakening material) woke up in me out of nowhere upon hearing the overworld themes again, and now, they’re earworms of the best kind.
You can check out more about the concert here, along with a tour schedule. As a bonus to this bonus: I also got to sit down Jeron Moore, the creative director of the show for a quick interview prior to doors opening, which will get posted before the week is out. Keep an eye out.
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