Video game music is often looked down upon by people outside the gaming sphere. It's an understandable impulse. The association outside of gaming is with quirky chiptune and songs made specifically to accompany a specific story makes it more comparable to film scores than the kind of music you'd listen to outside of the context of those games.
Thankfully, there's a group of people vying to change this. Bringing the Game Music Festival outside Poland for the first time, there were high expectations. I came as someone who loves both video games and music, excited to hear how the iconic soundtracks of Cuphead and Ori sounded divorced from their homes and thrust into the spotlight of the concert hall.
The Royal Festival Hall is an intimidating place. Giant organ pipes loom over the stage, cantilevered box seats overlook a 2700-capacity auditorium, and a crowd waits in anticipation of the music. It contrasts greatly with the boxy, concrete exterior that characterises this part of London's south bank. A stone's throw from the iconic London Eye and surrounded by arts venues, this is where video game music is being brought to life.
The Jazz of Cuphead
I must admit to scepticism when I entered this iconic venue. The performance of Cuphead's music, composed by Kristofer Maddigan and arranged into what we heard by Bartosz Pernal, the big band of four trumpets, four trombones, and five saxophones along with a rhythm section hardly filled out a third of the hall's stage. In a venue designed for symphonies, I worried we wouldn't get to hear the true sound of a jazz band. The intimacy of venues like Ronnie Scott's coupled with the glorious noise of horns weaving in and out of each other is impossible to replicate in a concert hall.
The Jazz of Cuphead did a damn good job of it, though. Bartosz Pernal's arrangements were high-energy and did the original pieces a great deal of justice, and when the spotlight was on, each and every soloist absolutely brought it. There were a few issues with the acoustics at the beginning, but the band ended up tooting up an absolute storm.
The Symphony of the Spirits
The second show was The Symphony of the Spirits, a celebration of the music from Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Southbank Centre's resident symphony orchestra, it was fascinating to see the music from the Ori games performed by a world-renowned group of fantastic musicians.
Anyone who's played the Ori titles needs no reminding of just how arresting the music is, and the performance from the orchestra did it justice and then some. Coker had to recreate the score from the ground up given that the original has over seven hours of music, but without losing anyone's favourite track.
Somehow, he managed, and hearing the Ori songs in all their glory live truly does elevate the music. It's not just a pretty tune accompanying Ori on their spellbinding adventure. It's an adventure. Familiar territory for some in the audience and brand new to others, but Gareth Coker, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Hertfordshire Chorus took the Royal Festival Hall and made it simultaneously whimsical and dramatic, intense and calming. Congratulations to all involved.
The Game Music Festival
It wasn't just the performances, though. The Game Music Festival came through on a completely different level, largely thanks to the organisational team behind the concerts. The Game Music Festival has been going for four editions, but this is the first I'd heard of it. The previous three festivals were held in Wroclaw, Poland, and featured music from the likes of Grim Fandango, Hades, and Shadow of the Colossus. It was clear the small team behind the Game Music Festival knew what they were doing when it came to organising concerts, and they made the extra effort to ensure the audience was completely on board the whole way.
The hosting of Alex Moukola and Louise Blain was a great aspect of the Game Music Festival, and can't be understated with regards to the whole experience. They came armed with passion and enthusiasm and treated the audience to chats with the composers between songs and during breaks.
I haven't played Cuphead or Ori in ages, so it was nice to hear more about how each arrangement came about. Pernal's dedicated re-imagining of Cuphead's soundtrack with his host of real horns was explored, and we were all able to learn something about the soundtracks. His mentioning of Count Basie and Duke Ellington as inspirations for the Cuphead tunes will hopefully get some of the crowd to truly dive into the amazing world of jazz music and emerge with a brand new love in life.
What really touched me were the points in The Symphony of the Spirits where composer Gareth Coker was able to come out on stage and see his impact first-hand. A concert hall filled with people with a genuine love for your music isn't something a lot of living composers get to see, and video game music gives the opportunity for folks who might not have been into this kind of music to give it a chance.
Coker was able to talk a bit about the work it took to get the Ori scores composed, having put thousands of hours into the games and truly immersing himself in the game's world. It was wonderful to hear more about the music that took so many on an emotional journey in the Ori games, something I've never really experienced at orchestral concerts before.
Both The Jazz of Cuphead and The Symphony of the Spirits were excellently-performed productions. Because the Game Music Festival prefers to go without visuals like some other musical performances of game music, the music truly got to take centre stage. The performers were some of the best in the world and found ways to elevate video game music from the small screen to the concert hall, something I'd never seen before.
I truly hope the Game Music Festival becomes an annual mainstay in London. It's a treat for music and video game lovers alike, and because of how the audience is interacted with, it's accessible for anyone. Someone who loves orchestral music but doesn't care about games could keep an open mind and find a lot to love about The Symphony of the Spirits. For someone obsessed with Cuphead's soundtrack but can't tell their Davis from their Dizzy, The Jazz of Cuphead would be an utter joy. For me, someone in between? It was just wonderful.