Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Game On: University of Maryland's Gamer Symphony Orchestra

Call it beginner's luck.

The first video game Grant Kirkhope helped compose music for was the blockbuster "GoldenEye 007" for the Nintendo 64 game console in 1997.

With more than 10 million copies sold and an enduring spot on Top 10 lists, "GoldenEye"was a game changer that redefined its genre. But, Kirkhope's maiden voyage almost didn't set sail.

"The game actually got canceled by Nintendo during development because they thought it was so bad," Kirkhope recalls. "But Rare [the game's developers] kept paying us and said, ‘No, it's going to be great.' Literally, in the last month of development, it sort of became good. Before that, it was dreadful."

After "GoldenEye," Kirkhope went on to compose for other top-selling Nintendo titles such as "Banjo-Kazooie" and "Perfect Dark." He now works on next-generation console games with Timonium-based developer Big Huge Games, but his past endeavors have not been forgotten.

One of Kirkhope's songs from "Banjo-Kazooie" will be part of the repertoire the University of Maryland's Gamer Symphony Orchestra (UMGSO) will perform on Saturday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
UMGSO president Robert Garner invited Kirkhope to attend the concert. The two met earlier this year at the Alexandria, Va.-based MAGFest, a convention devoted to video game music. With the "Banjo-Kazooie" piece in the works, Garner says the timing couldn't have been better.

"We had just happened to luck out that the piece was ready at the same time that Grant was in the area," he says.

Garner, a library information sciences graduate student, says that between its chorus and instrumental section, the student-run symphony consists of 120 members.

In addition to "Banjo-Kazooie," the evening's set list spans more than a decade, featuring selections from the "Warcraft" series to "Portal," which was released in 2007.

The concert also will feature a performance by the Col. Zadok Magruder High School Gamer Symphony Orchestra, which Garner says the UMGSO inspired. The high school orchestra will play the "Chocobo Theme" from Square Enix's "Final Fantasy VII."

With such a large orchestra to consider, many of the pieces the UMGSO arranges are re-imagined with additional parts. For example, on Saturday the orchestra will perform a medley combining the themes from the 1995 title "Chrono Cross" and its sequel "Chrono Trigger."

"That gives our arrangers something of a challenge to take and expand it and broaden it into something that's well suited for an 80-piece orchestra and a 40-piece choir," Garner says.

For the "Banjo-Kazooie" number, Mark Cromer of Big Huge Games will join the UMGSO onstage to play the banjo. Cromer was asked to perform after Garner encountered Kirkhope at MAGFest.

"Being the ensemble that we are, we couldn't in good conscience do a piece called ‘Banjo-Kazooie' without having a banjo [or] a kazoo," Garner says. "We were able to handle the kazoos without problem, but the banjo was a little harder to track down."

Kirkhope recommended Cromer. The two, who are currently putting the finishing touches on the multi-platform title "Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning," have worked together since Cromer joined the company in 2008.

Cromer has been composing in the video game industry for 15 years. For 12 of those years, he worked for Firaxis Games, the developers behind some of Sid Meier's "Civilization" series. The series covers history and cultures from the past 4,000 years and, as a result, Cromer says he began learning any type of instrument he could get his hands on — including the banjo.

"Everything but the kitchen sink," Cromer says. "I've been known to use an egg slicer as an instrument."

Cromer and Kirkhope, along with fellow composer Ian Smith, are responsible for creating not only the games' sounds, but also the layering of sound effects. The trio believes that the best game soundtracks are those with a distinct melody.

Cromer and Kirkhope agree that the methods of video game composers have changed greatly since their first endeavors. What once was a job that could be easily accomplished in the studio now finds veterans like Kirkhope flying to Prague to record with full orchestras.

Still, Saturday's performance with the UMGSO will give Cromer a new experience with a game he knows well.

"This is my first opportunity to play banjo with an orchestra," Cromer says. "Who could pass that up?"

Photos by Mark Noble; Michael DeFlippi