Canons—of music, video games, or people—can provide a shared pool of resources for scholars, practitioners, and fans; but the formation of canons can also lead to an obscuring or devaluing of materials and people outside of a canon. The four authors in this colloquy interrogate issues of canons relating to video game music and sound from a variety of perspectives. Each author considers an aspect of canonization and argues for a wider purview. In “Rewritable Memory: Concerts, Canons, and Game Music History,” William Gibbons examines the ways in which concerts of video game music may create canons and reinforce particular historical narratives. In “On Canons as Music and Muse,” Julianne Grasso views the music originally presented in a video game as itself a type of canon and argues that official and fan arrangements of original game music may provide windows into lived experiences of play. In “The Difficult, Uncomfortable, and Imperative Conversations Needed in Game Music and Sound Studies,” Hyeonjin Park highlights issues of diversity and representation in the field of video game music and sound studies, with respect to the people and music that make up the subjects of the field, the people who produce scholarship in the field, and the people who engage with game music and sound. In “Canon Anxiety?” Karen Cook pulls together various issues of academic canons to question the scope, focus, and diversity of the growing field in which the Journal of Sound and Music in Games exists.
Among video game aficionados who grew up in the 1990s, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)—first released in North America in 1991—is in contention for the greatest console ever released.1 With the lens of nostalgia, several of its best-loved games have assumed masterwork status: Super Mario World (1990), The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991), Final Fantasy IV and VI (1991 and 1994, respectively), Star Fox (1993), Donkey Kong Country (1994), and Super Metroid (1994), to name a few. A 2017 US Gamer article from editor-in-chief Kat Bailey, helpfully entitled “Why the Super Nintendo Is the Best Console Ever Made,” attempts to explain the lingering appeal of the console: “While the Super Nintendo was very much the ‘triple-A console’ of its day … its games have managed to transcend the period in which they were made.”2 To students of music history, Bailey's argument should feel very familiar. Unlike its competitors, Bailey suggests, the SNES produced many “timeless” masterworks that are still relevant today—the same argument we hear about canonic composers like J. S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, or Johannes Brahms.
For much the same reasons that I for years believed in the objective supremacy of the “three B's” of classical music (although, in fairness, I have never much cared for Brahms), I believed in the Legend of the SNES: it revolutionized gaming in the 1990s, ushered in an era of innovation, and possessed the greatest library of titles in the history of gaming. I was thus shocked to discover that the central thesis of game historian Dominic Arsenault's 2017 book on the SNES is that the Super Nintendo might not be so “super,” after all. Arsenault compellingly argues that the SNES's status relies less on its quality than on Nintendo's careful curation of its own history. By releasing only a small number of historical documents and a few company-approved anecdotes, Nintendo rewrote its past by way of “hearsay, rumors, and ‘misinformation echo chambers’ that ultimately twist and bend video game historiography.”3
Clearly, this strategy paid off. It's not uncommon today to hear periods of game history described as “the NES era” or “the SNES era”—a way of organizing history that not only situates Nintendo at the center of game history but also by and large omits the achievements of its erstwhile rivals.4 Again, as a scholar of both video games and musical canons, I find it difficult not to see the parallels between the process of rewriting game history and the deeply problematic concept of the “classical” canon. In both cases, half-truths and systematic omissions warp history to celebrate an ineffable “greatness,” which conveniently reinforces existing power structures and insulates them from significant challenge.5
In this brief essay, I am interested in beginning the process of connecting the dots between canon development in the histories of music and games, and in particular how these canons convey the desired historical narratives. To do so, I turn to the point where these two media interact most directly: orchestral concerts of game music. Concerts (and later recordings) have for centuries played a significant role in constructing narratives that retell music history from a particular vantage point.6 Like all canons, these concerts distorted and rewrote history for both ideological and commercial purposes, creating teleologies where the music of the past led irrevocably to the preferred vision of the present. Although the canon (and indeed the concept of “classical music” itself) has come under scrutiny in recent decades—and, in Jim Samson's words, “the authority of the canon as a measurement of quality … has proved increasingly difficult to sustain”—the canon nonetheless remains a palpable force in music programming and scholarship.7
Emerging from a supposedly “lowbrow” medium and appealing to demographics markedly different from the typical symphony audience, orchestral video game music concerts seemed like a refuge from, or perhaps even an anodyne form of resistance to, the problems inherent in the classical canon.8 In the past few years, however, it has become increasingly evident that game music is beginning to replicate many of the same issues of representation, equity, and historical manipulation that plague its classical cousin. (See Hyeonjin Park's contribution to this colloquy on issues of canon and identity in game music scholarship.) As high-profile symphonic concerts of game music become increasingly common, and those concerts then make their way into studio recording and Spotify playlists, the canonizing process is speeding up.9
Orchestral game music concerts typically come in one of two varieties. The first type celebrates a particular composer and/or video game. The archetypical example of this type would be Nobuo Uematsu, whose music for the Final Fantasy series has been the subject of several international touring programs, including but by no means limited to Dear Friends (2004–2005), Distant Worlds (2007–present), and Final Symphony (2013–present). The second type is a musical potpourri, typically containing works by a range of composers and stretching across the history of game music. These programs are often more ad hoc, organized by specific orchestras as part of their concert series. Several international touring programs have emerged, however, with the most prominent being Video Games Live (2005–present), which pairs local orchestras with a rock-influenced touring show that includes cameos from well-known composers, laser light shows, and audience interactivity.10 Both types of concerts contribute to canonization, though in subtly different ways. The first type emphasizes the “great man” approach to history, while the second more explicitly establishes historical narratives. Both types of concerts are worthy of in-depth study, but while Julianne Grasso engages with the first type in her contribution to this colloquy, here I use Video Games Live as a case study to consider the second type as a form of writing and rewriting game music history.
Video Games Live, or VGL, is a helpful barometer for a several reasons. First, it is the longest-running game concert series not dedicated to a specific composer or game franchise. Second, VGL has achieved a remarkable level of cultural penetration, performing hundreds of shows to sold-out audiences across six continents. Studying such an enduringly popular and international touring company does present some challenges, however. Programs are seldom available for live shows, for example, making it difficult to determine precisely when and how often certain works were performed. To circumvent that challenge somewhat, I will focus on the six primary commercially available albums from VGL, which have captured their most frequently performed (and presumably popular) works at various points since 2005.11 Funded in part by Kickstarter backers, these albums mix live and studio-recorded versions of the concert programming. Much as VGL concerts do, each album contains musical selections ranging from “classics” to new releases, implicitly narrating game music history with each program.
The first album, Level 1 (2008), establishes repertoire conventions that future albums would reinforce.12 The selections mostly—though by no means all—fall into two main categories, with some overlap between them. (See Supplement 1 for full listings and categories.) The first category includes post-2000 game scores by what I call the VGL “Core”—a small group of mostly white, male, American composers who tend to be affiliated in some way with VGL, and/or appear live with the tour. This category initially included VGL co-founders Jack Wall and Tommy Tallarico, Martin O'Donnell, Gerard Marino, and Jason Hayes, with the later addition of Russell Brower. On Level 1, that group is represented by music from Halo (O'Donnell, 2001) and Halo 2 (O'Donnell, 2004), Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (Hayes, 2002), God of War (Marino, 2005), Myst III: Exile (Wall, 2001), Myst IV: Revelation (Wall, 2004), and Advent Rising (Tallarico, 2005). The second broad category is “classic” music from games of the 1980s and 1990s, often presented in the form of medleys. As I will explore in more detail, these nostalgia-inducing selections narrate a particular vision of game history that disproportionately emphases Nintendo and PC titles. The emphasis on “classic” Nintendo is evident on Level 1 through examples from the Nintendo Game Boy version of Tetris (1989) and a rock arrangement of the score from the NES game Castlevania (1986).13
Level 2 (2010) continues the same pattern of programming.14 The cast of contemporary composers is more or less the same: Wall, Tallarico, O'Donnell, and Hayes all return, with the addition of a few tracks from Russell Brower's continually evolving score to the MMORPG World of Warcraft (2004–present).15 This time, however, the heavily Western (indeed, North American) bent of the selections is tempered by the inclusion of more Japanese game music, particularly from the heyday of Nintendo's consoles. The medley from Castlevania returns, this time joined by a Mega Man medley, a suite of Koji Kondo's Legend of Zelda music, two of Kondo's tracks from Super Mario games, a medley of Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu's tracks from the SNES game Chrono Trigger (1995) and Mitsuda's music for its PlayStation sequel Chrono Cross (1999), and two tracks devoted to Uematsu's music from the Final Fantasy series.
Later releases in the VGL album series tend to follow the same template—understandably, given the success of the tour program and prior releases. Each album includes at least one piece from Nintendo's Legend of Zelda series, at least one major work by a member of the VGL “Core,” and (with the exception of Level 5) at least one piece of music from the (partially Nintendo-exclusive) Final Fantasy series. There is a detectable shift, however, in terms of the inclusion of more “classic” selections, with the end result being programming that is more evenly distributed chronologically (though not necessarily more representative of game history). Thus, the concerts and recordings effectively serve two goals. They promote the music of the VGL Core, most of whom—for example Tallarico, Wall, Brower, Hayes, and O'Donnell—make live or virtual appearances with the tour. Second, the “classic” selections reinscribe a very specific historical narrative of game music history—one based predominantly around Nintendo consoles and PC games of the 1980s and 1990s. Any deviation from these two goals is noteworthy: in fact, at one point in my research I was surprised by the inclusion of music from the Sega Genesis game Earthworm Jim (1994) on Level 4—until, that is, I realized that Tallarico had composed the game's score.
The historical narrative that VGL creates, although it may conform to the nostalgic recollections of concert attendees, differs radically from the material realities of early gaming. Based on these concerts, for instance, listeners might reasonably be unaware that there was a long period when the loud bleeps and bloops of the video arcade were how most audiences consumed game music, or when Atari was the undisputed leader in the U.S. home console market.16 Likewise, one might be forgiven for being shocked to learn of what game historians often call the Console Wars—the period of time in the late 1980s and 1990s when Sega, Nintendo, and others duked it out for control of market shares.17 Even the choices for more recent works also offer a decidedly less than panoramic view of the state of game music, focusing largely on games that target a predominantly male, age eighteen-to-thirty-five demographic.
To return to the classical music world, we might draw parallels to how for most professional music ensembles, the vastness and variety of a millennium of music history is reduced to the same few relatively popular composers and works: the canon. And unfortunately, just as with the classical canon, VGL's historical narrative results in the silencing of many voices. These albums offer little evidence, for instance, of the many contributions women have made to game music; only two women (Yoko Shimomura and Manaka Kataoka) appear on the six albums. Instead, intentionally or not, the programs replicate classical music's “male genius composer” model, with Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu as the early examples, followed later by Wall, Tallarico, and their ludomusical fraternity brothers. Not surprisingly, Tallarico frequently likens himself and other game composers to his idol Beethoven—the pinnacle of hypermasculine musical genius.18 And again, these issues are replicated in what seems to be the intended audience for VGL, given the remarkable absence of games in which women would make up the primary player demographic.19
To be fair to VGL, it is not the responsibility of any single concert or series, no matter how long-lived or popular, to represent the totality of video game music—nor would that be possible, even should they make it to Level 99. The narrative presented at these events is one of a panoply of possible histories of game music. At the same time, however, we must be wary of allowing it to be the only history of game music with which listeners are presented, or permitting VGL's limitations to pass by uncritically. Indeed, I hope that scholars of game music will actively resist replicating the historical weaknesses and structural inequalities of the classical canon. The monumental process of writing and rewriting cultural memory plays out in an endless series of small choices, even as innocuous as video game music concerts.
The SNES was first released in Japan in 1990 under the name Super Famicom.
Kat Bailey, “Why the Super Nintendo Is the Best Console Ever Made,” US Gamer, September 25, 2017, https://www.usgamer.net/articles/why-the-super-nintendo-is-the-best-console-ever-made.
Dominic Arsenault, Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 10.
On the NES's prominence in 1980s culture and in nostalgia for that culture, see for example Nathan Altice, I Am Error: The Nintendo Family Computer/Entertainment System Platform (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015). Furthermore, as Arsenault points out, this perception of game history as dominated by any single company or medium “celebrates market success and popularity by organizing history as a series of rulers and their reign, retroactively structuring conflicts born from their triumphs” (Arsenault, Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware, 13).
The literature on the patriarchal and white supremacist nature of the musical canon is vast, for example. Some touchstone scholarship would include Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991); Marcia Citron, Gender and the Musical Canon (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Helen Walker-Hill, African American Women Composers and Their Music (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007); and Naomi André, Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2018).
For instance, alongside scholars like Katharine Ellis and Jann Pasler, my own research has illustrated how late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French orchestras performed carefully chosen historical works for the purpose of creating a specific narrative that reinforced French musical and cultural values. Katharine Ellis, Interpreting the Musical Past: Early Music in Nineteenth-Century France (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Jann Pasler, Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009); William Gibbons, Building the Operatic Museum: Eighteenth-Century Opera in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2013).
Jim Samson, “Canon (iii),” Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.40598.
Jason Michael Paul, a producer of game concerts since the early 2000s (including the highly popular program The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, which began in 2012), suggests that the target age range for his concerts is seventeen to thirty-five—a markedly different number than the typical symphonic audience member. Meanwhile, some studies have suggested that traditional symphonic audiences have aged significantly (including one study that suggests the average age of audience members in France may have risen from thirty-six in 1981 to sixty-one in 2014). See for example Andy Campbell, “Video Game Music Is Making Symphony Orchestra Awesome Again, Thanks to ‘Zelda’ and ‘rePLAY,’” Huffpost, November 1, 2013, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/zelda-replay-symphony-video-game-music_n_4182915; and Adam Faze, “Music Institutions Get Creative to Attract Millennials,” Forbes, October 5, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamfaze/2016/10/05/when-it-comes-to-music-institutions-attracting-millennials-creativity-is-key/#51ca8f1c649c.
On the increasing prominence of game music concerts, and their interaction with “classical” music, see William Gibbons, Unlimited Replays: Video Games and Classical Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), especially chapter 11. See also William Cheng, Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), chapter 2.
Less commonly a concert might blend these two elements. In 2018, for example, the UK's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed “PlayStation in Concert” in collaboration with the radio station Classic FM. The concert featured a potpourri of music from games released from the 1990s to the present specifically for the Sony PlayStation consoles. See Jordan Erica Webber, “How Video Game Music Waltzed Its Way on to Classic FM,” The Guardian, September 3, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/games/2018/sep/03/how-video-game-music-waltzed-its-way-on-to-classic-fm-soundtrack-awards.
A sixth album (including a documentary and concert film) has been funded on Kickstarter and now appears on Spotify, with plans to release physical copies in late 2019. VGL has also released three additional albums, including piano arrangements of music from classic Nintendo games The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (2000) and Donkey Kong Country (1994) in 2016 and 2019, respectively, as well as a live album called Classical Games in Concert (2019) featuring previously recorded arrangements of older game music. All these recordings strengthen my central arguments regarding historical repertoire and rewriting history, but for space I omit discussion of them from the main text.
The music from the first two Myst games would fit into this category as well, but I would argue that the VGL Myst medley focuses on Jack Wall's contributions rather than those of Robyn Miller, the composer (and co-designer) for the first two games. Level 1 also includes a medley of Wendy Carlos's electronic music from the Disney film Tron (1982), presumably because the film both features games as a prominent plot element and resonates with the 1980s nostalgia common to game music concerts.
Intriguingly, several tracks on this album also appeared on Level 1, suggesting that in some sense Level 2 may be designed as more of a reboot than a sequel, to borrow a cinematic metaphor.
On the evolution of the World of Warcraft score, see Steven Reale, “Barriers to Listening in World of Warcraft,” in William Gibbons and Steven Reale, Music in the Role-Playing Game: Heroes & Harmonies (New York: Routledge, 2019), 197–215.
For statistics on Atari's ubiquity in American homes, see Michael Z. Newman, Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).
See, for example, Blake J. Harris, Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation (New York: HarperCollins, 2014).
On the gendering of Beethoven and his music, see for example Sanna Pederson, “Beethoven and Masculinity,” in Beethoven and His World, ed. Scott Burnham and Michael Steinberg (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 313–331. On Tallarico's Beethoven claims, see Gibbons, Unlimited Replays, 161–162.
On women players as both a targeted market demographic and an identity, see for example Shira Chess, Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).