Music plays an important role in many games, and even in the early days, the best composers were able to create incredibly expressive music, despite technical limitations. Dragon Quest composer, Koichi Sugiyama is known as the pioneer of orchestral music for RPGs, and in 1987 he staged the very first video game music concert in the world. But it took another 16 years for these kinds of orchestral performances to be held outside of Japan. In this episode, how Thomas Böcker brought Spielekonzerte - Symphonic Game Music Concerts - to Germany, and the world.
JAMES PARKINSON: One of my favourite ways to experience video games, outside of playing them, is listening to their soundtracks. I can pull up one of my favourites on Spotify and be instantly transported back to those game worlds. Just like a film score drives the emotion in cinema, for many games the music plays an equally important role in storytelling. Even in the 1980s, with the limitations of sound chips, the best composers were still able to create incredibly expressive music.
JAMES PARKINSON: Dragon Quest composer, Koichi Sugiyama is known as the pioneer of orchestral music in role-playing games. As a classically trained musician and conductor, his orchestral style hadn’t really been heard in games before. Then in 1987, he staged the very first video game music concert in the world, and audiences heard his compositions in all of their symphonic beauty.
THOMAS BÖCKER: He started with performing a mixture of classical music and his own game music for Dragon Quest. And then this idea became bigger, or how you want to call it, he changed the idea a little bit. And then he brought more game music soundtracks into his concerts, also the ones he didn't compose by himself. And so the orchestral concert series started. They had at least five concerts, they had, with programs ranging from all big Japanese game titles at this time, like Dragon Quest, obviously, and Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, Chrono Trigger. And yeah, all the soundtracks which were popular at this time.
JAMES PARKINSON: Sugiyama’s concerts were successful, allowing fans to experience the music of their favourite game in a new way. But live orchestral performances for video game music never made it outside of Japan. That was until one person decided to do something about it.
THOMAS BÖCKER: My name is Thomas Böcker. I'm a producer from Germany, and for the last 20 years I have been promoting and producing video game music concerts all over the world.
JAMES PARKINSON: Fuelled by his love of game soundtracks and classical music, in 2003 Thomas set out to bring these incredible concerts to Germany, and the world.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thomas Böcker has made a career of bringing games and orchestral music together, which were two things he was exposed to from a young age.
THOMAS BÖCKER: It all started, basically, when my father was bringing our family a Commodore 64 home computer. This was when I was around the age of seven or eight. And I have to emphasise that this was quite special because we lived in the GDR in East Germany. So it was actually not so easy for us to get such a computer because it just didn't exist, or you couldn't buy it in a normal way, you couldn't go to the shop and get it there. But my grandmother, she lived in West Germany. And when she turned 60 years old, my father was allowed to visit her in West Germany. And he was quite a visionary. He thought that he would spend the money, which he saved, for a Commodore 64, and to bring it home because he could see that potentially this would change quite a lot of things in the life of the family. Which then also was true, because not only me, not only I got interested in video games and computers in general, my brothers did the same. So he really had a big influence on the whole family by bringing this Commodore 64 to the family. And then, of course, at the age of seven, I was especially interested in playing video games. And so it started, and it also got my interest - not only for the games themselves but also for the video game music.
JAMES PARKINSON: It was the simplicity in game music that captured Thomas’ attention, and also led to his interest in electronic music.
THOMAS BÖCKER: So these two worlds combined, in a way. And my memories, if I think back, what I remember the most are games like Giana Sisters, or To be On Top. And like, a lot of soundtracks actually, which were composed by the German composer Chris Huelsbeck, or there were, of course, also other great tunes from composers like Rob Hubbard, who did for example, Commando or soundtracks like Last Ninja, International Karate, and so on and so on. So there were many, many soundtracks which got my attention.
JAMES PARKINSON: As for classical music, initially it wasn’t a direct interest but something that was always part of Thomas’ life growing up.
THOMAS BÖCKER: I’m coming from a family of teachers - lucky me, yes. And so classical music always played some role in our family. It's not like that we have a lot of people playing the music themselves or performing the music. But especially my grandfather, he was listening to classical music a lot. So even that I was not especially interested in a young age, I was influenced by it, without any doubt. Before I actually got interested in film music, before I then again got more interested in classical music later on. And this came when I think at the age of thirteen or fourteen, when I was starting to listen more to music by John Williams. Like, Jurassic Park was my entrance point to the world of movie soundtracks. And then yeah, again, all these worlds somehow combined in an interesting way. And coming from this like, video game music and then film soundtracks, this again got me more interested in what the classical music world has to offer. So I would say my main interest became orchestral music.
JAMES PARKINSON: And by the early 2000s, Thomas had learned about Koichi Sugiyama’s concerts in a German gaming magazine.
THOMAS BÖCKER: And they described it as something - I think in a nice way - they said it's weird that even video game music gets performed by full orchestras. And I read about it and I thought, “actually, it's not that weird. It's actually quite cool”. And then I started waiting, because I was at this time, I was already a big fan of music by Chris Huelsbeck, as I said, and I thought, like, “wow, how cool would it be if we would have a performance of music by Chris Huelsbeck by a real orchestra?”. That was what I was thinking at this time. And then nothing happened. So I thought, “okay, if nobody is doing it in the Western world, I have to do it”. There's only this one choice. And so I proposed the idea to the Leipzig trading fair, because they at this time - 2002, 2003 - they started their gaming conventions in Leipzig, which was like Europe's biggest trading fair for video games at this time. So I thought, “why not suggesting them that we have a concert alongside their gaming fair?”. And fortunately they agreed. And so it started that we could do a video game music concert at the famous Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, as the open opening ceremony of the trading fair games convention.
JAMES PARKINSON: This concert proved to be a crucial step in convincing people outside of Japan that orchestral performances of video game music was worth doing. Remember, the first concert in Tokyo was held in 1987. It then took 16 years, actually to the day, for an equivalent concert to be held outside of the country.
THOMAS BÖCKER: I believe that nobody really thought that it would be attractive enough to really have an audience, to come and to pay, to see and hear such a concert. So even when I proposed this to the trading fair in Leipzig, they thought maybe a few hundreds of people would show up. But for them, it didn't really matter because it was this opening ceremony anyway. So I think nobody really realised the potential behind such an idea, and that there are enough people out there that could potentially be interested in attending.
JAMES PARKINSON: While the Games Convention had nothing to lose in giving Thomas this opportunity, the response from the audience showed that there was absolutely an interest in this kind of event.
THOMAS BÖCKER: For the first concert, there was a big, big interest from people to buy tickets, and it sold out and we had 2000 people attending this first concert already. And at this point, they realised, “oh, okay, that's something we should probably follow”. And this is also the reason why, like from then every year they had another opening ceremony with a game music concert.
THOMAS BÖCKER: So my pitch was successful, I guess. And I was invited to present my idea directly in Leipzig. And then again, I guess I was convincing enough to make them believe that it could be a success, which I'm very happy about. So the trading fair in Leipzig was quite open-minded right from the start, which was, I mean I was really lucky because this was not only the first video game music concert outside of Japan, it was also my very first project as a freelancer. So it was just the time when I became a freelancer, and this was the first project I actually did. And it was quite a big one already.
JAMES PARKINSON: Before producing Game Concerts, Thomas was a producer for a game publisher near Frankfurt. He also created a project called Merregnon, which gave him the foundations he’d need later, in order to coordinate the production of the concerts.
THOMAS BÖCKER: Merregnon is a symphonic fairy tale of sorts, where video game music composers from all over the world provide music for a story, for a fairy tale which I came up with. So the idea was to tell a story through orchestral music. So this was the basic idea for Merregnon. And then composers like Chris Huelsbeck or Yuzo Koshiro, they all provided music for this two CDs which I did. 2000 was the first volume and 2004, I think, was the second volume. And this was the kind of project which got everything started, because I could make my contacts to composers all over the world. And then, even more importantly, in 2002, I had my first contact with an orchestra, because I invested all my private money, which I had this time to go to Prague, and to record the music of Merregnon 2 with a live orchestra. So this was my first big experience on this part. So this again takes the idea of telling a story through symphonic music. This is just like the one project, as I said, which keeps everything together, and which basically describes what my passion for my project is; telling stories through symphonic music.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thomas also connected with a conductor and an orchestra manager through Merregnon, so when it came to getting his concerts off the ground, he knew the right people to turn to for help. And the rest fell into place from there.
THOMAS BÖCKER: Yeah, basically, the internet was very helpful. I simply contacted all the publishers, all the developers or the composers by email. Or if this didn't work, by phone, and then I simply ask. I mean, I know it sounds very easy, which it isn't always but yeah, that's just how it how it went, I contacted them. And then I guess, again, I was convincing enough so that they believed in the idea. And I mean, if you are a composer, and somebody is writing you an email, or is calling you and saying, “by the way, we have this 80-piece orchestra, and they are interested in performing your music, in one of the most well known or one of the most prestigious concert halls in Germany, how do you feel about it?” And it's most likely the way that they are very, very excited about it, and of course, they want to join.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thomas says the most challenging aspect was actually navigating the legal issues of music licensing from the game developers.
THOMAS BÖCKER: Yes, I would say it is time consuming, but it's also depending very much on the publisher or the developer of the games. So, for example, Nintendo is very strict about everything. So this process probably took the longest because they really did not only want to know many details of like, where it's performed, who's performing who's producing - I mean, obvious things, which I, as a producer also would like to know, if somebody is contacting me. Then they are also very particular. So, this is something that really took some time. But I mean, it's understandable, because with Legend of Zelda, or Super Mario - huge IPs. So of course, they don't want anybody to mess around with them. And then you had publishers who, who just said, “Oh, great idea, we still have the scores here anyway, can we send them to you? Here, you have our permission”. So it's like a mixture of both extremes in a way. The most important and most difficult part was first, especially for the first concert, nothing like that had been done in the Western world before, was contacting publishers and developers, and to find out who's actually responsible for this kind of permission, for this kind of approval. There's also the question of sheet music, of arrangements - do they exist? Or do they have to be created? And especially in the beginning, the answer often was they had to be created because nothing existed.
JAMES PARKINSON: There are some game music performances that are closer to a rock concert than the symphony, with a light show and maybe some game footage on a big screen. That obviously works well for certain soundtracks, but the kinds of concerts Thomas produces are purely orchestral, and even if you’re familiar with a particular game, you’re guaranteed to hear something new. That’s coming up after the break.
JAMES PARKINSON: Since the inception of Symphonic Video Game Concerts, Thomas Böcker has produced several concert series, each focusing on different kinds of games. In 2008, the concerts moved from the Games Convention in Leipzig to Cologne’s Philharmonic Hall.
THOMAS BÖCKER: I was approached by the WDR, which is a big radio and TV station in Germany. And they also have two orchestras. And they were interested in attracting a young audience as well. So from 2008, I did another series of concerts - they’re called the symphonic series. There were concepts like Symphonic Shades, Fantasies, Legends and Odysseys, and they all had different themes to them. So the first concert, Shades, was all about music from German composer Chris Huelsbeck, who was like my childhood hero of video game music. So I wanted to have this tribute to him and his music. So this is how it started with the WDR. And then we went on with Symphonic Fantasies, celebrating the music of Square Enix with Kingdom Hearts, Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy. Then from there, we went to Symphonic Legends, which is a concert all about music from Nintendo games; Super Mario Bros, Pikmin, Legend of Zelda - you know them - Star Fox, and so on. And then the last with the WDR was Symphonic Odysseys, which again, was a tribute concert to one of my video game music composer heroes. In this case, it was Nobuo Uematsu. We had a concert with all music from him, like Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and of course, Final Fantasy as well. So these were completely different concepts, but always with the idea behind to tell stories through symphonic music. And then from there, the Final Symphony international tour started. This is basically, with Final Symphony, we became international because then we had a program that could travel around the world and be presented with different orchestras, in many different venues all over the world.
JAMES PARKINSON: Final Symphony toured around Europe, the UK, the United States, Australia, and even in Japan, bringing orchestral game music concerts full circle. Part of the reason why these concerts have been so successful is the experience created for the audience. They’re not just performing the game soundtracks as a direct adaptation. Instead, Thomas and his team take the existing melodies and develop them to create new arrangements.
THOMAS BÖCKER: This development of themes and development of the melodies, I think is what makes orchestral music so great, because then you can really showcase what is an orchestra because you can put the melodies to different orchestra sections, you can feature soloists, and special parts and so on. So you have this constant movement through different moods and different emotions throughout the whole concert.
THOMAS BÖCKER: Take Final Symphony as an example. I wanted these longer pieces for Final Fantasy 6, 7 and 10. And once I got approval for this idea, I approached the arrangers, Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo. And then we discussed how we can approach the whole concert concept. Like, what is the title that could have most of the music performed from, and also generally, in what kind of style? So Final Fantasy 6 became a symphonic poem, Final Fantasy 10 became a piano concerto, and Final Fantasy 7 became a full symphony. So these sorts of decisions are made at the very beginning.
THOMAS BÖCKER: And then we just took three, to us, very important themes from the game and put them to music. We can't tell the full story, but we can tell such important scenes, such important moments from the games, that the people in the audience can just combine the music with their memories of when they played the game, and then I think it all connects, and then it brings up the emotion which we want it to bring up. Usually, if you have an arrangement of fifteen minutes, then you are sort of limited in bringing out the full story of the game. So that's not possible, but you can always find the key moments, the key beats of the story, and then integrate them into the music arrangement.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thomas has no issues with non-orchestral game concerts though. For him, it’s a matter of personal taste and creating a new experience for the audience.
THOMAS BÖCKER: For me, it was always more about creating the image in your head while listening to the music. This was always something that is attractive to me, personally. But I mean, the good thing is with video game music, I guess that there's room for so many different concepts. So for the consumer, for the audience, it's actually pretty nice that now they can choose what kind of style they prefer. If it's more like the, let's say in my case, I would call it more like classical approach, where the music is really in the focus. But then you can also have concerts where it's more a celebration of the games in general, like with, with footage from the games and with the music as a part of it. So I think there's not really a right or wrong, it's just a different concept. And it comes down, I think, for all the producers, I know a few of them, to always like what is their personal taste and how they feel what is best for the audience to enjoy.
JAMES PARKINSON: And this approach has definitely resonated with the games community, allowing fans to connect with their favourite games and soundtracks in a new way. And it’s also been effective in getting younger audiences to engage with the symphony.
THOMAS BÖCKER: It's really touching. I mean, it's a very interesting audience for me, because for many of them, it's the first contact with an orchestra, with orchestral music, with a live orchestra performance. They are so so quiet doing the performances, because they just want to get every nuance. They really want to get every detail of the music. And then once it stops, when the music is over, you have a reaction, like in a rock concert, I would say. Like very enthusiastic and, cheering and really loud, and really showing how much they appreciate the fact that their music is performed in such a live concert, in such an environment, I would say. So I guess for the orchestras, and that's also the reason why orchestras like to perform video game music more and more. A strong part about it, I think, is the audience. Of course, the audience is usually so respectful, and is really appreciating the musicians so much that what else could you ask for as a musician, to really get this sort of respect from an audience? I think that’s pretty cool.
JAMES PARKINSON: It’s also not uncommon for the musicians to be gamers themselves, getting the opportunity to perform music that they have a personal connection with.
THOMAS BÖCKER: I mean, I'm doing this now, almost 20 years. So of course, there has been some development. And with the fact that more and more young musicians are joining the orchestras, of course, you have many of them with an experience playing games, and then immediately it becomes more important to them, for obvious reasons. Because they can relate to what is on their desk, if they if they play it. So I remember for example, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, there was or is a lady playing the violin who was a big Final Fantasy fan. So of course, she is very happy if the music of her favourite franchise s played in a concert. So the change, the contrast thing is, I think, really something they can appreciate. Over the years, the interest changed and developed, that even a high profile orchestra - like one of the very best in the world, like the London Symphony Orchestra - is asking if they can perform music from Final Fantasy on a tour in Japan. I mean, that’s quite something.
JAMES PARKINSON: There is something really special about the way these two art forms of video games and classical music have been brought together. And when you think about the respect that the great orchestras of the world command, these concerts are allowing video games and their music to be viewed in a different light, and challenge the misconceptions of what games are all about.
THOMAS BÖCKER: Yeah, I think this comes - I mean, I often hear that, let's say teenagers, young people are going to these concerts, and then they bring their parents, or even their grandparents. And then I think it's like a learning experience for three different generations. So the young people, they will learn something more about orchestras. And then, let's say the older - in very respectful - older people will learn more about what their children or grandchildren are actually doing in their spare time when they are playing these games. And then there might be this learning experience about what these games are about. And people will start talking about it. So it’s spreading, the word is spreading about what is out there, and what can be done with today's video games. Because there are many people who still believe that video games are very, very simple and don't really have any deeper meaning. But if you once attended such a concert with a prestigious orchestra, then you realise, “okay, there must be something about it”. And then I probably should, yeah, do some research and learn a little bit what is now possible today, and then you suddenly find out that there is a whole new world of opportunities with today's video games.
James Parkinson: What's been the most rewarding aspect of all this work for you?
THOMAS BÖCKER: I think traveling around the world, and meeting with so many talented, very, very interesting, intelligent people. And to be there with an audience who are so enthusiastic, and so thankful and grateful that something like that is happening. So yeah, I think it's this emotional part which is the most interesting thing. To come to different countries, to learn something about the culture there. Yeah, it's a change in your life, you can experience something new and you learn something new, you get a different perspective on certain things, different cultures, and so on. So it's a big benefit of being a producer of such concerts to have such an opportunity. And I'm very, very grateful about it.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks to Thomas Böcker for his time and sharing his story. If you want to learn more about Symphonic Game Concerts or check to out some videos of performances visit gameconcerts.com. You can also listen to Symphonic Fantasies and Final Symphony on Spotify and Apple Music, which I’ve linked to in the episode description and on our website, gameplay.co.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music from Blue Dot Sessions and Breakmaster Cylinder.
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• Learn more about Symphonic Game Music Concerts at gameconcerts.com.
• Learn more about Merregnon at merregnon.com.