Art Talk with Radio Producer Emily Reese
"When I hear anyone talk about the death of classical music, I feel like that individual must ignore all media, because classical music is ubiquitous within it." -- Emily Reese
Whether you're a Candy Crush addict, er, we mean aficionado, a seasoned World of Warcraft vet, or your gaming style could be described as "on like Donkey Kong," you know that an integral part of the game environment is the music. What you may not have realized is that much of what you're listening to as you level up or gain another life or two is orchestral music, that is, it's a lot like what you might hear in your local symphony hall. Top Score, a newish program from Minnesota Public Radio, celebrates video games and video game composers, uncovering some interesting connections between video game soundtracks and classical music along the way. It's probably not a surprise to the show's many fans--video game and classical music enthusiasts alike--that Top Score is one of 971 projects recommended to receive an FY 2014 grant from the NEA. (Visit our News Room for the full press announcement.) We spoke with show producer Emily Reese to find out what sparked the idea for Top Score, some of her personal favorite video game soundtracks, and what the NEA grant will mean for the program.
NEA: What's your 10-word bio?
EMILY REESE: Emily Reese is the creator of Classical MPR’s Top Score.
NEA: How did you get into radio and working as a producer?
REESE: I was in Lincoln, Nebraska, working on my master’s degree in music theory. Nebraska’s public radio network, NET Radio, posted a flier in the music building to hire a new announcer who knew something about classical music and was interested in being on the radio. I jumped at the chance, and got the job. I worked at NET Radio for three years as a news host and classical host and it was fantastic. I moved to Minnesota with the hopes of getting hired by Classical MPR so I could focus solely on classical music.
NEA: What's your "elevator pitch" description of the show, and what do you want listeners to take away from each episode?
REESE: Top Score is an exploration of video game soundtracks. Each episode is an opportunity to hear how vital music is to the gaming experience, particularly orchestral music.
NEA: What sparked the idea for the show?
REESE: In January 2011, a touring concert show called Video Games Live came to Minneapolis to play at Orchestra Hall with the Minnesota Orchestra. I interviewed the co-creator, posted an article online, and we got a lot of traffic from it. As a result, we started having conversations about how to highlight the wonderful orchestral music in games, and it seemed like a podcast would be the best fit for the demographic. Now, Top Score is on the air weekly across the U.S.
NEA: One of the goals of Top Score is to highlight connections between classical music and video game music. What are some of the unexpected links you've uncovered?
REESE: Early video game music reflects the characteristics of the Baroque era. The earliest video game composers were restricted by technology, and could often only use two sounds at once. It ends up mimicking basso continuo, where you have a low instrument playing something along the lines of a walking bass line, and a melodic line on top. It’s fun to draw connections such as these with listeners.
NEA: What's been the most surprising thing you have learned from producing the show?
REESE: I was shocked to learn how much time composers have to work on music for games, compared to other media. Composers often have several months to create soundscapes for big games. Every project is different, of course, but I think composers enjoy having more breathing room to create their music. On top of that, composers write far more music for a game than for television or film. I was impressed with the amount of work they each put into their projects.
Additionally, I was amazed at how passionate and large the fan base is for game music. Soundtracks for games are unnecessarily ignored by the arts community (as are games in general).
NEA: I know the show is still relatively new, but is there an episode that's aired so far that you especially liked, and why?
REESE: I have so many favorites; since I work on the show by myself, they all feel like children in a way! A couple of years ago, I had the chance to interview French composer Normand Corbeil. He was one of my favorite composers, and I loved speaking to him about his music and classical music in general. I remember him saying, “Every day, I play Bach.” Corbeil died of cancer last year, and I’m so grateful I had a chance to connect with him. It’s an early episode, so it’s not exactly my best interview work, but that episode will always be one of my favorites.
NEA: How important is the NEA's grant support to your project, and why?
REESE: There is a large community of fans of video game music. They crave to hear more, learn more, and connect with composers. With the NEA’s support, we’ll be able to build production and marketing capacity for the show. We’ll be able to reach out to that thriving community to let them know Top Score exists for them.
NEA: What's your favorite video game in terms of its music, and why?
REESE: This is such a difficult question to answer, because there are a lot of options. If we go back to the earliest days, one of my favorite 8-bit scores is for Metroid. Speaking more along the lines of soundtracks with orchestras, I love the music Garry Schyman wrote for the BioShock series, particularly BioShock Infinite. In BioShock Infinite, Schyman was tasked with scoring a dystopian American city in 1912. He listened to a lot of Stephen Foster and Charles Ives, and created an incredible sonic world for the game. Truly, I could keep going and going--there are so many thoughtful, inspiring soundtracks in games, it is difficult to pick just one. The soundtrack that made me realize games had changed drastically was Jeremy Soule’s score for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Absolutely fantastic, lush, beautiful music.
NEA: What's another product of popular culture that you think we should pay more attention to in terms of its associated music?
REESE: There is a thriving community of fans who create their own music inspired by video game music. The biggest collection can be found at www.ocremix.org, where thousands of fans remix or re-interpret their favorite video game music. It’s inspiring to see so many musicians put so much effort into what they love.
There is also magnificent music in television. When I hear anyone talk about the death of classical music, I feel like that individual must ignore all media, because classical music is ubiquitous within it. Thousands of composers write meaningful music for television, games and film. As listeners, it’s important to have access to this music.
NEA: At the NEA, our tagline is the phrase "Art works." How do you think that phrase applies to your project?
REESE: I feel so fortunate to be in a position to highlight the art of music in games. I don’t tend to think of art as work, and I realize that’s not the intent behind the phrase. I feel that art is inevitable, and, as humans, we have a responsibility to share it.
Do you have a favorite video game soundtrack? Let us know on Twitter (@NEAarts) or on our Facebook page.