Super Mario meets Mozart
Student orchestra specializes in music from video games
Edward Tsao a sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park had never even played in a band when a friend invited him last fall to play guitar in a 100-member orchestra.
Tsao, 19, of Rockville decided the offer was too good to pass up when he found that the orchestra wouldn't be playing classical pieces or popular hits, but music from video games.
"I figured I'd try it out. ... We all grew up with these video games, so it's all recognizable," said Tsao, a member of the University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra. "It's a way for students to connect through music."
The Gamer Symphony Orchestra was founded in 2005 by six members of the school's pep band who wanted to combine two of their biggest interests: music and video games. Today, the orchestra has 102 members including 32 vocalists who take both simple and complex, recognizable and obscure video game tunes and turn them into detailed arrangements that are just as much Vivaldi as they are Mario and Luigi.
The volunteer, student-run orchestra claims to be the nation's first collegiate video game ensemble. It has fall and spring concerts each year, the latter of which is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday at the university's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
"It's so amazing to see these people come together and make this great music," said GSO president Rob Garner, a 25-year-old graduate student who plays flugelhorn in the group. "It's something that all the members are passionate about."
While those of a certain age might associate video game music with simple, catchy, yet somewhat repetitive tunes from classics like the original "Super Mario Bros." and "The Legend of Zelda," gamer music has grown more sophisticated over the years. The GSO largely eschews the oldies in favor of more contemporary, complex themes from games like "Super Mario Galaxy," "Final Fantasy" and "Halo."
"The music ranges," said Karen Murad, 19, a sophomore flutist from Fanwood, N.J. "I can look at a song that's really simple and sight-read it, and then they'll break one out that I have to spend hours practicing because it's so complicated."
While some audience members and even orchestra members don't recognize the music or even play video games, the quality of the selections is enough to pique their interest, said GSO percussionist Sean Robert.
The use of video game music also allows them to reach college students and younger audiences who love video games but don't ordinarily attend orchestral performances or classical recitals.
"It kind of adds culture to [video games]," said Robert, 18, a freshman from Wantagh, N.Y. "Beyond video games, it's good music."
GSO's orchestra and choir members rehearse every week during the fall and spring semesters, and twice a week leading up to their concerts. The group has about $8,000 to $10,000 in expenses each year, Garner said, most of which is covered by the school's Student Government Association.
A large portion of the money goes toward rehearsal and performance hall rental fees, although Garner added that members often donate from their own pockets to help cover costs.
"It costs quite a bit to rent the performance spaces," Garner said. "We're eeking it out, but we're still in the black."
Aside from playing music, the group has also taken up charity fundraising with its annual "Deathmatch for Charity" video game tournament, which raises funds for the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"It's not just about the performances. GSO also functions as sort of a social group," he said. "Many of us eat dinner together following rehearsals. ... We go out and play kickball on weekends."
While members of the orchestra are musically inclined, very few are music students. Their majors range from animal sciences to aerospace engineering, and even those with distinguished musical backgrounds joined the GSO as a labor of love one that has allowed them to hone their music skills, entertain others and find a home within the group, members said.
"Music was my life in high school," said Murad, who has played flute for 10 years and once played at Carnegie Hall with her high school ensemble. "This was the first place I fit in, in college. Everyone was so nice and so wonderful."
Garner said the orchestra could expand in coming years, and that one of its main goals is to work with local middle and high schools to raise enthusiasm about orchestral music. The group has already inspired students at Magruder High School in Rockville to start their own gamer symphony orchestra, which was founded in 2008.
Saturday's two-hour concert will feature music from such games as "Super Mario Galaxy," "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker" and "Katamari Damacy," a playlist that Garner said is one of the group's most challenging and enjoyable yet.
"The music is actually more technically difficult than the past couple we've done, so I think people are going to be really impressed," Garner said. "This music is great, regardless of whether or not you've ever picked up a controller."
If you go
Gamer Symphony Orchestra
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Dekelboum Concert Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park
Information: 301-405-ARTS (2787)
E-mail David Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org.