Jason Michael Paul is hacking symphony orchestras.
"Most of the music we arrange, it was never intended to be performed by a live orchestra," the producer said before showtime one recent evening. His show, The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, is a symphonic interpretation of video game music that transforms blippy 1980s chiptunes into a cascade of sound performed live. It's been touring the West Coast and Asia, and arrives in Seattle on September 22.
The concert's inspiration is the Legend of Zelda, an ongoing game series whose early installments had players maneuvering a blocky pixelated elf through forests and dungeons. As technology advanced, the settings and sound grew lusher, with the hero, Link, frolicking through fantasy realms of monsters and magic.
Adapting the games' music for live performance has been challenging. It involved excavating notes assembled to be heard under title screens and in the background of adventures—the sounds you heard while wandering mazes, carrying pigs through puzzles, or flirting with sharks—and making them bigger, fuller, more resonant.
"You're coming from a smaller palette of sound in those original scores," said Seattle-based arranger Bill Panks. "In the original soundtrack, it's just a sample emulating a men's choir. It's monophonic, one line the whole choir is singing in unison." He took a single sound and expanded the implied harmony into a full human chorus. Other songs draw on influences ranging from Randy Newman to John Williams to Gustav Holst.
The starting point for many songs is just "MIDI files and a synth library," said Paul. "It's all blips and bleeps."
The meeting of computerized music and live orchestration—the transformation of something digital into something analog—has at times been difficult to navigate. "With electronic music, there's no tempo limit. Wind instruments have to think about breathing," said Panks. "A synthesizer can play an arpeggio across a wide range of octaves." The resulting challenge is a bit like a game of telephone, with musical idioms translated into chiptunes and then back to traditional instruments. At the point where those styles converge, new forms of music have revealed themselves.
"Composers go to school for a long time to learn how to make an orchestra sound its best," said conductor Kevin Zakresky. But Koji Kondo, the composer of Super Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda's music, was working with tools that had only just been invented. The musicians in Symphony of the Goddesses have adapted his songs and now use their "instruments in combinations that create new sounds," said Zakresky. "When you couple that with the fact that people are reliving their memories of an epic, it creates an intersection of two very emotional experiences."
There are definite advantages to digital instrumentation—those impossible arpeggios—but physical instruments produce more physical sensations. "The feeling of sound waves coming off of a cello and hitting you in the chest isn't something you can get out of a television set," Panks said.
The show also takes advantage of contemporary technology, including live video accompaniment. Backstage artists arrange projected visuals that accompany each song, including video feeds that zoom in on audience members who've come dressed in character.
Each person in the audience probably hears something different in the music from Legend of Zelda—it might be memories of their childhood, or the distant inspiration of a long-dead composer, or the future of concert music.
"One of my favorite movements is the little main tune from [the 1991 game] A Link to the Past," Zakresky said. "It's kind of like conducting Boléro—it loops the same tune for like 20 minutes. There's something kind of magical and baroque in the tune... it's a march, but it's also a delicious gavotte in the middle of the symphony. It has a shape that I think Bach would identify with—a dance form from 400 years ago."