Kira Levitzky’s parents didn’t let her play video games growing up.
“They basically told me ‘They’re gonna rot your brain. They’re gonna make you violent,’” she said.
But when Levitzky, who majored in music education at University of Maryland, College Park, attended a performance by the Gamer Symphony Orchestra at UMD, she was instantly captivated as she heard the musicians play a song from the game “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.”
“I was sitting there and my jaw dropped,” she said. “I was like ‘This is from a video game?’”
Enthralled by the orchestra’s music, Levitzky joined the group and conducted it for five years. After graduating college and moving to Baltimore, she founded the Baltimore Gamer Symphony Orchestra & Choir (BGSO) in 2013 to carry on the community that made her fall in love with gaming music.
The BGSO will present their Made in Maryland concert virtually on Dec. 11 at 3 p.m. Eastern Time, featuring music from video games that were developed in the Old Line State. The concert will be free to watch.
The featured games included “Fallout 2,” “Fallout 3,” “The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall,” “F.E.A.R. 3,” “XCOM,” “Civilization V,” “Civilization VI,” “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning,” “Flutter Bombs,” and “Squirrely Roo Rabbit.”
In addition to songs from video games, the concert will also include recorded messages from the video game music composers.
Though the concert has been recorded and will be presented virtually, it marks the first time the full BGSO is performing together in person again during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group was originally set to hold their Made in Maryland concert in spring 2020 but had to pause their plans when the pandemic emerged.
It wasn’t game over for the orchestra group, however. Over the past year and a half, the BGSO has presented small ensemble and solo performances virtually.
But there’s nothing quite like performing together again in the same room, said Cheryl Carr, the BGSO’s orchestra coordinator, who is in charge of event logistics, member communication, and adherence to COVID-19 protocols.
“That first rehearsal when we went back, I was literally like ‘I don’t care what we play, just play something because I just want to be surrounded by other musicians again,’” said Carr, who also plays flute and piccolo.
Reuniting in person has allowed the musicians to feed off of one another’s energy and passion, which results in a better performance, Carr said.
“It makes it so much better playing in person when you have other people there that you’re just like ‘I know that you are having just as much fun as I am having, and we’re all here together,’” she said.
Levitzky said lately she has been receiving four or five emails per week from musicians looking to join. Currently, the BGSO has nearly 60 members.
“So far, everything has been going really, really smoothly [for the Made in Maryland concert] and everybody has been really excited,” she said. “I haven’t seen the stage that full in a long time.”
The BGSO is a non-auditioning orchestra, all levels of musical ability are welcome. There is no cap on the number of each instrument, so the sizes of sections fluctuate.
“The point of this orchestra is the community first and foremost,” said music director and conductor Tad Howley. “Whatever balance or instrumentation we end up with, whatever sorts of arrangements that get made for us for our particular instrumentation, that’s all fine. It’s all gonna sound different. It’s all gonna sound like us. We’re really just here to play music with each other.”
The BGSO accepts donations to help support their group. The four pledge levels come with supporter benefits, such as VIP seating at concerts, BGSO T-shirts, and more.
Maryland gaming music brought to life
One of Howley’s favorite pieces to be featured in the concert is a song called “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” from the game “Civilization V,” which incorporates a melody from “Jupiter,” part of British composer Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” suite.
“Getting to work with a choir that is as robust as it’s ever been, with an orchestra that is as big as we’ve ever been, getting the full instrumentation in there, it’s one of the most powerful pieces we’ve ever done,” he said. “I’m very excited about showing it to people.”
Meanwhile, Carr is a big fan of the “upbeat” and “fast-moving” music from indie game Squirrely Roo Rabbit, which will also be featured in the concert.
“As a flute player that enjoys that kind of thing, I was like ‘alright, let’s do this,’” she said.
The Squirrely Roo Rabbit game is being developed by Boba Studios, a three-person team including Ashley Guchhait, the studio’s CEO, who oversees game and user interface design, writing, and programming; TJ Martin, in charge of sound and music; and Kyrstin Cooksey, who works on the game’s art and animation.
While BGSO and Boba Studios were at Artscape in 2019, the two groups started talking about the BGSO’s idea for the Made in Maryland concert and Boba Studios offered to be part of the project.
BGSO will be playing a medley of music from the Squirrely Roo game, including characters’ musical themes as well as songs that are important to the story, Martin said.
“I’m sure we’ve all heard either in music or in other media, a creator just takes a bunch of parts of things and sticks them together and it feels very disjunct and it doesn’t really work,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we picked tracks that had a good overall arc to them.”
An immersive experience
Music is an integral part of storytelling in video games, Carr said.
“If there wasn’t any music, the game would be boring,” she said. “It really puts you in the mindset of wherever you’re supposed to be … It makes you feel like you’re actually participating in the game, not just sitting there on your couch.”
Martin said sound and music design help make a game feel more lifelike.
“Although we’re not going through life into an emotional moment and a soundtrack starts out from nowhere, having those musical beats in there to help support the characters and support what’s going on in the story, it allows for an extra avenue of information to come to the audience and help them process what’s going on screen, what’s going on in the story,” he said.
In Boba Studios’ game, character-driven tracks help showcase different personalities, from the Squirrely Roo main character’s “very happy and hoppy and joyful” demeanor, to the Big Oink as a “big, sort of oaf-like character,” Martin said.
Howley compared video game music to the Romantic period of classical music “where everything was about imagery through sound and conveying scenes and stories through music.”
Musical cues can offer insight into what is happening in the game, like in Pokémon games where the music changes when the player enters a battle, Carr said.
In another game, Shadowgate, Carr said the music changes to a minor key and becomes “very scary” as the character’s torch — their source of light and life amid the deadly darkness — is extinguished.
Even older games without traditional game soundtracks, like some that came out in the 1970s with the Atari system, used simple bleeps and bloops to signal an enemy was nearby, Carr said.
United through gaming
Games like “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” and “Among Us” became popular during the pandemic as people sought ways to interact with friends and family while remaining physically isolated from one another.
Whether roaming a public park to catch creatures on Pokémon Go, or playing a multiplayer game with millions of other gamers online, people are able to make and maintain friendships through gaming, Levitzky said.
Levitzky said she knows people who became friends online through gaming and later met up at conventions. Some members of the BGSO have even gotten married to people they met through the orchestra group.
“Video games have the ability to bring us together and unify us rather than being a way of getting us to block each other from interacting,” Levitzky said.
Multiplayer games, especially, celebrate individuals’ differences as teams use various skill sets to accomplish tasks, she added.
“Maybe you’re a rogue or maybe you’re a wizard, and that’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay for you to be different. We actually need to have different types of people in order for games to work, and I think that’s a beautiful way of representing the world.”
Music can also remind people of the video games they grew up with and the people they played them with, unearthing the same feelings they felt when they initially experienced them.
“I know people that have played a game back when they were teens, and now they’re in their 40s or 50s, and they just sit there listening to the music and they’re just in nostalgia,” Levitzky said. “They’re in this amazing flashback of when they were in their youth again and it makes them feel the way that they did when they played the game.”
The first game console Howley’s family ever owned was a Nintendo 64.
“Some of my absolute earliest memories, quite literally the very first things I can remember being like two years old, were playing Super Mario 64 with my dad,” he said.
Later, Howley fell in love with Starfox 64, which he used to play over and over again just so he could listen to the music at the end of the game. In fact, he loved the ending credits theme so much that it became the first piece he conducted for the BGSO when he transitioned from an “enthusiastic trombone player” to a conductor in 2016.
“That will always be one of the most powerful experiences of my life, getting to sit down and do that,” he said. “The dress rehearsal where I got to run through it for the first time start to finish with full instrumentation, we got all the way through dead perfect. I screamed ‘yes,’ punched the music stand in front of me, and just burst into tears.”
Levitzky said she has also heard from people who have used video games to honor deceased loved ones.
“It helped them feel like they could connect with loved ones who had died because they actually played the game with a loved one who passed away,” she said. “When they were able to get back into the game and interact with the same kind of figures, it was so awesome for them that they could experience that feeling again.”