News Column

'Video Games Live': Rock 'n' roller scores hot gig

July 25, 2013


July 25--If you haven't been keeping up with the world of video games, it might have escaped your notice that the music written to accompany them has blossomed from simple tunes to expansive, quasi-symphonic landscapes of sound.

Tommy Tallarico would like to draw your attention to this development.

Tallarico, 45, is a prolific video game composer -- indeed, if the Guinness Book of World Records is to be believed (and why shouldn't it be?), the most prolific laborer in this particular field. Among his more than 300 credits are "Advent Rising," "Prince of Persia" and "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater."

But for more than a decade, Tallarico has also been beating the drum for his chosen musical genre through "Video Games Live," a concert program that covers the history of the field with two hours of live orchestral music and a full arsenal of visual and computer effects. The program, with Tallarico as host and Emmanuel Fratianni conducting the San Francisco Symphony, comes to Davies Symphony Hall this week. Tallarico spoke with The Chronicle by phone from his studio in Southern California.

Q: How did you get into the field of video game music?

A: I came from a rock 'n' roll family, and there was always music playing. There was a piano in the house, and when I was 3 I learned to play "Great Balls of Fire." I learned to play guitar at 5, always by ear.

Then when I was 10 and "Star Wars" came out, that was the first time I paid any attention to a symphonic sound. I read all about the great John Williams and how he was influenced by Beethoven and Mozart and all these classical guys, so I started learning about them.

Really, my two greatest loves growing up were video games and music. But I never thought I'd put them together because in the '70s there was no such thing.

Q: What makes good music for video games?

A: Melody. Melody is always king, whether it's the opening of "Pac-Man" in the '80s or the music for something like "Donkey Kong" or "Tetris."

Even when the technology was ancient and we had nothing to work with but bleeps and bloops, if we could get a melody together even for 30 seconds that was enough. And now, if you listen to the music for "Halo" or "Final Fantasy," they all have big, strong melodies.

Q: How is video game music different from music for film or television?

A: I don't want to disparage film composers -- they're my inspiration -- but the difference is that film music is background or incidental music. Film or TV is about telling a story, and they mostly do that through dialogue.

So the music is in the background. And then there's an action sequence -- and film composers will tell you that's their favorite part.

Q: Why do you think people get so emotionally invested in video game music?

A: Well, our music is out front all the time, driving the action. Also, there's a big time difference. You might see "Avatar" once in the theater and then maybe again on Blu-ray, so it's just a few hours and there are people talking over the music. But people playing "World of Warcraft" are playing 20 to 30 hours a week, with the music out front the whole time.

If Beethoven were alive today, he would have been a video game composer, not a film composer. He wouldn't want people talking over his music.

Video Games Live: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (July 25)-Friday. $30-$100. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. (415) 864-6000.

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail:


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