In honor of the video games on view in American Art's new exhibition Watch This! Revelations in Media Art, this Saturday, May 9th, the University of Maryland's Gamer Symphony Orchestra (GSO) will perform in the museum's Kogod Courtyard.
Eye Level: When did the Gamer Symphony Orchestra start at the University of Maryland and why?
Zoe DiGiorgio: The Gamer Symphony Orchestra was founded in fall 2005 by Michelle Eng and a group of friends in the university's repertoire orchestra who shared a love of video game music. Though the GSO started out with only a dozen members and a few pieces, they managed to accomplish some amazing feats in their first couple of years as a student group. The group first performed in spring 2006 and has quickly grown into the full-size orchestra and chorus we are today. Here is our complete history. In short, I'd say the GSO was founded by musicians with a passion for video games who wanted to share their love for this unique type of music with the university community and beyond.
EL: What attracts students to become a part of the Gamer Symphony Orchestra?
ZD: Students are drawn to the GSO for a variety of reasons. A lot of the students who join us have an interest in both gaming and music; many of our members are self-professed gamers and nerds who are often involved in several other performance groups, including the university orchestra or the marching band.
For other students, the big draw to our group is the ability to perform again. Many students come to the University of Maryland from high school expecting to never have another chance to pick up their instruments, but the GSO gives all interested student musicians the opportunity to perform with us. We don't hold auditions to join our general member body, but instead we welcome students of all skill levels who are interested and willing to try through our waitlist system. Of some of the non-gamers who join the GSO, quite a few of them also look forward to the unique arrangements we perform that many traditional orchestras would shy away from.
EL: How do you decide on which pieces you will perform, do you play music from some game franchises more than others?
ZD: Students and alumni of the GSO, as well as friends of the group submit arrangements of video game music for consideration each semester. The music director leads the music committee (which consists of the music director, conductors, and vice president) in selecting which pieces we will perform. The committee critiques drafts of new arrangements and chooses our pieces for that semester based on a variety of factors, including difficulty of pieces and quality of the overall arrangement. We have some franchises that are definitely more represented than others in our repertoire; Final Fantasy is the most popular, perhaps due in part to the sheer number of games in the franchise, but we also have multiple pieces from series like Pokémon, World of Warcraft, Xenosaga, and the Legend of Zelda. Our repertoire is influenced by audience requests, which is how pieces like Dragonborn came about, but ultimately our library of music has been determined by what pieces students and friends of the GSO choose to arrange.
EL: Do your members design or develop any games themselves? Or is gaming more of a hobby?
ZD: We have many students in the GSO who have backgrounds in computer science and engineering, but to the best of my knowledge, I am not aware of any of our members who actively produce video games. For many of us, gaming is a hobby, and I know members who have graduated and sought jobs in different facets of the gaming industry.
EL: What consoles and games are among your favorites?
ZD: Personally, I always get a bit excited when arrangers dig up pieces from Nintendo 64 games, as that was one of the first consoles I owned as a kid, and many of my favorite games are from that system. It probably helps that I had more time to play games back then too!
Though I have a few gaming consoles at home, while I'm at school I mainly play games for the Nintendo 3DS and PC. I used to play Team Fortress 2 online with friends from my dorm when I first moved to campus, but now I play a lot of Pokémon with other GSO members or indie games like Bastion or Braid, which both are visually stunning. I'm an English major, so I love a good story, and I'm partial to the Bioshock series and Legend of Zelda games as well.