The Finnish Game Music Collective (GMC) is Europe’s first orchestra made up of professional musicians dedicated to performing music from video games. The ensemble’s artistic director, Lukas Stasevskij, came up with the idea as a way to fill a gap in the culture of performing game music.
“We noticed that game music performances on YouTube were recorded at an amateur level, and that live orchestral performances were mainly performed by orchestras for whom this kind of music is just an occasional side offering. Game music is seen as more entertainment-oriented than traditional Western art music,” explains the orchestra’s conductor, Eero Lehtimäki.
The goal was to assemble a group of players who were passionate about video games and their music – and wanted to play it at a professional level. Each of the orchestra’s musicians identifies with songs from different eras, different devices and different games, which feeds the creative atmosphere. The GMC brings together genuine professionalism and a fascination about the subject.
“For a long time, it’s been quite common to perform film music live,” notes GMC arranger and music producer Markus Kärki. “But game music has had a different status; it’s been kept on the sidelines in a way. Since game music has been seen as a kind of curiosity and there hasn’t been any routine regarding performances of it, the audiences haven’t been able to experience gaming soundscapes at concerts, even though there is a demand for it. The GMC was born to meet this demand, as an orchestra created on game music’s own terms.”
Indeed, understanding and engaging the listener base is a unique feature of the GMC. From its debut concert at Finlandia Hall in 2017, the orchestra has created an interactive relationship with its listeners by asking about their expectations and wishes, both before and after each concert.
“If you have a gaming background, you know how nostalgic it is to hear game music. You can also hear this in our interpretations of the music,” Kärki says. “Based on this, the GMC aims to offer arrangements and performances that audiences can identify with and that best connect with their memories and nostalgia.”
As Kärki sees it, this is what’s best about the GMC’s operations. The gigs are played by musicians who truly want to be part of the production, and the audience consists of people who want to hear this particular music.
“The atmosphere has been unusual in a very positive way, a really ecstatic mood,” he says.
Orchestra like a chameleon
Since its Finlandia Hall debut, the GMC has toured around Finland, performing concerts with the Lohja City Orchestra and the Jyväskylä Sinfonia, among others. In addition to live performances, the orchestra’s YouTube channel has amassed more than 23 million views. In addition to performing ready-made game music and releasing it online, the band has begun collaborating with Finnish composers and game makers to record new, original music for video games.
How can one orchestra carry out such a range of activities?
“The GMC isn’t just a single, static symphony orchestra – it’s quite a chameleon, a collective, as its name implies,” Lehtimäki explains. The main ensemble is a 20-piece orchestra with a choir, but the line-up grows and changes depending on their collaboration partners. The GMC also performs as a seven-piece electronic band and other smaller ensembles such as a cello quartet at gaming industry events, for instance. Since the GMC’s debut album, RESTART – Finnish Game Music Revised, was released in March, its pieces have performed in various configurations.
“The planning and construction of the GMC’s main orchestra started from the very beginning because Lukas [Stasevskij] and I wanted to perform video game music with the best possible line-up,” Lehtimäki explains. “The selection of instruments wasn’t based on a ready-made framework like a traditional symphony orchestra. Instead, the ensemble was assembled one-by-one, carefully hand-picked.”
The basic core was a string quintet, around which the orchestra has grown. To increase the expressive range, the orchestra has a nine-piece wind section, selected one instrument at a time, as well as a drum kit and percussion. From the beginning, electronic elements have paralleled the acoustic instruments, making the ensemble a hybrid orchestra of sorts.
The GMC’s main ensemble achieves its greatest aural range when collaborating with other orchestras. In those cases, traditional groups of instruments work together with various electronic and uniquely selected elements.
“The GMC also has a unique stage presence. Unlike a traditional orchestra, the string quintet plays standing up on stage, which brings more of a band feel to the live show,” Lehtimäki says.
Shifting roles of game music
According to Lehtimäki, early game music was closer to coding than performed music. He compares the status of game music and its evolution to the history of film music: movie soundtracks have followed their own path and eventually attained the status of ‘approved’ concert hall music. Game music is following a similar route.
“Many of the most popular composers of our time are film composers, and some of them are moving into composing music for video games as well. Music in video games and movies is converging culturally, technically and in terms of resources.”
Kärki points out that video games and gaming culture in general are moving more into the mainstream.
“In the past, game music was basically a core part of the game development process, and its creators didn’t have much interaction with the broader music culture. Much of the early game industry started from an untrained amateur environment. Over time, the industry has gained expertise and connections with other fields of art and communities, and its music has also gained more contact with the wider music industry,” he says.
According to Kärki, this transition is partly due to technological developments. As the limitations of audio technology have dissipated in the gaming world and composers have been able to record music with orchestras, for instance, game music has attracted academically trained composers and more interaction with other fields of popular and art music. As a result, game soundtracks are increasingly composed by artists and composers from outside of the field.
Kärki is pleased by the growing interaction between game music and the rest of the music spectrum. Yet he also points to unique properties of game music that are not found in other forms of music and which require specialised skills.
“Although a classical composer can generally manage with music notation skills alone, game music composers often also need to be music producers too. Few game music composers can do their work by simply handing the written sheet music to the rest of the team. Rather, they have to be responsible for the music’s ultimate form. Music is an integral part of a game’s audiovisual design and plays a dynamic role in the gameplay, reacting to the context of the game and the player’s choices,” he explains.
According to Kärki and Lehtimäki, the nonlinearity and unpredictability of this music demand different skills than composing cinematic music, for example. In film music, the composer generally has a ready-made scene of a certain duration as a basis, and acts as a ‘final link’ in the production process. In game production, the composition process is most often developed from an early stage in tandem with the other aspects of the game.
At the heart of the audience experience
In retrospect, the GMC’s first concert at Finlandia Hall in 2017 can be seen as a great leap both for the launch of the ensemble and for the status of game music in the general consciousness of musical culture. Lehtimäki mentions elitist features that lurk beneath the surface of classical music in particular: who decides what constitutes art music, the accepted concert repertoire or high culture?
“Our operations are unusual in that they’re based on acknowledging and communicating with an audience that loves this music. For this audience, the performance of a professional and large-scale game music orchestra in one of Finland’s most iconic concert halls was a step forward on the path toward acceptance and appreciation of a new kind of gaming music scene,” Lehtimäki says.
Based on feedback received by the GMC, this opportunity to hear and perform music whose performance was rare in Finland has been highly emotional for both players and listeners. As the country’s first video game orchestra, the ensemble has conveyed the message that game music is now part of the world of ‘acceptable’ concert music, says Lehtimäki. As he sees it, the group’s popularity has influenced the gradually increasing selection of game music performed by other Finnish orchestras in recent years and in the near future.
Kärki believes that the GMC has introduced the idea among Finnish listeners and musicians that game music can be generally performed – and seen as performable – outside of the subculture’s own circles.
“Demand for an orchestra specialising in game music had been building like a pressure cooker,” as Kärki puts it, adding that the GMC has been able to offset this pressure. He notes that the orchestra received many contacts, requests for cooperation and other offers from many quarters right from the start.
“Listeners also eagerly contact us, asking when they’ll be able to hear game music again. One could say that the GMC is the only orchestra that is part of the Finnish gaming scene.”
The future belongs to game music
The GMC’s main line-up has performed frequently of late, and Kärki promises that it will continue to do so in the near future.
“After two years of work, we just released our new game music album with a 60-piece orchestra, choir and soloists. The project required an exceptionally large number of players. That will make it a challenge to perform arrangements of the album for smaller ensembles in the future.”
New joint performances with various symphony orchestras are also on the cards. Lehtimäki and Kärki say that one of the orchestra’s goals is also to be able to perform abroad.
“The GMC could perhaps join orchestras outside Finland as a smaller group and act as directors of the vision of the performance. We could become a ‘product’ of sorts,” Kärki suggests.
In addition to concerts, the orchestra has a growing interest in producing new game music. As a professional orchestra that can work with game soundtrack recordings and co-production with game studios at the highest level, the GMC has developed new kinds of expertise for the game industry in Finland, says Kärki.
“The idea is to bring a new kind of studio recording work for classical musicians in Finland. In the past, the recording of orchestral soundtracks in this country has been sporadic, based on ensembles that were assembled from scratch,” he notes.
What about the future? The GMC differs somewhat from a regular orchestra in that it does not have a weekly repertoire like traditional classical orchestras, but performs based on its possibilities and resources. During the coronavirus era, for example, the orchestra worked entirely on its RESTARTalbum. Since the end of restrictions, organising musical performances has become riskier than it was in the group’s early stages: “We can no longer book Finlandia Hall so easily,” Kärki says with a smile.
Despite this, the GMC will develop its concert activities and expand its operations to various parts of the game industry as Finland’s first and only professional game-music orchestra. Audiences hungry for game music will undoubtedly get a chance to experience the ecstatic atmosphere of that debut concert many more times.
Featured photo: GMC performing at Jyväskylän paviljonki. Photo by Tuomas Tenkanen.
Translation: Wif Stenger