After graduating from the Osaka College of Music in 1988, Yoko Shimomura was torn between career paths. Classically trained since the age of 3 and raised in a family of piano players, Shimomura had studied to become a piano teacher. But when she wasn’t studying or playing the piano, Shimomura was popping coins at her local arcade or stomping on Goombas in Super Mario Bros.
It was Koji Kondo’s infectious melodies in the original Super Mario Bros. that first piqued Shimomura’s interest in video game music. Not long after, Koichi Sugiyama’s classical score for the RPG Dragon Quest inspired her to marry her love for video games and classical music. When an opportunity to join the sound team at game studio Capcom popped up, Shimomura went for it, much to her parents’ dismay. “Perhaps they weren’t sure of what I was doing until now,” Shimomura tells WIRED over email. “Maybe even now!”
Video game music wasn’t well respected in the ’80s, but fast-forward to today and Shimomura is one of the most well-respected video game composers in the world. Her music, which has popped up in everything from Dizzee Rascal and Janet Jackson tracks to viral internet memes (Guile’s theme really does go with everything) and, most recently, the opening ceremony at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, has captured the hearts of millions across the globe. And while Shimomura’s scores for Street Fighter II, Kingdom Hearts, and Final Fantasy XV transcend genres, her passion for classical music has never faltered.
It’s this passion, along with Shimomura’s knack for captivating audiences, that led to her scoring Merregnon: Land of Silence, a symphonic fairytale that sets her trademark sound (performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra) to an original story by the German children’s author Frauke Angel, all of which is brought to life with beautiful Ghibli-like illustrations.
Its producer, Thomas Bocker, created Land of Silence to introduce families and younger audiences to the wonders of orchestral music, a vision shared by both Shimomura and the executive director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Stefan Forsberg, who has great belief in Shimomura’s compositional prowess.
“Video game music is now an important part of society and a part of the daily lives of so many people around the world,” Forsberg says. “If there's a use for us as a symphony orchestra to share the experience of what we do in our homes—our classical concert halls—and show people what can be done with these beautiful instruments with hundreds of years of tradition, I think that's of great value to new audiences.”
This isn’t the first work intended to introduce young audiences to orchestral music. Land of Silence follows in the footsteps of others, including Sergei Prokofiev’s 1936 classic Peter and the Wolf, but its arrival in 2021 is certainly timely. To say the Covid-19 pandemic has been challenging for the music industry might be the understatement of the century. Even now, as we trudge the long road to recovery, mounting costs have forced many venues to permanently close, and forced many musicians out of the industry. Some who could afford the cost of livestreaming equipment have adapted by hosting virtual performances, but many more remain reliant on getting butts in seats.
This poses particular challenges for attendance at classical concerts. It’s no secret that such concerts attract older patrons. About 62 percent of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s audience is 55 or over, according to The New York Times, and the dangers of contracting Covid increase with age. It’s no surprise that a recent survey by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the UK found that only 26 percent of people feel comfortable returning to live events. Land of Silence could be a welcome hand for struggling concert halls.
Of course, it helps that Bocker has spent the past 20 years or so advocating the benefits of using video game music to grow classical audiences. Born in 1977, Bocker grew up in East Germany at a time when Western countries refused to supply most electronic goods to communist states, and getting out of the country was difficult. “It was basically impossible to leave the country, only at very special occasions,” Bocker explains, “But when my grandma turned 60, my father visited her and brought a Commodore 64 back with him. From the age of about 7 or 8, I was already involved in the computer scene, and that was my first contact with video game music as well.”
Already a fan of classical music, this early exposure to video game music was a defining moment for Bocker. Some of his favorite pieces of music were delivered through his C64 monitor’s speakers, and the sound of video game music only grew louder in the Bocker household when his brother bought a Super Nintendo and a Nintendo 64. “On one side of the house it was Rob Hubbard, Chris Huelsbeck, and Allister Brimble, and on the other it was Nobuo Uematsu, Yuzu Koshiro, Yoko Shimomura and Koji Kondo!” he explains.
To Bocker, the music in the games he was playing wasn’t just video game music. “It’s just fantastic music,” he says. “That’s what got me interested. I’ve always been interested in electronic and orchestral music, and it all somehow connected.”
Bocker was eventually inspired to produce an album of original music. He contacted video game composers from all over the world and asked them to write orchestral music that tells a story, which ended up becoming the first Merregnon CD. The success of its release in 2000 was a hallmark moment for Bocker. It led to another CD and then to producing a video game concert, the Symphonic Game Music Concert, which debuted at the Leipzig Games Convention. It was the first video game concert to take place outside of Japan.
“Merregnon has always been this game changer because it always pushed me into the next level,” Bocker says, then laughs. “I just realized I used two gaming puns. I swear that was not intentional!”
There have been countless video game concerts in the West since. From Bocker’s Final Symphony and Symphonic Legends to Arnie Roth’s Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy and Eimear Noone’s Electric Arcade, performances such as these are often the first time people will experience the sound of a live orchestra.
“We have a lot of first-timers, and that’s something the orchestras are always so amazed about,” Bocker says. “The average age [at typical classical concerts] can sometimes be 60- or 70-plus, depending on the orchestra, and that’s great—I don’t want to take the music away from those people—but of course it would be nice to have a wider range of age groups, and concerts like Merregnon are very useful for that.”
Alongside her work on video games such as World of Warcraft, the Irish composer and conductor Eimear Noone made history in 2020 when she became the first woman to conduct the orchestra at the Oscars. Noone isn’t surprised to see the gap between classical music and video games closing. “A lot of game composers come from the classical world, so it makes sense that we bring that to whatever we do,” she says.
“It’s very exciting for me as an orchestral musician to see how many people experience orchestral music as both living music and music through their game consoles. I have had the privilege of meeting literally tens of thousands of video game fans in person, and people will say to me, ‘Oh, my favorite song is from World of Warcraft,’ and I’ll say, ‘Does that mean your favorite band is the orchestra?’ And they’ll say, ‘Yeah, maybe!’”
While Land of Silence isn’t a video game production, Bocker hasn’t shied away from a video game aesthetic to make it appealing for modern-day audiences, not least when it comes to Shimomura’s music. “For Merregnon: Land of Silence, this was the sort of direction I wanted to go. Very memorable, accessible and catchy melodies for all of the character and town themes and so on.”
There’s also a focus on education in Land of Silence, similar to how Peter and the Wolf introduced children to the different instruments in the orchestra. In Land of Silence, characters have their own themes and instruments. Its protagonist, the orphan Miru, is represented by the cello, her dog, Mako, by the marimba, and the antagonist, Skissor, by the clarinet. Bocker hopes this will inspire questions about specific instruments from the audience, but he’s keen to stress that the focus is always on entertainment.
“Of course, the educational part is important, but we don’t want to make it too obvious. My main interest is to entertain people and in the best case to show them how cool an orchestra can be, what cool sounds can be made, and how entertaining the whole experience can be.”
While many in the classical world see the benefits of the video game crossover, there’s still a feeling among some directors and classical music purists that video game compositions don’t hold up against the classical repertoire. Grammy-winning producer and director Arnie Roth believes these views are only holding them back.
“Why have these walls up? That’s not how people are living their lives. I do understand and would regret the loss of classical foundations and structure, so it’s important to retain that, but it’s also important to change and grow,” he says.
Roth believes that many who attend video game concerts will be receptive to great classical music when they hear it; the challenge is just getting them to hear it, so they can connect the dots between their favorite video game composers and what inspired them.
“A lot of video game music fans who may not be listening to a lot of classical music simply listen to a favorite score from a video game and think, ‘Where did that composer come from?’ It would be great if they had some historical perspective to build on that,” Roth says.
“You can always do an all-video-game concert, but what we need to do is do it the other way round, where they’re maybe waiting for an Uematsu or Shimomura piece, but in the meantime they’re listening to Debussy or Stravinsky or something that will cross-fertilize, and a percentage of people will come back.”
That cross-fertilization may just need a little longer to come to fruition. What’s happening now with the crossover between games and orchestras—or simply a modern aesthetic in the case of Land of Silence—isn’t necessarily new, suggests Noone, while Shimomura believes contemporary efforts are helping to tackle some of the misconceptions around classical music.
“That tradition of collaborating with other media has always been there: operas, plays, ballets, and today it happens to be films, games, VR, basically anything with a creative visual component to it,” says Noone.
“People tend to think that classical music and orchestral music is uptight and makes you sleepy, or that you have to sit up straight while listening, but it's not all like that at all,” Shimomura says.
“For those who feel hesitant, I hope game music or projects such as Merregnon: Land of Silence will be one of the reasons to listen to classical music.”
It’s difficult to gauge just how successful attempts like these have been when it comes to introducing new audiences to classical music, although a 2020 report found 18- to 25-year-olds accounted for a third of classical music streamers between 2019 and 2020, with the same report saying those same groups value “film, video, and computer game music.”
“If we go back in history, not very far, I recall so many people telling me they were first introduced to classical instruments and the orchestra by some of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. “The Rabbit of Seville,” “What’s Opera Doc”—they were literally the likes of Wagner and Rossini,” Roth says. “When I look back at that example of people learning about classical music through those cartoons, maybe that’s what we’re seeing here with video games. I believe it is.”
Merregnon: Land of Silence is out now and can be viewed for free on Konserthuset here.