MonthOctober 2017

My First Year With MGSO

About a year ago, I attended a small video game convention, appropriately titled, “A Video Game Con.” In between throwing money at every retro game I could find (and a pretty sweet Final Fantasy canvas display), I heard about a live performance from a local band, the Montclair Gamer Symphony Orchestra. All I needed to hear was “symphonic video game music” and I was sold. My past experience with similar performances came from the music tour “Video Games Live,” which I still consider to be one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. It made me appreciate my hobby even more, and gave me a glimpse at how incredible video game music could sound on an orchestral level. As a huge Final Fantasy 7 fan, nothing could prepare me for the magnitude of awe I would experience from hearing “One Winged Angel” live.


With my admittedly high standard for live game music, how was my first impression of MGSO after their performance? Well, following the show I immediately signed up as a clarinet player, and I’ve been an active member of the orchestra ever since.


Before joining MGSO, it had been over three years since I’d even picked up my clarinet, let alone played it. Muscle memory helped a bit, but I was lucky if I could remember what half of the sharp or flat notes were. I couldn’t quite play the songs correctly at first, but I sure knew what they were supposed to sound like. Some of the highlights at the time included arrangements from Banjo Kazooie, The Legend of Zelda, and Chrono Trigger among others. Hearing the rest of the orchestra play the music was enough to keep me motivated to try my best. After all, I was practicing with a group of talented musicians who were just as interested in video games, and music, as I was. By the time my first rehearsal came to an end, I knew I would be spending the rest of the week in anticipation for the next band practice.


Since my first practice, I’ve spent a full year rehearsing new music for all of our events, ranging from formal concerts to smaller side performances. In the midst of many hours of practice, and tons of laughs along the way, I believe I have grown not only as a musician; I have grown as a person. I can be very timid by nature, and it’s often difficult for me to meet new people without feeling nervous. Despite this, I can’t possibly be anxious around so many friendly people. Our conductor, Alyssa, really knows how to bring out the excitement, and potential of everyone in the orchestra. She takes the time to give advice during difficult sections of a piece, and encourages the band to be confident in our musical abilities. On many occasions, light-hearted humor goes a long way to make everyone feel comfortable with the music. I always appreciate her metaphors for some of the arrangements. A personal favorite is the classic “grocery store boss battle;” if we’re playing an intense boss theme, it probably shouldn’t sound like we’re casually strolling down a grocery aisle. It’s the small, silly moments like this that make rehearsal a joy. When Alyssa is enthusiastic about our music, so am I.


MGSO is a family of musicians that continues to amaze me each time we rehearse. Our concerts have rekindled my passion for playing in a band. I’ve come to realize how much I missed getting together with a group of people, and giving our performances everything we’ve got. I’ve even built up the courage to perform a solo during one of our recent pieces, “Ashley’s Theme,” from the WarioWare series. I would have never even considered playing a solo when I used to perform music years ago, but MGSO brought out a lot of confidence in me. Now, my goals are becoming more ambitious than ever, and I hope to one day arrange my own piece to perform with the band. It will no doubt be a challenge, but I think I have what it takes to make it possible.


Whether we’re readily preparing for an upcoming concert, or enjoying some downtime at IHOP after each rehearsal, there are always opportunities to build new memories with our band. Here’s to another awesome year with my friends at MGSO.

MGSO Interview with Sean Kelley

What was your inspiration for arranging and composing music?

“OK, that’s an easy one. My biggest inspiration is the Touhou Project series. The music in the series has a really unique ‘Japanese’ sound to it that doesn’t sound like any other game. In Japan, there’s an entire community of musicians that make arrangements and remixes of Touhou music. I’ve been a Touhou fan for a long time, but I really got inspired to make music in college when I listened to lots of Touhou bands. I even had a radio show on the college radio station where I DJ mixed electronic Touhou songs. Though the first game remix I ever made was a Kancolle remix. Don’t listen to it; it’s pretty bad. I haven’t arranged Touhou songs for the orchestra yet though, because it’s pretty complex and above my skill level for now.”


How long have you been arranging for?

“I made my first remix in 2014 for a monthly song contest called Dwelling of Duels, where you have one month to make a video game arrangement, and then people vote on the best one. I didn’t get last place that month, so that’s a good thing! I made another remix for Dwelling of Duels in 2015, but that was bad also. Then in 2016, I joined MGSO, and everyone there inspired me to arrange more. I completed my arrangement for Natsukage from Air for the orchestra in 2017, and that’s the first arrangement I’m satisfied with.”


What is the arranging process like? Do you have a favorite part?

“I’m not ‘classically trained’, so my process may not be the ‘correct’ one. First, I look for sheet music online to get a rough idea of the song. I then use Ableton Live and Kontakt to arrange the song using software instruments. The sheet music I find isn’t always accurate, so I do a lot of transcribing by ear also. I also add instruments that weren’t in the original song, mainly strings. When I’m finished arranging the song, I transfer the MIDIs from Ableton into a score writing program such as MuseScore to create the actual sheet music itself. My favorite part is creating the sheet music, because it’s a fun challenge to communicate as much information as possible to the instrumentalist, who you may or may not ever meet (if my music gets performed by other people besides MGSO).”


Do you have any advice for upcoming game arrangers and composers?

“I said I wasn’t classically trained, and I still have a long way to go, so I don’t know how valuable my advice would be, but I do have one piece of advice. Reading about music theory is great and all, but nothing will help you get better music than actually putting in the time and ‘gitting gud’ at your instrument. Playing (and also listening to) a wide variety of songs will help a ton with inspiration and ear training.

Personally, I’ve made huge progress in my musical abilities, both playing and arranging, in the past 2 years after joining MGSO and having a reason to play frequently. My recommendation is to learn the basics/intermediate amounts of music theory, then spend the rest of the time playing and arranging/composing as much as possible, since you’ll figure out what does and doesn’t work through experience. This is partially self-deprecating, but you shouldn’t get too bogged down in reading books about music.”


What instruments do you currently play?

“I got my first bass in 2012, but didn’t start taking it seriously until 2015, when I started playing Rocksmith. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s basically Guitar Hero except with a real guitar/bass. I’ve also been playing violin for about a year now.”


Are there any other instruments you want to learn?

“I would like to get better at guitar since I have a really nice one, but I’ve been concentrating on orchestra stuff. I also would like to learn traditional Japanese instruments such as the shakuhachi and shamisen because I like traditional Japanese music a lot, but those instruments are hard to get outside Japan.”


Have you ever traveled to Japan before?

“Yes, I have been to Japan before! I first went as a high school exchange student in 2007, then again a year after that, and I didn’t go again until 2015 and this past year. It was so much fun. Everyone I met there was so nice and polite, and I never felt shunned because I was a foreigner. I want as much people as possible to experience visiting Japan.”


Did you play in any bands before MGSO?

“No, MGSO was the first time I played live since my piano recital when I was 10 years old. I still want to someday form a more traditional rock band that plays video game remixes though.”


What is your favorite video game and favorite game soundtrack?

“There’s no way I can choose just one. FF7 is pretty up there, because I played it at my cousin’s house, and the story, battle system, music and graphics absolutely blew my mind and opened my eyes to games on other consoles besides Nintendo. Touhou 8: Imperishable Night and 14: Double Dealing Character are good also, since they’re the easiest ones to get into if you’re new to the series. For my favorite soundtrack, it would be a tie between Touhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom and 8: Imperishable Night. The music in both of those games is just amazingly beautiful and otherworldly.”

What was the last game you played that really had an impact on you?

“The most recent game that I liked is definitely Persona 5. I’m not that far into it, but so far, the story and characters are really good, the music is GODLIKE, and it makes tons of improvements over the previous Persona games, like better dungeons and social links. There’s no way I would be able to actually play the music on bass though, because they can really shred.”


What is your dream arrangement you’d like to work on?

“For MGSO, my dream arrangement would be a song or two from BlazBlue, which has an absolutely incredible symphonic metal soundtrack. I don’t think any of us have the chops to actually play it though. In terms of songs that are actually doable, I eventually want to arrange the title screen theme from Mega Man 2 for NES, and ‘Aoi Tori’ from the Idolmaster series. For non-MGSO stuff, I want to release some solo electronic remixes from the nerdier, more otaku/obscure side of video game music, such as Touhou, Kancolle, and idol games.”


If you could meet one video game composer, who would it be?

“I went to Shinji Orito from Key’s panel at Acen in Chicago last year, but didn’t really ‘meet’ him, so he and Jun Maeda (the composer for Natsukage, among others) are up there. I also really want to meet ZUN, the creator of Touhou, of course.”


“You Heal Me” by Janet Iturralde Santana

It’s safe to say that over the past few years, we have been pushed to deal with more stress than ever before. The feeling of powerlessness to help those around the world can bring us down. These negative emotions and images that we are surrounded by can affect our health, and even our personality. Some call this experience being in a “low vibration state.” Dr. Masaru Emoto takes this concept even further; he shows us how these vibrations can cause deformity in water crystals when negative emotions and vibrations are present. That means positive and high vibrations can inspire healing, while low vibrations just don’t. Vibrational and Holographic Sound Healing is a growing field that uses sounds and vibrations to improve health. The treatment uses the subtle energies of the body and implements like Crystal Bowls, or the voice.

When my husband and I moved back to NJ this year, I was in one of those low vibration states. My Uncle-Father had just passed away, and with him left the connection to his children and other family members. The loss felt insurmountable, and little by little I started to dig upwards out of sadness, self-pity, and guilt that comes with being a Cancer survivor. No one tells you that. Grief comes in stages, and you need to respect those stages and journey through them. Rushing grief can only serve to push you back into it. Just like rushing love, it all backfires. I walked the wire very slowly, trying not to get dragged back into the very comfortable, warm, and dark apathy. I had to meditate on the future, and find the rhythm of life again.

Another thing happened when I moved to NJ. As soon as I felt ready, there was something I had wanted to do for a long time; it was my goal to be a part of the artistic and musical world. My Facebook friend, Jorge, was a part of a cool group that made music, and they were seeking members. I wanted to be a part of it, so I joined the Montclair Gamer Symphony Orchestra, not knowing how it would change my life. The orchestra raised my vibration and reminded me of whom I really am.

Being around kind and gentle people helped me to trust. It helped me realize there are people like me; I just didn’t know where to find them. When I joined, the orchestra was practicing a song from Portal, a game I had never played or (I’m embarrassed to admit) even heard of. We were practicing “Still Alive,” and the song touched me deeply. How can video game music have such a deep message? Was this music made for me in this time? The song brought with it a powerful message, and I needed to hear that message desperately shouted in my face at full volume. It was something I had been denying myself because of the guilt and shame that comes with surviving.

It all started with, “This was a triumph.” Although so many great things were happening in my life and Real Estate career, I didn’t see myself as a winner. In the next line, “Huge success;” the truth was I was still here doing great things and working, yet for some reason I just couldn’t celebrate it or be happy about my achievements. “The science gets done” brought me gratitude for the life-saving treatments that were tested on me at Jackson Memorial Hospital Sylvester, which worked for me only because stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is curable. Then, “You make a neat gun” reminded me of cocktails tested in my treatment, which made me nonmetastatic in 6 rounds of chemo. This song gave me the “WIN” I so desperately needed. I sang it in the shower, in the car, at work, and even designed a costume for it. The truth was, I AM still alive. And so are you!

Another win came when I was asked to be a “White Mage” for the orchestra, someone who makes others feel comfortable and safe. Prior to my diagnosis in 2012, I had trained and earned a Life Coaching Certification. Someone saw that in me and asked me to be there for others, to show up for them. It was the very thing I needed to be for myself. We learn by teaching, and when I was asked to raise others’ vibrations, mine was raised as well.

When I say that the Montclair Gamer Symphony Orchestra means a lot to me, it is because it is my medicine; it is my serum that brings happiness, and a natural high to my life that nothing else can match. I hope this can help us all heal a little bit from this crazy world. When things are out of your control, you can control the rhythm of your life, and know that it can always change.

I invite you all to feel the vibration of your own heart. Remember that life is a song; there are highs and lows, and moments of sweetness. And I’m so grateful every day to be a part of your song.

MGSO Interview with Jorge D. Fuentes

What was your inspiration for arranging and composing music?

“I grew up with the NES and 8bit music, which was very limited at the time. When I went to college, I wanted to start enhancing the music with real instruments. I asked myself ‘how can I make this better without changing it?’ A lot of my pieces stick to the source material, instead of changing genres.”


What is your favorite game and game soundtrack?

“You may have heard of a little series called Castlevania. It just turned thirty not too long ago. When I was younger, I really liked old monster movies, so I was very interested in the game since you fought different monsters. The games sometimes change composers for each one. For instance, Castlevania IV has a lot of baroque and pianoforte, which sounds different from the traditional piano used in a game like Symphony of the Night. Every stage has a unique sound in SotN, with rock, hip-hop, and piano used. The old games had similar instruments with limited hardware, but became more iconic with the medleys. It’s a lot different from something like Zelda, where you’re guaranteed to get a similar sound each time. In Castlevania, you don’t really know what to expect.”


What was the last game you played that had a big impact on you?

Lost Odyssey has music that drives me to tears. In the game you find these scrolls that you can read to get additional story. While you’re reading, music plays that takes you on a journey. The game really just made me want to keep reading, but sometimes the music was so sad that I would feel discouraged from playing more.”


What is your favorite piece you have arranged?

“I do love my Castlevania medley, but I feel it needs some work. Lately, my favorite has been ‘Clash on the Big Bridge.’ Everyone really enjoys playing it and it really stood out at our last concert.”


How long have you been arranging for? Was it something that you always wanted to do?

“When I was growing up in Ecuador, my dad had an old reed organ that took a long time to build up sound. I used to press different chords to try and make music. At the time, gaming wasn’t really a thing. When I came to the US, the NES music really inspired me. My dad got me a Casio keyboard, so I used to try to play Nintendo music on it. In grammar school, my music teacher would play the Super Mario theme on the piano, which helped inspire me too. When I got a computer in college, I began arranging for real and used Noteworthy Composer, which I still use today. I started with Mega Man and Castlevania, and then moved onto different RPGs on the Super Nintendo. Now, I don’t need to use samples anymore since MGSO can perform the music! I’m really proud of that.”


What’s the process like when arranging? What is the hardest part? What is your favorite part?

“I’ve always learned to play by ear, but had music teachers help me read when scoring music. Back in the day, I had a lot of plug-ins that could isolate voices and then mimic the sound on a keyboard. It trained my ear to pick up tempo changes and dynamics. I could then use that as a framework. The hardest part is hearing individual parts in each tune. I use a wave editor to notice the lengths of waves to get each part in a measure for each instrument. Some pieces take a very long time if the waves are difficult to pick up on.”


Is there an instrument you wish you could learn to play?

“I want to learn guitar. I have no idea how it works, but I always wanted to learn it. I have about ten cousins that are efficient at guitar, but I have no idea how to play it! I don’t own one either, but would love to get one.”


What is your advice for upcoming video game composers and arrangers?

“If you’re going to be doing video game composing, I’ve noticed it’s very important to develop a motif, one key idea to repeat. For instance, in a game like Super Mario Galaxy, the same few notes appear in many songs on the soundtrack. There’s also ‘Terra’s theme’ in Final Fantasy 6, which is used a lot throughout the game in different songs. It’s a lot easier to tie everything together in a song if you make motifs first. When arranging, do something you really like if you can; something you’ll have a lot of fun with and learn from it. If someone asks you to arrange a piece you aren’t familiar with, try to find the parts you like the most from your first listen and start with that.”


What is your dream arrangement you’d like to work on?

“I want to do an orchestral arrangement of ‘Dancing Mad’ from Final Fantasy 6. I haven’t heard a completely orchestral version done, even from the Distant Worlds Final Fantasy Concert. I would also like to do a Zelda mash-up of the overworked themes, with A Link to the Past, Twilight Princess, Spirit Tracks, and the original Zelda. I’m also looking into a Bowser medley, with the airship armada theme from Super Mario Galaxy, Bowser’s road from Super Mario 64, the castle theme from Super Mario World, and the Super Mario Galaxy 2 final Bowser battle theme.”


If you could meet one videogame composer, who would it be? 

“I actually met the composer for the original Castlevania and Mega Man X3, Kinuyo Yamashita, but I would also like to meet the modern Castlevania, and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night composer, Michiru Yamane. I’ve also met Nobuo Uematsu at one of the Distant Worlds concerts as well.”