AuthorAngela Zurlo

An Afternoon at the [Gamer] Orchestra

The air is cold and dry, with the threat of oncoming snow. It’s still early in the season—not winter quite yet, if we’re being technical—so the prospect of snow is still fun, in the ignorance of not knowing what’s to approach in mere months. But on this December afternoon, you brave the potential storm to drive to a church you’d never been to before, for a concert by a group you didn’t know existed until recently. Because who knew there was a gamer orchestra in Jersey? Who even knew gamer orchestras were a thing?

You arrive early (because that’s what concert-goers do), greeted by a smiling face behind a bake sale table. Or maybe you’re too early, because black-clad musicians are scurrying past with all variants of instruments and equipment. But the sanctuary doors are open, and there’s gentle piano music wafting from within, so you accept a program and find a seat inside.


(Some “backstage” shenanigans, which you can very obviously see across the room)

What’s the deal with this “gamer orchestra” thing, anyway? And how will this be any different from a “normal” concert? (Excuse you. I resent this line of questioning.)

Truthfully, its not that different from other orchestra concerts. You flip through the program, and pull up the program notes online. It’s cool, because you know this stuff. You’ve played these games, or they’re on your endless “to play” list. But when the conductor comes forth, and the group sweeps into the first piece, you begin to understand that this isn’t like any other concert. These talented musicians aren’t just there to entertain. You’re all part of an experience, a love of both music and gaming, one that you share together.

(This is a little intimidating. These guys are like celebrities, right? But you’ll still talk to them after the concert, because they’re cool and they’re nerds just like you.)

As the music plays, you remember so clearly that one part in that one game. There’s a wave of mixed emotions, from joy to panic to nostalgia. You remember questioning shady witnesses in anime lawyer court, and clashing weapons with Gilgamesh on the big bridge. You enthusiastically applause between songs, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by the group before you—they all look around, grinning, overjoyed to be sharing this experience.


(Look how happy they are)

Maybe that’s part of the difference, too: These are not super-serious musicians. Most of them aren’t even professional. They smile between pieces, whisper to each other, or offer a little high-five they think the audience can’t see. Even the conductor is dancing, cracking jokes when introducing the next song, and there’s a companionship in that room. You wonder if they’re accepting new musicians. You played in high school, too. (The answer is “yes.”)

Spring seems an awfully long time to wait for the next performance, but the months pass quickly. May 12th rapidly approaches, bringing another glorious Saturday afternoon of music. And this time, there will be no snow to battle on the drive home. Although maybe with the nicer weather, you’ll get there even earlier to battle for prime seating instead.

Why we Do What we Do

We spent a lot of time at local conventions this summer. Our big event is AVGC, but we tabled at a good number of mini library cons, too. There are so many preparations for these events: From remembering the date (does it start at 11:00 or noon?), to packing the promo materials, to remembering what instrument I’m even playing in a set list I can’t remember. When your weekends are packed with volunteering and performances, you’re inclined to forget the bigger picture—that is, why we do this at all.

At one of the library conventions, there was a child—probably four years old—who would not stop hovering. We befriended his father, who humored the kid’s fascination with our instruments. We showed him the synthesizer; he received a personal demonstration of guitar chords. He stole my kazoo and shoved it into his mouth, which I didn’t ask to be returned. It was that kid, and moments like those, that remind us of the big picture. We adored it. We play this music because we enjoy it, but it’s not enough to feel it on our own. We share it with our fellow musicians, and we share it even more with those who listen. Including, maybe especially, hyperactive toddlers.

Most of us are not professional musicians. We moan that we’re imperfect. We botched a note on our solo, or missed our entrance after 34 measures of rests. While we work on these things and strive to improve our musicianship, what matters in the end is not that I accidentally played an F# after the key change, again. It’s looking to our audience and seeing them smiling, or dancing, or nodding in acknowledgement that this piece rocks. “Play Undertale!” they plead, for the seventh time. “What’s that?” the kid asks, pointing at the piccolo. And we play it, again. And we show them. And we love it.

Sometimes, social media is like shouting into the ether. Sometimes, no one approaches our table at a convention because they feel intimidated. But we keep on posting dumb things to Instagram, and we keep on jamming at our table. Because if we reach just one person, if one person laughs at our dumb photos or stops to listen to the seventh round of the Undertale theme, it’s worth it to see—or envision—the joy it brings them.

Why do we do this? Because we like it. But more importantly, because you like it. We may gripe about setting up chairs for a concert, and whine backstage because we just can’t play today. But when we get out there and see you, we’re glad the chair arrangement on stage is just right. And maybe we don’t sound so bad after all. You come to the library to seek out our table in a back corner, and you attend our concert in the ice and snow. You jam out with us, and you holler and applaud between songs. And when we’re breaking down a set or swabbing out our instruments afterward, we look at one another and say, “When’s the next one?”

MAGFest 2018: A Nerdy ol’ Time

Ah, the Music and Gaming Festival: Where hoards of nerds descend upon the national’s capital, along the picturesque shores of National Harbor. In the relief of exiting off the highway, one is greeted by the waters of the harbor and the glittering Ferris wheel that’s never open during the winter, anyway, but we like seeing it because it’s shiny. And best of all? The Gaylord Convention Center, where volunteers and panelists and performers eagerly await our arrival.

What other annual event would a gaming orchestra anticipate than one focused solely on music and gaming?

It was a balmy 8 degrees as we walked to the convention center without a jacket, because who wants to carry a jacket around all day? Once you obtain your weekend badge, though, you’re not bothered by silly little things like hypothermia. The schedule of events is intimidating: you huddle together with your con-going friends, checking off every panel and concert that looks cool, knowing there’s not enough time in the weekend to attend them all. (It’s the thought that counts.) But there are some panels you absolutely cannot miss, like the ones where MGSO founder Alyssa is one of the panelists. (Right? This is a priority for everyone, right?)

And these panels did not disappoint. Friday morning began bright and early(ish… at 10am) with “Being a Game Audio Designer,” and we were up again on Saturday to learn how to start a gamer orchestra. There are so many gamer music groups. Greetings to our friends in Seattle and upstate New York! I spent some time later chatting with a member of the Washington Metropolitan GSO, plotting ways for all our groups to get together somehow. Battle of the GSOs? MASSIVE JOINT PERFORMANCE? Look out, MAGFest 2019.


(Our good friends WMGSO)

And the concerts. One could easily spend the entire convention in the concert hall, watching back-to-back performers, for three days straight. Not only the WMGSO (who rocked the stage, in my humble opinion), but we also checked out the Triforce Quartet, the Videri String Quartet (a personal favorite from last year), and the Super Guitar Brothers, a list that I’m now noticing reveals my classical music bias. But if you want more, there’s more. Rock bands! Chiptune! So much chiptune. There’s an entire corner of the con center for chiptune. Mmm, chiptune…

While MGSO wasn’t on the “official” schedule of events, we still found time to jam. MAGFest encourages artists to randomly play in the hallways, and we claimed a tidy corner to show off. Kirby’s Gourmet Race was a local favorite, along with Korobeiniki (which might just be my favorite). And no MGSO performance is complete without a little Final Fantasy and Zelda action. If you saw us perform, hello again! I hope you enjoy this awkward photo of the back of your head.


(It’s us)

Short version: Please attend MAGFest. It’s fun, it’s nerdy, and I didn’t even talk about half of what’s there. (Computer museum! Arcade! Jam clinic!) If you’re whining about attending a convention in the middle of the winter, remember: D.C. is a whole lot worse in the summer. Also, all those other conventions don’t have music and gaming and more gamer orchestras than you ever knew existed. No, really. There are so many of us.

From Chiptune to Orchestration

Full article originally published in the Spring 2016 edition of Pan Pipes, newsletter of Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity.


For some, video games are a hobby. It’s something to do on the weekends, or in a rare moment of free time, or known only as a fleeting obsession of teenage children. But for some, like Alyssa Menes, the love of gaming evolves into a career.

Menes is a game composer and sound designer based in New Jersey. She holds a degree in Music Theory and Composition, but it wasn’t during college that she found her career path. It was several years later, while working in an unrelated field simply to pay the bills, that she attended a panel on game audio at the Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest) in Washington, D.C. The panelists discussed how to break into the gaming industry at the local level through independent game developers or smaller companies. Inspiration hit: This is awesome, she thought. I can do this!

Soon after, she began attending game development events locally. “As a freelancer,” Menes says, “you have to actively build your work. Initially there’s a lot of going to events and growing the network.” She started getting work creating sound effects for many independent games, but her first big project was composing the ending credit scene for an indie game titled Blackwell Epiphany. “Once your name starts to get out there,” she says, “the people start coming to you.” . . . With a background in classical composition, [Menes] uses live recordings and incorporates a lot of woodwinds and strings into her work. But there is also something to be said for the vintage feel of the Atari. “Sometimes a game developer wants to use chiptune,” Menes says, “and I have to simplify.”

Her musical career doesn’t stop there. On top of composition, Menes also offers private music instruction, plays bass guitar for Asphalt Grey—a local rock band—and, her most recent project, founded the Montclair Gamer Symphony Orchestra. “I really wanted to provide a community outlet for musicians who don’t have an opportunity to play,” she says of the orchestra. “Gaming music is very near and dear to me, and I wanted a place where we could come together and have fun.” She brings her composition and teaching background into rehearsals. She encourages the orchestra’s members to arrange music, which gives them a chance to do something they wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to learn. “But it’s a learning experience for everyone,” she says. This is Menes’s first time conducting for a group, and also several of its members are returning to their instruments after years of not playing. The group is preparing for its first concert this summer.

It’s not all work and no play—Menes also makes time to actually play the games, both for fun and for research. She’s currently into Just Cause 3 and Fire Emblem Fates, and is also involved in Smash Brothers competitions. “Not professionally. It’s just for fun.” Then, she added with a laugh, “But for glory.”