AuthorAngela Zurlo

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.”