MGSO Interview with Alyssa Menes

When did you decide you wanted to start conducting music? What was your original inspiration?

“I actually wanted to be a drum major in high school senior year, but my family moved away from my old band so I couldn’t do it. I took a conducting class in college, but I was very shy and had some confidence issues. It was tough to stand in front of the class. Later on, UMDGSO (University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra) was playing my Kid Icarus piece and asked me to conduct a run-through, but I chickened out and couldn’t do it. I still think about that to this day, but over time, I’ve gotten over my fears and just said: ‘There’s nothing I can’t do! Screw it! I’m gonna do it!’ So I forced myself to start conducting and get over my fears.”

 

Why did you decide to focus specifically on game music? Was it mostly because gaming was a personal hobby?

“I love video games and game music. It has some of my favorite music in the world. I was inspired by University of Maryland’s Gamer Symphony Orchestra, so I wanted to bring that to New Jersey. I also saw a strong bond that people had over games and game music, which I’ve seen happen now with MGSO.”

 

How was the process of starting up MGSO?

“It was very difficult at first. I was one person with an idea, but it was a matter of getting people together to play so I could realize this idea. I started with friends I knew from MSU and got a few of them on board. In the beginning, I had around ten to fifteen people interested in performing with the group, but no place to rehearse! That was the toughest part. When I met Chris Erickson, that’s when we were able to find a place to rehearse. Our first show was at Digital Press, where we did a small ensemble performance. We had to sneak into some of the music rooms at Montclair to try and practice, but thankfully the school was on summer break at the time!”

 

What are some common misconceptions that people have about conducting?

“Some people wonder if it’s necessary to even have a conductor. So I always have to explain that yes it is. The conductor is the bridge from the music to the musicians. Also, the conductor helps keep the whole group on the same page about how the music should be played, thus unifying the group and their artistic intentions.”

 

How long have you been arranging music for? Was it before you started conducting?

“Besides a few little things in college, I didn’t start until 2012 with arranging game music. I was learning about orchestration a lot more and started with my Kid Icarus arrangement, and kept going from there. This was well before I started conducting seriously.”

 

What is your favorite part when arranging music?

“I really love reimagining music in different ways, such as orchestrating chiptune music, or interpreting a piece presented in one genre as something completely different. It’s fun to think of new parts to add when you’re arranging, while making sure you don’t take away from what made the original so great.”

 

Do you have any advice for upcoming arrangers or composers?

“Learn a lot about orchestration. I got a great book on orchestration by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Start small and arrange with an instrument family you are familiar with so you can begin understanding the basics of arrangement and how to voice a melody, chords, bassline etc. Then, begin incorporating other instruments. Learn about their range, learn what’s idiomatic on each instrument, so you can figure out which melodies are best suited to which instruments. Then, as you learn more and more about each instrument family, try to incorporate all of them into a fully orchestrated arrangement.”

 

Are there any instruments you wish you could play?

“I have a lot of trouble with violin. I can work my way around the other instruments in the string family, such as the contrabass, but I can’t play the violin yet.”

 

What is your favorite video game? How about favorite game soundtrack(s)?

“My favorite game and soundtrack is Kid Icarus: Uprising. Some of my other favorite soundtracks include Phantasy Star Online, Sam and Max, Shovel Knight, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4), Journey, Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, Pokémon X & Y, Until Dawn, and more.”

 

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

“There are two. Smash 4 is a big one, since I started competing in it. I was having some trouble in my life, and Smash 4 really had an impact on me. I learned a lot about myself and how I could develop more confidence and a positive mentality. I’ve also met a lot of wonderful people through playing Smash. It’s really fun to see how good you can get at the game and compete with people.

The other game is definitely Kid Icarus: Uprising. The story was really touching and the characters were all so vibrant and well-developed. At that point in my life, I wasn’t too happy with myself and where things were going, but the game really made me excited and got me to study music again. The music in the game was so inspiring. It made me want to make music for games, because at the time I wasn’t doing anything like that. That’s why I started studying more, and decided to start seriously pursuing a career making music for games.”

 

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

“I would love to meet Hip Tanaka. He made a lot of classic NES music. He is my favorite game composer. Also, Yuzo Koshiro’s music really inspired me. We follow each other on Twitter, and he has even complimented my music before, so it would be so awesome to get to meet him and maybe even work with him!”

“My Top 10 Video Game Songs” By Philip Berardo

  1. “Corridors of Time” – Chrono Trigger (1995)

 Chrono Trigger has one of the finest soundtracks of any game I’ve played, so choosing just one track was a bit difficult. Since the game deals with time travel, I feel “Corridors of Time” perfectly showcases the sensation of traveling to another world. The song plays in the kingdom of Zeal, a city that floats above the clouds. It marks a big turning point in the game, and the story really starts to pick up during this section. The track itself stands out for its ascending notes, vocal sound fonts, and an overall “Zen-like” atmosphere.

 

  1. “Gusty Garden Galaxy” – Super Mario Galaxy (2007)

 This may very well be the unofficial anthem of Nintendo during the Wii era. While the level itself is plenty of fun, the music is what really makes this part of the game stand out. Mario games didn’t traditionally embrace orchestral pieces before the release of Galaxy, especially to this degree. The use of strings, brass, and a triumphant percussion keeps the rhythm going, while Mario jumps his way around various grassy planetoids. Even a decade after the game’s release, I still think Galaxy has the best overall soundtrack from a Mario game, and this song is a true highlight.

 

 

  1. “Dire Dire Docks” – Super Mario 64 (1996)

Traveling back over a decade before my previous entry, Super Mario 64 is generally known for a catchy, upbeat soundtrack. However, “Dire Dire Docks” perhaps embodies nostalgia in its purest form. While I didn’t grow up playing the game when it first released, I did play the DS version of the game back around 2005. Even coming from the smaller speakers of the DS, this song really stood out to me for setting a soothing tone to the game’s world. My favorite section is when the drums begin to kick in, completely changing the feel of the song. Considering how much everyone dreads water levels in video games, I think this track helped make Mario’s underwater adventure a bit less stressful.

 

 

  1. “Ruins” – Kirby 64 (2000)

It’s hard to believe this track comes from a Kirby game. That’s not to say the games don’t have plenty of great soundtracks, but I can’t think of many songs in the series that sound this atmospheric. It plays only a few times in Kirby 64, generally during a desert or underwater level. I love the echo effect that the bell chimes have, along with the use of synthesized strings as the song builds up. It all adds up to an emotionally powerful tune; for a series that usually goes for a catchy “pop” style, it’s a welcomed surprise.

 

  1. “Sona Mi Areru Ec Sancitu” – Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998)

 Panzer Dragoon Saga is, quite possibly, one of the greatest video games of all time that, sadly, not many people have had the chance to play. It’s an incredibly rare title that released at a time when the Sega Saturn was starting to lose its relevancy. This track plays during the ending credits, bringing the game’s somewhat sorrowful ending a last bit of hope. The song uses the game’s fictional language, “panzerese,” which borrows characteristics from Latin. It combines tribal drumbeats, a strong brass section, and a fairly unique vocal style to really bring out the otherworldly feel that the game presents.

It’s a tough call to make, but I think if I had to choose one dream arrangement for MGSO to perform, this would probably be it.

 

 

  1. “Dear to the Heart” – Final Fantasy 7 (1997)

 Sure, this song is essentially just another arrangement of the main Final Fantasy 7 theme, but it’s still my favorite from the game. Final Fantasy 7 is also my favorite video game of all time, and this track serves to remind me of all the memories I’ve had with it. Though the song appears several times in the game, my favorite moment is when the main cast of characters is finally about to leave the city of Midgar and explore the rest of the world. That’s right, there’s still another thirty hours or so of story content after Midgar! The game’s story can be pretty tragic at times, but this song always lets the player know that there is still some beauty left in its world; you just have to chase Sephiroth for several hours before you find it.

 

 

  1. “Multi-Man Melee 1” – Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001)

Huh? Super Smash Bros. Melee has twenty-nine playable stages? Who needs those other stages when you’ve got this awesome track playing on Battlefield! I’m not usually into competitive gaming, but Melee is an exception. Every time I sit down to practice, I need to play on Battlefield so I can hear this song. The synthesized guitar solo is permanently engraved in my mind as one of the coolest riffs in gaming. Set the stock count to 99,  hold the L or R button when choosing the stage, and get ready for hours of intense button clicking.

 

 

  1. “The Crystal Stars” – Paper Mario: the Thousand-Year Door (2004)

 I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t played the Thousand-Year Door, but I will say that this track plays during a rather triumphant moment in the final boss fight. Having played the game when it first released in 2004, I’ve always had a soft spot for this song over the years. This track serves as a reminder that, though you’ve still got an incredibly daunting opponent left to fight, all the characters you befriended along the way have your back. It would be nice if they could do more than just cheer you on, but it’s the thought that counts!

 

 

  1. “Lofty Castle” – Spyro the Dragon (1998)

 The Spyro franchise may not be around today, but during the late 90’s it was one of the top 3D platforming series. Stewart Copeland, the drummer for the popular rock group, The Police, composed the soundtrack. Copeland utilized synthesizers, electric guitar, piano, and of course his remarkable drumming skills. “Lofty Castle,” in particular, sounds quite different from the other songs in the game. The level itself has a dreamlike atmosphere, with pink skies and flying pigs (which I used to think looked like turkeys for some reason). Unlike some of the other songs in the game, piano is the primary instrument on display here; it’s played in a fairly unique style, and I still haven’t been able to figure out how to replicate it properly.

 

 

  1. “Undertale (Main Theme)” – Undertale (2015)

 Before I played Undertale, I didn’t really have any expectations in advance; my only prior knowledge of the game was that it was a turn-based RPG where you didn’t have to kill any of the enemies. Oh, and apparently it was similar to EarthBound, a game I already had a ton of appreciation for. On my first playthrough, I opted for the “pacifist route,” where I wouldn’t have to hurt any enemies, or other characters in the game. It made the game’s tone a lot happier, and kept me motivated to continue befriending every character I met. It took only a few short hours, but I was beginning to reach what I believed to be the final section of the game (though I’d later find out that wasn’t quite the case). I had made my way to the home of the supposed main villain, Asgore, and anticipated an immediate battle.

As I approached the closest save point, a soft guitar began to play a familiar leitmotif from past sections of the game. It looped a few times, before a timid piano was added, and finally some strings and percussion. I had to take a moment to sit back and appreciate what I was hearing; it was such a simple melody, and yet it worked so perfectly within the context of the game. Undertale loves to go against the player’s expectations. It doesn’t just throw you into an epic final boss fight right away. Instead, it gives you time to let the results of your journey sink in. What kind of player were you? Did you fight every enemy you encountered, or only a few? Or, did you spare every enemy instead? I sure knew what kind of player I was…I was the one who started bawling when this song played.

In a few of these entries, I‘ve talked about nostalgia, and how certain tracks, even if you didn’t grow up hearing them, can still bring you back to earlier moments in your life. To me, that’s exactly what the main theme of Undertale manages to do. It may sound somber in its first few measures, but the final key change ends everything on a positive note. It assures you that, though your journey is coming to an end, there were plenty of memories made along the way.

The main theme from Undertale evokes a powerful essence of innocence and love that few songs have managed to match for me, video game soundtrack or otherwise.

 

From Chiptune to Orchestration

Full article originally published in the Spring 2016 edition of Pan Pipes, newsletter of Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity. This excerpt is reprinted with permission by the author.


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.”

“My First Year With MGSO” By Philip Berardo

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.