By Diti Kohli, The Boston Globe
Love video games? Love jazz music? One widely acclaimed big band that combines the two is slated to stop by town next month. The 8-Bit Big Band plays tunes from popular video games like “Legend of Zelda” and “Super Mario Bros.” With 33 members and a handful of special guests (Grace Kelly, Leo P, and Carlos Eiene a.k.a.Insaneintherain), the band returns to Berklee College of Music after selling out there last fall. The Globe spoke with 8-Bit Big Band founder and Broadway alum Charlie Rosen.
Q. Why video game music? With a big band, no less?
A. Video game music is similar to generalized bodies of music in the past, such as the Great American Songbook, top 40, and jazz standards. Because there was a collective experience of consuming video games in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, we are now forming a new video game songbook that is standard repertoire and all these people know. Much in the same way that famous conductors would play film scores, we now have a songbook of video game music we can pay tribute to.
Q. You switch up the arrangements and add your own creative elements to older themes. Why?
A. When you look at the evolution of the technology of video games, it started off incredibly rudimentary. Because composers were only allowed to use three voices and a noise voice in these early 8-bit games, composers got creative with the melodies they wrote in this bare-bones construction. We now are in an era where video game music can have the same audio fidelity and production quality as, and even beyond, major motion pictures. So we are able to perform that stuff in as full of a way as possible. That’s what it is to be a career orchestrator, a career arranger, a career producer, whatever you want to call it, is hearing the unrealized potential in the structural parts of a piece of music and expanding on it.
Q. How do you pick which pieces you play?
A. The music that I pick is connected with my experience playing these games and letting them simmer in my brain for 20 years. I also dig for other music that I find people have a strong connection to. The body of people who appreciate this music is relatively young because video games, in the course of human history, are new. So video game music is proving to be an incredibly effective delivery vehicle for which to expose younger generations to the sounds of orchestras.
Q. Do you have a favorite arrangement?
A. We either reverse-engineer stuff to be more old-school or we forward-engineer it to take what the composer intended and add other musical references. One is “Portal,” a pop tune from Jonathon Colton, that we reverse-engineered to be in the style of Frank Sinatra. We also did arrangements from “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Gerudo Valley,” which is a flamenco tune with more Spanish orchestral things. The actual Tetris theme is a Russian folk song, so we took that and added more Russian folk songs, Jewish dances, and other classical composers.
Q. Is there any style or specific game you want to explore in the future?
A. It’s hard to say, because one of the things I talk about as far as the title “big band” is concerned is that a lot of people think of it as a genre of jazz music. And it is that, but now we are in the future of that. Big band, by definition for me, is more of an instrumentation. Your big band can play genres that aren’t big band jazz. And the other cool thing about video game music is, again, it’s not really a genre. It’s any kind of music the composers felt would dramatize and uplift the game. So games have a plethora of genres of music in them. If there’s any that stand out to me that I haven’t done yet, I won’t know it until I hear it.
THE 8-BIT BIG BAND
At the Berklee Performance Center, Boston, on March 1 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $20, http://boston8bbbshow.com/
Interview was edited and condensed.