Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea

Saturday night celebrated the closing of the Perth Festival with The West Australian Symphony Orchestra performing an unusual double act. The first half of the night was a performance of video game scores. After a short intermission Perth’s very own soundtrack was played. The collaborative process of the Symphony to Perth involved public submissions and produced a work that felt like a reflection of Perth, but jarred strangely with the action-adventure feel to the first half of the evening.

We began the night with a booming soundtrack to the game Uncharted. Meanwhile on screen we watched a clip of an animated hero leaping through flames, in jungles, from helicopters.

The action was so absorbing that I almost forgot the orchestra was there. Meanwhile the loose black hair of conductor Carolyn Kuan never stopped swinging about as she lead the largely drum-driven first score. Her energy was a pleasure to watch.

Next up a different composer and very different visuals began for the game Grim Fandango. Mexican skeletons created by Lucas Arts lead us on another adventure complete with car chases and murders. The music kept a quick tempo with foot-tapping jazz leading way to Mariachi music as an animated skeletal band played on screen. 

This lead into the stunning visuals of Bioshock, where a beautiful blue oceanic landscape was complemented by melancholy strings from the orchestra.

The violins contributed an eery undertone to the game perfectly and added an emotional intensity to the fight scenes.

We finished with the very cute animation of Journey and the stepping up of a new cellist. It began with a lone red-cloaked girl walking through the desert to a distant mountain shining with light. As the adventure picked up, the cellist swung his bow rapidly over the strings with awe-inspiring speed, emphasising the wonder of the visuals.

Many people at this point were startled to find it was intermission. Time had flown by in this part of the night. While each piece so far was very different, they complimented each other exceptionally well. As a non-gamer I was glad to enjoy some impressive animation I’d never seen before, and a friend with me was rapt to relive some of his favourite games.

desert

After a brief intermission, composer Tod Machover explained the process of the Symphony for Perth. Computer software was used to get students of all ages to help compose aspects of the symphony and people from all over Perth sent in sounds.

The first movement, Between, began with the sound of crickets, while a sunshine-like glow appeared on screen. We heard birds, mosquitos and the sound of the wind and water at the beach. The orchestra accompanied these nature sounds with gentle strings and flute, but didn’t fall into the soothing sounds of a meditation soundtrack. There were snippets of conversation and the rushing sound of waves to prevent this from ever feeling relaxed, and the notes accompanying these familiar sounds were ponderous and idle, as if uncertain or just indifferent to direction. Towards the end the mild chaos of street noises were accompanied by visuals of Perth buildings.

I much preferred the second movement, Young Impressions, which showed on-screen the colourful crayon-like scribblings from the software that resulted in the compositions.

The results were festive cascades influenced by the Royal Show, snippets of swing music from a student in year 10, and dramatic chaos as 6 or 7 pieces were mashed together.

The third movement Within began similarly to the first act, but the environmental noises took a back seat to the impression of urban life which sounded a lot like drone music. These deeper, lower notes picked up and a sensation of the wind rushing past began as the music became almost tuneless as it approached a loud crescendo.

The last movement, Forward, began fast and continued to build tension as the visuals on-screen showed a blue and orange splotch with a white splash in between.

It finished with the city skyline appearing, and “Coda (the end)… and then?” appearing, as the tension of the music dissipated to the sound of crickets, tinkles, wind and waves.

The concept behind this symphony was incredible, and visually being able to see the input of the students was fantastic. The uncertainty in the first movement was never entirely resolved for me, however. For me the Symphony rang with a sense of organised chaos not entirely wrapped up by the last movement.  Perhaps that is the point.  Perth is a city in a state of change, not entirely neatly wrapped up with a triumphant conclusion. A true symphony would capture that. However it was a jarring, obtuse shock after the simplicity of video game music. In summary, listen to the Symphony of Perth and it may ring a chord with you about your city, but perhaps don’t listen to it after playing a video game.

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