Q&A: Video Games Live's Tommy Tallarico

The veteran game-score composer talks to GameSpot UK about his musical showcase, how games are affecting classical music sales, and comparisons with the film industry.


Created by composer Tommy Tallarico and conductor by Jack Wall, Video Games Live has been touring the globe for four years. Showcasing the best anthems from past and present games, the concert is returning to the British capital for a third time, where it will be kicking off this year's London Games Festival at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday October 24. We spoke to Tallarico about the show, returning to London, and how video game music is making an impact on culture and the music industry.

Tallarico returns to London's Royal Albert Hall on October 24.
Tallarico returns to London's Royal Albert Hall on October 24.

GameSpot UK: Give us a bit of background about Video Games Live. How did you arrive at the original concept?
Tommy Tallarico: I have been a video games composer for over 18 years, and my business partner, Jack Wall, the conductor for Video Games Live, has been a composer of video games music for over 12 years.

We created VGL to prove to the world how culturally significant and artistic video games have become. We created the show, not only for gamers, but for everyone to enjoy. The thing that makes VGL unique is that there are so many elements to the show. We have the orchestra and the choir all interacting in time with spectacular and beautiful visuals, rock-and-roll lighting effects, and the most up-to-date technology creating dramatic special effects. It is so important to realise that this is not just a show for gamers but that there are elements to excite everyone.

We came up with the concept for the show in 2002 and it took around three years to get it off the ground. At first everyone thought we were crazy, and we had to work hard to convince the game publishers to get involved. In 2005 we performed three shows, in 2006 there were 11 shows, in 2007 we increased that to 29 shows, and this year we will perform 52 shows. Predictions for 2009 suggest that we'll be putting on 75 shows worldwide.

GSUK: You're coming to London for the third time. Are you looking forward to playing Royal Festival Hall?
TT:I'm really looking forward to returning. Last year we were the only show at the Royal Festival that sold out, and we were the first show to sell out since the refurbishment of the venue--this makes me very proud.

GSUK: What's been your favourite place to perform at and why?
TT: We have played all over the world and we have visited some fantastic places, but there are two places that have been crazy and really stand out. Firstly, in Brazil we performed the show just last week and the fans are so crazy, they scream and chant and sing along the entire show. They are very passionate and it is a pleasure to perform there.

Secondly Taiwan, because a number of people warned me before we went there, "Don't worry if they don't clap. It doesn't mean they're not enjoying it because they are quite a reserved culture." But when we performed the show they went crazy for it, screaming and yelling their heads off. My advisors had to admit that they had been wrong.

GSUK: Tell us a bit about the work that goes into each show.
TT: We have a system that me and Jack created combining technology with arts, and it is something that we are really proud of accomplishing. We are able to take it to different venues in different countries around the world. We're now in our fourth year, and we're constantly refining the show, finding new elements. We are always improving it. We have never played the same show twice; the content of the show in London will be at least 50 percent different from the show we played in 2007.

GSUK: How do you choose the visuals and the orchestras for the shows?
TT: Firstly, we put together the arrangement for the music, and then I put it into my computer in the studio. I am the person who puts together the videos. I take the greatest scenes and work together with the game publishers to produce new and exciting visuals for the show. We are a team with the video game industry; we want to show the industry in the most culturally significant way possible. We work to produce music and lighting and video that work together simultaneously to dramatic effect.

There is an interactive element of the show in which we take an audience member up on to the stage to play a video game live. The orchestra then play along with the action onscreen and adapt the music to the action. At our show in London this year we will be using the Guitar Hero Aerosmith game for this section. Steven Tyler's real surname is Tallarico; he's my cousin so it's great to be able to use his music in the show. I'll be up onstage playing my electric guitar along with the audience member playing the guitar hero plastic guitar and the music will be played by the live orchestra. It's fantastic!

We like to use a mix of the old classic games along with the newer games. In the London show this year we have incorporated the old classics like Metroid and Castlevania along with the modern classics, such as Mario and World of Warcraft. I would compare VGL to Cirque de Soleil in that you have to see it for yourself to understand what it is all about. Our best letters following the shows come from nongamers saying that they never knew that video games could be so emotional, the music so powerful, and the graphics so artistic and beautiful. It's great when parents write to us saying that they finally understand why their children love the video games so much.

In addition to this, we are ushering a whole new generation of people to experience a symphony. Never before in history have kids been dragging their parents to watch a symphony. We are taking the class boundaries and snobbery away from classical music and introducing a new audience to the world of symphony.

GSUK: Are there any video games or designers you haven't covered and would like to work with?
TT: No. Our first show ever was performed at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra. From that launch moment we have moved from begging publishers to be a part of the show to the situation now where the publishers are all begging us to be a part of the show. We can now be selective and choose the best; the music is the most important thing.

GSUK: Part of your show incorporates audience participation. Do you see any new ways of encouraging this as new technology comes out?
TT: If Beethoven was alive today this is exactly how he would be doing it. When Tchaikovsky performed his music he had live cannons fired onstage for the percussion; these guys were showmen and entertainers as well. We need to take away the elitism and snobbery. If it weren't for film and video game music, who knows what excitement there would be for classic music today.

In 1977, I was 10 years old and I went to see Star Wars and Rocky. The scores blew me away. I was like "Wow, what is that?!" It sparked an interest in orchestra and symphonies in me; those films turned me on to classical music. Mothers write to me to say, "We went to see your show and afterwards my son asked to have violin lessons to learn to play the music to Halo." Through popular culture we keep interest in classical culture alive.

GSUK: What impact does the video games industry have on the classical music industry?
TT: The music industry released statistics this year showing that video game music made up to 23 percent of all money the music industry made this year. It is the biggest revenue stream of music around the world. Video games are as relevant as any other form of entertainment, such as radio, TV, or film, but the culture takes time to evolve and become mainstream. It was the same for rock-and-roll music or even for the film industry, but in 10 years' time we will have a prime minister or a president who has grown up playing video games as much a part of their lives as TV was for us and radio for the generation before us.

GSUK: How long do you think it will be before games have a composer of the same stature as someone like Vangelis?
TT: It has already happened. It happened about 10 years ago. Video game soundtracks sell three times as many copies as film soundtracks. My Web site gets around 3 to 4 million hits a month. You won't find the same for film composers. The success of VGL is international, from Taiwan to New Zealand to Scotland. We have already surpassed everything achieved by film composers.

GSUK: Thanks for your time.

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