Sunday, February 12, 2012

Interview: "Video Game Music Choir" Founder Julia Seeholzer

As a Northwestern student, I know a thing or two about a cappella groups. With about seventeen different groups, the college is never at a shortage of entirely vocalized music. However, one thing about which Northwestern cannot boast is having a group that sings only video game music, unlike Berklee College of Music in Boston. There, a student by the name of Julia Seeholzer created a group in Sepetember of 2009 where members arrange, rehearse, and perform different video game tunes, usually with little to no instrumental accompaniment. In a school devoted entirely to music, this yields some very impressive results. The following is an interview I conducted with Julia about the choir, her musical background, and her gaming background.

Julia Seeholzer

Q: When and how did you first come up with the idea of starting the Berklee Video Game Music Choir? Was the idea related to what you're currently studying at Berklee? How did you get recognition as a college group from Berklee officials?

Julia: I first got the idea for the choir during my freshman year of college. I’ve been heavily involved in various choirs since grade school, and I’ve always been an avid gamer. Additionally, there isn’t a big emphasis on choral activity at Berklee, so I decided to combine these two loves of mine and form my own group. The choir was started as part of an existing Berklee student organization, the Video Game Music Club. The club meets once a week to discuss music in the game industry from various angles. Meetings include student presentations, forums, and visiting composers. We have a great Faculty Advisor, Jeanine Cowen, who’s been wonderful in supporting our various ventures.

Q:What is it about video game music in particular that draws you to arrange and perform it?

Julia: Music is such an essential part of video games, and being a musician, there’s an incredible level of nostalgia whenever I hear music from my favorite games. However, choir, specifically a cappella choir, and game music are not usually associated with one another, outside of the epic choral “aah’s” and Latin gibberish plugged into big-name titles like Halo and World of Warcraft. I wanted to set instrumental and electronic music for choir because of its unconventionality and potential ability to break new musical ground.

"Main Theme" - Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Arranged by Daniel Jimenez of Berklee's Video Game Music Choir)

Q: How did you first get interested in video games? Do you play very often, or is your interest mainly in video game music? What are some of your favorite games? Favorite game soundtracks/composers?

Julia: When I was 8, my younger brother got a Gameboy Color for Christmas, along with Pokémon Red Version and Tetris. I used to borrow it whenever I could- I was addicted to Tetris, and I’m pretty sure I woke up early one morning to beat the Elite Four, unbeknownst to my brother. The following year, I got my own Gameboy Color for Christmas, and peace was restored. Since then, I’ve been hooked on multiple platforms- PC, handhelds, and consoles alike. I don’t play as much as I used to (thank you, college workload), but I still play when I can. It’s hard to pick favorites, but The Sims, World of Warcraft, Phoenix Wright, Golden Sun, and Escape From Monkey Island are my top five. Golden Sun and Phoenix Wright have incredible soundtracks, as does Baten Kaitos. Motoi Sakuraba is my favorite game composer.

Q: Do you have certain criteria for which songs the group performs? Are the arrangements more individual efforts or collaborative efforts?

Julia: It’s definitely tricky to choose songs that will work for choir arrangements. A lot of older 8-bit music is too fast and complicated to be sung, so we have to choose carefully, or simplify things in the arrangements. When the choir started, I chose and arranged our repertoire, but as the group has grown, choir members have contributed more and more arrangements. Anyone is welcome to arrange for the group. I simply check the arrangements to make sure they’re singable.

"Still Alive" - Portal (Arranged by Stephanie Barker of Berklee's Video Game Music Choir, my sister!)

Q: As time goes on and gaming technology increases, video game soundtracks are getting increasingly complicated, with fuller instrumentation and more authentic-sounding (or even authentic) instruments. Given this evolution, do you feel there is a marked difference in the VGM Choir between how classic video game songs are arranged and how modern video game songs are arranged? If so, how so? If not, why not?

Julia: There’s definitely a huge difference in arrangement style depending on the genre and time era of each game. Many older game arrangements are very busy with fast tempos, due to the nature of the limited channels available on early systems. Newer game music is a lot more diverse because of technological advancements. The genres have expanded to everything from pop to rock to orchestral to jazz. Arranging an orchestral piece for choir is much different than something from Tetris, for example. There are a lot more sustained chords, and a lot more actual choir parts in newer music. Both eras have their challenges, but both are quite fun to arrange.

"Escape from the City" - Sonic Adventure 2 (As arranged by Julia Seeholzer of Berklee's Video Game Music Choir)

Q: One of your more famous arrangements is that of "Escape from the City" from Sonic Adventure 2. You arranged it, right? How did you get the idea to arrange this particular song? Does the choir typically perform lyrical video game music?

Julia: Yes- as a matter of fact, Escape from the City was my first arrangement for the choir. I wanted to pick a song that had lyrics, because it would be easier to arrange in an a cappella style. It’s also such a catchy, well-known song to gamers that I thought it would be a hit. We try to sing as much lyrical music as possible because it’s easier to arrange and sing, and it’s more interesting and relatable for listeners. However, there’s not a huge amount of lyrical game music out there, so we try to mix it in when we can. We’ve done things like “Still Alive” from Portal, and “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV, which sound great a cappella.

(Interviewer's note: There are also times when the choir puts lyrics to non-lyrical video game songs, such as Zero-Two's monologue at the end of Kirby 64, producing some awesome results.)

Q: Do you have anything else to say to video game music enthusiasts?

Julia: The gaming community is unlike any other. There’s such an incredible love for the culture, and the game industry is very connected to its fans. All I wanted to do with this choir was share my love of game music with others, and this choir has taken off in ways I never could have imagined. If you have something to say, and passion behind your message, I can guarantee that the gaming community will look to you with open arms.

To listen to more performances and to find out more about the Video Game Music Choir, check out their website at

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