MAGFest, the annual gathering for people who love video games, music, and video game music, took place at its usual spot in National Harbor earlier this year. Though the festival’s musical offerings tend toward electronic fare, there are some musicians keeping the tradition of acoustic music alive.
Among these musicians is the Videri String Quartet. The Boston-based ensemble took center stage twice over the MAGFest weekend to perform tasteful arrangements of music from games like Chrono Trigger, Donkey Kong, and Journey. After their shows were over, I sat down to chat with three integral members of the group: Roselie Samter (Viola), Lizzie Jones (Violin), and David Peacock (Arranger). Lounging on the beds of their hotel room, exhausted but still reveling in the thrill of the festival, the three begin to tell me the story of their group: their mission, history, and where they’re headed next.
Movement I: Assembling the Team
Roselie Samter founded VSQ back in March 2012, when composer Jeff Williams (Red vs. Blue, RWBY), asked her to put together a string quartet to open for a show he was playing in Boston. Later on in July, Williams invited the group to Texas to play at a gaming convention called RTX.
“I thought at the time that it’d just be a one-time thing,” Samter tells me. “So me and these girls I had just worked with for another show–we very last-minute went down to Texas and we played for about 800 people.
I remember freaking out in the hotel room, because I thought for sure the fans would hate that we were changing it from rock music to classical. But we went out to perform and they loved it! I was not expecting that! It was a very big shock for me. That’s when I thought there was something really cool about video game music. People really connect to it.”
And so Samter focused her energy into making the Videri String Quartet into a legitimate ensemble. The newest member, Michael Hustedde (Violin), joined the group in January 2015 after an intense staring match in the middle of a recording session. Jeremiah Barcus (Cello) joined the group on the spot in 2013. And David Peacock’s been arranging for the group since their first album dropped in 2013.
David is the most prolific arranger for the quartet. He arranged most of the music they performed at MAGFest, and he’s been an invaluable component of the group since his unexpectedly large contribution to the group’s debut album.
“I reached out to Rosie about arranging, And Rosie replied: “Well funny you should mention that because in a week and a half we have to record an album.” So I wrote them a 15-minute Final Fantasy medley.”
“And that medley was insane!” Samter says.
Lizzie Jones came down from New York three years ago to audition for the quartet, years after meeting Samter at a viola party at her Boston apartment.
“When I first read with VSQ, I thought ‘Wow. This is such a cool concept.’ Video games–a form of music that was never intended to be performed, and we’re performing it. It’s so crazy!”
Movement II: On Video Games
Though others in the quartet have been playing video games and enjoying video game music since childhood, Roselie Samter’s love affair began more recently.
“My parents didn’t even tell me we owned a TV until I was 6 or 7 years old!” she says, laughing. She tells me she grew up on a small farm in Northern Idaho. “It was very, very rural. So this whole world of video games was very new to me. But I played with the Video Game Orchestra for a while, and that really exposed me to [the art form].
“One thing about video game music that’s always drawn me in is that people are so emotionally attached to it. There’s a sentimental value in the music. It’s a part of your childhood. If I connect with it so much only having gotten into games just recently…I can only imagine how someone who grew up with them feels.”
David, who’s played games since childhood, agreed.
“With movies, you’re going to get to the end of the story if you sit there long enough. You’re going to hear all the music. But for a game, it takes time and effort. So those tunes get you with a reward factor too; you can say ‘I beat that. I did that.’”
Movement III: On Being Rockstars
For various reasons, the classical music world is one of pomp and circumstance. Come to the concert hall in your Sunday best, and hold your applause for the very end of the concerto. But with Videri, shows tend to be a little…different.
“It’s been really nice being a part of this quartet, and seeing people’s reactions,” Jones tells me. “It’s so different when you go to a school, or an event like MAGFest where the audience is so psyched to hear the music.”
Jones and Samter begin to recount a story from their performance at RTX last year.
“We started to play a Halo arrangement when just about everyone in the audience–close to 2000 people–they all started humming along!” Jones says.
“Later,” says Samter, “when we played trailer music, they were singing along. It was unbelievable. It was so loud that we could hear clearly the lyrics from on-stage.”
“People kept asking if we were upset, and I remember thinking “This is the first time that has ever happened, it is SO COOL. Can you imagine us playing a Beethoven quartet and the audience humming along?”
Jones pauses here to hum a Beethoven quartet for emphasis. It would be decidedly unwelcome at the Lincoln Center. Samter continues:
“We walked off the stage with our violinist Michael, who’s very reserved and proper. And he has this big smile on his face and he says “I feel like a rock star.” I feel like most classical musicians have to take ‘Rock Star’ off their shelf. But when those moments happen, it’s amazing. Not that many people get to do that. Especially violists.”
In addition to playing concerts for conventions, VSQ plays for universities, summer festivals, conservatories, and K-12 schools around the country. Though Boston-area kids are used to seeing world-renowned classical musicians, hearing those musicians play video game music is a rare treat.
Samter: I think one of my favorite kid reactions was from at the school in Alameda, California. Before we started playing, Michael says, very properly, “How many of you guys like Yoshi?” and the reaction was so loud you couldn’t hear for a second.
Jones: The frequencies were so high, I’m too old to hear it!
Samter: Most of the time we play, we really try to program classical music and video game music side by side. And even while we were playing the classical stuff, it was dead silent. If you have a room full of children who are quiet, you’re either doing something really wrong or really right.
Jones: They’re either dead, or…
Samter: You can’t cram an entire string quartet down a 5 year old’s throat. But play the Mario theme, they love it. Play a short little classical theme and the Mario theme, they love them both. And we give both the same amount of attention, dissection, and care. Because we believe that every composer deserves the time for the quality of performance. Video game and classical.
Movement IV: On the Future
So where’s the group headed now?
“We all really want to record another album,” Samter says. “We want to have classical quartet music as well as video game music, side by side. So if you’re interested in video game music, you also have to listen to the Haydn. Same for if you’re in it for Haydn and discover Ori and the Blind Forest.”
“But we also want to keep performing,” says Jones, “at schools, at gaming conventions…”
The group gets off-track for a few minutes, talking about ideas for all sorts of shows they might want to do. Places to visit, like Japan, and Europe.
“I guess the short answer is, we just want to keep playing!”
Mr. Hassan DuRant is a composer out of North Carolina and a guest writer for OSV. All information and opinions are his own.Tags: Arrangements, Conventions, Features, Interviews, MAGFest, Video Game Music, Videri String Quartet