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Someone should make a game about: Orchestras


Do you remember the sound of the PlayStation 3 loading up, the "parrr" of the oboe and the warm rush of strings? It's the sound of an orchestra tuning up, the sound of a performance about to come. The oboe provides the "A" because it's the instrument with the most penetrating sound and apparently with the most reliable pitch. I always liked that sound. I heard it a lot when I was growing up.

I was a violinist in an orchestra, you see, and I had a real talent for... avoiding hard work. You should have seen me in my prime, bow hovering above the string, looking to all the world like I was giving a performance when in reality I wasn't playing a thing. I'd only skip the hard bits, mind you, I wasn't a complete fraud, and I'd make it look pretty convincing. The only tricky part was keeping a straight face when the person sitting next to me started hover-bowing too. One look was all it took for the whole charade to crack apart into giggles.

I owe a lot to orchestras. They took me all around Europe, put me in the homes of host families in France and Germany, and I played in wonderful churches I otherwise wouldn't have gone anywhere near. We played ruined open air auditoriums which looked like they were out of fairytales, we even once played a shopping mall in Hong Kong. Blimey, Hong Kong. I was a lucky boy.

We had some great times. The Brighton Youth Orchestra certainly knew how to have fun. I'll never forget how different we were to the Hong Kong Youth Orchestra when we went there, all teenagery and loud and hearty, and a bit rough around the edges, whereas they were like adults in children's bodies, consummate professionals I never saw put a foot wrong.

Yet, we bonded. That was the beauty of it. We collaborated, two orchestras from nearly 6000 miles apart, playing a gorgeous composition full of Eastern melodies and sweeping emotion, their conductor wielding us like magic around his head. In the midst of that, it really didn't matter where we came from.

Mad Maestro was brilliant but it's not quite what I'm getting at.Watch on YouTube

And that's what really comes through for me now: the memory of the music, of being inside it. We'd learn hour-long symphonies inside out and barely blink or breathe until they were done. We'd learn the stories of the music and coax out the little flourishes from them, my favourite being the moment in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique when you can hear a head being chopped off and rolling along the floor. Brutal. It blew my mind to discover music could contain cool things like that, and be much more than a stuffy wadge of notes written by people wearing wigs.

It took me a long time to realise what a conductor was for, too. Before I joined an orchestra, I thought they were ridiculous, the kind of thing you lampooned, some crazy-haired person flapping like a bird that couldn't fly. But now I've been a part of it, I understand. They are the storytellers. It's their interpretation the orchestra tells. They spend weeks shaping it in rehearsals and then they extract it live on stage.

Conducting is an art a million miles away from what Wii Music once suggested, or Mad Maestro, brilliant as it was, games that suggested you could just swing your arms around so long as it was roughly in time to a beat. Nuh-uh. Every upswing matters, every downswing, every flick to the left and to the right. They are movements that tell you where you are in a bar, which beat you're on, and when you're playing complicated music which speeds up and slows down, knowing that is essential. You can't afford to take your eyes off it for a second. We'd hang on every flick of the baton, and we would know how to read every gesture and body movement too.

I thought this was really good.Watch on YouTube

When our towering Zimbabwean conductor wrung his hand to the sky, as if pleading with the gods, we'd know to give the performance more vibrato, wobble the note up a bit, make it really sing. Were his eyebrows to suddenly fly up and his movements shrink to become tiny, we'd know our sound would need to tip-toe and follow suit. Were he swaying as if in a gale, making large, sweeping movements, so the music would have to. He'd reach out and grab the air as if grabbing a part of the orchestra, pressing the air down to suppress their sound or lifting it up to raise it.

He'd embody the music he wanted us to produce, furrowing his brow, closing his eyes and opening his mouth in a kind of make-it-achingly-beautiful expression, and we did all we could to obey him. Us, his machinery, he at the controls. And my favourite part of all: the suddenly twisted wrist and clenched fist signalling the end of the piece, as if he'd just squeezed all music out of the air. We'd pause, violin bows held off the string (not for the first time, shhh), all eyes on him, waiting for the moment he relaxed his arms and the applause could begin. Then we'd be on our feet to soak it up. Thank you! Thank you! I didn't play half of it.

That's what Wii Music and Mad Maestro never got at: the way a conductor really inspires the music. I'd love to see a game go for that. Plus, games and orchestras seem to be having a bit of a moment, don't they? There are increasingly more live orchestral performances from game series we love, or at least there were before this damned pandemic. What better time to celebrate a kind of music we would loathe to be without?

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