A still from Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Picture: The Chinese Room
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Why classical purists should start taking video game music seriously

The best music stays with you long after you finish playing.

Ask anyone who works in classical music what the biggest challenge of their job is, and they will unfailingly reply: getting young people to listen to it. Studies from around the world routinely find that audiences skew towards those aged over 60, and sales of recordings and concert tickets are declining. The image of the repertoire as elitist and contemporary compositions as inaccessible lingers despite diversity and access initiatives. It’s no surprise that headlines regularly surface asking the depressing question “is classical music dead?”.

Yet millions of people are listening to hours of contemporary classical music every week, and they might not even know it. They do it while they play video games.

In the past two decades, as video game production has become yet more sophisticated, the games industry has increasingly looked to contemporary composers to write its soundtracks. Just as Hollywood film studio executives turned to established composers like Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich in the early twentieth century, today’s games designers are using the best composition talent to augment the experience of playing their titles. There is plenty of crossover between the film and games music worlds, too – Hans Zimmer, who wrote the music for Gladiator and Dunkirk, also works for games like Modern Warfare, for instance.

The best games music stays with you long after you finish playing. I still find myself humming the theme from Civilisation III at moments of distraction, even though I binned the game with a load of other defunct CD-ROMs about ten years ago. Whether it’s a strategy, world building game like that, or a first person shooter like Doom, music is integral to drawing the player into the atmosphere of a game. Take the huge hit from 1997, GoldenEye 007, which modified the original musical themes from the Bond film it was pegged to for its soundtrack. The music is complex, clever, and surprising – a lot like the game, which incidentally was much better than the 1995 Pierce Brosnan film it was based on.

As independent games studios have grown in prominence over the past few years, more and more experimental music has been commissioned for video games. For the 2008 game Dear Esther, a ghost story exploration game set in the Hebrides, composer Jessica Curry used an eerie blend of strings, voice and synths to help move the player through different narrated and quest elements. Curry is a co-founder of The Chinese Room, a Brighton-based game development studio, and also composed the music for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, a pastoral apocalyptic adventure game. Her themes are stunningly beautiful, often with melancholy vocal melodies, and add immeasurably to the player’s experience of searching a small English village for friends and relations. Her music is also unapologetically “classical” in its tone – she uses lots of traditional conventions and performance techniques to get her effects.

Live performances of video game music have a long history, too. The Japanese conductor Koichi Sugiyama pioneered the format with his Orchestral Game Music Concerts in Tokyo in the mid-1990s, which featured, among other things, the music he composed for the Dragon Quest series. Inspired by Sugiyama, in the early 2000s the German conductor Thomas Böcker created the award-winning Games Concerts series. He has since worked on similar programmes around the world, including with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Increasingly, video game music has been recognised as a major cultural product. The BAFTA Games Awards were first held in 2004, and include a category for original music. Classic FM now routinely plays video game music as part of its general playlist, and several games pieces – such as Nobuo Uematsu’s theme for Final Fantasy, Jeremy Soule’s work for The Elder Scrolls and Grant Kirkhope’s pieces for Banjo Kazooie – have appeared in its annual “Hall of Fame” listener poll.

In order to reflect the status and popularity of video game music, in April this year the station launched the first programme on British radio dedicated to it, titled High Score. Hosted by Jessica Curry, it explores particular themes within games music (such as romantic scenes and adventurous quests) and plays listener requests. The first series became the most downloaded in Classic FM’s history, so unsurprisingly Curry returned on 4 November with another run of six episodes.

In the US, the interview-focused podcast Level does something similar, with host Emily Reese interviewing games music composers about their work and inspiration. The range of subjects it (and Reese’s previous show, Top Score) encompasses is huge: from the music for Candy Crush to the baroque influences of the soundtrack for Assassins Creed.

Classical music purists might turn their noses up at video game music (I can’t imagine BBC Radio 3 being broadminded enough to start playing it any time soon) but they do so at their peril. Games music is as diverse, innovative and exciting as the composers who write it, and the games industry is providing the resources for plenty of talented young people to develop sustainable careers in composition. Above all, they have a vast global audience listening to their music. An art form that is so widely consumed deserves to be taken seriously.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia