Feature Excerpt
Videri String Quartet

Videogame Chamber Music

This is an excerpt of a cover story from Unwinnable Monthly #136. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

Sephiroth standing in front of ShinRa building amid flames.

In the album Bits and Bytes, the Videri String Quartet performs the first movement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8. As the quartet finished the movement, they led into another piece. This second piece featured enrapturing interplay between the musicians and powerful phrasing. Intense technical runs were contrasted with beautiful periods of calm harmony. The piece they played was not a traditional string quartet, but was instead a phenomenal arrangement of Final Fantasy VII’s “One Winged Angel.” The rest of the album consists of the same blend of traditional string quartets and video game chamber music. 

For the Videri String Quartet, this blend of classical and videogame repertoire is normal. Whether it is a Haydn quartet or a Legend of Zelda arrangement, the Boston-based quartet works intensely to create fantastic performances of chamber music. The quartet has recorded multiple albums and has worked on many official game soundtracks including those for Arigami, The Magic Circle, and Neocolonialism.

A major difference between a chamber music arrangement and the original game music is that the arrangement becomes a performance piece. No longer tied to the rest of the game, the music must stand on its own as a worthwhile listening experience. While some pieces are more direct transcriptions of the original music, many involve the arranger creating new and interesting interpretations of the material. An arranger may rework accompanying lines to create a sense of direction. Motives and sections from various parts of the music are brought together as the arrangement starts becoming its own piece.

“It’s important that the time spent with the music is not about hitting play and hearing the same piece on repeat, but developing a flow and a story,” said David Peacock, an arranger who has worked for the Videri String Quartet and other ensembles.

To create a fantastic performance piece, an arranger must create an arrangement that complements the ensemble. For larger orchestral works, this means turning these powerful pieces into more intimate chamber music. Each arrangement distills the core elements of the original work and turns them into translations that suit each instrument. Arrangers must take musical pieces from other instruments and combine them to create the instrumental voices.

Videri String Quartet sitting among recording equipment,

“In a lot of soundtracks, even some of the stuff that we cover, it’s not meant to be played only by string quartet. It’s meant to have multiple instruments. It’s meant to be layered. It’s meant to be multitracked. The challenge and interesting [thing] about a lot of our arrangements is that they are parsed down to the core but still really interesting and engaging. We try our best to fulfill the sound world that the composer was looking for, but in some cases we just have to accept the fact that we can’t and try to make it large with just four voices. It’s still possible and interesting to hear in such an intimate setting as a string quartet,” said Jeremiah Barcus, the cellist for Videri.

While chamber ensembles have a smaller range of instruments, the greater focus that comes with arranging for said instruments can create opportunities for unique music. From taking advantage of an instrument’s complete range to using techniques that wildly change an instrument’s tone, arrangers can create pieces that sound different from a traditional string quartet…

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William Dowell is a freelance writer and cellist who splits his time between Wisconsin and North Carolina. He is also the host of the 10 Minute Gaming Podcast . You can find his work on his Contently page and can find him on Twitter @shmoo505.

You’ve been reading an excerpt from Unwinnable Monthly Issue 136.

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