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Top Score: An Interview with Emily Reese

Game music has developed a cult following over the years that has grown to include many subsets. Emily Reese stepped up and started an MPR program called "Top Score" all about game music, bringing this following more to the masses.

I remember the first time I recorded game music onto a mini tape recorder in the mid 1980s, following the example of my friend Jason Emery (who know works at Popcap). I had no idea so many would be interested in not just game soundtracks but all manner of soundtracks, from 8 bit to modern orchestral grandeur. Game music has developed a cult following over the years that has grown to include many subsets. Classical Minnesota Public Radio on air host Emily Reese stepped up and started an MPR program called "Top Score" all about game music, bringing this following more to the masses. This is her "mini" story.

AB: What about your background guided your interest in music? Was it radio? Live performance?

ER: I’ve always been into music. I started piano when I was five and trumpet when I was 10, but performing was never really enough. I like talking about music more than I like playing it, honestly. I didn’t get into radio until I was in grad school in Lincoln, Neb. in 2005. I got the job because I knew a thing or two about classical music, and I could read copy without sounding too horrible. Getting to the point where I sounded and felt comfortable on the radio took years, and it’s still something I work on daily.

AB: Do you have a favorite piece of video game music or a favorite score overall? Is there a score that you feel follows the game's events and player choices the most?

ER: Oh man. A favorite piece or a favorite score. That is SO hard, because there are so many different choices. It’s not like you’re asking, ‘what’s your favorite Baroque harpsichord suite’. I have favorite 8-bit era scores (Metroid), favorite chip tune scores (Fez), and favorite orchestral scores. I can tell you the scores I consistently return to, like all of Jesper Kyd’s music, particularly AC Brotherhood and Darksiders II. I’ve never played Guild Ward 2, but Jeremy Soule’s music is absolutely exquisite in that game. And, of course, Skyrim. Jason Graves’s Dead Space 2 is one of the best scores ever written in a game. I listen a lot to Papo & Yo, and lately, I can’t stop listening to Ibb & Obb and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. If we talk about individual tracks, I never get enough of “Glacier Gully” by Lorne Balfe. I have to stop now, because I’ve not even mentioned Uncharted or Halo ODST or Journey or Mass Effect or Bastion. I vote that this question is too unfair. hahahaha.

AB: The journey from a program notes writer to the host and producer of a national radio program must be interesting. How did it happen?

ER: Oh that was a lonnnnnnng journey. All I can say is that for me, opportunities opened up when I went to grad school. So did my financial ruin. I studied music theory in grad school, and at the time, Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra needed someone to write program notes. I always liked writing, especially about classical music, and one of my professors recommended me for the job. So for several years, I wrote program notes for the LSO and various ensembles that performed at the Lied Center (the performing arts venue in Lincoln). It was hard, and I’d do it completely different if I did it again today. But it forced me to think about the audience, and how the audience receives the information you disseminate. An audience always has such a wide range of knowledge, and I learned a lot about finding a balance between aficionados and novices. But that job coincided with my first job in radio, and we talk about these things in radio all the time. Finding a balance for the audience, so that the folks who know a lot about classical music don’t get bored, and the listeners that are new don’t get overwhelmed.

AB: Give us a brief description of Top Score and what makes it different from other programs on MPR.

ER: Top Score is the only program in public radio devoted to video game music. Pretty sure it’s the only program in the world that broadcasts on radio about VGM, although I could be wrong because I spend about 45 minutes a year listening to commercial radio. I like to think TS is special because I want to make connections between new music and what’s come before it. Why does Jeremy Soule’s music sound like it sounds? Who inspired him? Who inspires Garry Schyman or Jason Graves or Nobuo Uematsu or Ari Pulkkinen? And it’s important to highlight the amazing music these composers write. From a practical and business-like standpoint, the demographic public radio AND classical music want is playing a video game right now. And many of those players enjoy the music. So let’s talk about it, and give attention to it.

AB: For years many in symphonic circles game music has been considered to be "little more than bleeps and bloops". Was the process in getting Top Score going as easy as making the suggestion to the directors?

ER: All of us who are passionate about video games know that there are several million people in the world who just don’t get it. Those people didn’t grow up playing games, their kids didn’t play games, or whatever. In a lot of ways, those outside the industry will always see gaming as a hobby, and they’re not entirely wrong. So it has been a struggle to get support within the company for a game music podcast/show. I’m not sure how else to put it, since I do every single thing for the show. The only thing I don’t do is upload it into its final “resting place” before it airs nationally. But I do the research, find the composers, listen to the music, write the questions, edit the show, volume graph it, bounce it, make backup CDs for the broadcast and write the article. I didn’t know how to work Pro Tools when I got here in 2005, and now I’m like Speedy Gonzales with it, thanks in large part to the awesome engineers in the building who showed me all their tricks. But you look around, and you’re like, oh, that show has its own producer, or its own engineer, or its own fill-in-the-blank, and Top Score is just me. It can be so unbelievably overwhelming, but it’s also my biggest and proudest accomplishment. Sorry for the long answer, but if I think of your question more in a meta sense of VGM recognition, it’s a way bigger uphill battle to convince orchestras to play this music in the concert hall. Video Games Live isn’t going to convince symphony members to tell their music directors they want to play VGM, because VGM is as much about the spectacle as it is the music. Symphonies want to play music. Not with guitars and lights.

AB: What has the response been to Top Score?

ER: The response has been overwhelmingly positive for Top Score. I get the usual complaints about not featuring enough Japanese composers. I just haven’t nagged the right people enough to track down contact info. It’s so much easier for Western composers, who are accustomed (apparently) to putting their whole life on the Internet. One big name composer even had his personal email on his website (it’s since removed), and that’s how I got a hold of him. Not so with Japanese composers. But yes, it’s been a nice, positive response.

AB: As video game music has probably undergone more evolution in a shorter period of time than other genres, what are your thoughts on the explosion of varied styles in the independent game industry?

ER: Explosion in indie gaming is wonderful. For all the reasons you’d expect: variety and experimentation and no shareholders to please and such. It’s why it makes it so hard to pick a “best score of the year” – there are so many different genres and considerations to make – for Top Score, I did some shows on the best scores from 2013, but I also blog at Sumthing Else Music Works, where I talked about all the “untraditional” scores I loved, like Ibb & Obb and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and others. It’s incredibly hard to narrow down the field because of all the variety and creativity taking place. It’s magnificent.

AB: How do you see game music evolving?

ER: Game music will continue to evolve, and I think implementation will improve as well. There are still games coming out that have horrible musical transitions between battle and exploration. There are still games that come out with sections of score playing over other music (like pub or tavern music playing over the score). Developers and audio directors have a long way to go before music in games is as seamless as it is in film or other media, because there are so many parts involved. Over time, I know that will improve. And there have been innovative scores from day one, whether we’re talking about Mario or Halo or the way Remember Me was composed and scored – even the way Graves did Dead Space the first.

Listen to Top Score online!

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