In the dimly-lit recesses of a massive congregational hall, they wait. Heads bowed; anticipation murmured in the vernacular of reverent breaths, interrupted by the occasional hiccup of a sucked-in sob or whimper. The air remains heavy from the joyous noise that’s filled the recesses of the hall for the last forty-five minutes, fixated neatly by the devotional monologues and grand gestures being acted out atop a singular plinth… and those assembled wait. And wait. Seconds settle with the sedimentary weight of shifting sand. The ghost of the moment grows, and swells; a feeling given supernatural strength, thanks to the raw devotion of the assembly.
Then–as the yellowed lights brighten to gold–something apparates atop the stage, on a massive screen. It’s subtle, at first; the image’s edges sharpening and broadening, the revelation of its colors and lines eliciting a drunken reverie of stricken hoots and ebullient hollers.
And it goes a little something like this.
This was the sound and the fury of the recent Benaroya Hall edition of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda-themed supersonic travelling sideshow, entitled Symphony of the Goddesses. Equal parts orchestral high art and Chautauqua-tent pageantry, the tour has been roaming the countryside for the better part of the last year, playing such high-octane cultural epicenters as Los Angeles (The Greek Theater), Toronto (Sony Centre) and Austin (The Long Center for the Performing Arts). In as much, the tour represents the latest leg of gaming’s ongoing mad-dash sprint into creative respectability: no longer content to simmer within the shoebox constraints of simply being considered “pop recreation,” the medium is now a full-fledged institution, fueled hotly by a fine-malt blend of nostalgic devotion and ongoing reinterpretation of its roots.
This is, of course, the highly-jargonized perspective. As academia is so often content to demonstrate, no form of pop entertainment may be taken seriously—in critical currency, anyways—until a few thousand gaseous words of deconstructive praise have been dumped on its feet. The long-running rationale’ suggests that anything accepted as being worth an academic discussion has to be bleached and pressed through an appropriate filtering process, which is exactly how we wind up with college courses on the social interdynamics of The Jersey Shore. Of and by itself, the process is nothing more than a reconciliation of the “higher-thinking processes” and the shit which such self-fancying bastards are supposed to consider themselves better than… but it does have a certain kind of utility in qualifying the popularity and purpose of something like a symphonic revue based on a musical genre whose original intentions were to create insanely catchy loops (which would ostensibly help to encourage their consumer base to contentedly sit in front of their televisions for nine-hour burn sessions, controllers gripped tensely between their little, white-knuckled digits).
tickets to ride (dirty)
Even at its best, however, such open-slab dissection is incapable of really providing any kind of compelling insights into that burning question of why. Why does a well-heeled crowd of hundreds–one dressed in anything from pajama bottoms to prom-wear and paying well over $150 a pop for quality seats—consider this kind of fare to be the hottest ticket in town? A skin-deep survey of the logic comes up with the usual snap-back answers: it’s audio porn for the nerd set, something for the local technuts to do until the advent of Emerald Con and so-forth. It caters to a splinter of a splinter of a social sub-division, and is something that “normal” people wouldn’t even be aware of, let alone pay their hard-earned nickels towards. The very premise can be blown off with a dismissive wave and a sneering aside about nipophliac twenty-somethings, but it doesn’t jive with the actual reality of the situation*.
not pictured: what you’d probably expect.
Benaroya’s Goddess symphony wasn’t some insider-job, pandering to a cliché sub-strata of gaming geeks and other deviations from the social norm. It was a fully-inclusive celebration of something larger than 8-bit credibility or an excuse to get the kids the hell out of the living room and into a setting which entertained vaguely highfalutin notions of opera culture; those attending were twelve, twenty-seven, fifty-nine and even older, and—once the first overture of gingerly-milked strings began—were all similarly entranced by the proceedings.
One nation, stitched together by braided threads of the then, the was, the here, the now, and all parts in-between. Ovations were frequent and genuine; reactions ranged from breathless to euphoric. When conductor Eimear Noone (Whose geek-caliber cred was off the charts from the moment she appeared onstage, thanks to the fact that she was emceeing the evening’s affairs while appearing to be about nine and 3/4ths months pregnant) would pause her ministrations to generously fill in some of the gaps surrounding the development of the tour, her tone was steeped in gracious respect and a tangible sense of love for the source material, rather than some sixth-rate pandering to a Monday-night matinee crowd. As cliché’ as it sounds, the right people were clearly behind the works, and that feeling of careful craft and diligence lifted what could have just been a side-show edition of the Seattle Symphony’s 2012 season to a whole new level.
editor’s note: this link was purely pimp-class. he sat neatly in his seat, sizing up every zelda who walked past, silently taking notes like a patient noiseless spider until the right one came along… then he was a flurry of verdant motion. two clicks and a cough later, and he’d spurred her out of her seat, setting up a sweet-ass photo op right in the dead center of the row. #rizpeckt
At no point was this more apparent than at the tail-end of the evening. Having wended our way through epic soundscapes from The Skyward Sword, Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past—and a few additional sumptuous selections from each, such as the harp-woven “Fairy Fountain” theme from Twilight Princess—the proceedings had begun to take on a cyclical quality. This was largely due to the manner in which each performance was presented, with a Cliff’s Notes version of each game playing on the massive overhead screen in time to the orchestra; by the fifth time the audience found itself cheering Link’s courageous dispatching of Ganondorf (With a particularly raucous applause reserved for the ol’ “sword-straight-through-the-skull” crescendo in The Wind Waker), it felt almost like the audience was sitting in on a marathon speed-run. One of the binding principles of the Zelda series has been the familiarity of locations and the slow build towards these operatic confrontations—run up Mount Doom, dance with the Gorons, guess who Princess Z is masquerading as in the first fifteen seconds of a new character’s appearance, and rinse/repeat—but when it’s all laid out in an end-to-end fashion, the luster starts to rub thin. By the time the encore came about, several patrons in our section were mumbling about a Nintendo medley (Hell, we’re in the Big N’s backyard up here), with a definite lean on hoping for a change in the overall menu.
What we got was almost as good: an audiosymphonic tribute to this:
For the uninitiated**, Majora’s Mask has long-since been considered something of a B-side entry in the Zelda canon. More a remix of the eminently more popular Ocarina of Time, the game’s gone down in history with an asterisk*** proudly slap-dashed on its figurative ass, thanks in large part to its inherent weirdness. As a sort of homage/distillation of the ol’ Bill Murray chestnut Groundhog Day, players guide Link through a series of three days—the same three days, specifically—in pursuit of his stolen horse while coincidentally you know, saving the hell out of the Shelbyville version of Hyrule (a flipside kingdom by the name of Termina). It’s a deeper, darker, and markedly weirder game than its predecessors, which made its inclusion in the performance a definite oddity.
However, it was also a perfectly-played note on which to end the evening. The lead-in was delicate; the story of Link and his trusty steed, Epona, listing lazily through the Haunted Woods and being separated by the interruption of the mysterious Skull Kid, with the music steadily building to the moment where the Hero of Time finds himself unceremoniously dumped in a strange new country… followed by a brief lull. When the visual fog cleared, the orchestra shifted gears into the addictively simple “Clock Town theme,” as the screen brightened with scenes of the doomed village: its citizens running around, laughing at Link’s clothes and the notion of their entire world being snuffed out by the unstoppable descent of the hideous moon overhead.
As the music built steadily upon itself, the screen changed again. A simple placard…
… met by a revitalized cheer, from the audience. And as the music quickened into a new gear—and came around upon itself again—the placard made another appearance.
The crowd’s response was a bit less enthused, this time. The symphony played on, the plucky strings and upbeat tempo now underscored by ominous brass and the occasional discordant shearing of the violins; in a sense, the game’s method of building tension and bracing the player for the inevitable death of thousands, but—in a much more abstract and amusedly reflective sense—a reminder that the night was coming to a close.
As a purely forensic aside, there was something more to this moment. When you’re a kid, the Termina townspeople’s obnoxiously skeptical attitude towards their impending demise seems like camp theater, and a simple commentary on the nature of people’s belief in the potentially disastrous. As a grown-ass adult, however, that same dynamic feels a lot different. It strikes you dead-thump in the breadbasket, taking on the shape and color of some abstracted allegory: that we’re all pretty much making our way through that Second Day at this point in our lives, and that the music’s no longer playing to the tune of possibility. Things are moving quicker than we can make sense of, and that slow undercurrent of something mortal and essential seems to rudely interrupt the tempos that we were once so happy to take for granted****.
But as the sights and sounds of Majora’s plot played themselves out, that depression in the audience’s overall texture subsided, and the cheers came on again. Stronger, now; when Link delivered the finishing touches on the game’s monstrous antagonist, a raw wave of supportive sound erupted from the front of the auditorium, and rode itself swiftly to the box seats and back rows. The applause continued into Conductor Noone’s final statements and the bows taken by the orchestra itself; lingering and lapsing until the last person had sat themselves down before the house lights went up, officially putting the thumbscrews on any expectations of a third or fourth encore.
No hearty hosannas or decisive “AMENS” were heard, but the moment still had that quiet grace that comes with being forcibly put back into the shoes of reality. The crowd filtered out of the lobby and into the cold stillness of the night outside; back to the impending early-morning commutes, the familiar routines, and the right-now, as solid and flat as the concrete beneath our feet. Some still hummed that familiar dirge of the old 8-bit Overworld theme from behind pursed lips as we all parted ways, ducking into cars and wandering off into the streets of the Seattle evening.
*to be fair, at least a good tenth of the assembled audience were definitely a) mouth-breathers and b) tuned into an entirely different wavelength of appreciation than the rest of the crowd. But even then, the numbers don’t crunch.
**who I’d also alternately praise and give a funny-ass look to, considering the overall nature of this blog and the bilious length of this post… ONE LOVE.
***which are totally cool.
****or, you know, it’s just a goddamned video game about a giant moon with a face on it and a kid trying to get his horse back. This is what happens when 30X-year-olds go sifting through the ashes of their personal experiences with video games in search of deeper meanings. It does NOT help when said grown-ass people have English degrees and jobs in teaching media. Sigh.