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From the console to the concert hall: Experience video game music and anime live in Kansas City

Sonic Symphony.
MGP Live
Sonic Symphony.

During the late 20th century, a new genre of music appeared: video game music. As the style gained sophistication and garnered millions of fans, live performances emerged, bringing together multi-generational audiences. Here's your guide to upcoming events in Kansas City where you can hear video game and anime music live.

This May, the latest iteration of the video game franchise “Legend of Zelda” was released. Many kids — and plenty of adults — devoted long summer days discovering “Tears of the Kingdom,” while listening to music inspired by themes Koji Kondo composed 37 years ago.

As anime and video game music become more popular, the lines between them and “classical” music are continually blurring. Classical music organizations are plugging in to the trend ever since the first orchestral video game music performance in Tokyo in 1987.

The Kansas City Symphony is among orchestras world-wide which have performed video game music. Additionally, production companies will organize tours and hire local musicians to give this music the orchestral treatment: Music from “Zelda” was performed in Kansas City in 2008 and 2016, productions of “Final Fantasy” scores were staged at Naka-Con in 2016 and the Folly Theater in 2020, and SEGA’s Sonic Symphony World Tour will come to Kansas City’s Music Hall in January 2024.

Whether you’re a longtime gamer or a newbie, learn more about the ways you can enjoy video game and anime music not just at the console, but in the concert hall and beyond.

Game Time

There are hundreds of live performances inspired by interactive media each year, from string quartets to DJ remixes to full orchestras. And, with increasing sophistication of technology, video game music itself has evolved from the blips and bloops available in early sound chips to nuanced scores involving orchestras, voices, and an endless assortment of instruments.

Music from composers from across the centuries, such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, have even been used in video game scores. (Some even find themselves as part of the story, like Frédéric Chopin, who is featured in “Eternal Sonata” and “Resurrection of Music.”)

“I grew up playing a lot of video games on older consoles like the Nintendo and the Super Nintendo,” said Justin Sextro, a doctoral candidate in musicology at the University of Kansas.

“I think, for me, video game music has just always been kind of just stuck in my head…it can be very interesting and complicated music and it's really influenced a lot of how I think about music in general,” he noted. Sextro earned his master’s degree at the UMKC Conservatory and did his thesis on video game music. “The interactivity makes video game music something quite unique to study.”

As the style has increased in sophistication, it’s also earning more recognition as its own and pure form. 2023 was the first year video game music was its own category at the Grammy Awards, with composer Stephanie Economou earning the inaugural award for Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media.

In Concert

For many, attending a performance of video game music is an experience in nostalgia, a way to connect across generations — and, for some, an introduction to the power of live orchestral music.

Like the game itself, music from the “Legend of Zelda” franchise continues to captivate audiences.

“Zelda has been going since 1986, so you have decades of history of the music that you can draw on for these things,” said Sextro. Along with playing the games, he attended an orchestral performance of “Zelda” selections in Kansas City in 2016.

“It's just very cool to see in a concert — that progression. It’s like, oh, there's this cool theme that was started in the very first game, and it continues to change and show up in these other games in different combinations.”

A 2018 performance of “The Legend of Zelda (Medly)” by Koji Kondo, performed by “L’Orchestre de Jeux.”

On September 7, the Fountain City String Quartet wil perform “The Best of Zelda” for Fever’s Candlelight Concerts series at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception.

Video game music has influenced classical music, not just through arrangements, but in wholly new pieces. Tan Dun wrote the trombone concerto “Three Muses in Video Game,” inspired by aspects of game play and the sounds and melodies of three ancient Chinese instruments. The Concertgebouw Orchestra premiered it in 2021, with Jörgen van Rijen as the soloist.

“The gap between film music and video game music is becoming smaller and smaller,” said van Rijen. “When he wrote this piece for me, he thought: what would video game music sound like now?”

“On one hand it’s exciting and groovy and game-like music with lots of spectacular percussion…and in between there are lovely, almost sweet, Chinese-sounding melodies that are wonderful to play.”

Trombonist Jörgen van Rijen discusses Tan Dun’s “Three Muses for Video Game,” which premiered in 2021.

Anime Action

Many of the genre’s most beloved video games originated in Japan, which produced another popular art form: anime.

Anime and video games are inextricably linked, with many video games taking cues from anime series’ visual style, character tropes, and penchant for fast-paced action. It makes sense that while anime follow a more film-like plot structure, the music is stylistically similar, generating a following of fans also interested in gaming, comics, and crossover arts. (In fact, the Planet Comicon spin-off Planet Anime Kansas City makes its debut this October.)

Opus 76 string quartet will perform “The Best of Anime” on August 31 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, for Fever’s Candlelight Concerts, which will include music from favorites like “Naruto,” “Fullmetal Alchemist,” “Sailor Moon,” “Dragon Ball,” and a medley from “Studio Ghibli.”

The films of Japan’s Studio Ghibli are a genre all to themselves and, now through November, the Studio Ghibli Fest is airing in area theaters, starting with “Princess Mononoke” August 5-9. If you happen to be in the St. Louis area August 10, you can also catch Opus 76 performing “The Best of Joe Hisaishi,” celebrating the composer of many Studio Ghibli films.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.