Nico Muhly: Gaming One's Way Into Classical Music

May 23, 2011
Originally published on May 25, 2011 2:14 pm

Continuing our series on classical music and kids, composer Nico Muhly argues that the experience that taught him most about the intersection between emotion, action and music was playing Nintendo. Did specific music hold you enthralled as a young gamer? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

I've always felt that early exposure to music is never purposeful and arrives in strange bursts. I think other people can articulate the joys and wonders of academic or community-based classical music programs — high-school programs run through conservatories, et cetera.

I want to offer a slightly more obscure but, I think, much more popular (in terms of numbers) counterexample. Although my parents had classical music on LP's in the house, the childhood music I remember the most vividly is fragments from either live performances or, strangely, video games at my friends' houses.

For me, living in the country, playing a video game was sort of like music minus one: The actions of my hands informed, in a strange way, the things I heard. Collect a coin, and a delighted glockenspiel sounds. Move from navigating a level above ground to one below ground, and the eager French chromaticism of the score changes to a spare, beat-driven minimal texture. Hit a star, and suddenly the score does a metric modulation. All of these things come to bear in a later musical education; I'm positive I understand how augmented chords change an emotional texture because of Nintendo music.

These are private musical revelations that happened in the manic, parched late-night of a sleepover, but then came to bear later in the context of actual chamber music. However, there is nothing better than Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide;" it banks on a kind of fussy specificity in the beginning sections, and then suddenly the entire genius of the piece comes crashing down in that final fugue. It's a maturing moment, like finally understanding why one's parents plan a dinner party in a certain way: the tedium of the scallion trimming suddenly rendered glorious by everything coming together in the same ecstatic moment. I think Britten, in combination with judicious and private video game playing, is the way forward.

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