Video-game music orchestra take global concert audiences by storm

February 10, 2013

By HIROKI MANABE/ The Asahi Shimbun New York bureau chief

An orchestra of classical players, singers and rock musicians is thrilling audiences with an unusual repertoire: the music from popular videogames.

The Video Game Orchestra is the work of director and composer Shota Nakama, a 31-year-old one-time school dropout from Okinawa who found his forte recreating the soundtrack of games such as Castlevania and Street Fighter II.

"For my generation, there's nothing more nostalgic than videogame music," Nakama said.

Video consoles are probably on a par with anime in Japan's global cultural reach, often referred to as its soft power. And the orchestra is helping to show just how far-reaching that influence is.

"Music has no borders. Neither do videogames," said orchestra violinist Sho Omagari, 25. "It was inevitable that the two would come together."

In the several dozen hours it can take to complete--or lose--a videogame, a player hears the theme music over and over again.

"Not even your favorite songs could withstand that repetition," Nakama said. "It becomes ingrained deep within you."

The same effect is felt when people from the pre-digital era hear the soundtrack of a certain film, or a nursery rhyme triggers memories of childhood.

When members of the digital generation hear the music of a videogame, it makes them recall how it felt to reach the game's climactic stage. And when performed by a full concert orchestra, the emotional response is amplified.

YouTube videos of the Video Game Orchestra in concert have drawn plaudits from viewers around the world.

"A perfect rendition of a wonderful tune. Bravo!" commented one YouTube user.

Another confessed: "When I heard the first guitar chord, I turned into a blubbering wreck."

Tears were not far away at an actual concert at the venerable Symphony Hall in Boston, where some of the audience stood in rapture as the orchestra launched into the theme from Final Fantasy VII, a game series that has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.

One young woman held a handkerchief to her nose.

The strings section burst into melody, the chorus joined in, and the audience was rapt. Spectators seemed relatively young, but it was almost a full house.

Is it too much to say that videogame music is the universal language of the digital generation?

The tunes played in that concert were all from Japanese games, which made a considerable contrast with the tweedy surroundings, a hall built 110 years ago and representing American high culture.

The audience responded with yelps and standing ovations.

It was indeed an impressive performance. But an older person, or indeed anyone who doesn't play videogames, might be tempted to ask: What's the big deal?


Nakama was born in the city of Naha. He learned piano from the age of 8, but hardly an exceptional child. His parents divorced while he was in his teens. Okinawa has the highest divorce rate in Japan.

At school, Nakama proved an able student, but in junior high school he began to skip class. In the second semester of his third year, he attended school on one day only. It was not due to bullying or reclusiveness; he simply could not understand why he should attend.

"I didn't want to do something I saw no point in doing," he said. "Talking with adults was a lot more fun."

When Nakama declared he would not go on to high school, his mother and other relatives pressed him to reconsider. He yielded partially to his mother's entreaties, taking the entrance exam and passing, but remained steadfast in his refusal to enroll.

From then on, Nakama became increasingly obsessed with music.

Okinawa has produced many bands whose members drew influence from an early age from the U.S. military forces stationed there. One such trailblazing act is hard-rock band Murasaki, whose gigs Nakama frequently attended.

Using the ear for music he had developed through learning the piano and playing a guitar given by his uncle, he began to perform cover versions of foreign tunes. His dream grew: he wanted to learn music in the United States, the home of rock 'n' roll.

Other people had little time for Nakama and his ambitions.

"You're a waste of space," they would say.

Or: "Your dad's a doctor. So why did you only graduate from junior high?"

He would hear these comments everywhere, even at the place where he held a part-time job. The more people sneered, the more he burned to make them eat their words.

In his 18th year, Nakama took and passed the high school equivalence exam that he needed to study overseas and enrolled in the music department of a junior college in Seattle.

Nakama could not speak English yet, but he felt a new freedom living in the United States. He was only a junior high school graduate and a foreigner, but there were opportunities for the taking. He was impressed by that meritocratic mindset.

One morning, he looked up at the clear blue sky while walking to the bus stop from his homestay residence. Nakama vividly remembers how he felt at that moment, as if he had wings on his back.

"I felt that I was free at last, from the bottom of my heart. It wasn't a case of one country being better than the other, it was just that the air in Japan didn't suit me."

"He's the type of guy who sticks to his guns no matter what others say, and does what he wants to do," said orchestra member Noriko Terada, 30.


In 2006, at the age of 24, Nakama enrolled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, a school that attracts talent from around the world and is the alma mater of Japanese jazz musician Sadao Watanabe.

It was a good environment to nurture a young musician's talent, and Nakama found his days there fulfilling. However, he became dissatisfied with simply completing the assignments he was given.

Around this time, a friend encouraged Nakama to listen to videogame soundtracks. He found the music revelatory and came up with the idea of using an orchestra and rock band to recreate the sounds he had immersed himself in as a gaming teenager.

Boston is a city steeped in history and music, and many people there believe that nothing besides the classics can be considered music. To these people, Nakama's idea was a stupid one.

He tried to talk his classically trained friends into joining him and would stand outside music colleges petitioning anyone he saw carrying an instrument. Invariably the response was a snort of derision. Day after day, he tried to win people over.

Several months later, in May 2008, Nakama held his first concert at a tiny church. Then he held another and with each performance the audiences grew. In spring the following year he filled Berklee's 1,200-seat hall to capacity. The concert even drew coverage on local television--and ticket scalpers.

In late 2012, Nakama took his orchestra overseas, and concerts in Guangzhou and Shanghai were resounding successes.

Many of the ensemble's regular members eagerly ask to play again. The excitement they feel from the audiences at concerts and the feeling of oneness is somehow different compared with classical music.

At present, the Video Game Orchestra comprises young musicians from more than 20 countries.

In spring 2012, Nakama was invited to visit his junior high school in Naha. He spoke to the entire student faculty.

"I was once a truant with flat-lining grades, but now I'm doing what I want to do," he said. "That means all of you can do the same."

* * *

Shota Nakama

Born in 1982 in Okinawa Prefecture. Music producer, composer and arranger, and guitarist. Stopped attending school while in junior high in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, choosing not to advance to high school but instead to concentrate on playing in rock bands. Passed the high school equivalence exam and enrolled at a junior college in Seattle. Entered the Film Scoring Department of Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2006. After graduation, he completed a master of music degree in guitar performance at the Boston Conservatory. Formed the Video Game Orchestra in 2008, a "rockestra" of more than 100 vocalists and classical and rock musicians. Has held successful concerts across the United States and in China. He directs the orchestra and plays lead guitar.

By HIROKI MANABE/ The Asahi Shimbun New York bureau chief
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Nothing is too much for Nakama, a work ethic that resulted in his creating an audacious orchestra (Photo: Mari Sakamoto)

Nothing is too much for Nakama, a work ethic that resulted in his creating an audacious orchestra (Photo: Mari Sakamoto)

  • Nothing is too much for Nakama, a work ethic that resulted in his creating an audacious orchestra (Photo: Mari Sakamoto)

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