Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Early Musical Influences on My Gaming

Gaming and music have always gone hand-in-hand for me. My father fostered a love for classical music, something I combined later with my interest in genre films to cultivate an appreciation of orchestral movie soundtracks. Classical music fueled my imagination at a formative time in my life when I was exploring numerous geeky interests like science fiction, fantasy, films, novels, and, ultimately, roleplaying games.

It’s so long ago I can’t remember if I was in junior high or high school, but I have fond, nostalgic memories of reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Savage Pellucidar -- perhaps my first taste of fantasy science fiction -- while absorbing Holst’s The Planets suite over stereo headphones. My record collection consisted of several classical albums I’d borrowed from my father based on my interests in mythology and history, plus a slew of kid’s records I didn’t listen to anymore. Most were what many consider “romantic-era” music of the 19th Century, and their sweeping symphonic strains helped transport me from my brooding teenage concerns to a distant place where my imagination could indulge itself. A number of composers and albums still remind me of that carefree time when one could indulge in daydreaming, reading, and listening to music just for the sake of it:

Holst: My album of Holst’s The Planets was well-played. Each piece transformed the mythological aspects of the planet into a symphonic painting to fuel the imagination, the melodic themes covering the vast range of planetary temperaments. Mars, the Bringer of War, rose from the brooding tones of imminent combat to the fanfare of war marching relentlessly forward. Jupiter’s theme reminded me of the soaring spires of some bustling medieval fantasy city.

Tchaikovsky: One of the prolific masters of the romantic classical era, Tchaikovsky’s works indulged in the emotional drama of his subjects, from the concert piece Romeo and Juliet to ballet fare like the Nutcracker Suite and Sleeping Beauty. One of my albums included his moving 1812 Overture (heard every year at Fourth of July fireworks displays), written to commemorate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. On my album it was paired with Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, a lesser-known but equally explosive showpiece commemorating yet another battle of the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Vitoria in Spain in 1813. Both fired the martial parts of my imagination with their cannonades and rich, patriotic melodies. (Despite this affinity for these two pieces inspired by the Napoleonic Wars, I’ve never had a burning desire to immerse myself in their history beyond a few wargames and Osprey books.)

Rimsky-Korsakov: Another Russian composer from a similar school of composition, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote many pieces inspired by cultural legends. The album I borrowed from my father, Scheherazade, contained four movements based on different tales from the One Thousand and One Nights, something to which I’d been exposed through the wondrous Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films. The liner notes gave only the briefest outlines of the stories upon which Rimsky-Korsakov based his music, but they sent me in a new direction exploring other legends of different cultural origins. As I immersed myself in Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons, the swelling theme of Sinbad’s ship on the ocean inspired a furious spate of setting creation as I set out to detail encounters on the numerous islands across the Sea of Dread from the vast world map in adventure module X1 The Isle of Dread.

Wagner: Perhaps I found the greatest inspiration from Highlights from Das Rheingold and Die Walk├╝re, an album of operatic pieces from the first two of Wagner’s four epic operas in Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle. The liner notes introduced me to the rich stories of Teutonic and the related Norse mythology -- which I further explored on my own -- and to the musical concept of the “leitmotif,” recurring themes representing characters, locations, emotions, and ideas. While the brooding themes appealed to my teenage angst, I was also inspired by the rousing Ride of the Valkyries, the cries of the Rhine Maidens, the clanging hammers as Loge and Wotan descend into the subterranean realm of Nibelheim, and the forging of the rainbow bridge and the fanfare of the Gods’ entry into Valhalla. My comprehension of the role leitmotifs played in the music led to my further appreciation of classical music and a growing interest in film soundtracks.

My appreciation for classical music and the use of leitmotifs only enhanced my interest in genre films. In an age when home VCRs were luxuries, I vicariously relived a movie’s action through the soundtracks I listened to on my stereo. With these influences it’s no surprise I found myself drawn to John Williams’ film scores, initially for the Star Wars trilogy but subsequently the Indiana Jones movies and other genre films he scored. His themes from The Towering Inferno, Jaws, Superman, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and the Harry Potter films and remain ingrained on the collective cultural consciousness for our generation.

Other film soundtracks also engaged my imagination, particularly anything from the medieval, fantasy, and science fiction genres. Among my CD collection today I have soundtracks by Jerry Goldsmith (Legend, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, The Ghost and the Darkness, Air Force One, The Mummy, The 13th Warrior), Alan Silvestri (Predator 2, The Abyss, Back to the Future), and Basil Poledouris (Conan the Barbarian, RoboCop, The Hunt for Red October, The Jungle Book, Starship Troopers), whose Conan soundtrack remains one of the most versatile accompaniments to fantasy roleplaying game sessions.

Although they were released at a time long after my formative years when my early imagination was blossoming, Howard Shore’s soundtracks for the Lord of the Rings films certainly helped transport me once again into the fantasy realm of Middle-earth, though I have yet to use them running a roleplaying game in that rich setting.

My appreciation for classical music and film soundtracks led me to include musical accompaniment as part of my roleplaying game experience over the years. With my immersion in West End Games’ venerable Star Wars Roleplaying Game I actively began creating individual soundtracks to enhance adventure encounters played out at the table. Way back in the dark ages I used to record individual game session “soundtracks” from records to tape; today’s technology allows computers and miniature audio devices to access “playlists” that more easily accomplish the same objective. Long ago I drafted a brief outline on using music in roleplaying games, and I’ve since used those basic guidelines in articles on using the Star Wars soundtracks during roleplaying game sessions, in “discography” suggestions for game supplements like Pulp Egypt, and convention seminars.

Not everyone has an affinity for or understanding of classical music and movie soundtracks; but music affects most people and can further enhance their gaming experiences much like film scores subconsciously cue our minds to the action on screen.