By Ricky O’Bannon

Composer Chad Seiter understands the power of nostalgia.

Seiter began his career working as an assistant to film composer Michael Giacchino, providing orchestration on scores for films like J.J. Abrams ’ 2009 reboot of Star Trek, Speed Racer, Jurassic World and the TV show LOST.

While he continues to work in Los Angeles, adding to a long list of TV and film credits,he is alsothe music director behind The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses and now Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions—which the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform in July.

“When I was a kid I would always listen to these tracks and say ‘it would be so cool if it was like this,’” Seiter said. “A game might [feature a 45-second loop, and] I would say, ‘Oh, I wish they played those four bars again and amped up the orchestration a second time to embellish on the form.’"

The video game music Seiter grew up with was fairly primitive. While newer games might feature extensive scores for full orchestra, music written for 8- or 16-bit systems was technologically limited to a handful of sound channels and often looped itself within a minute to make up for scarce storage space. Early game composers focused their energy on memorable melodies, and for later composers like Seiter, that leaves a lot of room to work when translating those melodies into larger works.

Chad Seiter
Composer Chad Seiter

Orchestrations of video game music don’t aspire to be classical music. They have their own conventions and goals, but they do share a musical vocabulary. And in some ways the act of a composer drawing on simple, memorable video game melodies with limited harmony and expanding them to larger-scale orchestral works parallels what classical composers have always done with folk music.

Seiter’s video game arrangements might gather and transition between several themes into a larger work much in the same way Ralph Vaughan Williams — a composer whose Dona Nobis Pacem inspired him to pursue writing music — did in his English Folk Song Suite. In one arrangement of video game music, Seiter opted to layer two contrasting motifs from the Metroid franchise on top of one other in a fashion comparable to the way Gustav Holst layered the folk songs “Dargason” and “Greensleeves” in his Second Suite for Military Band.

Seiter said he is always thinking about how to better translate and expand video game music for an orchestra while remaining faithful to the original melodies. While the Legend of Zelda show relies more on medley and suite form, he said in Pokémon he thought about each theme as a series of vignettes.

“Nostalgia, I think, is what predominantly drives our shows. We hold a lot of reverence for the art form of video games,” Seiter said. “[But] Everyone deserves to be challenged. I grew up listening to orchestras and going to concerts. I think it's an experience everyone should have. I didn't just want to give them simple arrangements. I wanted to give them these complex, interesting orchestrations, and give everyone in the orchestra a chance to shine, too.”

A popular video game theme, like a popular folk song, is subject to endless covers and tributes. A quick look around YouTube for oneof the most popular themes Seiter used in his Zelda show called “Gerudo Valley” offers a capellaharp, violin and marimba covers as well as everything from power metal to dubstep rap versions. While not legally in the public domain, gamers who spent dozens if not hundreds of hours listening to these tunes growing up often treat it as an open folk tradition.

When Seiter approached the theme, he tried to stay true to the source material but expanded the scale, scope and harmony of the piece to work for orchestra.

Many in his audience might not be very familiar with a symphonic orchestra, but Seiter said knowing the musical themes makes classical forms approachable and understandable.

“It's comfortable to them because they recognize the source material, and [they] are able to comfortably intellectualize the content,” he said. “Going into a new or weird place is difficult, but if it's grounded in your home world, it becomes easier.”