Eímear Noone on conducting the RSNO’s video games music concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow

The composer and conductor tells David Kettle how live performances of video game scores are bringing brand new audiences to orchestral music

There were a few squeals of pearl-clutching outrage when the BBC Proms had the audacity to announce its inaugural video games music Prom back in 2022. Was this really what the world’s greatest classical music festival should be doing?

You could say something similar about the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which embarks on its second round of video games music concerts in a few weeks, following inaugural concerts last season. But then again, what exactly is there to be outraged about?

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“Frankly, some of the most creative composers working today are in film and video games,” says RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie. “And the music is great fun. It’s quite difficult to play, but that makes it interesting.” And, he feels, it forms a crucial part of the RSNO’s broad offerings. “The last time round, you could feel the buzz in the room when certain numbers came up. There’s an enormous amount of passion – people feel very connected with the music, and to hear it live from a big orchestra is really thrilling.”

Eímear Noone PIC: Steve HumphreysEímear Noone PIC: Steve Humphreys
Eímear Noone PIC: Steve Humphreys

Indeed, though there are certain similarities with film music, connections are far stronger with gaming scores since players are actively immersed and involved, rather than passive observers.

“They’re the main character, so this is their music, and they often live with the music for much longer, which imprints it a lot more,” explains Eímear Noone. She’s conductor of the RSNO’s two gaming concerts, and also one of the most respected names in the field: among her rich portfolio of games scores are Overwatch, Hearthstone, Diablo III and – towering above them all – World of Warcraft. Noone came from a thoroughly classical background, but has been able to apply that knowledge and craft to conjuring worlds of fantasy and imagination in her gaming scores.

“We played games a lot in our house when I was growing up,” she explains. “Well, it rains a lot in Ireland – as I think it does in Scotland! We were very much a Nintendo house. I used to love those games, and as a kid I always used to imagine writing music for them.”

Noone is aware, too, that these live performances form a lot of listeners’ first experiences of orchestral music. “Generally, there will be about half the audience who’ve never seen an orchestra live before. But it’s so important to me to see with my own eyes people fall in love with an orchestra for the first time. And it’s not lost on me the responsibility that brings.”

She’s keen to ensure, however, that concert first-timers feel welcome, and that everyone has a lot of fun. “When people compare video game music with Beethoven and Brahms, for example, I think it’s just a completely separate thing. To me, it’s pop art. But we still treat it with incredible seriousness, because the audience deserves the highest standard of performance.”

She also draws attention to the quite staggering reach of this music. “It’s listened to by literally hundreds of millions of people. World of Warcraft is now 20 years old. I remember looking at the stats at its tenth anniversary, and the game had had more than 100 million individual players. I’ve no idea how many more there would be a decade later."

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The bigger context for the RSNO’s two concerts is an increasingly busy schedule recording soundtracks for the games themselves: the orchestra has recently been in its own studio recording scores for Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, Star Wars Outlaws and Asgard’s Wrath 2. There’s another major title coming up that Mackie can’t yet talk about. “A film soundtrack might have 60 to 100 minutes of music. For this upcoming game, we’re talking about something like 42 hours of music.”

Video game music, then, is just another rich strand – albeit a recently added one – in the grand tapestry of orchestral music. And it’s one that offers magical evocations and passionate involvement to its devotees, as well as rewarding challenges to composers and performers. And it’s certainly here to stay.

Eímear Noone conducts the RSNO’s Video Games Music in Concert at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 31 May and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1 June