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Video Game Music Finds a Home on Classical California

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White woman smiles in an arcade in front of game consoles
Jennifer Miller Hammel is the host and producer of the KUSC Morning Show and The Opera Show — and now helms Arcade, a streaming channel devoted to video game and classical music. (Sarah Golonka)

Jennifer Miller Hammel’s musical tastes draw from classical maestros like Mozart to more recent ones, like Mario, the eponymous plumber of Nintendo’s flagship Super Mario franchise.

“I just thought about the games that have stuck with me since I was four or five years old that have affected me personally, since my earliest days playing Pac-Man on the Atari. So within an hour, I had put together 12 hours of music,” she says.

Hammel, an opera expert who studied piano in college, curated the massive playlist to show proof of concept for a new streaming channel focused on video game music for Classical California, a classical music radio network that includes KDFC in San Francisco and KUSC in Los Angeles. Hammel is the host and producer of the KUSC Morning Show and The Opera Show.

Hammel says she got the green light after her producers suggested that she add classical music to her video game-focused concept.

“There’s been so much classical music used in video games,” she says. Integrating those pieces into the program was a no-brainer, allowing her, as Hammel says, to show “how these incredibly important cornerstones of classical music have then served to heighten the experience for a gamer.”

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The effort eventually led to Arcade, a free, 24-hour streaming channel, which launched around a month ago. Listeners tune in to Hammel hosting and curating a medley of video game music from the 1980s to the present — including marquee series like Final Fantasy and Fallout alongside lesser known indie darlings — interspersed with classical music featured in games.

Magenta, navy and purple logo for Arcade, with graphic of sound bar and a neon-effect rainbow
Arcade streams 24/7 on Classical California, boasting ‘music that takes you from Mozart’s Vienna to The Mushroom Kingdom.’ (Courtesy Classical California)

The creation of this kind of program is a natural result of how entertainment and popular culture have evolved in recent years: Known IP reigns supreme, driving some of the biggest film and television releases in recent years — just look at the commercial and critical success of Barbie.

There’s also a long track record of adapting video games into film and television. Earlier this year, HBO premiered the first season of The Last of Us, which originated as a video game series created by Naughty Dog, about survival in a near-future post-apocalyptic Earth. Last year, Uncharted, another video game franchise by the same producers, became a film starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg.

We expect visual media to perform in this way. But classical music? There’s a lot of historical and classist baggage connected to the genre, some of it hundreds of years in the making. The difference now is that film and video game music has evolved beyond 8-bit soundtracks — and gotten the attention of the concert halls. So says Steve Horowitz, who’s composed for video games and teaches a class on game scoring at San Francisco State University.

“What’s happening with game music is just an extension of what happened with film music coming into the concert hall,” he says.

Events calendars for major concert halls, including the SF Symphony, Carnegie Hall and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles now feature live performances by groups like Video Games Live.

“For years and years, the symphonies, and especially the established large groups, have been looking for ways to tap into younger audiences, to bring more diverse audiences into their concerts,” Horowitz says.

Hammel points to what she describes as a watershed moment from just this summer, when the Hollywood Bowl celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Game Awards. After over a 15-year hiatus, video game music returned to the storied venue, led by composer Lorne Balfe. The concert included a moving performance by Gustavo Santaolalla, the acclaimed Argentine musician and composer who wrote the music for both the video game and television versions of The Last of Us.

 

“It’s been really validating to see how this music is affecting people in the concert halls just as much as it’s affecting them when they’re sitting at home and they’re playing in front of their console,” Hammel says. She hopes Arcade reaches a variety of audiences: fans of classical music; fans of video games; and those who are new to both worlds. She said the response has been positive so far.

“We have a major donor at KDFC in San Francisco who’s in her 70s. She has just fallen in love with Arcade,” Hammel says. “She listens to it nonstop and she’s never picked up a video game in her life.”

Anthony Guarino, who runs the retro video game store Gameshop Downstairs in downtown San José, says he hasn’t heard of Arcade but he’s interested in checking out. At his store, he often puts on background music from older Donkey Kong and Bomberman titles.

Guarino, who describes himself a fan of Playstation One and other early console games from the ’90s and early 2000s, says he’d want to hear songs that capture that era.

“There’s just sort of an inherent quality in it,” he explains. “I think we’ve gotten to a point where we can sort of look at them as not old or obsolete technology but just sort of like a different flavor.”

Hammel said she has gotten music requests like these since Arcade launched. She has plenty of pieces that will make their way into future iterations of the streaming channel on a quarterly basis.

“I didn’t want to just pull music down from a certain generation of gamer,” she says. “This is all, in general, a test of getting people outside of their comfort zones.”

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