– The first edition was a one-time thing, not sure to be continued. But after managing to organise the follow-up, you have a true, cyclical festival – Gareth Coker told me after the end of last year’s Game Music Festival 2019.

Before I heard these words, I’d never been thinking these things like that. We were only realising our childhood dreams and that’s it. We were approaching the festival with some amount of caution, just doing what we love. No pressure. After hearing these words I thought: „Damn, the guy’s right”. We began building consistency and our brand. GMF is getting recognized in the world. Over a half of participants (and we had over ten thousands of them) come from abroad – from Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australia. I loved hearing this amazing feedback, but at the same time you feel the weight of responsibility for the audience and their expectations. This feeling was soon to become useful, though.

The dreams

No, we did not start in a garage like the tradition of the founding mythology commands. It was close, though. We’ve been maturing into the festival slowly and for a long time. Like good wine. The entire „game music” project, which also consists of the magazine, began here in Poland fifteen years ago. At the beginning, it was a website led by aspiring pen-pushers. But what a beginning it was! We loved video games, noticing more in them than just mere entertainment. We knew it is a medium for art that consists of  both the visuals and the audio. The latter enchanted us. How can you not be in awe when a soundtrack captures your emotions during gameplay, plucking all the right strings in your soul?

Legendary composer for Grim Fandango flew from California to Wroclaw for the first edition of GMF and we could perform his amazing work in all its glory.

Peter McConnell & Mateusz Pawlak

So we wrote about it like amateurs. We talked to composers and sound designers, we learned the nuances of production, improved our knowledge, let our passion flourish. With time, even though we weren’t noticing it, we began to get more professional, but it may be too big of a word – we weren’t past the stage of hobby just yet.

I remember when we wrote down our principles just for fun in 2006, our commandments of sorts, which could tell us how we work, what’s our goal and what we wanted to achieve in the future. Among them were ones we thought of as mere fantasies, like our own radio station, printed magazine, record label for vinyl soundtracks or…concerts organised during a „game music” branded festival. Today, with huge content and satisfaction, I can say that we were pretty effective in realising our dreams, especially for a band of geeks.

The storm

– I am telling you, the stock market will crash, no doubt about it. We can’t keep acting like nothing is happening – a friend told me at a party on Saturday, 22nd of February 2020.

With each month, China, the second biggest economy in the world, was practically getting halted by a strange virus from Wuhan. The world didn’t panic though, and the stock worth was soaring in New York. Next day, Italy informs of the increasing numbers of sick citizens. It was started. The market took a dive on Monday and the borders were being closed just a week later.

The Composer As Empath

Coronavirus pandemic have dealt huge damage to cultural events. Many precious and important initiatives fell victim to it. The decision to finish up the preparations for the third edition of GMF was made in April – at the peak of the pandemic. I admit it wasn’t easy. We were already far into the production – complicated events such as this are prepared for at least a year. We were driving away the thoughts of giving up and letting the third edition go. Words of appreciation I mentioned above were ringing in my head. It would be so disheartening not to continue. Maybe the pandemic will be gone in Fall? Maybe they will lift the lockdown? We risked and went for it.

Picture: Joanna Gałuszka

Changes had to be made, like preparing a hybrid festival with professional broadcast online. Of course, we were thinking about it earlier because it would help us reach more fans of wonderful game music from all over the world. The pandemic simply forced us to implement it earlier.

The power

I was bawling my eyes out. September 2015. Cinema hall in Cracow. Our first serious video game music concert. We arranged Paul Romero’s Heroes of Might & Magic for a string quintet, a guitar, soprano and tenor. I cried. Not only because the music was moving, not only because the strings were wallowing beautifully and the vocals were putting shivers on our backs. There is a thing about video games, and it’s time. Time we spend with a game. That time elevated my emotions to a previously unknown level. Original harmonic approach or proper instrumental colours. Interesting arrangement, good mixing. I guess you can define good music in numerous ways. It’s good to listen to good music. Especially live.

And what if the music is a score? We know this from cinema – here the music is a counterpoint for the image, a complementing layer of sound that adds depth to the characters and their experiences. The composer stylizes it to match the story’s time and space. A film is two, maybe three hours. We watch it once, maybe twice. Maybe an avid listener will long for the score after seeing the film. A weak composition, even if it can serve its purpose when synchronized with the scenes, will be quickly forgotten or deemed unworthy of their time by a music lover.

Monographic approach allows us to fully focus on a coherent musical theme without jump-cutting around pieces from different games.

But sometimes the power of image and emotions related to it are so overwhelming that even a weak score can work wonders. All it takes are these few hours. And video games? A player spends far more time with music. It can be tens, hundreds of hours. Whether they wish to or not, they will most likely remember it. Every note is inscribed in our memory. It’s a huge and powerful advantage of games over movies, especially in the context of music.

Picture: Joanna Gałuszka

Some maths, maybe? Let’s take good, very good music. That which defends itself against every criticism because it’s just so good, created by a master of their craft. Let’s multiply it by the image – let it be music that has a function, let it illustrate. Let each beat remind you of specific emotions from a film. Wait, no! Let’s throw it into a game. Let the scoring chisel sculpt the mind of a listener in remembrance and limitlessly, note after note, hour after hour. Fifty, one hundred hours….Now, let’s square it by having a live performance. Acoustically. Now you know why I couldn’t hold back my tears.

The trust

– I think it’s the best day of my life. Wife and kids in the audience, on the scene: a jazz big band, brilliant artists I could play with, and my music performed so, so well. I never thought that something so amazing would happen in my life – said moved Peter McConnell. Legendary composer for Grim Fandango flew from California to Wroclaw for the first edition of GMF and we could perform his amazing work in all its glory.

– You were free to arrange my music as you wanted, I left my child under your care. But you did it well. Very well! I don’t regret trusting you – Peter added. I think that trust is the keyword here. We’ve been building our relationship with music composers for years. We know they are attached to their scores. The fact that they allow us to „play around” with their work shows the amount of trust they put in us.

What is elegance, and why are video game composers obsessed with it?

Because each Game Music Festival concert is a carefully planned piece of music dedicated to a game or a series of them. But they aren’t out of context, they all share a similar musical element. Monographic approach allows us to fully focus on a coherent musical theme without jump-cutting around pieces from different games, often unrelated. Instead, we offer an opportunity to calmly and deliberately accustom yourself with the repertoire of a given composer, in the form arranged specifically to meet the requirements of the Festival. We act in the spirit of „slow listening”.

The source material is obviously the original soundtrack but we always adjust it to the realities of a philharmonic concert. What does it look like in practice? Our orchestrators sit down and compose from the ground up. They are inspired by original work, but they have a lot of freedom. Some may say it’s overcomplicated, but it’s hypnotizing. We provide slow listening to fully enjoy music and sound. Selection of the place that houses the festival is never accidental. The acoustics of National Forum of Music guarantee an experience of the highest quality. We take advantage of every one of its many attributes.

The family

Simultaneously with artistic events of the festival, meetings and discussion panels are held with the participation of audio industry professionals, along with workshop classes and lectures given by composers invited to GMF as special guests. This year we will also host a competition for aspiring composers.

Picture: Joanna Gałuszka

This year’s programme will please the most demanding of connoisseurs. We’ve focused our recent efforts on enchanting music of Darren Korb. His pieces and songs simply blow all the promoted charting songs out of the water and we say that without a hint of exaggeration. Add to this trilling, sometimes folk-like compositions of Borislav Slavov. I am proud that we’ve managed to earn their trust.

And an afterthought. If we’ve already „ticked all the boxes” from our list of dreams and projects written years ago, what happens now? I wish for us to keep evolving artistically while at the same time maintaining the start-up, amateur-like spirit of our festival. After all, the intimate and family atmosphere of GMF is an advantage. We still are a group of friends and dreamers from years ago. And may it never change.

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Mateusz Pawlak

Head of Game Music Foundation and London's Game Music Festival.