I stumbled across a track that I thought could serve a dual purpose as both VGM and in a general musical capacity, such as an audio recording on an album to which people would actually listen. Check it out, formulate your own answer, and then read the whole post to reveal the truth.
What say you? Is this track a trick or a treat? (sorry… had to put Halloween in here somehow; also, the tune, whether it’s a trick or not, is a treat… so… anyway just keep reading!)
Scroll to the very bottom to get the answer and come back up for the analysis.
Before I write about the track, the reader should know that the whole reason I even decided to start this kind of column was to try and analyze why this tune struck me as being particularly video game-y. Hopefully these kinds of analyses will aid me when I think about composing specifically for video games or composing to create a certain type of composition when writing VGM. The reason I say the latter is because I’m not looking to fit my compositions and my style into a mold, but, rather, to expand the mold that has already been created to fit my personal style. In any case, one can say that a number of things can be said as to why this song sounds like VGM.
First of all, both the melody and the arpeggio groove are played, at one time or another, by instrument pairings in which the coupled instrument makes the acoustic instrument sound electric. The case of the acoustic guitar is obvious: it is doubled by a smooth-toned Fender Rhodes. The less obvious case lies in the pairing of the acoustic piano with vibes at 1:54 because the vibraphone is an acoustic instrument. Though that may be, the ringing, round tone of the vibes makes it sound electric—almost like an electric piano. But, one may say that it’s not just the tone that completes the acoustic-to-electric switch in the mind; rather, it is a combination of the tone and the arrangement that really brings out the electric sound of the pairing.
The arrangement is such that the piano almost morphs into an electric instrument with the entrance of the vibes. Early on the listener hears the Rhodes, which, one may say, is the most powerful electric voice, but the piece retains a bit of an acoustic sensibility because of the unaffected piano. Deciding to keep that acoustic tone in the beginning and adding the vibes later forces a transformation, and thus more powerfully drives the sound of the tune deeper into an electric space. It is in this space that the idea of the recording being VGM thrives. The history of VGM itself lies in first using electronic tones to emulate acoustic instruments and then later, as technology advanced, using either live instrumental recordings or acoustic instrument samples within games; therefore, the electric sound is very ingrained in the VGM genre.
Aside from their combined tones sounding electric, the lines played by the mentioned instruments are very singable—a staple, one could say, of memorable VGM tracks. The main melody is simple and spacious, as many folk tunes tend to be, and the harmonic support is a melodic arpeggiated groove. They each are part of the roots of the tune, and both are easily picked up by the ear and the voice.
These parts are repeated often in the simple form of the song. Unlike many jazz recordings that are full of long blocks of improvised sections and/or constructed using complex forms, the tune never strays too far from its roots, a quality inherent in a lot of VGM. The arrangement develops the roots by adding small, short-spoken elements, like the percussion, and by providing very catchable variations of the original melody and harmony line to bolster what is spoken in the beginning instead of straying from it. Thus, the listener will hear the main melody interjected throughout the recording in between Keezer’s piano improvisations (such as at 3:19), and will also hear variations of the harmony lines that return to the part heard in 0:39-0:40.
The vibe of the improvisations are key to the piece’s charade, as well. Keezer’s piano phrases are placed within the tune strictly as elements that meld with the atmosphere and mood that Keezer and the other instruments create in the beginning and continue to create throughout the recording’s entirety. They are kept simple and employ a lot of space; therefore, they are not intrusive and can serve as subjugated bits to a larger idea. Even the sharp piano crash and glissando at 2:48, as unexpected the idea may be, fits, as does the entrance of many sounds that come, it seems, as a result of the glissando. One may think of those features as an aural element of chaos, fitting in because of a particular situation a character may be in.
Those sounds, and others that more or less briefly come in and out throughout the arrangement as developmental elements, add to the idea that the recording could be VGM because of how they are written (or improvised). As a result of what sounds like their randomness, the song seems more overdubbed than it does arranged for a live recording. There are appearances from clicks (unsure of what to call them—reference 1:13) and chimes; there are strong appearances from a marimba, a bass clarinet, a woman’s vocals, and ka ‘eke ‘eke (tuned bamboo pipes). These parts serve to fatten both the improvisations and the tune as a whole. That they are so plentiful and seem to be fit in places so masterfully leads one to think that they are part of a VGM piece.
Lastly, the reverb on the tune as a whole creates a hazy sort of atmosphere that is perfect for a video game. Additionally, one can say that the reverb itself can be fitted in a categorization with the previously mentioned instruments since it has its own dynamics. It lays off and presses down at varying points, the latter action acting as an instrument that comes in on cue. For example, the combination of the altissimo in the bass clarinet and the very delayed reverb at 4:15 creates something that seems almost entirely separate from what one would deem a bass clarinet. In fact, it functions similarly to that idea of combining sounds to make an acoustic instrument sound electric.
Find solace in these words if you guessed that the song was actually VGM. From the electric tones of the instruments and the production to the way that the instrumentation and played lines fall about in the form, this arrangement of “Wahine Hololio” may as well be put in a game. As a composer and a jazz instrumentalist, I think that it’s rather fascinating that tracks like this exist—everything is so well contrived and so well improvised that it could very well double as a static track in a game. The main elements that exude VGM qualities that I will certainly take away from this track are:
- The tone of the instrument pairings;
- The idea that a repeated melody with simple and spacious improvised phrases works well as a form;
- The way that the tune develops using percussion or instruments acting as if they were an instrument in the percussion due to their lifespan;
- And the use of reverb as an instrument unto itself.
I’m definitely looking forward to finding more tracks that can convincingly double as both VGM and another genre, so if you, readers, have any songs that you think could work, please let me know! -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Answer: Trick (not VGM)
So you might have guessed the answer pretty easily since this topic came out of nowhere, but in the future I plan to make this much more difficult (provided that there are VGM tracks that strike me as being able to serve in the reverse capacity).
The track is entitled “The Horsewoman (Wahine Hololio)” and is performed on jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer’s 2003 release, Falling Up. The tune derives from a Hawaiian folk song of the same name. Taken from the liner notes of the album:
Adapted from two chants honoring Hawaii’s Queen Emma, this song describes her love of horseback riding. Keola [Beamer, guitarist] performs a unique version passed down by his great-grandmother, Helen Desha Beamer. A soundtrack for an imaginary film."
“Unique” is a great way to describe it, as none of the versions that I listened to on YouTube even came close to the Keezer/Beamer arrangement (and with good reason—it’s a jazz artists’ arrangement of a folk song, after all).
Now, scroll all the way back up to the top and learn why you might have been tricked!