We chatted to composer, arranger and orchestrator David Peacock about his lifelong love of video game music, how one goes about rearranging classic tracks (when the original composer is looking over your shoulder) and the collaborative nature of the VGM community.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Video game music is thriving in many ways, and not just in terms of the quality and quantity of music being produced for in-game soundtracks. There are multiple, overlapping communities of fans celebrating different genres and aspects of music related to games — and amidst it all is a growing cadre of amateur, semi- and professional arrangers and performers creating brand new recordings that see classic VGM themes reimagined.
(It’s worth reminding those who aren’t aware that ‘video game music’ is often abbreviated to ‘VGM’.)
Laced With Wax (figuratively) sat down with one such arranger, David Peacock, to chat about about what drew him to this niche within a niche, how he gets going with arrangements from a standing start and what it’s like to work on arrangement albums whilst in dialogue with the original composers.
Boston-based Peacock has been performing with, and arranging for orchestras and ensembles throughout his early years and into his studies at Berklee College of Music. In one capacity or another, he’s collaborated with a number of notable VGM people and groups, including Austin Wintory, Tina Guo and Video Games Live.
His love of game music and VGM arrangements started before he was formally began working in and around musical scores in 2006: “I remember discovering various VGM arrangements during the early days of P2P file-sharing (c. 2000 — o.g. Napster or Limewire, anyone?) I had no idea where these pieces came from because of the lack of metadata; they could have been created by fans, or as part of ‘legitimate’ productions like [Japanese concert series] Orchestral Game Music Concerts or Final Fantasy: Pray.
“An ‘AH-HA!’ moment came when I stumbled upon the three orchestral Reunion arrangements of Nobuo Uematsu’s music for Final Fantasy VII on a friend’s computer back in high school. I felt like these arrangements stood by themselves in terms of production quality and orchestration — they became the high watermark which I wanted to hit with my own arrangements, so I learned as much as I could about why they appealed to me so much.”
“Main Theme” from Final Fantasy VII: Reunion Tracks; composed by Nobuo Uematsu and orchestrated by Shirō Hamaguchi:
The arranger of those additional Reunion Tracks tracks, composer and orchestrator Shirō Hamaguchi (possibly best known for his work on anime series One Piece and Ah! My Goddess) has continued to be a source of inspiration for Peacock. Within the realm of video games music, Hamaguchi’s standout works include the orchestration of Final Fantasy VIII title them “Liberi Fatali” and the Piano Collections albums for Final Fantasy’s VII, VIII and IX.
But Peacock’s most consistent source of inspiration has been the prodigious Japanese composer Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Xenogears), who has always striven to inject his game scores with a wide variety of music styles from different cultures. “Even his arrangement albums are generally off the beaten path in terms of genre and instrumentation — he tends to go for more band-centric releases rather than traditional full orchestral or piano-based. The dream is to one day work with Mitsuda on such a release!” (Peacock’s pick for our “Allure of the obscure: Game music buffs pick their favourite deep cuts” round-up was the lesser known, though no less magnificent Mitsuda score for Tsugunai: Atonement.)
By a stroke of serendipity, celebrated musician and composer Richard Vreeland, AKA Disasterpeace, spotted a short online snippet of Peacock’s piano rendition of “Forgotten” from the indie game hit, FEZ. After some mutual admiration was exchanged, the two subsequently collaborated on an album of piano arrangements of various Disasterpeace tracks, performed by Augustine Mayuga Gonzales, and released as Disasters for Piano in late 2017.
Cover artwork by Nicolas Ménard:
“We went back and forth over the arrangements to make sure they were a great blend of our styles. In terms of crafting a whole collection, I basically just kept sending arrangements of tunes that I enjoyed and stopped when we had a full album of music!” The arrangement for “Nature” is one of his favourites: “It came very quickly and required little adjustment before it was recorded.
How he approaches single track arrangements or larger projects like Disasters for Piano varies depending on how well he knows the source game and music. “More and more lately, I’ve faced the fun but terrifying experience of having to learn about the game and music only after I’ve agreed to the project. In those cases, whenever possible, I’ll play the game start-to-finish or at least watch a playthrough on YouTube to get a feel for the story and where the music fits in.
“I’ll then get a pencil and paper and write out a sketch of the relevant piece or pieces, play them on the piano for a while and see what sort of ideas come out; before gauging how different pieces might fit together well.
“In each case, I usually try to find some specific detail or task to focus on, for example, with the arrangement of “Puzzle” from FEZ [titled “Solving a Puzzle” on TESSERACT: An Acoustic FEZ Album] I reworked different elements of the original composition in order to elicit a sense of discovery and unlocking a puzzle — complete with the ‘puzzle solve’ sound effect orchestrated into the climax at 2:57.”
Inspiration can strike at anytime. Stuck on a tricky Hyper Light Drifter boss one day, Peacock left the game idling with the soundtrack cue “The Last General” playing; and, in order to take a break from “being terrible” at the game, he sat at the piano to play along. Fast forward a short while and the arrangement and been finalised and recorded professionally:
“Luckily my analytical mind hasn’t ruined any game scores or hearing the music in an in-game context, but when a piece comes on that I really enjoy, my brain does start to run wild with possibilities.”
What’s the score?
As an orchestrator, Peacock is in the rarified position among VGM fans and fellow arranger-performers of being able to create sheet music, and also show off how his scores match up with the recorded tracks. An arrangement of his that he’s especially fond of is his small ensemble reworking of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s “Antipyretic” created for the ZODIAC: Final Fantasy Tactics Remixed album (which he recently had the opportunity to conduct a live performance of it at MAGFest 2018). As a first, he decided to create a video showing a condensed version of the score that moves along with the music:
For this track in particular, he wanted to “explore the orchestral instruments as textures and sound effects, portraying both lighter and darker atmospheres and calling back to specific orchestrations in the original soundtrack cue.”
Hitoshi Sakimoto’s original work for 1997’s Final Fantasy Tactics:
Different ensemble sizes (e.g. solo piano, string quartet or full blown orchestra) don’t tend to alter Peacock’s process much, but challenges have arisen when he has to translate synthesised elements of an original soundtrack cue into parts playable by live instrumentalists.
On his blog, Peacock has broken down a few of his arrangements: "Another Medium/CORE" from FALLEN: An Undertale Tribute; and “Ori + Naru" from Ori and the Blind Forest for the string quartet.
He has also found a sideline in re-orchestrating works, in some cases reducing full orchestral scores for unique smaller ensembles. Projects in this vein include French classical concert Retrogaming - De Tetris à Super Mario performed in Summer 2017 by Philharmonie de Paris and Yellow Socks Orchestra; as well as a couple of live performances of Austin Wintory’s music from Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.
Living in a Materia world
Founded in 2015 by entrepreneur Sebastian Wolff, Materia Collective is essentially a digital record label for video game music, where the arrangements and recording artists are drawn from the wider VGM community; among other things, it puts out compilations of arrangements based on games like Cuphead, Sonic Mania and various Final Fantasy’s. Peacock’s arrangements have appeared on multiple releases, including Johto Legends (Music from "Pokémon Gold and Silver"), Hero of Time (Music from "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time") and SPIRA: Music from Final Fantasy X - Besaid Mix.
The sheet music is also available, serving another sub-section of video game music fandom — musicians wanting to perform VGM arrangements at home on the piano and other instruments. He comments: “When Sebastian came to me with the suggestion, I jumped at the chance as I’d always loved the Final Fantasy Piano Collections albums.”
UNDERTALE’s original soundtrack, composed by the game’s principal developer Toby Fox, includes a lot of tracks that harken back to 8-, 16- and 32-bit JRPGs where the in-game music tended to be highly melodic and in very much in the foreground.
UNDERTALE tracks is this style, like “Fallen Down”, helped Peacock generate arrangement ideas more freely: “You can mold a dramatic narrative around these looping pieces in a way that might be more difficult to figure out with music that is already highly emotionally adaptive to the on-screen drama. But occasionally, you have to create an ending for a piece that doesn’t really have one, which can create pressure to get it right.”
David Peacock’s arrangement of “Fallen Down” performed by Augustine Mayuga Gonzales:
Having gone from posting his fan arrangements online to working closely with noted game composers like Disasterpeace, Peacock finds that it remains the case that the complexity of the original piece of music itself is what makes an arrangement easier or harder to pull off, rather than facing the pressure of presenting drafts to the original creator. “Of course, I do feel more conscious about my decisions knowing that they will be providing feedback, and that feedback has been very helpful. Communicating with them has undoubtedly made my work better, and I’m really grateful that other musicians trust me with their work!”
Setting the scene
If you were looking at it from the outside, you might assume that the video games music ‘scene’ would be a small niche. But the global, overlapping fandoms of different gaming genres, game series, composers and musical genres mean that it comprises a mass of niches: from the fans dedicated to authentic-sounding chiptune and tracker music; to those who live for the latest contemporary classical score from the likes of Jessica Curry or Austin Wintory.
Feeling like a relative newcomer to the VGM scene despite his successes so far, Peacock points out that some people have been actively releasing alternative arrangements since the early ‘00s: “In January 2018, I went to [annual US-based video games & music festival] MAGFest for only the second time — there are folks who have been going for over 10 years.”
He’s keen to continue to build his profile on several fronts: creating arrangements that he would have loved as a younger fan; working with other composers in an orchestration/arranger capacity; and composing his own music. “I’m trying to develop my skills and work with others in a way that allows me to support myself and pay that forward when I can. The VGM community is very supportive on both the consumer and creator sides, and my ambition is to compose more original music for games — I’m available for work!”
In that same community spirit, he often highlights the work of people he admires, for instance the violinist and regular collaborator Patti Rudisill. “Her virtuosic take on "Rey’s Theme" from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is great”:
“Recently, I stumbled on Kyle Athayde Dance Party and have been jamming out to Kyle’s killer arrangement of the Final Fantasy VII “Victory Theme”:
Peacock is also proud of a collaboration he did with Braxton Burks, who was the lead arranger on the recent Johto Legends: Music from Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver. “His hard work and his love of Pokémon are evident in his output.”
Peacock’s next project to be released via Materia Collective is the recently announced UNDERTALE Piano Collections 2, which will see him collaborate once again with pianist Augustine Mayuga Gonzales. Peacock comments: “With this second album, the goal is to explore a different set of themes to the first, as well as present some opposing versions of familiar motifs. As a result, the general feeling of this selection resonates more with a ‘genocide run’ of the game.” The sheet music will also be available soon.
David Peacock (left) and Augustine Mayuga Gonzales (right) in the recording sessions for UNDERTALE Piano Collections 2:
His latest album is Disasters for Piano, a collection of arrangements of Disasterpeace’s scores to FEZ, It Follows, and other works.