Games and music

I don’t play computer or video games, but my husband adores them. His enthusiasm prompted me to start reading the blog of one of his favourite writers and podcasters, the game designer Mark Rosewater. One fascinating post, “Ten Things Every Game Needs,” provoked me to find parallels with the way I choose repertoire, how I present it, and how I teach it.

I’m no philosopher, and I certainly don’t aspire to judge or compare the intrinsic value of musical compositions. Although I would greatly prefer to play, say, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 to Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz, I lack the musicological vocabulary to argue whether it’s “better.” (I find George Orwell’s essay “Good Bad Books” a useful analogy here.) But Rosewater’s list of features that make games successful resonated strongly with my feelings about choosing repertoire, or other music-related decisions.

In his first example, “A Goal or Goals,” Rosewater asks “What are your players trying to do?” Perhaps more important for musicians is his subsequent explanation “Your players have to want to do the thing the game drives them to do. The goal has to be attractive, meaning that the act of getting to the goal has to sound enjoyable.” It seems almost too obvious to state this in relation to music, but repertoire has to attract me to want to play it, otherwise I won’t. (Given the choice, that is. A gigging musician has to play all sorts of things for which she has no particular love.) Some compositions are more immediately attractive than others, of course: the Rachmaninov  sonata for cello and piano perhaps draws you in more instantly, but the Britten sonata is equally fulfilling to play, if not so immediately accessible to the first-time listener. I confess that the thought of playing Grieg’s over-long cello sonata makes me feel rather tired and bored, so I’ve never learned it.

In the second section, “Rules,” Rosewater discusses the need for goals not to be too easy. “Accomplishing your goal is fun because there’s a rush in completing a difficult task. Biologically, the body has to be able to motivate you to do things, so it tends to reward you chemically and emotionally (some would argue those are the same thing) for doing them.” Doesn’t this sound familiar? Who doesn’t love the rush of adrenaline you get from successfully executing some pyrotechnic feat in a Boccherini sonata or concerto? We don’t want music to be too easy; that could be why Vivaldi’s charming cello-continuo sonatas are usually treated as student works despite the fame of the composer. But Rosewater is quick to point out that games shouldn’t be too hard, either, otherwise “the player never gets to win.” I know this feeling isn’t universal, but I’ll admit that I don’t care to play the Poulenc cello-piano sonata, because its rewards don’t, in my view, make up for the awkward, un-idiomatic writing of its cello part. I don’t get to win when I play it.

One also needs to find a balance between too-easy and too-hard when teaching students. Some young players, when told they’re doing something incorrectly, take note of the problem without taking it excessively personally, and immediately start trying to figure out what they need to do to fix it. Those ones tend to be the strongest students, the ones who like a challenge, the ones who (to use Nike’s overused slogan) just do it. Then there are the ones with flagging self-confidence, or perhaps a less curiosity-driven work ethic, who simply switch off and stop learning when the challenge seems too great. I don’t want to give up on these students, who can often develop into good players, so I find it more pedagogically effective to set them many small goals every week, rather than a few large ones. It’s a fine balance.

Next Rosewater lists interactivity, that is, the opportunity to connect with others; a “catch-up feature” so you don’t lose the players who have fallen behind; inertia (in the physics sense of the term, I assume), meaning something that moves the game along to make sure it ends; an element of surprise; the possibility for strategizing, so players can get better at the game; fun, i.e. the desire to play the game all over again; the “flavor” of a design that lowers barriers to entry for new players; and lastly, a “hook,” an attention-grabber.

I hardly need to go through each one of these describing their relevance to what I do for my living, but the parallels are striking. Often the difference between a chamber composition that “works” and one that doesn’t is that even when a composition is extraordinarily difficult (Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana for string quartet immediately comes to mind, as I consider it the hardest piece I’ve ever mastered) there are certain signposts in other players’ lines that fit in with one’s own, and although it takes months to learn the piece, once you’ve figured out how the connections with other players work, you can play it relatively unproblematically. This, I think, is a sign of good interactivity in compositional technique. Other times, you’ll get a piece of new music that appears to have been written to bamboozle both players and audience, and you spend the whole time sweating with terror that you might have to commit the unthinkable and stop in the middle of a concert. There’s nothing to cling onto, no signpost you can use to get back to the place you should be in. (Can you tell that I have been required to play untold screeds of this sort of thing in my life?)

Of course, the other part of interactivity is the audience’s sense of participation in the drama of the concert. Like it or not, audience tastes are more conservative than musicians’, and they’re only going to give a new piece one chance. Many listeners will (unfairly, I think) switch off as soon as you tell them you’re going to play something modern, like the old lady I sat next to once at a concert of George Rochberg’s first quartet who groaned and winced all the way through, impervious to my icy glances. Sometimes you can win them over with–to use Rosewater’s term–a “hook” that draws them in. That’s why composers like Adès will be remembered long after they’re dead.

I first read Rosewater’s blog post a couple of days ago as I was finishing an article for Strings about the Janáček quartets, and I realized that one of the reasons they’re so famous and successful is that they draw listeners in right away and keep them involved. The musical language is unfamiliar to the average concert-goer and the formal plan is eccentrically nontraditional, but somehow this doesn’t matter, because right from the start we’re presented with a “problem” that becomes the signature motive in both quartets. This motive, and various permutations of it, runs all the way through the piece as a symbol of uncontrollable passions, or in a wider sense, the Tolstoyan death-struggle between men and women. (Janáček himself didn’t, I’m pretty sure, subscribe to Tolstoy’s morality; if anything I think he was a bit of a proto-feminist before such a term even existed.) Here’s the beginning of Quartet No. 1, “The Kreutzer Sonata.” Straightaway we know we’re in for a doom-laden tale of great woe as the first violin and viola move upwards with this great shriek of despair.

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The second quartet, “Intimate Letters,” has a bit of this going on too, though the signature motive is a bit brighter and more hopeful than that in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” probably because the program isn’t quite so grim. (“Kreutzer,” named for Tolstoy’s novella rather than Beethoven’s violin sonata, is a shocking psychodrama about the self-justifications of a paranoid wife-murderer, whereas “Intimate Letters” chronicles the composer’s own unrequited infatuation with a much younger woman.)

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When I give concerts, I typically talk to the audience before I play, because people are so verbal and they like to hear the story behind a piece of music. Plus, I think it humanizes the performer into a person they can relate to, rather than a distant figure in a highfalutin profession. Who doesn’t like a cracking good story like the ones behind the Janáček quartets? Who doesn’t love to listen out for things in the music, like the “train” motive in “Kreutzer” (Tolstoy’s novella takes place on a train as the now-acquitted murderer tells his life story to an anonymous stranger) and the “lullaby” theme in the third movement of “Intimate Letters”? I try to put myself into the position of the audience when picking repertoire, but if I’m to be scrupulously truthful, I think we performers can get an audience to listen attentively to any repertoire selection as long as we play and present it in an interesting, convincing way. So it’s intriguing to have an insight into the world of video games, which by necessity have to be much more commercial than what we do, to see what works and what doesn’t. We hear a lot of lip service about the notions of audience accessibility in classical music; perhaps we should pay more attention to what’s done in the world of games. The people who play them now may very well be the people populating concert halls in twenty or thirty years’ time.

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