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Listen to Your Games 

The Spokane Symphony helps bring some of the best videogame soundtracks to life

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The banging, beeping and shooting sound effects are important, but without a videogame's background music, it's a lot harder to tell if your character is in imminent danger or has successfully completed a mission.

"Videogame music is kind of like the icing on the cake," says Daniel Cotter, clarinetist for the Spokane Symphony and sometimes Halo 3 player. "Music always has the ability to set the mood."

This weekend, the traveling Video Games Live show utilizes the Spokane Symphony's talents with a full-immersion spectacle at the Fox. Along with the orchestra playing some of the most well-known videogame scores (Zelda, Mario, Warcraft, Halo, Pokémon, Sonic, Skyrim and more), the show includes some unusual instruments and highly synchronized light displays, videos and onstage action.

Due to a symphony union strike, a 2012 performance of Video Games Live here was canceled. Back and ready to go, Cotter says the symphony is excited to play the music for the first time, especially for an audience that might not otherwise attend a symphony concert.

Videogames may not be the most obvious place to find cutting-edge symphonic music, but Cotter admits to turning on his game console just to hear the Halo theme music play on the menu screen. He says the soundtrack really is that good.

"Something like Halo would get people interested in classical music," Cotter says. "Its music is in the same vein as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. There's that level of darkness and misery that people don't always associate with classical, but it's very much there."

For a man who has multiple jobs (including an adjunct teaching gig at Eastern Washington University), an 80-plus-hour workweek and a wife and twins at home, Cotter says he doesn't find much time to play videogames the way he once did. He recalls getting his first Atari 2600 for Christmas as a kid, but it was clarinet and not gaming that took precedence in the following years, eventually taking him to the Cleveland Institute of Music.

"I've listened to a lot of this [videogame] music in my life. It's just amazing how it brings back a feeling of moments in time," says Cotter, in his ninth season with the symphony.

Sometimes, just for fun, Cotter competes with other gamers through the Internet, but he's found his skills are no longer quite up to par.

"Ten-year-olds will destroy you!" Cotter says. "You can always hear them saying things like, 'Not now, mom, I'm not hungry.'"

But he doesn't only play kids — Cotter has taken on Spokane Symphony concertmaster Mateusz Wolski.

When not practicing his violin four or five hours a day, Wolski says he makes time for a few hours of screen time per week. Mostly he plays car-racing games, even building his own PVC pipe car simulator.

Growing up in Poland in the 1980s, videogames were hard to come by, but Wolski remembers when his dad first brought home a version of Pong. "We only had a black-and-white TV, but that was OK for that game, of course," he says.

The nostalgia element and the way one must constantly practice to improve, as with an instrument, is what keeps these musicians coming back to play videogames. But mostly, it's about relaxing.

"Videogames take you to another place; erasing the stresses of the day for a little while," Cotter says. ♦

Video Games Live with the Spokane Symphony • Sat, April 26, at 8 pm • $26 and up • Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox • 1001 W. Sprague • spokanesymphony.org • 624-1200

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