Brave new world: Curtis alumni perform video game compositions

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Elizabeth Zharoff and Xavier Foley will perform Friday at World Cafe Live.

To those of us who were around for the first generation of video games, the music that accompanied play was hardly exciting or particularly memorable — often a repetitious ditty set to loop over and over again. It could be pretty annoying.

Not anymore.

“That was a whole other world,” said Xavier Foley, a  classical bassist and composer in Germantown and a lifetime video game enthusiast who graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in 2016.

How far has the genre come?

Fellow Curtis alumna and avid gamer Elizabeth Zharoff said there’s no comparison between those dinky first-gen sounds and the sophisticated compositions of new games.

“The game changer was [the sound track to the game] Journey, which was nominated for a Grammy Award” in 2012, said Zharoff, a soprano who earned a master of arts degree from Curtis in 2012.

And fans get it, said Zharoff. “Just look at the incredible popularity of Video Game Live,”  the concert series that has a full orchestra perform game snippets accompanied by video of actual games.

Foley, 22, and Zharoff, 31, will show off their love of music and video games Friday at World Cafe Live with a performance of newly commissioned video game music they cowrote over the last nine months.

Friday’s show was commissioned by the Philadelphia music education nonprofit LiveConnections as part of its concert series that pairs musicians and has them create new works in unfamiliar genres.

“LiveConnections started nine  years ago as a music education program working with Philadelphia schools. We still do that, but after a while, we started realizing that the programs we were sponsoring were really crucial and vital for the musicians as well as the students,” said executive director Melinda Steffy.

“We decided to bring musicians from different genres and differing styles of music and cultural backgrounds and give them a chance to work together.” Each pair is asked to collaborate on at least one original composition.

Zharoff,  a member of the Los Angeles Opera’s Young Artists Opera Program, has experience as a sound designer in the worlds of video games, TV, and films. She’s also worked as a singer and voice actor on several games.

“The very first time I considered video game music was in 2013, when I heard a piece of music from Braid that was similar to something I had composed,” she said.

“And it just hit me, like, oh, I could write for games!”

She loved the idea, considering she’s a self described game nerd who plays every type of game, from first-person shooters to strategy games and virtual-reality simulators.

She began studying the genre and eventually concluded it was the most exciting area of music composition.

“I really do think the video game is the horizon of music composition right now,” she said.

What makes game music so exciting is its interactive nature, said Foley.

“The music reacts to the choices made by gamers, something that wasn’t possible with older games,” said Foley, who was born and raised in Marietta, Ga.

Though classical music is a linear expression that moves from one point to the next, video games allow for a vertical experience because any given passage will vary, depending on the player’s decisions, said Foley, who began attending Curtis while he was still in high school.

Despite his love of games, Foley was new to game music when LiveConnections tapped him.

The two artists will perform three collaborative pieces, including a composition inspired by the Temple Run game series.

Elizabeth Zharoff + Xavier Foley

Friday at 8 p.m. at World Café Live, 3025 Walnut Street.
Tickets: $25; $18 students.
Information: 215-222-1400, liveconnections.org.