Tommy Tallarico didn’t know it back then, but as a preteen in the 1970s and ’80s he was preparing for his life’s work when he staged little video game shows at his home in Springfield, MA.
“I was a big fan of Intellivision, the Atari 2600, and the Commodore 64, and the Apple II. I remember when I was 10 years old, I would go to the arcade or the pizza shop and record all of my favorite video game music on cassette tape,” he says. “Then I’d bring that home and record all the game music from my television and my Apple II and get that on cassette tape, splice all that stuff together, and then I’d invite all the neighborhood kids, charge ’em a nickel and put my favorite video game images on my television set, play my cassette tape, and grab a broom and play air guitar to the music.”
Today, Tallarico, 40, does pretty much the exact same thing now, but as a video-game industry icon, his ticket price is understandably much steeper. “Thirty years later, I’m doing the same thing, but it’s at the Hollywood Bowl.”
Tallarico is the composer of theme music for 278 video games, including Skater, Disney’s Aladdin, Madden Football, and Twisted Metal. He is the most in-demand video game musician on the planet. He is also creator, host, and producer of “Video Games Live,” an innovative traveling show that combines multimedia, high-intensity light shows, video gaming, and live classical music with a full orchestra. “It’s synchronized, down to the minute, with the video. There are special effects, rock-and-roll lighting, stage show production, interactivity. I think of Video Games Live as having all of the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra combined with the excitement of a rock concert mixed together with all the cutting-edge videos, technology, and interactivity of a video game.”
Video Games Live, which features music from Halo, World of Warcraft, Sonic the Hedgehog, Metal Gear Solid, Tetris, and Tron, among other video games, will be performed on Saturday, December 27 with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Tallarico and his collaborator, Jack Wall, came up with the concept four years ago, and the show has been traveling around the world since 2006.
“We basically wanted to prove to the world how culturally significant video games have become,” he says in an interview via Skype from Athens, Greece, where he was performing last week. “The goal was really to create a show for everybody, not just for hardcore gamers. We wanted to show everyone how dynamic the industry has become, how viable it has become as an entertainment choice for the 21st century.”
Wherever the show goes, the ensemble, which includes one piano soloist, plays with a local symphony or philharmonic ensemble. The musicians are astonished by the audience reaction they get, says Tallarico. “It’s cool, because it brings a kind of legitimacy to the fans. It’s cool from the symphony standpoint because these are folks who have been playing Beethoven and Bach for their whole careers. They get blown away when the people start reacting to them as if they are the Beatles or Elvis Presley.”
Tallarico grew up a Yankees fan in Springfield, MA, the son of a professional numismatist and a stay-at-home mom. He is the first cousin of rock star Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. His is a closely-knit Italian-American family, both parents the children of immigrants from Sicily. He says he was a huge fan of classical and rock music as a child, and his parents were also huge music fans who encouraged him to play the piano. Nevertheless, says Tallarico, he was self-taught.
When he turned 21, he decided to move to Los Angeles to try to get into film and TV music composition. “I never thought to put my two greatest loves — music and video games — together. At that time there was no such thing as a video game composer,” says Tallarico. Although his cousin Steven’s prominence as a rock star gave Tallarico a psychological boost and impetus to move, he went there without a place to live or a job. “I always grew up kind of into rock and idolizing him,” he says, as well as film composers such as Bill Conti (“Rocky”) and John Williams (“Star Wars”).
He showed up in Hollywood, “because that’s what you do, right?” and ended up sleeping on the beach at first. The day he arrived, Tallarico picked up a newspaper and saw an ad for a keyboard salesman at a Guitar Center. “So, I went down there the next day and they hired me on the spot, told me to come tomorrow. On the first day I was working there, I was wearing a video-game T-shirt — back then those were rare. The first person who walked in, who I waited on, happened to be a producer at Virgin, which was just starting its video games division down the street. He hired me on the spot. I was in California three days and I was in the video game industry and have been in it ever since.
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” Tallarico continues, jokingly. “It was fate.” While at Virgin, Tallarico’s first job was as a game tester. “They paid me $6 an hour to play games and tell them what was wrong with them and how to improve them. That’s a great job.” Every day, however, he bugged the company’s vice president: “If you ever need music,” Tallarico would say, “I’d do it for free.” About six months later, he composed music for Prince of Persia and won some industry awards. “So now I was a music guy.”
Later, Virgin Games created Disney’s Aladdin, Terminator, and many other famous games. Tallarico was in high demand by that time, with many other companies asking him to compose for them. In 1994 Tallarico released his first CD, “Tommy Tallarico’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1,” on Capitol Records, and he created his first video game TV show, “The Electric Playground,” in 1997. He now co-hosts that program, and another one, “Views on the Run,” on the G4 cable network.
His second album, “Video Games Live, Vol. 1,” entered the Billboard Magazine Classical Crossover charts (where guys like Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and the late Luciano Pavarotti hang out) at No. 2 last summer.
Speaking of crossover, says Tallarico, “A lot of people who don’t play video games are coming to the shows and buying the record. Some of the best letters and E-mails we get after the performance are from people who are sort of blown away and surprised. They never knew that the video game experience was this powerful.
“All of us, as game composers, we draw from the masters,” he continues. “The same could be said for TV and film composers; the roots of what we do come from classical music.”
Tallarico lives in Orange County, CA, and he has his own studio. But he can compose anywhere and anytime. Although many members of his audience are children — the bachelor himself is childless — he points out that the first generation of video-gamers are now parents of teens and even grandparents, and they all still play video games. “I think this is part of the service we provide,” says Tallarico. “We are just one indication of how popular video games are, and how important they have become in our culture.”
Video Games Live, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Prudential Hall, Newark. Saturday, December 27, 2 and 8 p.m. An immersive concert event featuring music from the most popular video games of all time, with giant video screens, synchronized lighting, electronic percussionists, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and interactive segments. Created and produced by industry veterans. Music from Halo, Mario, Final Fantasy, Warcraft, Myst, and many more. $21 to $82. 888-GO-NJPAC, www.njpac.org, or www.videogameslive.com.