As host of the Swedish film review programme in the 1990s and 2000's, Orvar Säfström was well known to audiences across the country. He was frequently invited to present concerts of film music which seemed to him to contain all the same material, re-used by orchestras year after year. Finally, in 2006, he was invited by Malmö Symphony Orchestra to create his own concert. Taking an idea from a concert he had heard about in Los Angeles, “Dear Friends”, he suggested they perform a concert of game music. That summer, the orchestra put on their first production of symphonic video game music to a Malmö audience of 20,000. Orvar’s company, Underscore Productions, is now 11 years old and the producer works with orchestras across Scandinavia. Now, he’s even talking to several orchestras outside the region. Bachtrack caught up with him...

Orvar Säfström © Markus Lindgren
Orvar Säfström
© Markus Lindgren

AK: What are the unique selling points of your concerts?

OS: We sell a complete package to a pro orchestra (either large or small scale). It includes everything from scores and cleared rights to performance licenses, artwork and press releases. For the actual production we have a producer on-site for the rehearsals and media work and typically I host the concerts. We bring proven concepts and a genuine knowledge of the audience. Apart from our popular game music concert Score we also create productions based on a specific theme rather than one type of media. An audience in love with science fiction, for example, will be open to music from all kinds of sources of that genre. A sci fi film and a sci fi TV series obviously have a lot more in common than two films like Schindler’s List and Predator.

We don’t use video projections like some producers, and initially the orchestras can be worried the audience will want more of a spectacle. We’ve found, however, that what this audience want most is for their music to be taken seriously.

Concerts like this are usually meant to bring in a new audience. Another common way is to invite a popular vocalist from popular music. If an orchestra brings in a well known singer you can pack the house, but the musicians just become a backing band. With us the orchestra becomes the star. In fact at a Norrlands Orchestra concert, an older member of the orchestra told me, “I’ve been playing orchestral music for 40 years and this is the first time I felt like a rock star!” We try to get the orchestra to programme this alongside their other events so some of their regular audience will attend as well as a new audience. That crossover is just as important as the orchestra meeting a new crowd. We take care of them all by having the presentations explain to the regulars what’s coming up next and we acclimatise the new audience to the conventions of a concert.

Why do you call yourself a producer? Surely the music you being played has already been composed.

Well, firsty of all I consider myself a concert producer. But when we talk about the music, other than John Williams music where the scores we can rent are great, we find that many rental scores that exist for film and TV music are rubbish and we do better putting together suites with our own orchestrators. We often work with the original composers too. And if we’re using more recent music it really has to be re-orchestrated by us as it was composed for use in a studio with heavy post-production and mixing. It would sound very odd if the original scores were played live. Also for our game music concerts, a lot of the older music is electronic and needs to be interpreted into orchestral scores.

Can you give us some examples of before and after for some of the music in one of your productions?

The Legend of Zelda - “Dungeon Theme”

The original is quite a simple melody, a loop of about 20 seconds long. Here is the same theme in our orchestration:

In our suite that theme is close to 3 minutes long, starting with a piano and growing to a full on orchestral theme.

Do your productions mix classical music into your concerts?

Our concerts appeal to the thousands of people who feel culturally starved. They feel alienated to the finer arts. Of course, it’s always tempting to sneak in a few pieces of Wagner or Holst. But you should never force classical music down someone’s throat. Instead, see these concerts as an outstretched hand. Invite the audience, give them a fantastic night where their favourite music is treated as seriously as Mahler or Bruckner, and they will love you for it. Then, with their newly-awakened fascination for the orchestra they might go out and discover the classics willingly. Or not. It’s up to them, as it should be.

And just maybe one Monday at work, when everyone is discussing if orchestra funding should be cut as it’s a minority entertainment, someone who attended one of our concerts will stand up for the orchestra and say, “No, we had a great night out at an orchestral concert just the other day.” If their tax helps pay for the orchestra then I would say give them a night of music that’s completely for them, because if orchestras can’t reach out to more people, they’re going to die.

So are you on the look-out for well known games whose music you can incorporate?

No, not really. Even if the game is really popular, if the music is bad we won’t play it. The music has to be included on its own merit.

What productions have you already done and what’s coming up next?

I’ve done “Score” which is music from video games, “We Come In Peace” which is music from science fiction (including Also Sprach Zarathusa because of 2001: A Space Odyssey), “Sagas” which is music from fantasy (including Carmina Burana), “Defcon” which is video game music for wind orchestra or military band, and “The Horror” – horror music from film and TV.

Sabina Zweiacker and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Score concert in Berwaldhallen © Jonatan Söderström
Sabina Zweiacker and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Score concert in Berwaldhallen
© Jonatan Söderström

So your latest project is “The Horror” with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Will that concert include Psycho?

No it won’t. It’s great, but it’s just been done to death at so many film concerts already. We’re going so far out you’re going to freak. The oldest film music we’re using is Rosemary’s Baby, but we’ll also be using music from the much-banned film Cannibal Holocaust, from The Exorcist, The Descent, Hellraiser (by Christopher Young), The Shining,  Krzysztof Penderecki’s De Natura sonoris and lots more.

What is the average age of your audience, and how knowledgeable are they about their music?

I’d say our core audience is 25-45, maybe 2/3 male and 1/3 female. They’re very into the music and it can be quite scary for the musicians to realize that the audience knows the music better than the orchestra. Some audience members collect import game music CDs and have ordered actual scores from Japan.

From your experience, can a love of video game music lead some teenagers into becoming composers?

I encounter several young composers and orchestrators today who first got into orchestral music through game music. What makes me sad though is when teachers at music conservatoire want to make them feel ashamed of that passion. I hope in time that sort of attitude will fade away. Let’s play things that are well-made, exciting and that make people happy. We’re talking about performing the soundtracks to many people’s live’s here. How can that be a bad thing?