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Strata Festival of New Music Night Two: High Score

by Scott Roos

photos by Matt Luciuk

On Friday, June 14th, at Quance Theatre on the University Saskatchewan campus, the Strata Festival of New Music presented their “High Score: A Multiplayer Jazz Experience” concert. This was the second of three planned events by the festival. Intended to be the artful combination of a live chamber jazz Ensemble, composer, video game designer, and a live gamer, the evening did not disappoint. Composer Rory Lynch was paired with Snowman Inc.’s “Alto’s Adventures: The Spirit of the Mountain” whilst Mackenzie Hay penned the music for Michael Long and Foolish Mortals Games’ “Kaiju Wars”. Brett Graham provided the tuneage for Justin Bender and Bitwad Entertainment’s “Zero Hour”. 

"Running Wind" composer Rory Lynch, who was patched in from his home in Toronto, chatted about his piece prior to gameplay commencing.

Starting things off was Lynch’s piece “Running Wind” which served as more incidental music to the expansive, cinematic stylings of “Alto’s Adventures”. The game itself was a single player style game which featured a lone snowboarder traversing an increasingly challenging mountainous terrain. Gamer Mason Burrows, the unsung hero of this event, deftly maneuvered his boarder through the landscape as Lynch’s music provided an adequate backdrop. The two, game and music, paired well like fine wine. Lynch’s music was both playful and pastoral at the same time adding to the overall vibe. Of note, saxophonist Gerard Weber absolutely shredded out a tasty solo during this segment. The night was off to a great start.

Regina Based composer Mackenzie Hay chats with the audience about his take on "Kaiju Wars".

“Kaiju Wars” by contrast to “Alto’s Adventures” was more of a turn based game. With an unnamed military battling a giant Kong-like creature during the first phase of the game, there was unit buying and a component that allowed the gamer to build building that would aid them on their quest to ultimately "win" each level. Composer Mackenzie Hay scored his music to fit with that aspect of the game with the unit building and combat round of the player having a feeling of frantic desperation whilst during the Kaiju’s turn there was a lumbering quality about it punctuated by the trombone playing of Tiess McKenzie. Another solid effort here between game designer and composer. 

Local composer Brett Graham, who was also playing drums on this night, explains "Xero Hour".

Last but certainly not least, Brett Graham’s composition proved to be quite intriguing. The game, “Zero Hour” had maze-like levels that tipped the cap to old school classics like “Super Mario Brothers” with a challenging boss fight as a culmination to each segment. Graham’s music had an “edge of your seat” quality with a shift in intensity during the boss fights; sonically camping out in the “jazz fusion” neck of the woods for the most part but also, at times, descending into free jazz cacophony. Trumpeter Dean McNeill, in particular, during this piece, added a lot of colour to things with some flashy solos. Gamer Burrows, during this game had some pretty close calls but, in the end, completed “Zero Hour” to the cheering appreciation of those in attendance. The night came to close with an exciting encore of a live rendition of Mario Kart which the ensemble and gamer played to perfection.

Overall, with the addition of “High Score: A Multiplayer Jazz Experience”, the Strata Festival of New Music continues to prove how essential they are to the fabric of the musical landscape in,not just Saskatoon, but Saskatchewan as a whole. Including the concept of scoring the music to video games is innovative in and of itself but to then provide a live setting where the gamer, conductor (thank you Colin Grant!!!) and ensemble work together so seamlessly is, pardon the pun, a kind of “leveling up” for this festival. It was a neat idea and was cool to see it pulled off so well.


Gerard Weber, Saxophone

Dean McNeill, Trumpet

Tiess McKenzie, Trombone

Paul Suchan, Piano

Rhett Schroeder, Bass

Brett Graham, Drums

Graham Pritchard, Guitar

Ronan Inkster, Trumpet ("Kaiju Wars" Only)

Colin Grant, Conductor

Mason Burrows, Gamer

Festival artistic director Paul Suchan is also a very accomplished pianist.

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