Crossing the Divide: Triforce Quartet

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Triforce Quartet are an exciting new American ensemble specialising in music from the hugely popular realm of video games. This motley crew enjoys the talented stylings of Chad Schwartz, Christopher Ferrara, Jacob Roege, and Stanley Beckwith. Hot off the stage from their phenomenal success at the recent iDIG festival in Dublin, the guys chat to us about their story so far.

How did ‘Triforce' begin?

Chad: Back in the mid 2000s, I found a recording of the Hyrule Symphony playing a short Zelda medley for string quartet. I just thought it was amazing since I myself love chamber music and video game music. I decided to arrange the piece myself and transcribed the piece by ear. I then made a few edits and played it as an encore to my senior recital at James Madison University in 2006. The video went viral and everything built from that moment. As for the name, we were playing our first big gig for the Art of Video Games Exhibit in Washington, DC. They asked for the name of our group. I had no idea, but since the Zelda medley started it all and I was a big fan of Zelda games myself, I just sort of blurted out “Triforce Quartet”. The performance went well and so the name stuck!

Jake: The Zelda medley was the first somewhat unplanned foray into this gaming music world — a need to give ourselves a name came up and we instantly thought of the famous symbol from the Zelda franchise, the Triforce. Unfortunately we didn't think to make it the 'Quadforce quartet' since there are four of us...!!!

How do you all find working together, and what do each of you bring to the group?

Stanley: We all have different approaches, which I think is great, but we all share an intensity that makes working together rewarding. Chad, as the arranger and impetus behind the group, brings an enormous love and understanding of the music. Chris has this kind of “bring it on” mentality — since so much of the music isn’t written for stringed instruments, he often gets these insane parts that only work because he’s willing to put the effort in to make it happen. He definitely brings that attitude to rehearsals. I tend to be pretty detail- oriented (to a fault!). I think of Jake as the glue that keeps the group running — when things get loud and opinionated (which is often), Jake’s the guy who brings us back to what we actually need to be working on...and he’s enough of a technician to help out with lots of little spots for all of us.

Jake: I think it helps that we all have played with each other in various situations for years, and genuinely enjoy each other outside of rehearsal. It helps when things get heated in rehearsal that we can usually have a bunch of food together later and all is forgiven. I think each person also brings something unique to the group. Chris is a great leader and a very demanding player. He expects a lot out of himself and all of us as well. I've a talent for keeping an eye on the clock during rehearsal and a car that we can all fit in... Stanley isn't afraid to question what we're doing musically and forces us to keep an open mind. Chad arranges everything so he is definitely the most familiar with the repertoire and always chooses the best food places [cheeky smirk]!

Chad: It’s a fun and exciting experience. Since our arrangements are original and there aren’t any other string-quartet recordings of the music, we get to create our own interpretations of how to play everything. As we are all musicians, we sometimes have completely different ideas on how to interpret the music. This is great for us so that we can hear everyone’s ideas and decide the best way to proceed with each piece as a group.

As classical musicians, what drew you all into the music of the Games World?

Chris: For me, as a kid, I was always enamored with all types of orchestral music, whether it was movie music, musical theatre, or video games. So when Chad had this idea of creating a sort of video game quartet where I get to combine my two loves in life, the violin and videogames, I was ecstatic and wanted to get involved in any way I could.

Stanley: I’ve been getting video game music stuck in my head for as long as I’ve been gaming. It’s just such a part of the tapestry of my childhood. It’s really cool to get to share that with others.

Jake: As children we all played video games, and most of us still do. We've lived the evolution in the industry so we have additional emotional perspective for all the music that we play. We can easily conjure up the moment when Link first meets Saria, the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII, or the unending optimism of Mario. I hope this helps us to be good storytellers of the music that we play.

Chad: The music from video games can be very similar to classical music. I realized when I was younger that I was drawn into the music of video games in similar ways to that of a symphony or chamber group.

How difficult is it to arrange and reduce the Games scores for quartet, and who has that fun job in the group?

Stanley: [Points at Chad!]

Jake: CHAD! Ha ha, but we add suggestions here and there once we spend some time with the music.

Chad: [Laughs!] I’m the lucky one! It can range from relatively simple to impossibly difficult, but even the more simple of themes can still take 4+ hours. Since there aren’t any available scores for the music, I have to transcribe by ear. This can be extremely difficult and time consuming. I don’t even want to know how many hours I’ve spent making the arrangements because some of them can take so long. I’m also very particular about getting the right chords and notes but I think the perfectionism pays off once the themes are complete, even though it takes a lot more time. The arrangements that involve full scores are even harder because I have to figure out how to condense a score with 30+ instruments into just 4 parts, while managing to maintain the same feel and style.

Do you each draw from your respective classical training in your performance of such music — how does this style differ from the standard classical chamber rep?

Chris: Definitely! As one of the violinists in the quartet, I often have the melody or an extremely difficult passage. The methods and ideas I have learned from my great teachers throughout my schooling have helped me immensely in tackling these phrases and passages. It gives me great pleasure to be able to bring to life what some of these video game composers were hearing when they only had bleeps and bloops to work with at the time. I am honored to imagine and pick fingerings, bowings, and glissandi that hopefully lend themselves well to a certain sound or feeling of a phrase that the composer set out to create.

As for the style of video game music vs classical chamber rep, it really doesn’t differ as much as you’d think! We are all classically trained and have earned degrees in Music Performance, so naturally we apply much of what we have learned in our chamber music careers to the video game music as well. Many people think there is a large distinction between say a Mendelssohn String Quartet and Final Fantasy or Zelda or something, but let’s be frank, both have: rhythm, melody, harmony, and much of the same colors painted in what someone like Nubuo Uematsu composes. I mean where do you think these guy’s influences came from? I’m pretty sure someone like Uematsu is very well-versed and draws much inspiration from composers like Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc...as well as from popular music from the West. This influence is particularly obvious in video game music across the spectrum and in many cases, for musicians and non musicians alike, one cannot tell that what they are hearing is videogame music; it could just as well be one of the many quartets from the Romantic Era.

Jake: You have to be a very accomplished classical musician to play most of this music. You have to understand many different influences within the music, from waltzes, to jazz, to pop and rock.

Does this classical take on Game music lend a bit of sex appeal to classical music for those who may have been turned off by its formal character?

Chris: Ha ha, I don’t know about the sex appeal of classical music, but definitely we think much more people are interested in the classical chamber repertoire because of what we do...especially when we hear responses such as, “Wow I didn’t know a string quartet could do that!” or “I wonder what that Shostakovich String Quartet actually sounds like?” from the snippet placed in the FF Boss medley. We strongly encourage our listeners to go listen to some chamber music written by the greats such as Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms, etc... We are huge advocates of having our string quartet version of video game music serve as a portal into the world of classical chamber music.

Stanley: If making good music is sexy, I’m all for sexy!

Jake: I don't know about sex appeal, but I think we all agree that we appreciate the interaction with the audience.

Chad: From an outsider’s perspective, the classical music scene has an unfortunate reputation of being somewhat stuffy and pretentious. It’s great that we can act as kind of the 'gateway drug' to these people so they can realize how powerful and emotional classical music can be. It would be amazing for us if we were able to introduce classical music to gamers, and video game music to people that like classical music.

Where do you each get your inspiration from?

Chris: I get a lot of my inspiration from the love I have for both the violin and video games, and from the happiness and nostalgia people experience when hearing us perform these great pieces.

Jake: I think I get mine from everyone that comes up after the performance, and you can tell that they were sincerely moved by what you just did. I've walked away from several classical music concerts feeling like no one really enjoyed it, where we were just going through the same, traditional canon just because we should. After every single concert Triforce does, I come away feeling like the hours and years of training, the pain and difficulty of what we do, is all very much worth it.

Chad: I would say I get a lot of inspiration from the composers who make the music in video games. They deserve a lot of recognition for the work they do and we are honored to help share their music with others.

What do classical musicians make of your move into this evolving form?

Stanley: Most people I’ve talked to have been extremely receptive! I’m sure there’s been some rumbling once I’ve gotten out of earshot, but I’ve had a lot of people express genuine excitement that we’re getting the chance to perform for audiences that wouldn’t normally listen to string quartet music.

Jake: I think the older generation feel it is sort of giving up or giving in to pop music. Not sticking to the traditions somehow makes you a sellout. But younger musicians who are in the thick of the struggling classical music industry, scraping by to get people interested in music of the past, see gaming music's potential to broaden audiences, and adapt to the realities of life in the music industry.

Chad: It definitely depends on who you talk to. There are traditionalists out there that don’t care for it, but there are just as many who think it’s an exciting new genre filled with great music!

Describe the ethos of the quartet.

Jake: I think we're about having fun, bringing as much quality as we can to everything we play, and blowing people's minds.

Chad: I know when I’m writing my arrangements, I try to bring out the romanticism in the music. The Romantic era was my favorite period of classical music and when we play I want people to be able to feel the emotion we put into it.

From your touring experience to date, what have been the highlights?

Stanley: The crowd at Benaroya Hall in Seattle for PAX [Penny Arcade Expo] was insane. We could barely hear ourselves over the noise of the audience! Nothing has topped that for me, performance-wise. That was our first PAX, which is probably the biggest gaming convention for fans in the US, and it was just a big event for us in a lot of ways.

Jake: There have been quite a few highlights, Chad's engagement in front of 2500 gaming fans at PAX in Seattle, having people completely surround us so that they can hear every note of Final Fantasy in the gazebo of MAGfest, and of course getting to come to Dublin to play some of our favorite pieces for the composers! Classical musicians don't often get that last experience.

Chad: I’d have to agree that PAX in Seattle was just incredible. We could feel the electricity in the room and the crowd was so loud and crazy it felt like we were at a sporting event. Being able to propose in front of 2500 people (and another 4000+ watching live on Twitch.tv!) to the love of my life was an experience I won’t ever forget!

How was the recent iDIG music festival in Dublin?

Jake: It was such an overall amazing experience. As tourists, it was such a great city to be in. As musicians it was such a great place to do what we do — show the world that gaming music and their composers are something to be revered and celebrated!

Chad: We had a lot of expectations leading up to the event and we were blown away with how it turned out. The activities and lectures that were given were one-of-a-kind. Hearing how all of these famous video game composers write music for 100+ instrument orchestras was awesome. We were also able to play for the US Ambassador at the Ambassador’s Residence the day before the festival started. That was really amazing. I loved how open the event was and how we were able to meet so many enthusiastic fans!

Have you noticed any difference in the reception of your music between Europe and the US?

Jake: I don't experience much difference. We like to say music is a universal language and I think that's true with gaming music as well.

What do you think sets you aside from other quartets in the US at the moment?

Chris: You know we ask ourselves this question sometimes too! There are many string quartets out there doing a similar thing with video game music, who in some cases are very talented as well and can do a great job. But I think what sets us apart from most other groups is three things:

1) Our extreme attention to detail in creating the best possible performance for our general audiences, colleagues and listeners in the classical music world. We really care about putting out a great product to our listeners.

2) We are super passionate about what we do. We have been friends for a long time and we all love to play video games!

3) Our great arrangements! Many groups fall short on this, but Chad has proved time and time again that he has the know-how in weaving different themes together to create an amazing journey for our listeners.

Jake: I like to think that we're trying to inhabit a niche in the chamber music field that is maybe a little untapped. We like to combine our classical training and arrangements with a bit of a more "for fun" attitude. We are not trying to present a piece of art in a glass case that you can't touch. We want to make music accessible, get audiences much more involved, clapping and cheering for their favorites, coming up after shows to tell us what they loved, and giving some background on the group, music, instruments, etc...

What do you each like to do for fun when not performing?

Chris: I enjoy playing video games of course! PC is my preference and I love anything Blizzard, Starcraft ftw! I’m a big fan of the RTS and FPS genres.

Stanley: I’m a big Magic: the Gathering player and a semi-recovering ultra-marathon runner. I tend to collect hobbies, and I feel very lucky that I’m able to make a living from one of them!

Jake: We all love food, checking out the best local or unusual fare. I like playing video games and watching anime in my spare time, as well as having a drink with friends on a nice day in Virginia.

Chad: Of course I love video games, but in addition to that, I am an obsessive Washington DC sports fan (that’s Capitals, Nationals, Redskins, and Wizards for those keeping track). I especially like hockey (Go Caps!) and even play floor hockey in a local rec league.

What’s the ultimate plan for Triforce?

Chris: To Rule the World!

Stanley: Yup!

Jake: I think we would love to continue playing to hardcore fans, hopefully in some new regions, especially Asia, and more in Europe and Latin America! The US seems to have a growing market for conventions and other ways for gamers to get together, and Triforce is poised to keep on providing the best of both worlds — rocking game music with the quality and colors available to trained string players.

Chad: I don’t know about the ultimate plan, but the dream would definitely be to travel the world playing video game music. I can’t imagine anything better!

All images displayed in this article are subject to copyright.