Triforce Quartet is a classical string quartet from Washington DC that performs covers of classic and contemporary games; everything from classics like the Super Mario World theme to some deeper cuts like the Spark Mandrill theme from Megaman X. They’ve played at video game conventions such as MAG Fest, and can be seen playing at PAX in Seattle this Friday. I sat down to talk to them about games, music, and who is the best at Smash Brothers. Members include Chad Schwartz (cello and arrangements), Chris Ferrara (violin), Jacob Roege (second violin), and Stanley Beckwith (viola) who unfortunately, could not be here for this interview.
Nick Walge: How did this come about?
CS: This stated somewhere in 2006. I always liked video game music. There’s a Zelda medley played by Hyrule Symphony that I found on Napster, I think…
CF: Maybe Kazaa?
CS: Maybe Kazaa.
CS: Maybe Limewire. It was a long time ago. Whatever legal torrent… It was a really awesome. I was a senior in college, and thought, “Yeah, I’m going to find a way to do this for my senior recital.”
JR: We all went to JMU [James Madison University].
CS: Yeah, we all went to JMU. So over the summer, I listened to the Hyrule Symphony, and painstakingly figured out every part, wrote down every part, for all four instruments. And there were something’s I didn’t like, so I changed that around a little bit. That was the original Zelda Medley. I played that, at the time Chris played, and a few other members, unfortunately Jake wasn’t with us then- and we played that as an encore at my senior recital. My teacher was really angry. Fun side story, I actually got in trouble for it. If you look at the video online, you can actually hear him storming out of the door about an eighth in. You hear the door slam, and he waited for me backstage to chew me out. He docked me a full letter grade. So what happened that summer, this is before people really played video game music and there wasn’t that much online. So I put it up on YouTube, and then one week it just exploded. And Kontaku and a bunch of other video game websites found it and put it up on their website. Iwetn from having about 100 views to 90,000 views in a week, and eventually got over a million views. It’s really old, and honestly, I can’t even listen to it anymore. Everything’s out of tune, I don’t know, I just can’t listen to it anymore. It doesn’t get a lot of views anymore, it’s just sitting at like 1.3 million views I think.
NW: You’ve done a lot of videos since then, and I was surprised to see a lot of more contemporary stuff. You’ve done pieces from the Halo 3 soundtrack…
CS: After I did the Zelda medley, there were a lot of themes that I really liked. So I just kept adding to it, adding themes that I liked. And where it started out at about five minutes, we’ve just added to it so you can barely recognize the orignal Hyrule Symphony anymore. SO then, I did a Final Fantasy medley and a Mario Medley. I started a fraternity at JMU, and they were getting their…
CS: Charter, thank you. I can’t remember, [laughs]. And I was already out of school, and I was just using it as an excuse to keep playing video game music. And that’s when Jake played. And then we played a concert with the Zelda medley, the Final Fantasy medley, the Mario medley, and the Halo 3 medley, which you are talking about, as an encore. And later on, we added more to that one. You can’t hear it in that video, but later on we added on to it, themes from Halo 4.
JR: Yeah, over the years as stuff has come out, we’ve just added to them.
CS: Every performance, you know, we’d have another flap of music. Like, two days before I’d be like, “Oh, so I have another theme…”
CF: I think it’s finalized now.
CS: Yeah, I don’t think I can add anymore.
NW: When you’re doing something like that, something that has been composed for a full symphony, do you find that easier to arrange than the old MIDI music?
CS: It’s actually the opposite. And the reason for that is, say, Final Fantasy was the hardest one to do because it’s such a rich orchestration, it’s so difficult to take something that was written for eighty instruments and bring it down to four and have it still sound right. A lot of people say “Oh, why don’t you have the Final Fantasy VII final boss theme, with Sephiroth. You know, it’s one of the most famous themes, and I say it’s because it’s such a rich orchestration, it just wouldn’t work.
CF: The texture just wouldn’t work. You’d need drums, you’d need a tambourine.
JR: A triangle.
CS: It just wouldn’t sound good.
CF: You’d need a full chorus.
CS: You would. MIDI stuff is usually like three or four tracks, so I just make those our parts. And we sit around and you know, make sure it works. So those are a lot easier.
NW: As I was looking over the videos from MAGFest, and usually when I think of a string quartet, it’s a very quiet thing, everyone’s sitting down, and everyone’s very polite. What’s it like playing for an audience that gets so engaged when they hear their favorite theme? Is that distracting considering what you’re used to?
CS: No, I think it motivates you, it gives you energy. It’s the same thing when people are playing rock music, there’s just so much energy from the audience.
CF: You feed off of them.
CS: Yeah, you feed off of them. I think we somewhat bridge the gap between classical music and rock music, or whatever it is, you know, we have a lot of people that don’t normally listen to classical come see us. And we don’t want to look old fashioned or feel old fashioned. We don’t want people to come in and feel uncomfortable. And that’s I think a problem with a lot of classical music, you don’t have a lot of audience interaction, not that you need it, because it’s that kind of environment. But we don’t have to do that, we can do whatever we want.
CF: And we’re miked. Normally, if you’re listening to Beethoven or whatever, there’s so much going on that you wouldn’t want to be distracted by that. But we can be as loud as we want.
NW: Do you ever see anyone move from one environment to the other? Is there anyone who has listened to you and thought, “Oh, maybe I should give classical music a shot.”
CS: That’s a good question. I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure.
CF: Actually, yeah. So I hold this Chamber Music festival in my own hometown of Norfolk, VA, and basically, there were people that came to it that had only heard about the Triforce thing, then they heard about the Chamber music thing and came out based on what they’d heard and listened to Bach, and loved it.
CS: Some people don’t realize how similar a lot of video game music is to a lot of classical music. Nobou Nomeatsu, for example, he’s a classical, romantic composer. If you like him, you’re going to like a lot of music from that era.
CF: And people don’t really know chamber music. They think classical music and they think full symphony, they don’t think of quartets, quintets, piano trios, and then they hear it, and they’re like “Oh my god.”
What is everyone’s all-time favorite music soundtrack.
JR: Final Fantasy VIII.
CF: Wow, he was ready for that.
NW: Quick on the gun. Laughs.
CS: Yeah, there’s a lot of Final Fantasy soundtracks that are really great. Final Fantasy VI is probably my favorite, although Chrono Trigger is way up there.
CF: I’m going to be the odd man out, I’m going to say StarCraft 2.
JR and CS: Whoa!
CF: StarCraft 2 has amazing music. All of those Blizzard games, Warcraft, and Diablo. So Blizzard games for me, in general.
JR: Yeah, Final Fantasy VIII was one of the first games that really got me into video games, so there’s something special for me there.
CS: I have this theory, that everyone has a favorite Final Fantasy, and it’s the first one they ever played. You know, VI was the one I played through first, and my little brother, his first one was IX, and that’s his favorite. You know, I think IX is better than some of the others, but it’s not the best.
NW: Did your teacher at JMU ever come around?
CS: I don’t think so. It was really awkward, afterwards.
CF: I talked to him a couple years ago, actually, and mentioned you. I visited JMU, and saw him in the hallway, and he’s like, “Oh, what are you doing?” And I was like “Oh, I’m doing, you know, Chad’s thing.” And he says, “Oh, that thing.”
CS: And yeah, I stayed in that area for a while, and I would talk to people over at JMU who were walking around with instruments, and trying to figure out if they knew about the video without actually asking them about it. And you would get people who would see that video online, and be like “Well, I want to go there now, if they’re doing things like that.”
NW: What tracks haven’t you done, that you’d like to do. Is Green Hill Zone in that list?
CS: It’s funny that you should say that because we do have a Sonic Medley, and Green Hill Zone is in there. I arranged it about a month ago, and we played it at VGU a few weeks ago. With Taiko drummers.
CF: Yeah, he played the Sonic theme with us, then we played the Game of Thrones theme, which was awesome. I would really like to do Kirby.
CS: Yeah, I kind of base it on that, you know, I did the Sonic thing because Chris was really pushing for it.
CF: Yeah, but look how popular it is. He even asked, like, Green Hill Zone, people know about it.
JR: I think the Final Fantasy Boss Medley is something I’m really excited about. That’s premiering [at PAX], with boss themes from Final Fantasy IV, VI, VII, and VIII.
CS: That’ll be the premiere thing tomorrow. And it’s impossibly hard, and I don’t know how they do it.
JR: Bravely Default, I’d really like to do that.
CF: Contra, I think that’d be good to do.
CS: Yeah, we could probably do the first level. I know a lot of people want to do Chrono Trigger, so we will probably do that. And what’s the other one that we always get requests to do… The one everyone plays…
CS: Skyrim, yeah. But that’s one that it would be good to have that Taiko drummer for. But it’s another one that has a very rich orchestration, and would be very difficult to do.
CF: Plus, a lot of the new games, their music is a lot more for texture, or atmospheric effect, it’s going for an emotion. So it’s not like in Final Fantasy where Aeris comes out and her theme plays, or when Mario comes out, and his theme plays.
CF: Yeah, it’s, like I said, very atmospheric. Very filmy. It sounds like you’re at a theater, and you know, you have tension music…
JR: Yeah, there’s no real melodies to it.
CF: No real melodies, no real themes. So it’s hard.
NW: I saw that you guys did a cover of the Super Smash Bros. theme. Which one among
you smashes the best?
JR: I think I usually win, actually.
CS: Really? I don’t think so.
JR: With Lucas, I usually win.
CF: You’re pretty annoying with Lucas.
JR: P.K. FIRE!
CS: Yeah, that’s a pretty good question, I think we’ll have to throw down later.
JR: Best two out of three.
Follow the Triforce Quartet on Twitter, like them on Facebook, and look out for them on Louder, iTunes, Spotify or the Google Play Store. Also, if you’re at PAX in Seattle, check them out on the show floor this Friday! If you’re not at PAX, then you can still watch their performance on http://www.twitch.tv/pax. Album is available do download here.
Interview by: Nick Walge