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No endgame in sight for composer Nathan Cummins

Nathan Cummins is an Adelaide-based composer, conductor and performer who is currently finishing his PhD in Sonic Arts and Music Composition at the Elder Conservatorium (University of Adelaide). Nathan primarily works with film and game music, collaborating with a range of artists, film directors, choreographers, game designers and lyricists.  Currently, he is preparing for the Fringe show, Music With Motion: End Game, as Artistic Director of the Woodville Concert Band.

Nathan Cummins and the Woodville Concert Band | image supplied

Cummins came to composition through game music, as he reminisces: “Growing up, I played Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie, and I loved Grant Kirkhope’s music. People said one of my first orchestral compositions sounded like his music, and after a performance of that piece by the Gold Coast Philharmonic Orchestra, I emailed him to let him know. He asked to hear it, so I sent it through, and he replied back that he loved it. It was awesome – 18 year old me getting an email from my idol”. This, alongside a long-held passion for game music, motivated him to apply for the Bachelor of Music (Composition) degree at the Elder Conservatorium of Music.

Several years on, and Cummins is completing a PhD at the same institution, researching what he terms ‘Virtual Music’. Described as a music notation-performance-composition system for virtual reality, it is Unity-compatible and written in C#, delivered on the Oculus Rift platform but with aspiration for the the HTC Vibe, Cosmos and Windows Mixed Reality systems. Virtual Music is intended to be an intuitive system, in which the user is presented with objects that represented as notes to touch, the object’s height determining pitch, width determining loudness, and position determining its timing. Cummins notes that the system could be used in therapeutic settings, or (early) learning environments as a means of teaching people about various aspects of performance.

Music With Motion: End Game represents the fourth annual iteration in the series, and is the first time a theme has been employed. “I’ve always particularly enjoyed end-game and boss fight music,” says Cummins, as “it’s always, in my opinion, the most epic type of game music”. The arrangements have been approached orchestrally, with sensitivity to the timbre and performative idioms of each instrument. Cummins explains:

“It’s very easy when people take an orchestral composition and transfer it to a concert band, saying ‘the saxophones can replace replace the string section’, which doesn’t necessarily work. Their timbre is different, how they play is different—they actually require breathing, whereas strings don’t—and you have to think about how that will work. For electronic timbres, it’s very similar. You have to take the inner [contrapuntal] lines out – for example, finding the accent points and put them in the low brass, and use the horns in the middle ground or something similar.”

Under Cummins’ leadership, the Woodville Concert Band has become well-known for playing a variety of styles, drawing on a wide range of experiences between band members between classical, jazz and pop training.  Each piece is considered on its own stylistic terms and, drawing on his previous experience working in different genres, Cummins hones in on details during rehearsals, explaining “the difference in articulations, feels and grooves to ensure that everyone is on the same page.”

Music With Motion: End Game will also include video game footage alongside the music.  Whereas a professional situation might use a flashing screen to coordinate sound and image, the concert will involve Cummins (as conductor) and the percussion on a mutually-shared click track, with the rest of the ensemble watching for cues.  Cummins notes, “I have to think about the small tempo changes, and how that works in transferring that to an ensemble in front of you.”

In recent years, many orchestras have performed concerts of game music, such as The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy series. When asked about the place of game music in orchestral programming, Cummins admitted that he finds orchestrated game music more interesting than film music, and that there was a need for more to be made available for ensembles. Examples of composers working towards this include Adelaide’s Christopher Larkin, who has explored publishing string quartet and piano arrangements of his score from the game Hollow Night, and electronic game composer Disasterpeace, who has made arrangements of his music for piano, proving quite popular.

When asked about any upcoming projects, Cummins responds cheerily with “probably too many!” Fresh out of finishing a new film score, he mentions working on several projects with Christopher Larkin, as well as an upcoming game with new Adelaide-based company, Blue Moon Games, noting “It has no name yet, but it’s exciting, nonetheless.” With a wide and varied skill set, Cummins remains in demand as a composer for film and games, with no endgame in sight.

Music With Motion: End Game will be performed on three dates across two venues: 7.00 pm, 28 & 29 February at the Woodville Town Hall and 6.00 pm, 1 March at the Marion Cultural Centre. For more information on Nathan’s work, visit https://www.nathancummins.com.au/

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