Art. Nerds. Student-run clubs.
These three nodes on the scatterplot of Northwestern student life tend to connect, but never with such unashamed openness as in the emergence of the school’s newest musical act. They’re called the Northwestern SuperSonic Ensemble, and their repertoire consists entirely of video game music.
“My sister joined a video game music choir at Berklee and I got insanely jealous,” says Weinberg junior Sam Barker, the group’s founder and musical director. “So I started toying around with some a cappella arrangements, but I didn’t do anything with them until [now].”
Barker contacted some friends in the Communications Residential College, including Communication sophomore Amanda Shepherd, and the music-themed fraternity Phi Mu Alpha. His idea was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. With 15 committed attendees at their first rehearsal, the SuperSonic Ensemble was born kicking and screaming.
Regardless of his original intentions, Barker’s group isn’t your mother’s a cappella group in content or character. In fact, it’s not even straight a cappella.
“When I first thought of the idea, I was thinking about a cappella,” Barker says. “But then I realized we have a lot of those. You don’t see many student-run groups that have both instrumentalists and vocalists.”
The group began recruiting instrumentalists and now boasts two percussionists, a flutist, a pianist, two tuba players and more.
Barker is a talented director, instructing sopranos on blending technique and calling for back massage breaks with equal parts authority and affability. His investment is clear in the timely manner with which he conducts his group, just as it’s plainly audible in his voice when describing the ensemble’s first rehearsal.
“It was really cool because everyone in the group is musically talented, and when we were hashing out the first harmonies of the Super Mario Bros. theme song, there would be a few people who would be like, ‘Whoa!’” he exclaims, laughing. “They’d be astounded that video game music would sound so good from a choir.”
Both Shepherd and Barker agree on the rewarding nature of their work thus far, despite their very different responsibilities and academic backgrounds. Shepherd handles the group’s bureaucratic and promotional work as business manager. She says the musical accompaniment “often goes unnoticed, but it [can be] the best artistic part of the video game,” a sentiment echoed by Barker.
“I want to spread the idea of video game music being music as opposed to background,” he says.
The music will be a tempting mélange of music pieces from a wide array of game genres. Song choices range from the Super Mario Bros. theme song to “Still Alive,” the humorous and electronic piece that plays in Portal’s rolling credits. Next up are musical selections from Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, along with some grander pieces from Halo and Mass Effect.
So far, so awesome. Like any developing group, however, Barker and his growingensemble have hit a few snags in the bureaucratic realm.
“There are times when I think, ‘Oh my, what have I gotten myself into,’” Barker says with a chuckle. “Starting a new group is big.”
Shepherd details the difficulties of forming a new student group, as well as the challenges of keeping it around. “We’re working on ASG recognition, [but] we have to prove that we have staying power for a couple of quarters,” Shepherd adds. “It’s a very timeconsuming process.”
Even with the question of ASG recognition looming on the horizon, the SuperSonic Ensemble is off to a good start. In fact, they’ve already landed a gig: a benefit concert on May 20 for Unite For Sight, a national organization with multiple university chapters focused on providing eyesight surgeries for impoverished patients in Ghana, India and Honduras.
The ensemble’s charity gig is only the beginning, and Barker already has a concrete vision for the future of his group and plans to have a full-length show after holding open auditions in the fall for new vocalists and instrumentalists.
“We are using a cappella [shows] as a template. They have themed shows generally around which the show is based, so we’re hoping to do that whether it’s in the game world, or just talking about university life in relation to games,” he says. “The plan is to make it crazy-cool and weird.”