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On the ‘Journey’ with Fifth House Ensemble’s Melissa Snoza

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

By Brittany Worthington, Marketing Student Assistant

Journey screenshotMany of us have been moved to tears by a powerful film, a triumphant piece of music, or even a provocative piece of artwork. But tears shed over a video game? That's a bit more unusual. But that's exactly what happened when Fifth House Ensemble flutist and Executive Director, Melissa Snoza, first played the video game Journey.

Snoza was introduced to the game by Dan Visconti, a composer on Fifth House's roster of artists. "He came to me and said, 'I need you to sit on the couch and play this game.' And at first I was like, yeah, right, but then Dan said, 'Seriously. This is important.'" So along with her husband, Fifth House double bassist Eric Snoza, Melissa entered the world of Journey, a virtual realm that subverts the typical video game experience of earning points through violence or competitive challenges. Instead, the game focuses on—as one might guess—a journey; one that ends exactly where it begins and focuses on companionship over competition.

"The thing that was really interesting to me is that it's the first game I've ever played that teaches generosity and selflessness," said Snoza. Another aspect of the game that grabbed her attention, and the reason Visconti brought the project to her in the first place, was the music.

Journey's score, which received a Grammy nomination for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media in 2013, was composed by Austin Wintory and is an integral part of the game's experience. Instrumentation and movement are the sole means of communication between characters.

"The music is so intricately tied to all the players' actions and seems completely seamless. And yet there are all these hidden mechanics that determine what happens sonically depending on what happens to your player," explained Snoza.

Fifth House approached Wintory about their enthusiasm for his work and soon thereafter began working with him on what it would take to bring Journey to a live arena with musicians performing the game’s score while someone played the game right there and then. Part of that process involved a Kickstarter campaign that met its goal within two hours of launching. Snoza attributes this to the incredible impact of the game on many of its players.

"People were writing to us about when they were first introduced to playing the game while lying in a hospital bed with stage III cancer and how hearing the music was an incredibly emotional experience for them. Others sent us art they created in response to the game, and we often have people who show up to the performances in costume."

The financial and emotional backing was all there, all that was left was figuring out how to make the responsive, real-time performance a reality. The game is broken into sections and subsections, each of which the conductor—who is watching the screen where the game is being played—indicates to the musicians through hand-signals. As certain events happen in the game, the conductor offers more hand-signals from the podium to guide the musicians on where to go in their score.

"You're on the edge the entire time because you can’t look away for a second," said Snoza, who cited the challenge of making seamless transitions between sections of the music and game, "When we do this properly, no one knows this is difficult, but there are some places that are extremely physically taxing." There is a section of the game where a player must scale a mountain and is forced to start over if they fall. Snoza remembers their cellist was playing the game during a rehearsal and fell off of the mountain seven times, which made for a particularly arduous stretch of playing.

Fifth House premiered the Journey project at Mag Fest in Washington D.C. to a crowd of twenty-five hundred people and the rapturous response to the game and the music has only continued to unfold.

Beyond her role as Fifth House Ensemble's flutist, Snoza is also the group's Executive Director. While she admits her dual roles can be a challenge, she says she thinks a lot about balance. "When I’ve had a hard day of making budgets or writing grants, I'll go practice [my flute] or rehearse. It's a way of being active while the other part of my brain rests." She said that giving purpose to both sides has proved to be very beneficial.

When she and the other members of Fifth House give a performance for students, for example, her role as executive director allows her to understand larger context of engaging with the community, while her role as a musician allows her to be in the moment with the music.

The power of music's impact on others has always been at the heart of Snoza's passion for performance. "What I do for others is a gift, and the decisions I make about what I play how I choose to play has an impact on people. It has changed how I practice and changed what I want to play because it isn't about my own achievement."

In many ways, this community-minded way of thinking encompasses Fifth House's mission as an ensemble. "We formed [Fifth House] to push beyond the limits of what classical music can do," said Snoza, "We want to create as many inroads as possible; a common space for people who love music and for people to make music. Even if you think, 'oh, I’m not good enough,' that’s not the point. Everyone is musical. Creativity is part of all of us as human beings."

For those who might be intimidated by art forms they might not understand, whether it be music, dance, theater, or even video games, Snoza has a piece of advice: "Simply come." After all, you never know the journey you may end up on.

Fifth House Ensemble
Journey LIVE
Bass Concert Hall
Wednesday, Nov 8, 8 pm

Pre-Performance Talk with Jack Stamps, Lecturer, Center for Arts and Entertainment Technologies
Bass Concert Hall
Wednesday, Nov 8, 7 pm
Open to Ticket Holders

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