Performing with an orchestra, guitar in hand, flanked by giant screens where video games play behind you sounds like any gamer/wannabe rock star's dream job, but not one that's rooted in reality.
Yet for composer Tommy Tallarico, a career that combines those elements was almost predestined.
"As a kid in the '70s and '80s, I would take my dad's cassette recorder down to local arcades and I would record my favorite video game sounds and take it home and record my Intellivision and Atari and Apple 2," Tallarico recalls. "I'd splice the tapes together and invite my neighborhood friends over and charge them a nickel. I'd hit 'Play' and jump up in front of the TV set and have my favorite games playing in the background."
As creator and host of "Video Games Live," a symphonic concert that combines clips of everything from "Frogger" to "Final Fantasy" with live orchestral and choral performances of the games' soundtracks, Tallarico has taken his childhood performance to another level.
"Video Games Live" performs with the Charlotte Symphony on Saturday at Ovens Auditorium.
The concert is always evolving. It includes "Guitar Hero" and costume contests, game demonstrations and a meet-and-greet. One night's set list includes only a portion of the titles that "VGL" pulls from. Lately those have included the recent debut of "Halo Reach" and the classic "Tron." Says Tallarico: "We never play the same show twice because we can only do 18 or so in a night."
Although the show combines his two childhood loves - video games and music - his career as a composer happened almost by accident. "When I turned 21, I left my parents crying on the doorstep and drove out to California," says the Massachusetts native and cousin of Aerosmith's Steven Tyler.
"I had no money, no job, no place to stay. I only knew Disneyland, and I went to Orange County and (got a) job selling keyboards at Guitar Center."
His first customer happened to be opening a video game company down the road and upon noticing Tallarico's game T-shirt, a rarity in 1990, offered him a job as a game tester. "I would bug the vice president of the company - 'whenever you need music, let me know and I'll do it for free,'" he recalls. "My first project was the original 'Prince of Persia.'"
Wanting more than 45-second bleeps and bloops, Tallarico set out to add depth and emotion to his electronic scores. With this new approach, he quickly began collecting awards for the music of "Global Gladiators," "The Terminator," "Aladdin," and "Earthworm Jim."
In 1994 he started his own company, accumulating credits for games such as "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" and "Tomorrow Never Dies."
His purpose for taking game music from screen to stage when "Video Games Live" debuted in 2005 was twofold.
"I wanted to prove to the world how culturally significant and artistic video games are and to make a show for everybody whether you play video games or not," explains Tallarico, 42.
He also wanted to expose young gamers to classical music, hoping it would spark an appreciation the same way "Star Wars" ignited his interest in 1977. "That was the first time I actually paid attention to symphonic music."
At age 10, he read magazine articles on "Star Wars" composer John Williams at the library. "I learned that he followed the Beethovens and the Mozarts. That got me into listening to Beethoven, and once I heard Beethoven, that changed my life," he says.
He's betting a fresh approach will open up classical music for a new generation.
"A lot of symphonies and orchestras have come upon challenging times because they're not catering to a new audience. I don't think they're connecting," he says.
"Anyone who is under 45 has grown up with this interactive entertainment in their life. I took all the things we grew up on and combined it with the symphony."