Composer goes for the high score with video game-inspired ‘Pixelandia’

Yu-Hui Chang’s “Pixelandia” gets its world premiere at Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Saturday concert.
Yu-Hui Chang’s “Pixelandia” gets its world premiere at Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Saturday concert.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

Growing up in Taiwan, composer Yu-Hui Chang would pass by the entrance to what was then a new and novel place filled with colorful distractions: video game arcades, replete with buzzing, flashing game cabinets. But, she emphasized, she didn’t spend much time in there.

“I wouldn’t have admitted it,” she said with a smile in an interview near her Arlington home. “In an East Asian country, studying hard was a must. Video games, especially arcade, had this kind of taboo image. Like, if you hang out in the arcade then you’re not a so-called ‘good kid.’ ”

But it all left an impression, and she looked to such games for inspiration in writing her new orchestral piece “Pixelandia,” one of three works receiving world premieres at Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Saturday evening concert at Jordan Hall. The four-piece program, titled “A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams,” is inspired by East Asian culture, and each piece was either written by an East Asian composer or features an East Asian soloist.

BMOP artistic director and conductor Gil Rose, who related that he “dropped a lot of quarters” in arcades in his childhood, described “Pixelandia” as “very concentrated. It’s really a symphony in miniature,” he said via phone. “There’s no downtime.”


Chang, who is a professor of composition at Brandeis University, revealed that the first two movements took inspiration from two particular games: the 1987 World War II-themed arcade shooter “1943: The Battle of Midway” and the 1999 strategy game “Heroes of Might and Magic 3.” Rather than taking cues from the games’ actual soundtracks, she drew on their atmospheres. The “1943” sequence conveys “a lot of kinds of flying machines . . . not smooth running kind of gears,” Chang said.

The third movement, “Boss,” is tense and menacing, drawing on the video-game trope of the boss fight. “I would be frightened every time the boss came out,” she said of her times playing games. “Like, oh my God, how can you defeat this thing?” said with a laugh. The fourth movement, she said, is a kind of epilogue: “Game Over,” which begins with a score marking, “Insert coin to continue.”


When she did play games herself, she said, “I wasn’t good at arcade [games] at all. Even ‘Pac-Man’ stressed me out,” she said. “There was a time when I was a grad student . . . I loved ‘SimCity.’ I was a good mayor. My people were always happy.”

Chang moved to the United States at age 24 to pursue a master’s degree at Boston University and a PhD at Brandeis, and she planned to return to Taiwan after completing her education here, but got a job in the United States and never left. She looks at composition as a process of self-discovery. “What my music revealed to me is that I’m an intense person. I didn’t know I was. I thought I was easygoing. But I’m sure my husband would roll his eyes when I say I’m easygoing,” she said. “I like to have multiple things going on at the same time, largely, and I like to create a sense of richness.”

“Pixelandia” is Chang’s first work for BMOP, and, at approximately 20 minutes, clocks in as her longest orchestral work. Her chamber music oeuvre is much larger and includes music for East Asian instruments such as the Korean ajaeng and the Chinese erhu.


“In the US there’s a problem that women composers in general don’t get programmed by orchestras,” she said, adding that this is a sharp contrast to the environment in East Asia, where female composers don’t feel like a rarity at all.

Any change, she said, needs to start with concentrated effort — including by herself. “I find myself at fault, too. When I’m teaching, I keep going back to the same composers to look for pieces to teach the students. But we really have to actively break away from the habit of going to the same pool,” she said. “Especially when it comes to breaking away from this kind of old, mostly male repertoire. It’s not necessarily that it’s a sexist issue; it’s an awareness issue.”


At Jordan Hall, April 21, 8 p.m. 781-324-0396, www.bmop.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation