Arts interview

The sounds behind Final Fantasy

The Tech speaks to Arnie Roth about classical music, film scoring, and yes — video games

The Tech had the chance to speak with Grammy award-winning conductor, composer, and music director Arnold Roth about his performance of Final Fantasy soundtracks at Boston’s Symphony Hall last Saturday as part of his Distant Worlds concert series. He reveals his connection to video game and film music, talks about the relationship to his close friend Nobuo Uematsu, the original composer of the Final Fantasy soundtracks, and explains what makes video game fans a great audience for classical music in our exclusive interview!

The Tech: What is it that you like so much about video game or film music in contrast to more standard classical pieces?

Arnie Roth: I think it is an attraction that is more general to music used in multimedia productions. I have a lot of background doing movies and film work, television work, as well as work with video games, and they share some characteristics: A good amount of video game scoring is really just underscoring the action that is on the screen. Then there is the other school of film scoring which is more along the lines of using light motives or melodies that are identified with various characters or various environments or worlds or battles and developing those in a very programmatic way. Some of my colleagues like to refer to that as the “Peter and the Wolf” technique, the idea that each character has its own theme, and therein lies some of the major differences between the various scores of composers both for film scores as well as for video game scores.

TT: Is that the approach which Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of the Final Fantasy scores, took?

AR: 25 years ago, Nobuo Uematsu made the conscious decision that the Final Fantasy characters from the very beginning were going to have their own themes and he was going to carry through those. He was a keyboard player, mostly self-taught — not classically trained. It was that decision which was just as important as anything else in the history of Final Fantasy in terms of its music. I’d like to give an example of the two different styles of composing: If you go in and watch a Star Wars movie composed by John Williams and you go and watch one of the Lord of the Rings movies composed by Howard Shore, you will recognize quite a difference between the two score. They both capture the action beautifully. Every light saber hit, every sword in Lord of the Rings is beautifully scored and compellingly written. However, I challenge you to come out of Lord of the Rings singing more than perhaps one melody, whereas in Star Wars, E.T., or Indiana Jones, or Harry Potter, which are all Williams scores, you are absolutely married to these melodies because the melodies went through the entire struggle. You can tell the entire story of the movie by the development of these melodies. The fact that Nobuo Uematsu chose that route way back then is why the music of Final Fantasy stands quite apart from most of the other video game franchises.

TT: You have conducted many different video game scores, from very advanced music which has been written for orchestras already, like the latest Elder Scrolls themes, to much more simple 16 or 8 bit music like the original scores of The Legend of Zelda or Secret of Mana. Can you tell us from a more technical perspective how far the adjustments go that you have to make?

AR: Final Fantasy and Nobuo Uematsu were some of the first video game franchises to use recorded audio tracks of orchestra and bands and vocal as soon as the format went up to 16 bit. They have had a history of putting audio and music at the forefront of the game.

We have tried very hard at Distant Worlds and within our tour and with all my dealings with Square Enix in Japan that these Final Fantasy concerts that we put on try to present scores that are very close to the way they existed in the original version of the game. We are trying to showcase the original score and use all the orchestration and subtle and light-handed arranging techniques that we can do to present faithfully the score in the form that it was heard in the original. Now when you go and listen to orchestral scores of Super Mario or Zelda, these are much more fantasies than what we are presenting with Distant Worlds. You won’t find a tremendous amount of medleys, for instance, where you see the scores strung together. We are trying to do more full song versions as much as possible. Sometimes they are four minutes long, sometimes the full song can be 12 minutes — we do the entire opera [Draco and Maria, FF VI] and that’s 12 minutes.

TT: Many people seem to have a very strong connection to video game music. Where do you think that comes from?

AR: I would actually turn that question around and ask why is it that every piece of music from every video game isn’t much more popular because after all, the player is a captive audience. They are sitting there in front of the game and they are listening to the same piece of music in many cases hundreds of hours, thousands of hours. These should all be drilled into them in a way they can’t stop singing these things, but in fact not every score of video game music is appreciated and loved as the Final Fantasy scores. The fact that you become more associated with a character and that character has an actual life and loves and emotional attachments and is stressed through battle and journey and transformations. You see the development in the character and I think that combination of the RPG aspect as well as Nobuo Uematsu’s style of writing music for Final Fantasy. Let me give you an example. When we play Aerith’s theme for Final Fantasy VII, this was an astounding thing where the character actually dies. We still have audience members crying at our concerts when we perform this live. The emotional attachment is so strong to this. If you can touch the audience this way, then you have transcended the actual video game itself.

I also want to point out that the reason that I think these people want to come to concerts is that when you are playing the video game you are listening to the same piece of music played in the same tempo with the same audio compression over and over again. Nothing changes. When you come to the stage of Symphony Hall or any of our concerts, we have well over 100 musicians and performers on the stage between the orchestra of 72, plus the choir of 40 voices, plus soloists and the conductor. You are creating a huge audio landscape of sound and all the sudden the scores live and breathe: By that, I mean they might move one or two beats per minute faster than what you heard in the game because we all get a bit excited and maybe it comes to a more crushing climax because there is no audio compression on the stage. It’s an infinite palette of colors and dynamics and I think the fans really understand that.

Of course you have to start with a score that is that beautifully written and I can tell you that in every orchestra that performs these scores — including the Royal Philharmonic in London, The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in Sweden, The Tokyo Philharmonic in Japan, the San Francisco Symphony, the National Symphony in Washington — none of them looked down their nose at any of these scores. They all come up to me afterwards; they can’t believe the quality of the scores and they can’t believe the audience’s reactions at these concerts. It’s a really unique audience and listening experience because everyone in that venue is there to hear these scores. It’s 100 percent. It’s not as if you go to a classical concert, where maybe somebody is there for Beethoven and another person is there for Debussy another person is there for Stravinsky. They all know these themes really well so it’s really a beautiful experience for us the performers.

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