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Interview: Nobuo Uematsu, Arnie Roth & Distant Worlds

February 5, 2011

This interview first appeared on Steel Bananas.

Nobuo Uematsu

NERDVENTURES: Familiar Songs From Distant Worlds

When I went to summer camp, the oldest boy’s dorm and focus point of younger male’s uncool envy would always get up to antics which their disciples could only aspire to. One of their common flare ups would take place in the mess hall. During any too-dull-to-stand moments or amid any too-hyped-to-ignore cheer offs, they would take it upon themselves to stand on their chairs and in an uncoordinated harmony of vocoded ‘doots’ and ‘deets’ the good old boys would give their try at impersonating the instantly recognizable Super Mario theme. Between the three Game Boy Colours that circulated my padawan dorm, it became clear that this could actually be the second oldest/third youngest crew on camp’s chance to shine, and so it was suggested to my counsellor that perhaps we’d ‘back up’ the older males with our own take on the equally classic theme from The Legend of Zelda series. It was shot down. “They wouldn’t get it,” warned our summertime protector, and while I can understand the attempt at protection, between ‘not getting it’ having never stopped us from doing something dumb in the past and the appearances of costume-box made Links appearing at a few themed dinner nights, I was a bit offended.

To a kid, to me the kid, games were important, and frankly the bulk of my cultural sophistication. Before I really branched out between Weird Al and The Offspring, original chip tunes accompanying Donkey Kong, Earthbound and Earthworm Jim really made up the bulk of my age ten top forty. Being told by an elder that Zelda would not be given the chance to supersede lunch session Great Big Sea tapes and tween sing-a-longs of the Spice Girls singles was a pretty damaging bullet to the heart. But times have changed, oh, they’ve changed.

I’m a big boy now. A big boy with a big MP3 player full of strange and alienating bands you’ve never heard of scattered throughout. Despite all this maturity and despite the fact Al Yankovic and Dexter Holland no longer carry the same personal gravity, if I hear even the first few notes of Stickerbrush Symphony, a weird indescribable comfort from within will try to manifest into tears I’ll fight back. So what gives, me? Is this a nostalgia thing, or is some of this game music as timeless and inspiring no matter the technological limitations? Can these simple tunes transcend their own context? Well, he may be biased, but someone seems to get what I’m talking about.

“Today’s fashion is out of date tomorrow,” Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu heeds, “The music expressed by all one’s life is not related to fads.”

Final Fantasy is a unique case, as far as fandom goes. It’s gone through so many metamorphoses, through so many years, that the net of interest it has cast over gamers is nearly incomparable. It’s a game that not only defines a genre, it is a game that a genre is constantly associated with. Even in weaker entries, or when certain players find themselves underwhelmed with editions, their ties or relation to another title in the series more than likely balances it all out. But the game itself, the guts and the graphics that compose the pixels and polygons on screen are not even the majority of the story. During the 90s, the series became a force daring to go where most games, obsessive with actions and attention as they were, dared not go: places of emotions. When people think of the series they think not merely of the fun they have had, but moments, characters, feelings and music. One November night, many of these fans gathered at the ex-Hummingbird, now Sony Centre, simply to share in the presence of Nobuo Uematsu. Titled Distant Worlds, a full orchestra presented material by the famous Uematsu, conducted by Grammy winner Arnie Roth, also a fan of the songs from Final Fantasy. As it happens, he doesn’t even like video games that much.

“Am I a gamer? No. Have I played games? Certainly, years ago.” Instead, Roth’s attention was hooked after Square Enix held a ‘one night’ performance at the Disney Concert Hall, coinciding with E3. “I heard about it as the director and conductor of the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra, and for the fact a friend of mine was trying to interest other orchestras into performing the pieces. All the other orchestras, and this is an interesting thing, weren’t taking interest. Many felt because the original was held in ties to E3 it wouldn’t stand alone outside of a video game conference. They did not believe that it could sell tickets. It was left up to me and I was the only person who decided to take a chance and do the concert. We did it in February of 2005, and it sold out 4,000 seats very quickly. It went on from there that I became the conductor for the little tiny mini-tour of Dear Friends program, I met Nobuo for the first time in Chicago when we brought him in and did a very in-depth study of all the material.”

Distant Worlds: The Music of Final Fantasy at Sony Centre for the Performing Arts

We’re here, we’re seated. We being me and also Will Perkins. The seats are filled quickly soon after the doors open – after standing in the lobby observing some desperately themed snacks (Still not sure what quesadillas have to do with archers… In fact what does Final Fantasy really have to do with archers?) Once you had all the fans in sight, it was hard not to make observations. Mostly young, though sprinkled with older generations. Mostly male, but a tight race for gender, closer than you’d see at many other gaming events. Some dressed up, but not as many I had hoped for. One couple I wasn’t sure if they were ‘cosplaying’, simply donning vogue white attire, could be ‘cosplaying’ Mickey Rourke at the Oscars. “I came for the music,” said one older man sitting next to me when I asked him if he was here for the games or the music. “My son,” a boy who was clutching onto a freshly bought shirt and poster, “came for both.” “Because,” said a former classmate, or at least I have to assume because she recognized me, “I’ve been a fan since I was like, eight.”

Then the orchestra begins to flow in. Players take their seats, and I comment to Will, as the choir files in the back, that the audience will probably lose their shit when they hit “One Winged Angel”. Arnie comes to the head of the stage, to audience ovation, then gestures his hand to someone expected doing something unexpected. Nobuo Uematsu, the man of the hour, comes out of an exit in the seated section, wearing a bandana that makes him look like Mister Miyagi, darting to the front of the center section taking his seat well among the peons. The audience then engages in the kind of applause that is as raucous as it is envious, the words “some lucky guy” resonate around me. “He’s very unassuming,” Roth told me of Nobuo, “low key.”

“At that time, no one wanted to compose for games,” Uematsu said of his origins, “I was thinking this job might not be so popular. That’s why an amateur like me could even get at that job. Although the job might be minor, I was happy to be able to live as a music composer. There was no time to feel the technical limitations at that time. It was almost like a game to me to compose using just three channels. That experience affected my basic style of composing, using definitive melody lines. Nowadays, from that experience, I can’t believe there are people graduating colleges of music wanting to be composers for games.”

The players warm their hot instruments up, Will chuckles how badly games have brainwashed him, since hearing the brief tuning session alludes him to a PS3 starting up. Then, taking no time to remind those who are here why they are here, in a powerful burst, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony opens with the battle victory jingle. The audience roars in a way I don’t think is familiar to nights at the symphony. Nobuo told me, “No matter where in the world, I am surprised and impressed to see the fans’ passions!”

The crowd probably doesn’t fit the typical symphony archetype. They are dressed either casually, or alternative reality, some donning full anime-inspired wares, others Kingdom Hearts shirts. They are all also, and this was kind of rampant, taking photos and videos. Digital lights infest the seats in front of me, like some sort of Tron-themed-vigil, as people hold steady their cameras, iPhones and in the case of the girl in front of me, the camera built into her Nintendo DS.

“I was shocked by the fan reactions in the beginning, shocked” Said Roth, “It was jaw-dropping. These fans are unbelievable no matter where they are in the world, in Singapore, Vancouver, Taiwan, Stockholm, we have Sydney coming up, Royal Albert Hall. The people who come to these concerts are very much Final Fantasy fans, dedicated. The moment the piece is over, you have them cheering, over the top standing ovations, huge, something you’d never see at a classical performance. They often will be cheering when I call out the next piece. This is the interesting thing, they are very well educated on the subject. I get emails after every concert, comments about the directions I took pieces, the way I handled “Aerith’s Theme” or even on the subject of beats per minute, the metronome marking that I put something at, or an effective extended phrase. They know the music so well they are very qualified to comment on it. Some will go to concerts, travel, fly there, and they had already watched those concerts elsewhere. Lots of people from South America come in, we’ve never performed there, Egypt even. Korea is begging us to play. Fascinating audience, fascinating.”

Distant Worlds: The Music of Final Fantasy - Yuna Cosplay

Don’t want to sound like an advert, but the sound quality in the Sony Centre, Sony being an entertainment related technology company, is awesome. It’s crystal, the performance from the stage snuggles up next to your ear, as clear as if you had it playing to you personally in the comfort of your own listening room. The video which accompanied, well, that’s a bit more contextual. Roth told me ahead of time that Toronto would receive the first jab at HD videos accompanying the performance, presenting sequences that represented the music and the games, though not always the exact sequences of the music. They started with pieces from FF VII and FF VIII, games made during the height of Final Fantasy’s popularity, and the Playstation One’s FMVs were, well, they were doing the best they could. The smudgy cinematics aren’t “Money For Nothing”, but they haven’t aged as gracefully as nostalgia would fool you.

Some of the pairings, regardless of how nice the feed looked on a giant projection screen, were very clever. One favourite of mine and many others, was the recreation through video and music of the opera sequence from FF VI, which previously didn’t have real vocals because at the time, the SNES couldn’t even give annoying Bubsy Bobcat quips justice. There’s a sequence dedicated to Chocobo, the squeaky yellow bird who’s appeared in just about all the entries, and while the little fan-service mambo isn’t ‘my thing’ it’s impossible to cry that it wasn’t well appreciated. One thing harder to defend were performances of songs from one of the latest entries, FF XIII, since the music was not composed by Nobuo, and while that doesn’t make the music under par, the game it heralds from certainly is.

But like I mentioned before, new tragedies do not scratch fond memories. A sombre “Terra’s Theme” is still as warm and touching as it was over a decade ago, the Jenova music is impeccably epic, and even though I didn’t even like FF X, “To Zanarkand”, the opening melody, is amazingly effective. They refused to end without playing “One Winged Angel”, sneakily ‘finishing’ as the crowd literally didn’t budge from their seat until an encore delivered Sephiroth’s diddy. As expected, they lost their shit, uncaging a roar from their voices that overpowered any instrument built by human beings. As I left the Sony Centre, unabashedly I’ll admit for drinks and shepard’s pie, I couldn’t help but think about all the game music I wished was played. Not the missing Final Fantasy melodies, Roth on stage apologized for an absent “Dancing Mad”, songs I hold dearly from other distant worlds. Entirely personal and excusable, I’m just a fink for Earthbound, Donkey Kong, Street Fighter and Chrono Trigger (which was also composed by Nobuo), they all feature scores that strike uncanny chords. Nostalgically charged music, as guilty-pleasure-based as they are, offer a unique experience that you’ll find yourself desperate to rediscover through newer music. And if it’s ingeniously composed all the better, be it a string of epic soundtracks for one never final fantasy, or the dirty twee buzzing on tapes of The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Me and a symphony hall of people agreed, obscure my ass.

“Having the music performed live feels like it’s the difference between the same person being naked or fully in makeup.”

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2 Responses to Interview: Nobuo Uematsu, Arnie Roth & Distant Worlds

  1. Shaun says:

    You had one hell of an opportunity – good story bruddah

  2. Pingback: Interview: Composer Nicole Lizee | Dork Shelf

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