Last Tuesday, the Barbican played host to “the first ever UK concert dedicated solely to the music of Nobuo Uematsu”. For those unaware, Uematsu is a Japanese composer widely regarded – along with Nintendo’s Koji Kondo – as the godfather of video game soundtracks. What perhaps distinguishes Uematsu most from his peers is the regard he is held in outside of the video gaming community: no other game composer has been celebrated as much through performances of their work by orchestras and ensembles across the globe.
Most of Uematsu’s oeuvre is comprised of pieces created for Final Fantasy – the most popular Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) series in the world, bar Pokémon – as well as those written for other projects by FF progenitor Hironobu Sakaguchi. These pieces have been heard in a variety of arrangements across notable UK concert venues in recent years, but always as part of programmes featuring works by other composers who have contributed to Square Enix (FF‘s parent company) developed games. For instance, I attended a gig from the ‘A New World’ tour a few years ago at St John’s, Smith Square: on offer were pieces taken from across all the main FF games, some arranged for a small Classical ensemble, others for rock-style instrumentation, and some for solo piano. The promise of Symphonic Odysseys was perhaps grander in scale: a programme curated solely from Uematsu’s works, with fully orchestrated arrangements to be performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at their home venue. Essentially, it was to be a game music enthusiast’s dream come true.
A pre-show talk was held that I fortunately had time to attend. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my portable recorder, so I was unable to make a definitive transcript. I did however make some notes to the best of my ability, which I’ll detail below. Despite also turning up a few minutes late, I don’t think I missed much as when I entered they had only just gotten to the subject of how Uematsu started his career as a game composer…
Interviewer: I missed this very first question, but assumedly it was about how Uematsu came to work for Square/on FF.
Uematsu (NB all of Uematsu’s responses came via a translator, as his English is very limited): he had always been interested in writing music (having performed in bands as a young adult), but unfortunately couldn’t find much composition work near where he lived. There was a fledgling local game developer, SquareSoft, looking for composers to collaborate with, and one of their employees approached him. He seems to feel it all happened rather accidentally, and remarked that he was initially paid something like £35 a composition.
Soon after he befriended Sakaguchi, one of Square’s leading game designers, and was later invited to compose for the original Final Fantasy (1987) on his bequest. Uematsu remarked here that some of his friends at the time claimed to have “psychic abilities”, and that – a week prior to meeting Sakaguchi – one of them had predicted that Nobuo’s life would change dramatically in the near future…
Interviewer: how did Uematsu feel, having begun his career creating music for 8-bit machines with greatly limited capabilities, about now being able to compose fully orchestrated soundtracks?
U: he recounted how, in the early days, there were just 3 audio channels and simple electronic timbres to make use of. As gaming hardware improved, sampling became a tool that widened his creative capabilities. Now, orchestras and recording studios are open to game composers. In general, he sees this as a good thing, though he is somewhat nostalgic for the creativity that the highly restrictive technological constraints encouraged in early game composers. He felt that they were perhaps more creative, or at least experimental, back then.
Interviewer: this question was directed to the conductor, Eckehard Stier. How would he describe his relationship with the LSO?
Stier: he likened the experience of conducting the LSO to “driving a Ferrari”. He commended both the onstage ensemble and well as the backstage support. He claimed he felt like a “lucky conductor” to have been able to helm this tour and concert, and felt he had had great trust placed in him.
Interviewer: (again to Stier) how had he felt about the tour? NB the tour in question was the Final Symphony II tour of 2015, which saw the LSO become the first foreign orchestra to perform a game concert in Japan. The LSO also performed a Symphonic Odysseys concert in Paris on June 18th of this year i.e. just a few days before the London concert.
S: he claimed to have enjoyed it as it allowed for “more talking to [the] musicians”. He commented specifically on the fantastic acoustics of the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall, and joked that London could use a new hall of its own.
Interviewer: (again to Stier) what had attracted him to Uematsu’s music?
S: he described Uematsu’s work as rich, “full of accessible melodies and harmonics (sic)”. He also noted the cinematic-like quality many of the pieces possess.
Stier then left to prepare for the concert.
Interviewer: (returning to Uematsu) she noted his apparent interest in differing styles, evident from their influence on his works, ranging from South Americana to Jazz to Stravinsky. She then asked about Uematsu’s unique “puzzle method” of composition that he employed in creating one of his most famous pieces, ‘One Winged Angel’ (from Final Fantasy VII).
U: he had taken an “experimental approach” with ‘One Winged Angel’. Every morning for several weeks, he would note down the first 2-3 phrases that came into his head (assumedly within the bounds of some predetermined musical specifications e.g. key, time-signature and the like). After those weeks had culminated in sufficient material, he arranged them into order in a puzzle like fashion.
He feels that, in his work today, he does not have enough time to experiment with compositional techniques like this, due to the pressure of development deadlines. On a related note, he feels game music has become too similar to film music (likely because emulating another tradition is an easy way for game composers to produce well received work). He implores young game composers to explore unique styles and ways of creating music.
Interviewer: she recalled to Uematsu a university student who had come to the Q&A in France and told of how he was writing his thesis on Uematsu’s works. What did it feel like to have inspired young composers and musicians?
U: “[It’s a] big responsibility”. He did not study music himself (at least, not in a formal or academic capacity), nor did he “learn piano at a young age” (although other accounts would suggest he’s being liberal with the word young here). He was very surprised people write theses on him! Ultimately he’s just glad his music gets across to young people.
Interviewer: she mentioned how Uematsu’s works have been reinterpreted by both professional and amateur musicians across the world and the Web. How did that feel?
U: he said he loves that people reinterpret his work, and he is evidently very free in his attitude towards recycling music. He quipped that he’s not so sure about how Square feel on the matter.
Interviewer: she brought up Uematsu’s side-projects, the bands The Black Mages and the Earthbound Papas, which are themselves inspired by games and game music. What does he enjoy about performing with them?
U: “The audience rapport”, which he says is essentially what he’s always wanted to develop through his music – “[his] happiest moments are sharing with other people, moments bringing strangers together”. This is how he likes to create and share his music, and as such he’s glad that his compositions have garnered international appeal.
Interviewer: she talked about how Uematsu now has his own record label and production company. Why did he decide to go freelance after being a Square employee for so long?
U: he had worked for Square for about 2 decades before starting these venture. He described working for Square as “heaven”, as he spent all day, everyday writing music for cool projects. However, when Square moved their headquarters, he established his own company so that he could write from home rather than having to drive an hour and a half to work everyday (!).
Interviewer: she asked what his musical influences are, and what music he enjoys listening to?
U: he stated that he’s hardly a genius composer, but does consider himself a “genius at listening”. He believes he has a “talent for listening to all kinds of music”, and was exposed to broad influences growing up. He finds tribalistic tastes in music to be strange, claiming not to understand people who only like x and/or dislike y. He states that all genres have something “tasty” to offer the listener (this being one of the few English words he actually uttered throughout the evening!).
Interviewer: she asked the all important questions – what is his favourite FF game, and his favourite composition?
U: “What would you ask that!?”. All the games hold memories for him – more in terms of the development process than playing them – and he considers all his pieces to be his children, even if he feels some are better behaved than others. He said he remembers VI (1994) the fondest, as its development occurred before FF went truly global – assumedly meaning less pressure on the developers – and because the creative team and process were full of so much passion for the project. He reiterated that there’s too many pieces to choose from, before plumping for ‘To Zanarkand’ (from FFX), emphatically stating “I just like it!”.
Interviewer: finally, she inquired if Uematsu can tell us what he is currently working on?
U: he teased a new project he’s working on with Sakaguchi, but said he couldn’t reveal anything until June 22nd (it would appear the title is Terra Battle 2, a sequel to a 2014 smartphone tactical RPG – I’m not going to lie, this was a bit disappointing).
The talk then moved on to audience questions. Unfortunately, much of this segment was given over to incessant fan fawning, and though some of it was touching and/or humorous, most of it was cringe inducing. However, there were a few bits that I found notable:
The very first question came from someone whose child had been introduced to Uematsu’s music in a classroom environment. Their English teacher had apparently played the class recordings of FF pieces and had asked them to write poetry based on the music. The mother asked Uematsu how he felt about this: he responded saying he found it interesting, and suggested that they could have perhaps been encouraged to respond visually through dance, or even to come up with a completely different game to go with the music.
Two things about this resonated with me: firstly, textual response to music was an early exercise used on my BMus course, and is something I feel should be used much more in lower education to encourage an actual emotional/intellectual engagement with music. Secondly, the idea of crafting a game based on pre-existing music has long intrigued me. Recently, a composer by the name of Leon Chang released a concept album, Bird World, which is effectively a game soundtrack without a game. Perhaps this presents an opportunity to any developers out there looking for a different approach…
One of the wittier questioners mentioned how, unlike pieces within film scores, you might end up listening to certain themes several thousands of times in a play through of a game. He highlighted how this is especially true of battle themes in JRPGs, and asked how Uematsu goes about composing music he knows will be repeated a fair deal within the game? Uematsu jibed that “it’s not up to [him] how much it’s going to be listened to!”, insinutaing that better players likely won’t be forced to listen to as many repetitions as lesser-skilled gamers. He then elaborated more seriously that he tries to incorporate as much variation into his pieces as he can through changes of rhythm, tempo, key etc. How true this actually is of music produced in the early days of home-gaming is debateable…
Another person asked how Uematsu “translates” his influences into his own music, to which he responded that “[you] can’t just take the influences too directly”. He described his approach as a ‘filtering’ type process, and said his aim is to re-create or pass on the feelings he had whilst listening to the music that influenced him.
One beautiful soul asked the question that I wanted to ask, that being how Uematsu felt about the development of interactive music within games, especially given Uematsu’s view (shared by this blogger) that contemporary game music too closely resembles film music. Uematsu’s response was a bit odd: he said he feels that, as “games aren’t serious”, they should be freer in terms of their music composition compared to film, and that “[musical] perfection” is not necessary. He encouraged younger composers to experiment with unusual instrumentation, noting bathroom-centric sound sources as a possible avenue. He did not, unfortunately, directly comment on interactive musical elements in games. Perhaps the translator goofed…
When asked if he ever suffered from composer’s block, Uematsu immediately reponded “No!” to great comedic effect. He was quick to add that he doesn’t feel like he’s constantly graced by divine inspiration, but rather that – as with many composers and musicians – there’s always music in his head. The difficult part, he claims, is not composing in itself, but picking and arranging the ideas appropriate to the task. Evidently Uematsu feels that self-curation is an important skill for any applied composer to develop.
Finally, someone asked whether there were any of Uematsu’s later projects that he would have preffered to have undertaken with the limited sound palletes afforded by earlier game development tools. Again he responded with an emphatic “No!”, as although he’d earlier said he felt those technological resraints encouraged greater creativity, he much prefers working with the near limitless capabilities afforded to modern composers. Clearly this isn’t too much of a catch-22 for him.
Though I enjoyed the talk, I’d hardly say anything particularly relvatory came of it. However, what I did greatly admire was Uematsu’s humble and humerous nature, and his clear love of enagaging with his audience – a quality much befitting a game industry professional, I’d say. The awkwardness of the audience segment aside, it put me in a great mood for the concert proper, which I’ll detail in my next post. For now, here’s a video link to the 2011 concert in Cologne at which the programme was originally performed: Symphonic Odysseys 2011. Enjoy!