One of my main fandoms is soundtracks, particularly video-game soundtracks. I have paid more attention to the score of any given game than almost all other factors since before I could remember. I have been closely following the evolution of video-game music through the years, not only how the technical capabilities have advanced but also, of more interest, how the very concept of video-game music has changed.
Your grandma can probably hum the Mario Bros. theme. These jingles have become an irrevocable part of our modern culture. And we have come a long, long way. But when someone throws out the term “video-game music,” most people are still conjuring the Zelda overworld theme, or the “Russian Squat Dance” Tetris theme. Or maybe even the blips and bloops of old arcade consoles.
My first experience with video-game soundtracks that completely transcended being branded anything outside of being assigned any sort of qualifier—and I feel confident in assuming I’m in no way alone here—was the work of celebrated composer Nobuo Uematsu. Most notably, Uematsu has provided the soundtracks to the majority of the Final Fantasy series. I will never forget the first time I experienced the opening of Final Fantasy VI; I sat in awe as the credit sequence rolled and hung tightly to every note that passed through my old CRT set. This was serious, real, complex music.
And that is where video-game music for me moved from an accessory to something that could stand on its own. The primitive tunes I’d heard before were simple and repetitive. Uematsu’s music could be background if needed—but taken out of context, this was music to actively listen to.
I am a very strong believer that listening to music is not a passive activity. It is something that requires active participation, careful attention. It’s like reading a book. Anyone can read—it’s the levels of reading that differ, and some people would rather look at a picture book than sit down with War and Peace. Uematsu’s scores, even his early ones, could satisfy both. They presented a rich and textured backdrop for the stories, visuals, and gameplay. But if you looked beyond that, it was even more incredible.
By far, my favorite of all his work is the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack. For a game that focus so heavily on the concept of human emotions and perceptions, the ideas of self versus other, consequence, and the point of neither black nor white, a soundtrack to support and highlight those elements was a tall order. Uematsu not only delivered, but surpassed with a score spanning 85 unique tracks that painted each element vividly—from the main theme, “Overworld Theme,” which encompasses the entire story in one single movement, to the crushing isolation of “Desert Wasteland,” the grossly obnoxious “Gold Saucer” theme, and the hopelessness of “Heart of Anxiety.” And these are 85 complete songs; they are whole, standalone compositions. Final Fantasy VII also gets a mention as the first time in video game history that actual human vocals were worked in, featured in what is probably Uematsu’s most popular piece, “One Winged Angel.”
And he continued to do this time and time again, and not just for the Final Fantasy series. There is no question why Uematsu is considered the master of video game music.
In the spring of 2005, it was announced that he would be visiting Minneapolis with Grammy-winning conductor and composer Arnie Roth in a live orchestral concert tour called Distant Worlds. I almost died from overdosing on joy—and then I was soon crushed at the realization of ticket prices. I was nineteen, living in my first apartment and working an absolutely awful, low-paying job. I gave all of the cash I had saved to my friend’s mother, and she bought me tickets on her credit card. Yeah, that ticket cost me a third of my rent. But it would be worth it. I would never forgive myself if I didn’t go. This music was an enormous part of my world, part of who I was.
However, it didn’t take long for my friend’s mother to inform me that the concert had been cancelled, and she returned the money. I was absolutely devastated. Not enough tickets had sold to even justify a performance. And as brokenhearted as I was, I understood. It was video game music, after all. The majority of people who really, truly appreciated the art of game soundtracks were part of a demographic that could not afford high-end concert tickets. The people who could were turned off by the concept of video game-music, not knowing any better. There was a generational issue that killed it before it could gain momentum.
But, thank whatever deity you do or don’t believe in, Uematsu and Roth were successful enough elsewhere (hugely, wildly popular in Japan) that they did not give up on us. They came back in 2009. I printed off hundreds of pages of advertisements and flyered everywhere I could. The show was not spectacularly attended, but it was spectacular. And along with the development in the video-game industry as a whole, the world was beginning to think of game soundtracks as music and not just a mess of bloops. This was never more evident than when an American synchronized-swimming pair competed, and took bronze, in the 2004 Summer Olympics to the music of Uematsu’s “Liberi Fatali” and “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec.” Video-game music was moving up in the world, not only in popularity but in general acceptance by non-gamers.
Now, it’s standard issue that games release soundtracks along with the games proper. I even gave a copy of Distant Worlds to my husband’s very conservative mother without explaining it’s origins and she adores it. She probably would have throw it into the trash if I had uttered the words “video game.”
A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy came through the Twin Cities this year, stopping off at St. Paul’s Amsterdam Bar and Hall on the 5th and 6th of February. When I attended I was thrilled to not only see that it had sold out—granted, limited seating was part of the experience—but that it was a very diverse audience.
The Amsterdam was a neat venue, but I was very disappointed with the way they handled logistics. I had preordered tickets to this event the day it it was announced, and yet I stood in a very long line and got in behind people who bought tickets at the door. There should have been separate lines for will call, ticket in hand, and purchases at the door. (They said they only had a handful of at the door tickets available, so this made even less sense.) Still, I was able to score a second-row seat, with optimal view of the small, low stage. Intimate was the perfect word to describe the set-up, and although the hall was not optimized for the sounds of orchestral music, it still sounded great.
Roth is an absolute joy to watch. He truly becomes one with the music and watching him become fluid within the melodies is mesmerizing. He also has an amazing stage presence that is larger than life while remaining accessible and humble. I was particularly pleased that he personally performed “The Promise” (FFXIII), as he is an immensely talented violinist.
The rest of the players were phenomenal as well. It was clear that they enjoyed performing these pieces, which were a good selection and fair representation of the Final Fantasy series through Uematsu’s history with it. Featuring music the very first to the very latest installment, XIII, the selection was varied but consistent. There was a lot of fun songs, like the “Moogle Theme” and a few samples of the “Chocobo Theme.” Strong, pieces, such as “Red Wings,” and mellow, calm songs like “Town.”
Out of all the pieces performed, one stands out above all others: “Battle with Seymour” (FFX), performed by string quartet. This a neat song with a lot going on in its original form, but presented in this format, it was insane. Without getting into the technicalities of the music and instruments, this song is amazingly, incredibly difficult to perform. I think even people without more functional knowledge of music theory can recognize this. My jaw was on the floor the entire time, and I stood up in ovation the moment they finished. Every time I listen to this track on the album, I get chills. If you click the link above and listen to the song, compare it to this version, which is the one from A New World and prepare to be amazed.
The only piece I did not care for was “One Winged Angel,” which just . . . didn’t work scaled down. This song is over the top, bombastic, loud, forceful, and commanding at its very core. A smaller ensemble just could not push it there, and it was obviously included as musical fanservice.
The album, which is available for purchase, is a solid buy and highly recommended if you are a fan of soundtracks, classical music, or, obviously, video-game scores.
Speaking of the album—CDs were available to buy at the show, but the albums had been shipped to the concert destinations straight from the manufacturer and, unfortunately, were defective. This was only discovered after the show. Arnie Roth sent an email to all those who had attended, apologizing profusely, giving clear instructions how to get a replacement, and providing a link to the digital version of the album so fans could listen while their replacement discs were on the way. I was very surprised and pleased with the speed, sincerity, and efficiency of correcting the mistake. It goes to show how professional Roth and his team are, particularly because a link like that could be passed around and hurt future album sales. There was more concern for making sure fans were not disappointed than any potential issues for them in the future.
I do very much believe that Roth and crew are doing this for the love of this incredible the music. And we should be so thankful to be able to see these amazing pieces swell to life.
Follow this link to get your own copy of A New World: Intimate Music of Final Fantasy.