The Beat Goes On

Sephiroth Saves The Symphony


It’s intimidating, knowing you’re talking with a Grammy winner and accomplished composer like Arnie Roth, so setting the tone early is key. I felt around for the perfect remark and opened with a smooth, “I really loved your Final Fantasy show,” wincing at the sheer geekiness dripping from my voice. While others may know him from his work with the likes of Diana Ross, The Three Tenors or Mannheim Steamroller, it was his conducting work on the Atlanta stop of the Dear Friends: The Music of Final Fantasy tour that brought him to my attention. I might be a bit on the reluctant side of geeky, but even I was forced to admit that the ground-shaking rendition of “One Winged Angel” with full backing choir was beyond cool.

However, the classical music world and videogames seem incompatible, on a cultural level, at first glance. I asked how him how a classically trained violinist and composer, not to mention the director of the Chicagoland Pops, wound up in front of an audience wearing everything from suits and ties to stitch-perfect White Mage robes.

“Jason Paul [creator of the concerts] and I knew each other from some other entertainment business [dealings] – Pavarotti, arena concerts, things like that we’d worked on together,” Roth says. “I found out that Jason had done the one performance of the Dear Friends show in Los Angeles with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.” After a quick conversation, they’d “worked out the components of a tour of Dear Friends, which the Atlanta Symphony dates were part of.”

After a tour of several major cities, they worked out, “a similar show called More Friends: The Music of Final Fantasy, and Nobuo Uematsu [the famous composer of the Final Fantasy series] and his rock group came out for that, as well, so it’s kind of been an ongoing process.” Around the same time, Roth and Park put together their current tour, Play: A Video Game Symphony, which is currently ongoing.

I asked him if he’d call himself a gamer, of if his being one of the guys in this new nexus of the classical and videogame worlds was a coincidence. “You know, I certainly wouldn’t call myself a gamer,” he said, but added, “It’s not a total coincidence.” As a music director, part of his job is to put together concert series and shows, and being open-minded is part of the key to being a successful music director. Trying new things like accompanying a movie with a symphony and, yes, videogame concerts is one of those things you have to do to succeed. “And I’ve done a lot of multimedia things,” he added, “I’ve produced a lot of film soundtracks and CDs for artists [like] The Irish Tenors and Peter Cetera, so I am constantly looking around. This was not a totally unnatural thing from an entertainment standpoint.”

He says introducing the music to a symphonic perspective is “challenging. The interesting thing about videogame music is, from a creative standpoint, all of the songs [the audience] is used to hearing … be it Halo or Nintendo games or Final Fantasy, they’re used to hearing the same music tracks with the same mix and the same audio compression and the same tempo over and over again.” He had to start with that music and present it to a live audience. “You start with the tempo they are used to, start with the melody they are used to, but the wonderful thing about a live symphony orchestra concert, or any live concert, is that it lives, it breathes, it has a different audio mix live than what you’re hearing when you play on the PlayStation or whatever game platform you’re using. The tempo will fluctuate, maybe infinitesimally, but it will fluctuate. On the end of a phrase, it may stretch a little bit longer. On a heroic scene or battle scene or whatever, it may get going a couple beats per minute faster through the excitement of a live performance, and this is what we live for as performers and what audiences should be living for, and I believe they are.

“[In] arrangements where we’ve taken very old themes – for instance, even Super Mario Bros. – and orchestrated it for full symphony orchestra, [the audience is] hearing it in a new setting for the first time, in a new arrangement. … It’s very challenging, especially when we have the audience there that knows all these themes and knows all this music really well.”

In addition to audience expectations, he has to consider the composers themselves, as they may well attend the shows or even contribute as guest composers. They had “Uematsu, of course, for the Final Fantasy music, but a lot of other composers come in for Play concerts. And, you know, they wrote this stuff, and they worked for thousands of hours on these music tracks, so I feel that there’s a great responsibility on me to get very close to what they wanted to say in their music. In that way, it’s not very different from my conducting a score by Debussy or Brahms or Stravinsky.

On the other hand, I think in many of these cases, we’re trying to do many innovative, unique things that were never fully realized.” As mentioned before, some of these game soundtracks are MIDI noises from the early ’90s, and “[to take] little bloops and bleeps … and to turn that into a full orchestral suite is a lot of fun, very challenging, and, yet, it has to make sense musically to the audience out there, too. It can’t be just kind of a musical joke.”

As for the music itself, I asked for his assessment of it as a musical professional. What is it about this music in particular that fills concert halls? While you can talk about videogame music in terms of its relationship to common musical themes in the traditional canon, he says it’s a more emotional experience, referring to “RPG games where [the player] actually goes through an emotional encounter, a battle scene, a growing situation, where they actually – whether it’s moving to another level with the game or whatever it is – they have these certain emotional ties. It doesn’t always have to be music that’s associated with a battle or with victory. For instance, ‘Aerith’s Theme’ from Final Fantasy. Here’s a character that, everywhere we go, [her] music is perhaps the most beloved music we run into. Certainly, ‘One Winged Angel’ is hugely popular, but I get emails from people that have used the music from ‘Aerith’s Theme’ to get married to. It [symbolizes] very deep, life-changing experiences for them. So I think what Uematsu-san has done is touch certain basic, deep, emotional cores with people.”

More than the simple repetition over the course of gameplay, the music represents “significant marks in their lives. And they bring this music back to accompany them on their life’s journey, not just the videogames. And I don’t think that’s so dissimilar to someone who wants to hear a famous Beethoven theme or whatever it might be. … There’s a particular emotion that people associate with the music, and they want to bring that back. It’s reliving that emotion.”

I was also interested in his take on the audience at those shows, as I couldn’t imagine he’d done a lot of shows with some audience members in full, accurate costumes. “Well, you know, I’ve talked about what a wonderful hybrid the audience for these shows is. They combine the best qualities of classical audiences, in that they’re very disciplined during the performance of the pieces. You can hear a pin drop. They want to hear every note of music. [They’re] very attentive, very respectful. On the other hand, they’re full of wild abandon when the piece is over or when you announce what you’re about to perform.” He hearkens back to his first Dear Friends show, when he got eight standing ovations and continues, “As a matter of fact, we just performed with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and the orchestra was commenting on the audience and how wonderful they were. It really opened their eyes [to the fact] that there is this other audience out there that they should be cultivating.”

Shifting into a mode I’d characterize as the Music Director rather than the Conductor, he added that, “the onus goes onto these orchestras that are presenting these concerts. We’re bringing this audience into the concert venue for them. These orchestras have their traditional audiences dying off at this point. They need to find ways to capture [the new] audience and keep them coming to symphony orchestra concerts. And that’s a very important fact. … It’s a wonderful thing to bring in these new audience members. In many cases, they are people who have never been in.” He used the Atlanta concert as an example, where several audience members told him it was their first time at the Atlanta Symphony, and I happened to be one of them. “[They] would certainly come back, and said as much. They’d love to come back to another concert, if the programming can keep them hooked and keep them interested.”

Intrigued by the notion of videogame music saving symphonies, I asked him how they might go about keeping younger audiences interested. He mentioned opera companies as doing the best job of growing a new audience, saying that they took a crowd looking for more spectacle and put more production efforts into typical operas. Symphonies, by contrast, “have tried lots of different things, and I believe they’ve met with more mixed success. And I would say that Dear Friends or Play is another way to reach out and touch another audience that was previously untapped by symphony orchestras. It’s really a question now of someone having the vision as a music director and programmer to follow up and grab those people. … A lot of this programming fits perfectly fine on a concert hall stage, right next to Stravinsky or Wagner or Holst or any number of composers. … I think they need to investigate that.”

According to Roth, these kinds of concerts are not just quirks of the pop culture landscape. “I think that there will be more of them,” he said. “How widespread it gets, I don’t know. I think that part of the fascination with Dear Friends and More Friends was the uniqueness of the concerts. They hadn’t been done, so it was quite a unique experience. … I also think that the music of Final Fantasy has a different kind of fan than some of the other games. They are more loyal to the music, so I think that’s important, as well.”

Looking to the future, “we can start to see, over the next five to 10 years, certain key pieces of music making their way to the concert stage. Maybe not full concerts of videogame music, but perhaps movie scoring parts of the evening, where there might be suites of music from various movies, and sitting side by side with that may be some of the big hits from Final Fantasy, or whatever it may be,” though he’s not sure whether it will be a few pieces in a full program or an entire concert of videogame music.

Reflecting on his comments about the opera companies, he mentions the opera scene from Final Fantasy VI (“which I’ve conducted a couple of times”) and muses about doing “a little more staging, not just showing video clips, but maybe some live action on the stage, along the lines of opera. It’s a new genre and it’s going to evolve, and it’s certainly an important thing. Since the symphony is the star here, it’s an important thing for symphony orchestras to look at, to take a very serious look at this to bring in a new audience.”

I asked him what he told his colleagues about what he does, picturing a “Sorry, I have to go conduct Final Fantasy music tonight” delivered to a bewildered monocle-wearer. “The colleagues that I work with that almost only work in the classical world may have no clue what that is, so there’s some background information.” He adds, though, that “the reality is, we don’t live in such a sheltered world anymore. All the orchestras are looking around. They’re looking at ways to build up a new audience. … Conductors and music directors and musicians, they’re all branching out and they’re all involved with classicalization, whether it’s symphony musicians playing in opera in LA, recording sessions, movie soundtracks [or] live symphony accompanying movies, they are musicians and they’re doing more and more about that.” When it comes to the Final Fantasy concerts and Play, he says “the word has kind of gotten out there already, certainly around North America, and I know that Europe and Asia are anxiously awaiting. Japan has had concerts for a long time, but there haven’t been very many concerts around the rest of the world. And they’re anxiously awaiting some of these live concerts coming in. And there are plans in place to have that happen.” It’s an unlikely story, but Aeris, Cloud and Sephiroth may save the symphony.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Shannon Drake.

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