Symphonic Memories: Tales of Merregnon Studios (Part 3)
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Audun: So your next project was based on the works of Nintendo. You mentioned earlier that Nintendo were always friendly and very easy to work with, but they are actually known to be very strict and difficult, especially when it comes to their music, so how did you experience them now when doing a full concert only with their music?
Thomas: The important thing to keep in mind is that we always dealt with Nintendo of Germany before, and dealing with them is quite different as one would expect. I went to Kyoto personally to sit down with the legal department and higher ups at Nintendo to pitch this show, and since they knew of me from the 2003 concert and beyond, they had trust in me. More importantly, Kondo was already a fan of Jonne’s work which helped us gain permission due to his endorsement.
What was most difficult however, was getting the permission for a live broadcast. Nintendo was adamantly against this idea, and really fought with me on that for months. We had broadcasted every show in Cologne since Shades, and I felt very strongly that this one should be no different, not to mention that WDR is a radio and TV station and needs the broadcast rights regardless in the contract. Eventually they saw it my way and allowed us to broadcast it live.
Audun: The concert actually took place on Nintendo’s birthday, didn’t it?
Thomas: Yes, we wanted to celebrate that special day in style!
Audun: This concert is very different from the other shows, because this is such an experimental show. Why didn’t you just do it the safe and sound way?
Thomas: Because I feel that Nintendo music are more singular theme specific melodies, that don’t translate as well into a longer style show really. This isn’t to say in any shape or form that Nintendo’s music is not as strong compared to SQEX, but just that the music mostly isn’t there to tell a story in the same way. So we had to experiment with it, but that always allows us to surprise the fans.
Roger: Yeah Nintendo’s music really required a very different approach because the melodies work so well individually but arranging it together means you have to really explore every single detail about the characters and pick up on these small details. Because like in Mario, you’re a plumber who just jumps through levels and goes from situation to situation, it doesn’t have the character development of an RPG.
Audun: You had the responsibility of arranging the most recognizable video game music in the world this time though, with Super Mario Bros. Any pressure there, Roger?
Roger: (Laughs) a lot of pressure. But in another way, I knew that Mario had to be a bit more traditional form medley. So that’s harder to screw up. You go from situation to situation, overworld jumping, swimming and that kind of stuff. But of course there was incredible pressure considering everyone knows those songs by heart.
Audun: So Jonne, I guess I’ll just let you talk as much as you want about Symphonic Poem, your most famous work. How do you even begin to write a 30 minute plus arrangement of Zelda? How do you survive? (Laughs)
Jonne: I watched the games, read everything I could, just gather every piece of material on Zelda I could find and immersed myself. Thomas told me that he had the idea based on Richard Strauss’ A Hero’s Life, and tell the story of a hero being awakened, and follow that hero from childhood to his victory over evil. I wrote a map basically detailing every story point to hit, and began to write from there. Zelda is such an incredible series, and there is so much music, so I had to choose what made the most sense within this sort of poem structure that goes through 5 parts.
Audun: How long did this all take you?
Jonne: Writing the arrangement you mean? Around 5 months. 3-4 months were spent on simply researching the Zelda universe and listening to all the original music, and then 2 months of constant writing.
Thomas: And we are always looking into the classical world for inspiration what could inspire a brand new take on video game music, and Strauss’ symphonic poem is somewhat biographical, and so I made concept document of all the Zelda characters and how they interact with each other and their meaning to the overall story. IMO what Jonne did is the best video game arrangement I ever heard, and the way it tells Link’s entire story from childhood to his climax of heroism is just outstanding.
Jonne: I was so nervous when that was performed, because at the concert you start thinking about how the audience might react, maybe they’ll hate it with a passion and not even pay attention. I always want to push the limits of the listener as much as the music itself.
Thomas: Yeah because it’s one thing when we sit at home and discuss these things, we can be so brave and just throw around ideas, but when you are in a room with 2000 people, not knowing how they will react. It’s incredibly nerve wrecking.
Audun: While Symphonic Poem was controversial, the Metroid arrangement was even more controversial! You brought in Thorsten Rasch*, a German born composer who works in the Japanese film industry.
Thomas: I knew him since he did the symphonic Rammstein album, and I brought him in and knew something would happen (laughs). That was the intention though, to deliver something completely different in order to differentiate it from the rest of the program, just like the game itself was so different. A lot of people hate it because the concept wasn’t melodically focused; it was all atmospheric and ambient.
But to me this isn’t all negative. Of course we love positive feedback across the board, but this is like any other art, you need to sometimes create discussion and have varied opinions to drive forward, not always play it safe. Some reviews noted that they felt Metroid was the best piece of the show, so it goes to show that people can react very differently to these things.
Audun: How was Nintendo’s reaction afterwards?
Thomas: They listened to it and really loved what we did, the chances we took. Kondo told me numerous times that he wants to be in attendance for Symphonic Poem because he loves the arrangement Jonne did. Nintendo doesn’t really give much feedback officially, but what really speaks strongly for us, is that Nintendo granted us permission to perform the concert again in Stockholm one year** later without any trouble.
Audun: So in 2011, Symphonic Odysseys was like Shades before it, a tribute to a single composer, this time being Nobuo Uematsu. Did Uematsu have a lot of input on the concept and production?
Thomas: Not at all and that was because he himself didn’t want to know anything. After Symphonic Fantasies, and in particular Jonne’s arrangement of Secret of Mana, Uematsu was keen on hearing much more experimental takes on his music in that style, so when we told him that we were going ahead with the idea of doing a Uematsu tribute concert, he just said “Don’t tell me anything about it, I want to be surprised.”
Audun: So you began looking into all his soundtracks to pick out material from his entire career?
Thomas: We love Final Fantasy of course, and know that this is the franchise which he will always be most well known for. But if you talk to Uematsu as a person and friend, you’ll see that the music from games such as Last Story, Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey and so on, those really mean a lot to him too and are very personal to him. So we really wanted to give him as well as the fans the most vivid selection.
Jonne: This was like a combination of Shades and Fantasies, right?
Thomas: Yeah that was something I did intentionally. When you look at all the concerts in this series, they all are structured very differently. Shades was a more traditional commercial style concert, Fantasies had these longer pieces based around one theme, Legends had the 30 minute Symphonic Poem. So with Odysseys I rounded it up and combined all these elements to sort of bring it all together for our biggest show yet.
I think this worked really well for the fans because you got some shorter pieces along with longer ones to diversify things. Like Roger’s wonderful piano concerto.
Audun: That’s right; you did a 16 minute piano concerto with Benyamin Nuss based on Final Fantasy 1-6.
Roger: Yeah, I wrote the whole thing and sent it to Benyamin a week before rehearsals. This was sort of the piece I wanted to most, I told Thomas a long time ago that I wanted to do a large piano concerto, and when Odysseys came around, he allowed me to do it based on Final Fantasy. It’s my most emotional work by far, I think.
Audun: What about Uematsu? He was quite emotional too afterwards.
Thomas: Well just go back and look at the pictures and you can see that he has the biggest smile in the world throughout the entire night. Actually I’ll tell you a story. Uematsu never responds to emails, I have known him for over 10 years and I have only received 2 emails from him, one of which was after Odysseys. I printed it out and hung it up on my wall, and it says “The concert was incredible, and please never forget that I will always be on your side. I admire your work.”
His label*** also released the album based on this concert and he went out and promoted it quite a lot.
Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo
Audun: I can remember back when we first met many years ago that one of the things you wanted to achieve was to have a concert in Tokyo and a concert with the London Symphony Orchestra. So in 2012 you finally did get a chance to produce a concert in Japan with Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo. When did you know that you would finally be able to do this?
Thomas: Hmm, after 2009’s original Fantasies shows, I sent out the feelers to SQEX that I would love to have this show performed in Japan, and after some back and forth they finally gave the OK in summer of 2011. This was really difficult though because everyone’s schedule had to line up, concert hall and orchestra had to be available in Japan, working visas, the whole lot. But we made it happen.
Audun: How did the fans take to the arrangements though? Because these are very different style of arrangements from what you would usually hear in a video game music concert and the fairy tale style that they possess is very European in lack of a better term.
Thomas: Right after the concert they went really quiet, like Japanese crowds usually are, so you have to really focus to see some emotional reaction. But once they got to Twitter, once the press began writing, the feedback was probably the strongest we have ever gotten. Famitsu gave us rave reviews, and SQEX said it was the biggest music production they had ever green lit in Japan. So it was a really wonderful experience. We had game composers from all of the biggest video game companies in Japan in attendance, from Nintendo, SEGA, just about everyone was there.
Audun: You decided to release the recording of this Tokyo concert on CD despite already being released in 2010.
Thomas: We made a lot of changes to the arrangements to improve them even further, and we also wanted to include the encore, which was only released digitally after the Cologne performances. So with this, we did a double disc album and presented the entire show finally. This CD is selling really well still, especially in Japan.
Audun: For Jonne and Roger, this was their first time in Japan too, right?
Jonne: Yeah and I loved it, absolutely loved it. Wherever you go, I always feel people end up being quite similar in terms of behavior and personalities, but in Japan it was totally different. In a very good way… It was a really inspirational trip for me. I sort of stopped and had to rethink a lot of things, because it opened my eyes. This is very hard to explain.
Audun: Well what about you Roger, besides being 3 times as tall as everyone there.
Roger: (Laughs) Yeah sometimes I had to walk with bent knees to fit in. Well like Jonne it was just this inspirational and great trip. There was this overwhelming friendliness, great food, awful karaoke. And we did this little concert I think (laughs).
Audun: 2012 really became the year of Symphonic Fantasies because after the Tokyo show in January, you went to Stockholm in June, and then back to Cologne in the fall. So there was over 10,000 altogether that saw Fantasies that year.
Thomas: Stockholm has always been very interested in our projects, and you know we did Legends a few years before Fantasies, so we always return there whenever we can because of the incredible orchestra and audience. Actually the Swedish fans were really happy because this one notorious reviewer that never really talks about anything but how crazy the fans are and how weird the concept of video game music in concert is; suddenly he said that he gets it and gave us a great review. So the fans really thanked us for that (laughs).
Continued in part 4 (Final Symphony).
* Thorsten Rasch is a German born composer who is most well known for his works on over 40 Japanese films as well as Rammstein's Mein Herz brennt.
** LEGENDS took place in Stockholm Concert Hall on 1 June, 2011. It featured slightly modified arrangements from those heard in Cologne. In attendance was David Wise of Rare and Masashi Hamauzu.
*** Dog Ear Records is a music publishing label founded by Nobuo Uematsu. On December 28, 2011, Dog Ear Records released a double disc album containing the entire recording of Symphonic Odysseys.