Last Saturday was to be a day of firsts for me. I was to hold my first interview for www.Original-Gamer.com, with Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu and his collaborator Arnie Roth. It was also going to be the first orchestral concert I have ever attended, featuring the Houston Symphony conducted by Mr. Roth. Finally, it would be the first time I would be hearing a significant portion of the music on the program. This is because my exposure to Final Fantasy is limited to playing Final Fantasy VII…I only got partway through Disc 2.
That said, I enjoy game music, from the primitive tones of the NES to the orchestral scores now gracing nearly every top-tier title these days. Music has always been a big part of Final Fantasy, and Mr. Uematsu has written nearly every piece of music for the series. I was looking forward to the event, despite my unfamiliarity with the source material.
Fellow site contributor Mike Villela and I met Nobuo Uematsu and Arnie Roth at Jones Hall a few hours prior to the evening’s performance. I had a great time speaking with them as we discussed Distant Worlds and video game music. With two acclaimed artists sitting before me, I felt compelled at the end to ask the thorny question of “Are videogames art?” For my efforts, I received two of the most thought-provoking answers I think I have ever heard on the subject. I won’t spoil it here, you’ll need to see the interview to find out!
We burned a few hours by getting lost around downtown Houston, and then returned to Jones Hall for the concert. The ages of the attendees seemed a bit on the younger side, and dress ranged from jeans and t-shirts to suits and dresses and everything in between. A few cosplayers eagerly posed for pictures as we waited for the hall to open. Once inside, the lobby was alive with excited anticipation. I purchased a copy of the first Distant Worlds CD and took my seat.
The lights soon dimmed and the audience became silent…briefly. As Mr. Roth entered the stage and began walking to the conductor’s podium, the audience went wild. It hadn’t really dawned onto me up until that point, but the two gentlemen I had spoken with are rock stars. A second burst of applause came as Mr. Roth pointed out Mr. Uematsu’s presence in the audience.
The orchestra began the program with “Prelude” and I was transfixed at the sheer beauty of the music. Hearing a live orchestral performance for the first time was very moving, and is one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced in my life. I was so entralled that I bought the second Distant Worlds CD during intermission.
Above the orchestra was a screen onto which images from the games were displayed while the music played. At one point in between songs, the people sitting behind me remarked that the images were distracting. I didn’t share that viewpoint, but as a Final Fantasy neophyte I did find them confusing. I can only imagine what must have gone through the minds of folks that are completely unfamiliar with the series. The 16-bit visuals that accompanied “Opera, Maria and Draco” from Final Fantasy VI drew some unintentional laughs from the audience.
I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of music styles in the program. Classical, Latin, even rock and swing were represented. The audience was clearly enjoying the Houston Symphony’s performance: the end of each song bought raucous applause and cheers. Conductor Arnie Roth was also having a great time, and turned a minor gaffe to his advantage. He prematurely introduced the final song, “J-E-N-O-V-A” about halfway through the program. Luckily, a musician informed him of his error, and Arnie quickly apologized to the audience. As the night went on, though, he occasionally reminded us that “J-E-N-O-V-A is coming soon…I promise!”
“J-E-N-O-V-A” was not the end of the concert, though. After showering the Houston Symphony with thunderous applause, we were delighted to hear “Terra’s Theme” and “One-Winged Angel,” for which Mr. Uematsu enthusiastically joined the choir and invited the audience to do the same as the song’s lyrics appeared on the screen above us.
After the concert, Nobuo Uematsu and Arnie Roth answered questions that were submitted by attendees. An especially funny moment came when the question asked was: “If you had a chocobo, what color would it be?” Arnie shrugged, then replied “Yellow, I guess!” Nobuo replied in a menacing voice: “BLACK CHOCOBO!” eliciting laughs from the audience. He seemed to reconsider his answer for a moment and then said “BLACK CHOCOBO…FROM HELL!” to even more laughter.
The show was over after the Q&A, so Mark and I hopped onto I-10 and headed back to San Antonio. It had been a long day, but a very enjoyable one. Despite not being a fan of of the Final Fantasy games, I found the Houston Symphony’s performance of “Distant Worlds II” enjoyable from start to finish, and it was a pleasure to speak with Messrs. Uematsu and Roth.
Mr. Uematsu’s work stands on its own. It is not “just video game music” and it is not “just Final Fantasy music.” It is beautiful, wonderful music that just happens to have been written for video games named “Final Fantasy.” Distant Worlds II is an event that any music lover will enjoy whether or not they have ever had a controller in hand or virtually ridden a chocobo.
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