Uematsu brings Fantasy scores to life

By Supriya Sinhababu

The nerdiest concert event of the year rolls into town tomorrow night. No, it isn’t a Harry and the Potters show. No, it’s not the Harvard marching band. What fanboys and fangirls the nation over will flock to the second city for is the only U.S. performance of Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy.

Grammy Award–winning conductor Arnie Roth will lead the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra through the works of legendary game composer Nobuo Uematsu, who will also make a guest appearance.

Does video-game music really deserve such an epic presentation? Just think back to the old-school, Famicom-era games. The early consoles’ limited audio capabilities didn’t stop game composers from writing catchy, even moving melodies. And considering the laughable translation jobs, cheeseball cut scenes, and thumbnail-size pixels of the retro games, music was often a saving aesthetic grace.

Fast-forward to 1995, when the advent of the Playstation let composers like Uematsu work with CD-quality sound. Uematsu earned acclaim from fans and gaming magazines alike for harnessing the new medium to its full potential, channeling inspirations from Igor Stravinsky to Led Zeppelin into symphonic instrumentation, wailing guitar solos, and operatic choruses. At the same time, Uematsu maintained the melodic sensibilities which made the old games memorable. Considering the healthy subgenre of Nintendo tribute bands the NES games have spawned, it seems only fitting that Uematsu’s opuses should receive a similar treatment.

Still, Uematsu would be the last person to conflate the status of video games. “In Japan, there’s still a way of thinking that ‘ video game is just for the children,’” he said in a translated e-mail interview. “Specifically, it may be regarded with hostility from the educator,” he added.

Nevertheless, Uematsu does not discount the games’ narrative power, saying their storylines can be just as captivating as those of movies or novels. “The music from the video game can be enjoyable at the concert hall, too,” he said. “I hope that the American people will come to the concert, especially surprised by the idea of a concert just for video-game music.”

Though he’s often referred to as “the Japanese John Williams,” Uematsu himself shrugs off the popular epithet. “I’m honored that everyone refers to me like that, but it doesn’t ring true to me at all,” he said. “It’s a pressure for me, so I am trying not to think about it.” Williams may get more name recognition in this hemisphere, but he may also have the easier job. Not only must Uematsu’s compositions sound cinematic enough to mirror the characters’ adventures; they must also stand up to repeated scrutiny, since they run on a loop until players finish a stage.

“For me, I feel bored when I listen to the music played on games, since I to the music many times while I was composing it,” he said. Clearly, his fans don’t share the sentiment.

Uematsu also works within the constraints specified by a whole regiment of directors and producers. Songs must be worked and reworked to fit the mood and timing of the scenes they accompany. However, Uematsu retains a great deal of artistic control. Though the higher-ups decide which songs should have choral parts, for example, Uematsu writes the lyrics and even chooses the language in which they are to be sung.

“I felt that it would be unfair to limit to one language because Final Fantasy would be sold across the world,” he said. “On the contrary, not many people would be familiar with Esperanto or Latin, so would be fair to everyone in the world.”

In spite of the fanfare his works have received, Uematsu keeps a clear head about his work. When asked why he has continually chosen to compose video-game soundtracks over movie soundtracks or stand-alone albums, Uematsu gave this humble response: “I think game music allows people to remember the tune while playing the game the music is played over and over, unless it would be turned off.”