Bridge Between Distant Worlds: Interview with Nobuo Uematsu and Arnie Roth

For years, the legendary video game series Final Fantasy has been a gaming fan favorite, well known for its character designs and storylines. The soundtrack of the series has garnered much attention and popularity as well, building its own unique fan base. For the past four years, Nobuo Uematsu — the composer of the entire video game scores for Final Fantasy I through IX and Final Fantasy XIV along with a few compositions for the games in between — has collaborated with Grammy-award winning conductor Arnie Roth to create Distant Worlds, a worldwide orchestra tour celebrating the music of Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy fans will naturally find the concert to be an incredible, nostalgic experience; however, with the powerful orchestra and large high-definition projections of scenes from the video game, Distant Worlds was much more than just your average audiovisual experience. Despite my own unfamiliarity with the soundtrack and video games, the music overwhelmed my senses, and I felt it throughout my entire body. The images served as a platform for the music, a vehicle that took my mind to another place far, far away — a distant world.

After the show, APA interviewed Uematsu and Roth separately — Uematsu in Japanese, Roth in English. Their individual personalities came out very quickly as soon as their interviews began. Bright and cheerful, Uematsu exchanged playful banter throughout the laughter-filled interview. Contemplative and expressive, Roth shared many interesting and detailed stories about Distant Worlds.

APA: You two have worked together since 2005 [on concerts such as Dear Friends, More Friends, Voices, and now Distant Worlds]. How do you two work so well together, especially with the language barrier?

Nobuo Uematsu: Music and beer. [laughs]

Arnie Roth: Actually, we do share a couple mutual interests outside of music. We had some time in between our performances in Seattle and San Francisco, so I said, “Let’s rent a car so we can drive into Napa Valley.” My passion is carbonets, particularly. He loves that as well, but he’s into beer. That’s his favorite. I said, “When we come to Napa Valley, you have to stay with us at my home. We’re remodeling the house, and I just put in a small wine cellar.” So we just went through it together. [laughs] He’s much more passionate about burgers than I am though.

Nobuo: Actually, Arnie was remodeling his house while I was remodeling mine too at the same time. We both have studios in our basements, but the sizes are completely different. His house is like two times bigger than mine, and his wine cellar is like 100 times bigger! [laughs]

Arnie: We’re great friends at this point. That’s probably the most important thing. There’s a great amount of mutual respect. Literally, [I am in] jaw-dropping awe at the sheer volume of original composition that this man has turned out, over what is going to be 25 years shortly. It’s an amazing amount of work. I understand all the work that goes into composing for video games and film. Hundreds and thousands of hours are put into each one of these games. For Symphonic Odysseys, a concert tribute to Nobuo-san, I worked with my friend Thomas Boecker, and we played Final Fantasy music as well as some of Nobuo-san’s pre-Final Fantasy work, and he said he didn’t even remember writing some of those pieces. [laughs]

But, I think it’s really gratifying for me to see him get just as excited about the pieces, whether old or new, at the concerts. And to me, that’s very exciting — to see a composer that invested in this. He always tries to come in to every single rehearsal. We’ve come to trust each other with the decision-making process, and we can lean on each other in different ways and exchange ideas.

Nobuo: [Arnie] has this vitality, this energy. He does everything from conducting and composing the music for the Barbie films to playing the violin, going all around the world to do these concerts. When doing this sort of thing for a long time, usually conductors have young assistants, but Arnie always flies all around the world, carrying his own bags and doing his own things himself. He’s a musician that I respect deeply.

Arnie: Nobuo-san loves the interactions with the fans. I don’t think he always thought he would love it so much, but [he loves it more] as we have done more and more. As a matter of fact, last night he said, “Don’t forget to whistle the victory song!” We only did it once before, and I was surprised he suggested to do it again, but it was a great idea. That’s just how into it he is.

APA: [to Uematsu] If you could only pick one of your compositions, which would be your favorite?

Nobuo: That’s really hard. Only one?

APA: Yes, if you could only pick one.

Nobuo: Then, I won’t pick! [laughs] You’re being too harsh! It’s too difficult to just pick one. They’re all the same to me because they are like my children.

APA: But even parents probably have their favorites, right?

Nobuo: How would I know? Aren’t all children cute? [laughs]

APA: [to Uematsu] Since you were so reluctant to perform on stage, why did you decide to perform “Dark World”? [For years, Roth has been trying to convince Uematsu to perform a solo on stage, but he has adamantly refused until the first night of the Los Angeles leg of Distant Worlds, when Uematsu finally performed on the keyboard with Roth on the violin.]

Nobuo: I didn’t choose to do it! Arnie did! He’s the one who played the solo violin, didn’t he? [laughs] I probably did it because the organ portion is simple. I think it probably was chosen because of that. It’s a really plain song, huh? It’s from Final Fantasy VI, and it’s not a song that really stands out. When we performed “Dark Worlds,” even Sakaguchi-san [creator of Final Fantasy] didn’t recognize the song [laughs].

Arnie: For many years, I have been asking Nobuo-san to play with us live — from all the way back to Dear Friends [which toured in 2004-5]. We had worked together on a couple things, and The Black Mages came to play with us during Dear Friends, but [Uematsu] was very nervous about playing solo piano or keyboard with the orchestra. It took many years looking in the library for what we could do.

It was very obvious when I heard the 8-bit version of “Dark Worlds.” It had this very simple “dan dan dan dan” beat; it was perfect! Da~n! We’ll do that. I knew he would agree to it. Because I kept asking him things! In the previous years, he wouldn’t play the pipe organ solo in “Dancing Mad.” He was like, “Oh no no, it’s too difficult.” “Love Grows” is based on “Eyes on Me,” and it has beautiful piano writing, and he’s like “No no, too difficult.” So, I looked a little more for something more straightforward with a simpler tempo, things he would feel more comfortable playing.

It’s not a technical problem; I think it’s more that he felt very exposed with the orchestra because they come from very different places in terms of their training. He understands the orchestra and instruments, but he still grew up self-taught, working with bands and jazz, so I think there still is a questionable comfort level in terms of being center-stage as a soloist with the orchestra. This is a good way to start pulling him into it. I’m constantly searching for things to get him to play, so if you have any suggestions, please let me know!

If you actually listen to it, it sounds like Nobuo-san playing the organ part and the synth violin playing on top. There were two keyboards: the bottom was the actual organ, whereas the top one was for all the sound effects. [The top keyboard] actually only [makes] that wind sound, which is from the original sample used in the game as well. I originally asked him, “How about we write a little section where you can actually take a solo? Take it!” He said, “No no no… let’s stick to the sound effects and the wind.” [laughs]

It was a fun challenge because I was trying to take this 8-bit version with the wind voice and a simple melody — and figure out how to orchestrate it. For my concept, I wanted to keep showing wind musically, flying through the environment. As the piece builds up, there are little references of this ebbing sort of melody, going up and down to represent wind. There is this fantastical section in which the wind and strings come together and play that melody. I try my best to stay true to the original composition, while just enhancing it. I’m very happy we were able to make a happy marriage of all these elements.

APA: [to Roth] You conduct with such energy and enthusiasm that conducting in itself seems like a performance. How do you prepare for your performance?

Arnie: There’s a physical aspect to conducting, you know. Actually, I’ll tell you an interesting story. I was a professional violinist for most of my life, but when I moved almost exclusively to conducting, I found that playing the violin, that physical motion of this [horizontal arm movement] is actually quite different from the motion of this [vertical arm movement], for conducting. One day I was working out at the gym with my personal trainer, and we’re going through one of the routines, and as I was doing pushups, I suddenly heard a pow and collapsed in pain. Turns out that one muscle had completely detached from my right shoulder, and there was a lot of damage in there. I ended up having surgery on my right shoulder to reattach it, and I actually conducted the Chicago performance of Dec ’08 with a sling. I couldn’t move it very much though. Later, I ended up doing the left shoulder too. It’s not a problem anymore though. Arthroscopic surgery can do amazing things! [laughs] Now, I make sure to do a little warmup to loosen up before I get started.

APA: [to Uematsu] I heard that you like to go on a hambuger tour while you’re in the US. What’s the best burger you’ve ever had?

Nobuo: In ‘n Out wasn’t bad. Hmmm, but the best? San Francisco was good, but Napa Valley was really good. There was this place Arnie and I went to eat. The restaurant was so good, but it was also really expensive!

APA: What sort of burger was it?

Nobuo: Just a regular one. [laughs]

Hiroki Ogawa, the director of Uematsu’s Dog Ear Records pipes in: I wrote the name of the place somewhere. I wrote a journal entry on the hamburger too. [laughs] We are very serious about this.

Arnie: That one in Napa Valley.

Nobuo: Yes, that one!

Arnie: It’s on this little mountain and it overlooks the Valley. I think it’s Auberge something. [Note: Auberge du Soleil.] It’s French I think. They’ve got the best hamburgers.

APA: What else would you like to bring to the Distant Worlds tour in the coming years?

Nobuo: Of course, there are a lot of things I want to do! I don’t have any specific ideas that I want to do right now, but I would like to see the full opera version of Maria and Draco performed for Distant Worlds. I want to do more concerts in more places with more pieces, but I want to do it a bit at a time. I think my dream might be a little too big. [laughs] Maybe it’s not possible for me to do everything, but it’s okay because I’m free to have this sort of dream, right? [laughs]

Arnie: We’re going to Seoul and London, and we’re about to announce Boston and Pittsburgh. Actually, we’re going to premiere the orchestral version of “Eyes on Me” in Seoul and London, and we’re finishing up the arrangements right now. We’re going to announce a lot of tour stops and dates in September, and we’re going to keep pushing forward and trying to go to places we haven’t been before — like London. We’re working on Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy and so many other places in Europe. We’ve been dying to go to Paris! We’ve been trying for two years with Japan Expo, and we were so close, but it didn’t quite work out. We’re talking to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. We want to get into China as well.

It feels good to know we’re going to keep going with the tour. We may morph it into another thing or go on a second tour or use a different style and repertoire. Clearly, Distant Worlds has established itself and needs to stick around for now. But the big question is, what do we do for the 25th anniversary? Looking forward to putting that musical celebration together, but it’s coming up real fast!

Mai Nguyen

Editor-in-Chief at Asia Pacific Arts.
Feel free to send me a note on Twitter to @hellomailee.

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