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A chat with the man who brought video games to the concert hall

Orchestras around the world are desperately seeking new audiences. They’ve tried shorter concerts and even half-arse t-shirts, but one of the initiatives most successful at luring new concert goers is a series of shows with orchestras playing music from video games. Final Symphony, featuring the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the music of the Final Fantasy series, played recently in Auckland. Eugenia Woo talked to the bloke who came up with the whole idea. 

I met with Thomas Böcker, acclaimed producer of symphonic video game concerts, a few days before his work, Final Symphony, opened in Auckland at Aotea Centre. We spoke over coffee (apparently Auckland’s is fantastic) about the journey that he’s taken – how did he go from being a kid enraptured by 8-bit music to an award-winning producer of symphonic video game concerts?

Thomas was sharp, funny, and he has a dream: that one day, the worlds of traditional classical music and video game music will collide spectacularly in the form of international concerts as the new norm. With things like Yeethoven already making waves, he’s confident that this dream will be a reality soon enough, and that it will transform performative orchestral music as we know it.

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Thomas Böcker

If you had to rewind time back to the moment when you first realised that you could marry video games and these elaborate orchestral arrangements, what would that moment look like?

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my father was wise enough to buy the family a Commodore 64. It was what first introduced me to the world of games and computers. Around this time, I started to like video game music very much and many years later, I read in a German game magazine that video game music was being performed in Japan by live orchestras in concert halls. The magazine was calling it crazy but I thought, “It’s actually not that crazy; it’s a cool idea.” I waited for something like that to happen outside of Japan but it never did, so I figured that since nobody else is doing it, I have to do it.

I approached the Leipziger Messe, which is a trading company in Germany, and at the time they were starting to put on games conventions. I asked them if they would like to work with me on presenting a video game music concert and I sent them a proposal. We ended up agreeing on having a video game music concert as their official opening ceremony for those conventions. In 2003 we presented the first video game music concert outside of Japan at the Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, a very prestigious concert hall. It was received very well so we did concerts every year up until 2007 for these game conventions as their opening ceremony. These concerts were sold-out each time.

I kinda jumped from being 7 years old to talking about the video game convention concerts, so I’m sorry about that!

No, no, it was quite cool hearing about your background!

What I did was I worked on a project called Merregnon. Merregnon started in 1999 and it stemmed from this idea I had: I would invite game composers from all over the world to write original music for a fantasy story which I came up with. I wanted them to tell that story via their music, and I was the producer and creator of this project. One way to describe Merregnon would be to call it a “video game soundtrack for a video game that never existed.” It was my intention to show these composers’ skills outside of the gaming industry, and this was released in 2000.

We wanted to try new things, and a huge step was Symphonic Shades; for this one, I had the opportunity to work with one main arranger who came up with totally new arrangements just for this concert. The WDR radio and TV station, a public broadcasting company, were actually the ones who gave us the opportunity to come up with something entirely new.

It was also the first ever video game music concert with a live broadcast on radio and over the internet via streaming, so it was really quite unique.

The year after, we jumped into Symphonic Fantasies, which is the Square Enix tribute concert. This was actually the first live-streamed video game concert that also streamed video footage alongside the actual music. People could now watch this no matter where they were in the world, and it was a very interesting experience for us because people from everywhere were watching this live and commenting on the message boards, spreading the word. It was very special and encouraging for us to go on with these sort of productions.

Then we agreed that I would produce 4 concerts for the WDR, which were: Symphonic Shades, Symphonic Fantasies, Symphonic Legends and Symphonic Odysseys.

Symphonic Shades in particular was the tribute concert to Chris Huelsbeck. Symphonic Legends was the tribute concert to Nintendo and Symphonic Odysseys was the tribute concert to Mr Nobuo Uematsu, who as you know is the composer of Final Fantasy. These 4 very important concerts happened all in Cologne, at the Philharmonic Hall, and they were the reason why my concerts became more well-known internationally.

Those crucial concerts that you mentioned happened quite quickly after you produced your very first works. Did you at all feel intimidated by the scope of the work that you were pursuing? Was there uncertainty about how it would be received?

Well, one good thing about the WDR concerts is that they were all financially supported by the WDR, so we didn’t have any financial concerns or issues. We never really had any fears because we knew that we had WDR’s support so we could just try and see how it all works.

So you didn’t feel like you had anything to lose, in a sense.

At this time, the orchestras were looking for a younger audience. They were trying strange things, like changing their traditional structure and adding light effects or lasers to get attention from a young audience, but in my opinion those things aren’t really needed. What you need is to build a bridge between you and the audience.

Going back to Final Symphony – it has a full symphony of 45 minutes, and you will see that people are sitting there in silence, listening to every note because they want to get every part of this concert because they have a connection to it. It’s Final Fantasy. It’s a story that they care for. That’s key – creating content which relates to an audience. Once you do that, you can do more sophisticated arrangements. They’ll listen to it and appreciate it, you just have to show them that you care for what they’re interested in. The stuff in Final Symphony has a hard-core Classical structure, and it works very well still. I think it shows that what you really need is to show interest in what the audience today wants to listen to. As great as Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche is, the story might not be as interesting to an audience today as the one in Final Fantasy 7… where you’re telling the story of Sephiroth Tifa and Aerith.

You will be able to get people back into the concert halls if you connect with them, and my dream is actually that one day there will be a very brave orchestra manager who will mix music. For example, you’ll have a Nobuo Uematsu piano concerto alongside Tchaikovsky, and maybe even Prokofiev. I think it works musically and it could be very interesting because you’d have attendees who are classical music fans who would learn about the other kinds of music out there, and you’d also have a young audience listening to Prokofiev and maybe they’d think “this sounds great, I should go home and check this out”. Getting both audiences together in the concert hall is one of my goals.

The good thing is that with Final Symphony in Auckland, Eckhard Stier is the conductor, and he used to be the Chief Director of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. He is one of these conductors who is very open-minded and creative, and he said that he will try his best to mix both worlds of music, so I’m positive that it will happen one day. It will not just be for one concert or for two, but it will be regular. It will be a wonderful thing.

Could you walk me through producing a concert like Final Symphony? Who else is involved besides you, Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo?

Well, it’s basically me and the two arrangers. That’s the core team. I’m the creator, so to speak, the guy with the idea, and I have people who have to make my idea work. I also know the games very well so, for example, regarding my work with Symphonic Fantasies in 2009, all 4 composers were in attendance. Shimomura-san, Kikuta-san, Mitsuda-san and Uematsu-san were all there. When we spoke to Uematsu-san, he asked us to stay close to the original arrangements which were already known from the other concerts. The Final Fantasy part of that concert was the most traditional compared to the others.

Long story short, Uematsu was sitting in the studio and listening to Secret of Mana by his colleague, Kikuta. For that song, the arranger recreated the sounds of nature with the orchestra and the choir. He did sound effects for the rain, for a thunderstorm, and it was very beautiful and intense. It was very 3D in sound. Uematsu was sitting there and he was so impressed with it that he told me “Please. Next time you’re doing a concert with my music, please go as far as you want! Be creative. Now you have my approval to do whatever you want.” After hearing that I thought, “Okay! If Uematsu says that, then it’s a good thing.” And that’s how Final Symphony was created.

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Nobuo Uematsu, composer of the Final Fantasy series and very into Final Symphony

I approached Square Enix once I had that encounter with Uematsu and then the work started after that approval. Our research started almost right away. We played all the games, then played them again. We watched walkthroughs on Youtube. We were sitting there for hours to make detailed lists. We checked the original soundtrack against the games to see which pieces were played in which scenes, and then we also made comments about the frequency of those occurrences so we could get an idea of what probably would be the most popular titles for the fans.

I think fans appreciate stuff like that. We got some feedback from people in Japan, they really are hard-core fans there, and they were saying that they could hear via the music that the people who worked on Final Symphony really loved the games. The arrangers put 6 months into working on the arrangements each, and the total time to come up with a concert like Final Symphony is about a year.

Do you have a favourite arrangement from all your Final Fantasy concerts?

It would be Interrupted by Fireworks from Final Fantasy 7. It’s the scene where Cloud is sitting with either Aerith or Tifa on a ferris wheel and the game is very dark, but it’s actually a romantic contrast to the rest of the material. I think that’s why it sticks in your head and it’s memorable. I’ve always found this piece to be beautiful, and the arranger Jonne [Valtonen] took this idea from the game and recreated the firework sounds in the arrangement. It’s very special. He’s describing what we thought would be a love triangle between Cloud, Tifa, and Aerith, so the themes are always changing depending on who is talking to who, then it goes to the second movement of the symphony and describes its very tragic end.

Musically, it’s very interesting because all of a sudden, Sephiroth’s theme is featured in the arrangement and you have a metallic hit then you hear the strings and they’re echoing the last breath of Aerith that eventually fades out. It’s a very emotional moment both in the game and in Jonne’s arrangement, and that’s why it’s my favourite.

Alright, what’s your favourite Final Fantasy game?

Okay, this is a hard one. Sometimes I say 6, sometimes I say 7. I like Final Fantasy 6 because it has such a fantastic story and it has a fantastic pool of wonderful melodies. There are so many great musical themes. I think Uematsu was asked by [Hironobu] Sakakuchi to write one for every character and location in the game, so from a musical standpoint it’s amazing for the arrangers. I spoke to Roger Wanamo who composed the symphonic poem for Final Fantasy 6 for this concert, which is called Born with the Gift of Magic. It’s referring to Terra, and he said that he could have turned the source material into yet another symphonic poem because there was just so much great music in the game.

On the other hand, Final Fantasy 7 is also very close to my heart because I played it quite a long time ago, and for a long time. It felt very attractive to me because of the darker story which was very mature for its time. It covers all sorts of emotions which you could ever imagine in one game, which is why I feel very strongly about it. It’s very hard for me to pick just one.

Both are clearly very important to you.

And that’s exactly why both games are featured in Final Symphony 1. I also like 10, but if I have to decide, I would say 6 or 7.

Moving on… chocobo or car? If they could coexist side by side.

Chocobo.

Chocobo? Really?

The chocobo plays a very important role in our game concerts. We always have inside jokes involving chocobos, so yes. Chocobo.

Now that video game production music is becoming more sophisticated in the sense that most scores have full orchestral recordings for everything now, do you think that limits the scope of the work that you’ll be able to do in the future?

Perhaps we’ll just have to find a new approach for this. I think it’s still possible for us to tell new stories with those melodies as long as the composers are open to such an approach. I would not say that it’s impossible but from my opinion, the composers always have the most fun if it’s an 8 or 16-bit soundtrack since they can really do what they feel works the best. As I said, I think it’s possible to work with music from the newer games and especially when we start thinking about Final Symphony 3, if we approach these new games, then we will think about new ways of telling stories.

One direction could be that we make a piano concerto where we would change the instruments that were originally playing the melodies that were in the game. We would then have to rethink everything, and that would be a good approach. I mean, it could be any instrument really but I think with Yoko Shimomura, the piano would be the best direction to take.

That’s right, she studied the piano.

Yes, and she uses it quite a bit in all of her game soundtracks. We would have to be creative once more.

Final question to wrap it all up: I know we’ve already spoken about the plans for Final Symphony 3 if it were to materialise. What’s on the 2017 agenda for you in terms of producing these concerts?

The main goal is to bring Final Symphony 1 and 2 to more countries. We had our successful first mini tour this year to the United States, and at first many producers were very sceptical about how we didn’t have screens displaying the game during those concerts. However, we had audiences who loved every minute of the concerts and we didn’t need screens. It was proof. No one could have known that before, but we had to try it and since it’s worked out, we’re going to try and get more dates in the US next year.

Another thing that I know, well, that I can tell you officially, is that we will have concerts in Munich with different video game soundtracks called Symphonic Selections. It’ll cover a range of games. Other really big concerts will be in Paris at the new concert hall and this will be together with the London Symphony Orchestra. We will also have Uematsu there as a guest of honour and it will also be the Selections program. We’ll have 2 different options there: the first one will be music from Kingdom Hearts and Chrono Trigger and the like, and the second will be the tribute concert Symphonic Odysseys with music from Blue Dragon and Final Fantasy and King’s Knight (one of the first games that Uematsu ever composed music for). We’ll be using a kazoo! It sounds very interesting, there’s going to be 60 people playing the kazoo. It gives the whole thing an 8-bit sound, and it’s a fantastic arrangement.

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The kazoo: the noblest of the novelty wind instruments

All the other concerts that we’re working on now, I can’t talk about yet, but there will be many more concerts to come.


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