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The concert producer who gives Nintendo music the world stage it deserves

Nintendo fan Eugenia Woo talks to Jason Michael Paul, the mind behind The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, about producing a world-renowned video game music concert.

In games, as in film, music is the great unseen signifier. The right soundtrack adds significance or emotion, contrasts themes, emphasises, diminishes, and even manipulates meaning – consider major keys and ominous strings in the context of a toddler running down the street. And, as in film, video game scores often outlive and outlast the project that birthed them. Some even go on to be performed stand-alone on stage.

Jason Michael Paul is perhaps the most authoritative expert on midwifing that transition. The producer of PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, he’s also the genius behind The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses – not to mention around 350 other shows. We spoke two weeks out from Symphony of the Goddesses, a one-night-only event in Auckland on 14 August.

So Jason, you’re well-known for producing not only Symphony of the Goddesses but also other video game concerts. The most iconic of those is probably PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, which ran for years before being replaced by Heroes.

That’s right, Heroes was performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2014. It’s a wonderful show. 

That concert obviously draws from a larger variety of music material, while Symphony of the Goddesses is obviously drawn from a single franchise. Which concert format do you prefer, and why? 

I like to be able to go back and forth; that truly satisfies my vision. The Legend of Zelda show, from the Overture to the Finale, is jam-packed with music and visual goodness. It’s a very tight production wholly focused on The Legend of Zelda. Then of course you have Heroes, which has a little of everything, including storytelling with narration provided by Nigel Carrington of Dear Esther fame. Using Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey as the overarching theme, we have carefully chosen the games to represent that chapter in the story. In addition to the two titles already mentioned, we included songs from: Castlevania, Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy, The Elder Scrolls, Guild Wars, BioShock, God of War, Dragon Age, Shadow of the Colossus, Metal Gear Solid, Halo and so much more.

What are the challenges associated with the different formats?

I think we have a well-oiled machine. Having produced over 350 concerts in my career, many of which with video game music, I am very apt to handle either format and like going back and forth. 

What was your introduction to the video game concert business? 

I was in Tokyo and had the opportunity to attend a Koichi Sugiyama Dragon Quest concert. I was also able to listen to one of the Tokyo recordings from a Final Fantasy concert. Keep in mind, this was before I implemented visuals into my performances. At this point, it was 100% music with no visual support. 

Was there a particular turning point in your career that made you decide to focus on these concerts? 

The initial success of the premier in Los Angeles of Dear Friends – Music from FINAL FANTASY in 2004 and the successive tour helped me to see the future. 

What has motivated you to stick to it all these years?

The fans are the biggest motivation and my goal since day one has been to bring video game music and my brand of concerts to as many people and places as possible around the globe. 

There is obviously an underlying struggle in terms of video game music being considered palatable or “worthy” of reverence by some mainstream musical audiences nowadays. People are still coming around to the fact that games have this sort of musical artistic value, and these concerts can act a little bit like vehicles to get people into the genre and into those games. What are your thoughts on the place of video game concerts and their place in orchestral canon going forward?

Video game music is as relevant as any other music. I have been dealing with this for years from naysayers and persons who are close minded. You don’t have to be a Legend of Zelda fan to appreciate the storytelling, visuals, and especially the music – they are beautiful works of creative expression. We’re just getting started in terms of the potential and scope of video game concerts!

Can you walk me through what is involved in the production of a concert like Symphony of the Goddesses?

So many moving parts. Getting Nintendo to work with me was the first step. After that, I put together a team of talented creatives to work for my company and we worked to create a touring production utilising the assets from Nintendo’s catalogue. 

Symphony of the Goddesses is very unique because for the first time in the history of video game music, we have created a four-movement symphony focusing on a specific title. As a springboard, I considered both the Wind Waker Movement and the Twilight Princess Movement both as my favourite pieces. Working forward from there, the music is created and approved, and then we storyboard and create the visual accompaniment. Once the visuals and the music are both ticked off, we create a click track so that the entire program is in sync, from the Overture to the Intermezzo to then to the Finale. 

We also have a proprietary wireless click track system and wireless HD cameras so that we can capture the orchestra, choir and conductor on stage. After the show is created, we throw it into our system. Once this is tested, we book dates and locations. This show has been all over the world! 

How much creative licence do you have as a producer to interpret the work of Nintendo’s composers when it comes to the music from Legend of Zelda? Is it a faithful adaptation from the sound in terms of notes, or do you try and incorporate different sound effects based on the levels or scenes in the game that the songs are derived from?

We have some freedom, but for the most part we are constrained by time, so we try to keep it as close as possible to the originals. Of course, we add a Hollywood sound to it with some of the best arrangers and composers from all over the world.

Do you have a favourite arrangement or performance from Symphony of the Goddesses?

I am really liking the new Breath of the Wild piece that we put together. Without giving too much away, it was the first time that we were able to create sound effects in a live concert environment. It truly works and I am so proud. 

Is there a particular title in the Zelda franchise that you would consider producing an entire concert for?

I haven’t thought about that. We have a lot of great pieces from The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword. 

Why are you drawn to this particular franchise? Does it have any emotional significance?

Zelda was one of the first titles I played on NES. To be able to perform this concert for the Zelda fans all over the world is a dream come true. And honestly, the Triforce is a symbol for many, including myself. 

The work in Symphony of the Goddesses is largely orchestral adaptations of soundtracks that were, at their time, 8 or 16 bit in terms of production. Now with the soundtracks in the latest games being orchestral already, Breath of the Wild springs to mind immediately here, do you think that it limits the scope of the work that you’ll be able to do in the future re adaptations?

Not at all. Come to the shows and take a listen. We are having a great time creating arrangements based off of the originals to be performed for a live concert. These are two different processes. Each one requires an expertise and each can be complemented. 

What’s on the 2018 agenda for producing more video game concerts? 

Do you like The Elder Scrolls

Is there a particular country or city that you’d like to bring Symphony of the Goddesses to?

I would have liked to hit up more Asian countries this tour, and Adelaide and Sydney, but for this particular tour we will only begin in Auckland (August 14), Perth (August 24), Singapore (August 26) and Melbourne (September 3). 

Last question – which would be your mount of choice: Epona or wolfed-out Link from Twilight Princess: and why?

I am really feeling the Wolfed-out Link from TP:HD. The fact that you can unlock its use in the new Legend of Zelda game is awesome. 

The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses is heading to ASB Theatre for one night only, August 14. Tickets available at Ticketmaster.

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