Final Symphony Interview: Bringing the Music of Final Fantasy to Life
When it comes to gaming and music, many titles have offered sounds and tracks that have kept gamers listening to their soundtracks and scores well after completing the actual game itself. This is especially true when it comes to some of the classic music from RPG classics like the Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger, Kingdom Hearts, and many others that are remembered (and cherished) for their music as much as the games themselves.
However, these songs and soundtracks take on a new life of their own when performed outside of a virtual world and out into the real world, with the symphonic group Final Symphony having made the live performance of video game music their craft and passion for several years.
To celebrate the upcoming release of the group’s Final Symphony and Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo concerts on vinyl and CD, we had the opportunity to speak with three of the Final Symphony team members to learn more about the group’s history, the challenges and work that goes into the music and arrangements, and their favorite Final Fantasy music and moments.
Our full interview can be read below with Final Symphony owner/producer Thomas Böcker, conductor Eckehard Stier, and pianist Katharina Treutler each sharing their thoughts on the art of games and music.
Ryan Meitzler: What was the origin and inspiration behind Final Symphony, and how has it evolved since then?
Thomas Böcker, owner/producer: After the premiere of my Square Enix tribute Symphonic Fantasies back in 2009, Nobuo Uematsu approached me. Apparently he especially loved the arrangement for Secret of Mana, where the arranger Jonne Valtonen took some liberties, more than usual for video game music concerts at that time, resulting in an incredibly powerful score full of beauty, perfectly fitting for an orchestral performance. He told me he would be so happy to see more of his Final Fantasy music arranged in a similar style. Later that year, I introduced my idea of Final Symphony to him when being in Tokyo, which would offer a different view on the music of Final Fantasy. He gave his blessing immediately.
We presented Final Symphony for the first time in Germany in 2013, with Mr Uematsu in attendance. It became my most successful production to date, with additional stops in the UK, Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, the US and New Zealand. Not to forget our chart-topping album, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios!
Thomas Böcker, creator and producer of the Final Symphony concert series.
RM: Final Symphony has seemed to make an interesting connection between audiences that love video games and those in the world of classical music. Have you seen any crossover between those two audiences with Final Symphony and the music performed? What has the response been from both audiences?
TB: Yes, absolutely. Still, of course the majority of attendees are gamers, but over the years we saw an increased interest in video game music from circles that are not necessarily into gaming, which tells about the quality of our scores. Nostalgia plays its role, but is no requirement to enjoy the performances.
Final Symphony is about telling stories, universal stories with appeal to a wide audience. Broadly speaking, this is orchestral music relevant to relatively young people today. My hope is that one day, we can combine the worlds of classical music and video game music in regular programmes – not just once.
RM: Will there be any unreleased or new pieces on the upcoming Vinyl/CD release that fans may not have heard before, either live or in the previous digital releases?
TB: The content to be released is identical to our digital album indeed, and also the one on Blu-ray Audio. By offering it on double CD and triple vinyl now, I think we will be able to reach fans who previously did not purchase the album due to different preferences on the format. Final Symphony is considered as the prime example of today’s video game music quality, so I am very happy having Laced Records helping us to make it available this way.
What has the experience been like working alongside iconic game composers, such as Nobuo Uematsu, on these arrangements?
TB: I think in our case, it is more about the response – as the composers are not directly involved in the process when we are coming up with the arrangements. Mr Uematsu shows such trust in our work, so that he once told me: please, just surprise me, do not tell me anything beforehand! Needless to say, this gives us freedom on the one hand, but also lots of pressure on the other, as we do not want to disappoint such legendary composers.
Fortunately, we got only praise so far from him and Mr Hamauzu, and when being in Japan with Final Symphony I and Final Symphony II, Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu were happy to act as the hosts of the concerts, telling the audience about the arrangements a bit more. I think this amazing co-operation made it possible to receive the first standing ovation for a video game music concert in Japan, back on 2014 with Final Symphony.
Eckehard Stier, conductor: Working with Nobuo is always very inspiring and steered by a very professional and forwarding moment. For me, however, it is even more exciting what our two “in house composers” (Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo) are doing with the fantastic music from the games: they create a new dimension – that of the giant symphony orchestra. And these magnificent melodies, together with the many instruments in the orchestra, bring so many additional colors and emotions. It is always a big surprise!
Eckehard Stier, the conductor of Final Symphony.
RM: What have the challenges been in arranging/performing these pieces from their original form — in the context of playing a video game — and bringing them into a more “traditional” concert experience?
ES: I think the challenge lies first on Thomas Böcker and our two Finns [arrangers Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo – both of Finland’s Tampere Music Academy]. They choose the individual musical chapters, then begin the work on the scores. Individual pieces are taken out of the game and “only” instrumented, others are transformed and artistically transformed. The most notable result for me is the Symphony of Final Symphony. It gives birth to an extra world – it’s incredibly emotional!
Katharina Treutler, pianist: To perform the piano concerto Final Fantasy X was first of all a challenge because there was no recording of this arrangement with orchestra available. Recording a piece for the first time is very demanding as you have a lot of responsibility. But as I really fell in love with the music it was a great and exciting experience for me.
Furthermore, it was my first game music project. As I’m usually playing classical music, this was the discovery of a new world. What a pleasure to dip into the Final Fantasy story and to become one with it!
Katharina Treutler, pianist of Final Symphony.
RM: What is your history with Final Fantasy and the other titles that have been performed/featured (or gaming/game music in general)?
TB: I started to play games at the age of 7 or 8, when I got a Commodore 64. It took a bit longer to get introduced to the world of console games, when my brother bought his Super Famicom and others later. I was fascinated by the games, needless to say, but also the soundtracks; I still love the 8 bit and 16 bit tracks of the early productions. My first real experience with Final Fantasy was when no. VII was released, and honestly speaking, it was especially my love for the music that made me going back to previous instalments, and also playing the newer titles, as I found that Nobuo Uematsu was a composer I wanted to hear more from his work, same as Chris Huelsbeck, Yuzo Koshiro etc.
Today, video game music is my profession, a career I certainly did not plan on exactly like that. From my first video game music concert in 2003 – the first video game music concert outside Japan – to the most recent Final Symphony II programme, there has been no month of my life without being involved in the gaming industry, so it had a huge impact on my life getting a Commodore 64 as a kid!
ES: Since I am not a gamer: my first steps with game music I made in 2008. From a cautious attitude this has now become enthusiasm. I love big parts of our programs. It leads orchestras into new worlds and generates a new relationship between young people and the orchestras.
KT: It seems like a rare stroke of luck how I got started. One day I received a mail from Thomas Böcker asking me to perform Final Fantasy X. Being a classical pianist I didn’t have a very concrete idea about game music, but as I’m open to all music styles and crossover projects, I decided to accept the challenge. And I’m very happy about it!
RM: Final Fantasy and the other titles that are featured in Final Symphony have tons of classic moments and music that gamers have enjoyed for decades. What was the curation process like for selecting the music that would be played, the games that would be featured, and how/why specific arrangements were chosen over other pieces?
TB: We believe that a good balance in Final Fantasy concerts can be only achieved by limiting the number of featured Final Fantasy parts. In the case of Final Symphony, to three: VI, VII and X appealed the most to us — for many reasons, the attractive musical content being one, the apparent lack of balance at previous presentations being another. The team spent months on researching the games, listening to the soundtracks, playing the titles, watching walkthroughs on YouTube, reading analysis and reviews – all to get an overview of what are key scenes, and said classic moments that matter to gamers, including us.
During the work on concerts such as Final Symphony, I am in constant contact with the arrangers via e-mail, receiving sketches and ideas, talking about opportunities, giving advice and feedback. To me as a producer, it is important being directly involved in the creative process, it is the best part of the production, actually. Stressing and demanding, yes, but creating something from scratch is exciting, such motivation needed to push these projects forward.
RM: Where do you see Final Symphony and Symphonic Fantasies heading into the future, and what do you hope the group contributes to, in the worlds of both video game music and classical music?
TB: Both programmes will be performed more often in the future. By world-class orchestras around the world – this is how I see it. Also, I think that more and more often, certain game scores – the best, through natural selection – will be performed alongside classical repertoire. I am not here to say that we are converting all attendees to listeners of Beethoven & Co., but there is a percentage of people getting interested in orchestral music in general, thanks to our productions, and this is one of the best opportunities that orchestra managers had in a long time!
ES: I see a huge potential in the scores. Of course, this sector is in a brutal competition. But I know that our programs are the Ferrari among the game music concerts.They are great and reach the “normal” audience on an emotional level. And as I said before – the experience for gamer – a huge orchestra, the focus only on the music and this beautiful scores – this is a life changing experience …
KT: The great success of Final Symphony and Symphonic Fantasies all over the world is stunning. I’m really happy to contribute and think that it will bring a lot of joy and excitement to all Final Fantasy and game music lovers everywhere. It’s highly emotional and very inspiring music. As my heart is also beating for classical music, I hope that through this crossover project some people will find an easier access to the great classical compositions that are so life-enhancing. Anyway, I wish Final Symphony and Symphonic Fantasies a great and successful future!
Final Symphony and Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo will be releasing this month through Laced Records in both deluxe CD and vinyl packages featuring the group’s complete works and arrangements: you can click here to learn more about the groups’ CD/vinyl releases and to pre-order now. A video highlighting the deluxe CD and vinyl release can also be found below.
For more information on Final Symphony, Symphonic Fantasies, and for updates on the groups’ upcoming events, concerts, tours, and more, you can click here to head over to their official website.
All images courtesy of Game Concerts. Videos courtesy of Merregnon Studios and Laced Records (YouTube).