Interview with Arnie Roth

Here is the rest of the The Tech’s interview with Grammy award-winning conductor, composer, and music director Arnold Roth. If you missed the first part of the interview, read it here: Interview conducted by Philipp Diesinger.

The Tech: How do you choose the pieces or scores that you want to arrange?
Arnie Roth: That’s another difficult thing. At about the second or third year of distant worlds we did a survey. We arbitrarily said, “We want to add some new pieces, let’s ask the fans and we gave them a choice of the top five battle themes. Amongst the top five we asked people to vote online and I asked them on stage at the ends of the concerts.  The ones that we gave them choices were “Clash on the Big Bridge”, “Jenova,” “Dancing Mad,” “Battle with Seymor,” and “Those Who Fight Further.” They all got huge cheers but by far the biggest vote getters where “Dancing Mad” and “Jenova.” So we started with those two. But then I did “Clash on the big bridge” just a year ago – we premiered that in Japan when Distant Worlds played there in November 2010. It turns out that “Clash on the Big Bridge” is the most popular piece of music battle theme in Japan!

TT: Do you have to do any special adjustments regarding the original Japanese style of the music versus a more Western style?

AR: That’s another interesting point, good question. I have done may other scores from many other games that frankly felt more Japanese than others. For instance, if you are trying to identify a style there are certain scores in the Final Fantasy book, that stand out as a Japanese style, for instance “You are not alone” from Final Fantasy IX. Even though there are parts of it that are definitely Japanese Nobuo Uematsu used a lot of Western scoring techniques when he put these pieces together. As a matter of fact, we laugh often when we get together: I spent 25 years working with a band here in the United States as a composer and an arranger and also as a performer playing the violin and shockingly these instrumental compositions are very similar to some of the Final Fantasy scores. Nobuo-san has done a great job of incorporating a lot of Western techniques and we laugh at each other when we get together how similar some of these pieces are. There are other games that are much more Japanese sounding. I think Final Fantasy appeals on a broader playing field foremost of the audience. Nobuo Uematsu has been referred to as the John Williams of video game scores, but I think the reason underneath that is that he is so melody- and structure-driven and that is not unique to Japanese music. These have been the building blocks of classical music for many millennia. I don’t find it quintessential Japanese frankly. I’ve done a lot of scores that sound much more Japanese. A lot of it has to do with the language.

The reason its orchestra rather than a Final Fantasy band tour for instance is because they started doing these concerts in 1999 with full orchestrations. Because they started that template by the time I was involved with it, we already had a very good collection of pieces and scores to play from them and it was a very direct matter for us to expand: “Let’s write an arrangement of Dancing Mad – it’s never been scored and let’s perform it with full orchestra!”.

TT: What is your experience – Do you have to put more effort into making a non-RPG soundtrack work on stage regarding the necessary adjustments to the score?

AR: When you do something like Super Mario Bros. the character is just running around the screen bumping himself in whatever he is doing. When you are doing a concert of just that music you have to employ different orchestration and arrangement techniques. More comedy is involved because after all it’s just light-hearted fun and you want to capture that spirit. We don’t have to work harder but differently to make that work. There the mind of the arranger and the orchestra have to go a little further and you are more writing a symphonic fantasy based on the original score. I just performed a 40-minute piece of music dedicated to the Zelda anniversary with the Royal Stockholm in Sweden. This score was a fantastic score and there are some beautiful melodies from Zelda, but in fact 80% or 90% is about the arranger and what he wanted to do with those melodies. It’s not for me to decide this but it is for the fans who buy tickets to these concerts to decide is this the concert experience that I want. It is fun, it’s compelling and the music is beautifully written. On the other side in Final Fantasy we play very faithful renditions of the way you heard the music in the game. They are orchestrated but orchestration is a very different technique than arranging and creating all kinds of kinds of new original notes and material that weren’t in the video game. And that’s what has to happen with Zelda and a lot of the other things, because the melodies themselves are not that well developed, whereas the book for Final Fantasy stretches on, into infinity.

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