The score of Final Fantasy gets its due at the concert hall

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The score of Final Fantasy gets its due at the concert hall
A scene from the video game “Final Fantasy VII Remake” is projected above the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Maida Vale Singers as they perform the game’s score at Royal Albert Hall in London, Sept. 19, 2021. Almost 6,000 people of all ages attended the “Final Fantasy VII Remake” concert, which showcased the soundtrack to the seventh installment of the hugely popular Japanese video game. Alex Ingram/The New York Times.

by Aina J. Khan

LONDON.- At a recent concert in London, the bows of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra rose and fell like the mighty sword of Sephiroth, the silver-haired villain of Final Fantasy VII. Onstage, a 32-person choir thundered the antagonist’s name: “Sephiroth!”

The audience in the 19th-century theater burst into applause when it recognized the opening notes of “One-Winged Angel,” a battle theme from the game that merges Latin opera, influences from Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and caustic rock music.

Almost 6,000 people of all ages attended this Final Fantasy VII Remake concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday, which showcased the soundtrack to the seventh installment of the hugely popular Japanese video game.

At the concert, the two worlds of gaming and classical music merged, and while some concertgoers wore suits and bow ties, others dressed in cosplay as their favorite characters from the game.

Charlotte Ball, 27, attended dressed as the game’s protagonist, Cloud Strife, an ex-soldier and mercenary. She spent hours laboriously researching and designing her costume, a sleeveless turtleneck with embroidered brown braces, one shoulder of armor made from foam and a short-haired blond wig that could easily belong to a member of BTS.

“Whenever I hear its music, it brings me back to when I was a kid,” Ball said of the game. “It’s a homage to my childhood.”

Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997 on PlayStation and has now been bought more than 11 million times across all major platforms. The enormous popularity of its electronically synthesized score by Nobuo Uematsu is evidence of the huge effect video game music can have.

The Final Fantasy games have an interactive, role-player format, which immerses gamers in the journeys of its heroic protagonists. These journeys are interwoven with music throughout, like a film score. As a result, “you do not just watch a game. You play it, you feel it, you embody it,” said Melanie Fritsch, a professor in media and cultural studies at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany. “Sometimes, people start crying when there is a good moment in a game that’s nicely implemented with the music.”

Because of this emotional connection, the influence of these scores extends far beyond the games themselves. Since 2007, there have been more than 200 official Final Fantasy concerts across 20 countries, according to Square Enix, the company behind the game.

At the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony this summer, athletes marched to songs from popular games including Dragon Quest, Kingdom Hearts, Sonic the Hedgehog and Final Fantasy, music described by its organizers as “a quintessential part of Japanese culture that is loved around the world.”

Uematsu, now 62, single-handedly composed the first nine installments of Final Fantasy scores, creating music that remains a nostalgic rabbit hole for many fans. A self-described musical omnivore without formal musical training, Uematsu’s work draws on influences from an eclectic mix of progressive rock, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Celtic and classical music.

But video game scores have often been dismissed by devotees of mainstream classical music. Even in Japan, the birthplace of modern video game music, “up until after the millennium, it was regarded as a lesser type of music,” said Junya Nakano, 50, co-composer of the Final Fantasy X soundtrack.

Growing up as a video game fan who also had classical music training, Nakano aspired to join the early generation of game composers, such as Uematsu and Koichi Sugiyama.

For the 10th installment of Final Fantasy, Nakano worked with Uematsu on the game’s score. Released in 2001, it was the first game in the franchise to use voice actors for its characters. The challenge for Nakano was to compose the music, along with Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu, with only a “very rough outline” of the narrative for each movie scene. “We really had to create music based on our imagination,” Nakano said. Along with its sequel, Final Fantasy X sold more than 14 million copies.

Writing video game scores is not always respected by those in the classical music fields. After majoring in piano at the Osaka College of Music, Yoko Shimomura, 53, applied for a job as a video game composer, a career path that her professors discouraged, she said.

“Adults in my generation back then had little awareness about game music,” Shimomura said in a video interview. “So they had no concept to compare it to whatsoever.”

But Shimomura went on to become one of the most prolific female video game composers in the world. Her magnum opus is the eclectic score for Kingdom Hearts, first released in 2002, which combines her signature piano, opera and opening music sung by Japanese American singer Hikaru Utada.

Outside Japan, the “hegemonic thinking” that elevated classical music at the expense of video game compositions has also persisted, according to Fritsch, the media and cultural studies professor.

“There is so much music out there in the world that is not composed by white males with wigs. And it’s good music,” said Fritsch, who also works in ludomusicology, a nascent field of academic research dedicated to the study of video game music.

The first installment of Final Fantasy, released in 1987, used technology that initially meant the music was limited to a handful of electronic sounds. As the technology of the game systems evolved, the music metamorphosed with it. The arrival of Final Fantasy VIII in 1999 allowed Uematsu to use recordings from a live orchestra and choir for the first time. “The fans were always aware of the quality of music,” Nakano said.

Online, those fans are now giving the music new life. Previously, illegal MP3 downloads, expensive CD imports from Japan and sheet music were the only way video game music enthusiasts could replay their favorite songs. Now, a community of fans post videos to YouTube of covers, tutorials and their own compositions, providing a way into the often inaccessible world of classical music.

“There are some melodies I composed almost 30 years ago I’ve almost forgotten,” Nakano said. “But fans are still playing them.”

For 18 years, Kyle Landry has created piano arrangements of music from various animé, video games and movies on YouTube, gaining more than 700,000 followers. Shimomura’s music, and Uematsu’s in particular, have been gold mines of inspiration.

“Nobuo Uematsu’s compositions have been touching my life since 2003 and contributed much inspiration for me over the years,” said Landry.

Among the most prolific cover artists is the mysterious “Zohar002,” a Japanese pianist whose covers of music from Chrono Trigger — a 1995 role-playing game considered the greatest of the 16-bit era — enticed a huge following on YouTube from 2007 until the account was mysteriously removed, sparking mournful odes to Zohar002’s brilliance and rumors that they were in fact the game’s composer, Yasunori Mitsuda.

“I never dreamed such a great variation would be created by so many fans,” Shimomura said of the online renditions, adding that some fan compositions were better than the originals. “It’s a really great honor for me to say that people love my music.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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