Final Fantasy gets the orchestral treatment at PDA

With Distant Worlds, conductor Arnie Roth and composer Nobuo Uematsu bring Final Fantasy’s soundtrack to life for audiences around the globe.

Distant Worlds

Rejoice, nerds — Final Fantasy is coming to Place des Arts to melt your brain.

Producer, musical director and orchestra conductor Arnie Roth is going to be there. So’s Nobuo Uematsu, aka the primary composer of most of the music from the classic role-playing game. And an 80-piece orchestra’s going to rock the 8-bit like you ain’t never seen (nor heard) before. I haven’t ever played Final Fantasy (or any video game for at least the past decade), and even I’m looking forward to a good brain-scrubbing.

And to think, Montreal isn’t even getting one of the rare, lusted-after celebration performances at the core of Final Fantasy’s 25th anniversary world tour — those are reserved for Chicago (Roth’s hometown), London, Osaka and Tokyo (where Uematsu lives).

Not to worry, though. Roth says non-anniversary revellers won’t even know the difference, really. That’s partly because every show is different; each one is programmed by Roth to include a different song selection than the previous one. And, as Roth says over the phone from Chicago, many of the Celebration series arrangements — new battle and Chocobo medleys, a never-performed Phantom Forest piece — will be spread out among the regular performances in the new year.

Final Fantasy is in a sacred territory all its own. People around the globe have been experiencing different worlds through their characters’ pixelated eyes in games I through XIV for the past quarter-century, and Uematsu has scored the music that’s guided players since Square Enix launched the game in 1987.

Roth thinks this relationship between worlds, characters and music is one of the main reasons fans have responded so viscerally to the live Final Fantasy orchestra performances that first graced Japan in 2002. The concert has since moved beyond its home’s borders under Roth’s guardianship — first in 2005 as Dear Friends: Music From Final Fantasy, and later in 2007 as Distant Worlds.

“You have to look at the game — it was one of the very first RPGs,” Roth says. “[Uematsu] chose a particular writing technique as the composer of the series; using leitmotifs, he very beautifully chose themes for each of the characters that stayed with those characters. If they come back, the same musical germ/leitmotif stays with that character. Keeping in mind that the people playing the game are those characters. It’s their music.

“He wrote very important music for certain worlds or environments that the player would encounter. He didn’t ignore the emotional part, the interpersonal,” Roth continues. “You can see the emotional attachment and connection fans have to it.” Roth says Uematsu didn’t compose music to simply underscore the action like most of his contemporaries, but rather wrote melodic and structural pieces for worlds and characters.

“There must be 35 variations of the Chocobo theme,” Roth says of the recurring avian creature. “I think Final Fantasy does better than any other video game in the synergy between the music and the visuals. Sometimes, when it’s all based on underscoring or [creating a] mood, it’s a little faithless.”

The live Distant Worlds performances interpret the compressed, 8-bit compositions the way Roth says they were originally intended to be heard: as fully orchestrated opuses with massive dynamic ranges, complete with “crashing triple forte with full percussion and brass playing, and a raising-the-hair-on-your-arms pianissimo,” Roth says. “You can make the live experience truly come alive for the audience.”

For his part, the Japan-born Uematsu never received formal musical training, a fact he remains self-conscious of to this day, Roth says. The two men have become best friends since meeting in 2004, even referring to each other as brothers. Still, Uematsu doesn’t usually perform at Distant Worlds concerts, save for an occasional rendering of “Dark World” from Final Fantasy VI — a song Roth purposely chose because it features an organ (Uematsu’s instrument) and a solo violin (Roth’s). He presented it to his “little brother” by saying, “‘You wrote it. You can play this organ part.’ I promised to play the violin if he played the organ.”

Uematsu will be in attendance at this weekend’s performance, though his presence on stage is another matter. Regardless, fans can expect at least one piece of music from each of the 14 Final Fantasy games. “This is our first time in Montreal. We want to make sure we are getting all the hits, so that fans are going to be really happy,” Roth says. ■

 Distant Worlds happens Saturday, Dec. 8, 8 p.m. at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts (175 Ste-Catherine W.), $59–$85

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