When one thinks of Final Fantasy music, the first name that comes to mind is typically Nobuo Uematsu. While Uematsu certainly played an important part in bringing the music to life, there have been a handful of people who have spent years keeping this music in the spotlight. One such person is Arnie Roth, the music director and conductor for the Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy concert series. Mr. Roth has a storied history with the music of Final Fantasy, reaching back to 2005 when he conducted Dear Friends: music from Final Fantasy—the first Final Fantasy concert to take place outside of Japan. Since then, he has been working closely with Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu and Square Enix to continue this long heritage of musical performances. In 2007, Distant Worlds made its debut in Stockholm, Sweden and has continued to delight fans to this day, having been performed over 100 times across five different continents.
In addition to his work with Distant Worlds, Mr. Roth is a Grammy award-winning artist, composer, and conductor. He has conducted countless symphonies across the globe and performed with many internationally known artists including Diana Ross and Andrea Bocelli. Outside of Distant Worlds, you can also find him playing with the Mannheim Steamroller Orchestra.
I had the pleasure of attending the Chicago event on December 26th, where I was able to sit down with Mr. Roth to discuss his career and the development of the Distant Worlds concert series.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions. Could you please introduce yourself and briefly discuss your roles with the concerts for our readers?
I am Arnie Roth and I'm the music director and conductor for Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy and we're here in the lower dressing room area of the Chicago Symphony Center, where tonight, we will be performing many new scores at the Distant Worlds performance. We're very excited about the new scores.
When did you first decide that you wanted to make a career out of music?
This is funny, because it's kind of a long organic process that the only conscious point that I made a decision was probably at the end of high school. Before that point, people have asked me why did I start studying an instrument or music at all, and I have no idea. Somebody once said when I was seven or eight years old, there was a neighbor in our neighborhood that played violin, and that somehow that's why I chose violin originally. I just remember starting violin and it took for whatever reason. There's nobody in my family that's been in music prior to me, so it just came out of the blue.
But by the time I got to the end of high school, I was, at that point, pretty serious as a concert violinist and had to make a decision between an academic career or a music career. I don't think my mother was very happy about it, but I made a decision a couple of weeks into my senior year, saying, "You know what? I'm dropping all my AP Chemistry and Physics and Calculus and whatever." I kinda didn't look back after that point. I think I was both lucky and fortunate and put in a lot of hard work that I was able to make it in that career.
How did you come to be involved with Distant Worlds?
There were lots of concerts of video game music in Japan. I was music director and conductor of the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra and we were looking at programming for the following year, when a colleague of mine mentioned these video game music concerts. But there had never been any one in the States yet, and I started researching it and decided with our orchestra that we would take a chance on Dear Friends. It was February of 2005 and that was the first public concert of the music of Final Fantasy.
It was the first one and it was huge. I mean, it was sold out! It started with Dear Friends and I conducted the rest of that tour which was very short—maybe four or five other concerts around the U.S. After Dear Friends, I did More Friends, a single concert. And then they invited me to Japan to conduct Voices: more music from Final Fantasy, and that was heavily centered on vocal material and soloists. It was after that, that we entered into discussions with Square Enix and Nobuo Uematsu about the idea of a world tour where we could really bring the music of Final Fantasy to many, many areas of the world. Not just North America, of course, but Europe, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, all kinds of areas that the music had never been performed in. That was the foundation—the idea—of Distant Worlds.
In recent years, a number of video game concerts have sprung up with great success. Performances such as Symphony of the Goddesses and Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions have done for fans of their respective franchises what Distant Worlds has done for Final Fantasy fans. One look at any of these concerts and you can't help but notice the similarities to the other two. It's quite possible that Distant Worlds, or even the earlier concerts, had some impact on the development of these newer concerts, according to Roth:
Well, I think initially, a lot of these concerts were based on the success of the Final Fantasy concerts—not just what we were doing, but the original series of them in Japan. The ones that launched at that point, just after us, were Video Games Live—Zelda didn't come about until quite a bit later, kind of in conjunction with 25th anniversary festivites. But the Zelda project, or the Pokémon project, are different kinds of animals, in that these are arrangers' fantasies based on themes by [the composers]. In Distant Worlds, we have decided to stay dedicated to the original format that Uematsu and Hamaguchi started—specific pieces that are as close as possible to the way fans heard them in the game.
So in it's less of an arranger's fantasy and more about the way fans heard this music. We've really worked hard at trying to stay in that format. And I think that some of the other ones are going the other route, which I've done many concerts like that—and they're a lot of fun to do. But I have to make the main distinction, which is—these are very much, at least equal doses here, about the mind of the arranger as well as the compositions.
Final Fantasy is undoubtedly one of the best-known franchises in gaming, and the music is certainly a huge part of that. It's one of the few cases where people who haven't played the games still recognize a number of the songs. We don't typically think a lot about why these songs are so popular, though there are a number of explanations for it. I believe Roth's theory hits the nail on the head.
Now see, I think that's one of the very unique, amazing things about the Final Fantasy franchise. If you look at a lot of the other games, there are very few where the fans are as dedicated to the music of the game as Final Fantasy—very few others. Some very big single, shooter type games, World of Warcraft, Halo, and things like that, have beautiful, heroic main themes but a lot of the gameplay music is not as distinctive all the time. It might be percussion loops and things like that that are happening.
The combination with Final Fantasy of an RPG game plus the composition style that Uematsu started when he first began, giving a separate unique theme to every character and every battle and every environment and maybe every quest, every love relationship—each one of these has its own themes. Those themes develop throughout the game and sometimes are brought back on subsequent games, so you have a new version of the same music theme. It's that kind of concentration and tight synchronization of music with characters and with storylines and plots and things, that I think make Final Fantasy unique.
The real reason that fans are so into the music of Final Fantasy is that it took all of those factors to make it that way. You had to have a composer writing in the style. You had to have an RPG, where each of these characters have distinct characters and a plot that would embrace that kind of thing, so that each different world and environment and prong on the plot could develop musically as well.
You mentioned earlier that one of the big elements of this show is the premiere of two new songs: "Dragonsong" and "Cosmo Canyon." What went into getting those ready?
"Dragonsong," which is the main theme of Heavensward, the next version of Final Fantasy XIV—Nobuo Uematsu wrote this theme, and he actually wrote it with this particular vocalist in mind, Susan Calloway, who had done the original main theme, "Answers." So when he made that decision to do this, he specifically asked that we co-produce the vocal recording session with Susan at our studio, while we were on a satellite link-up with Japan—with Nobuo—and we actually recorded the vocal that way. We decided it would be most fitting to premiere it in Chicago, when Nobuo would be there with us, and Susan was here, so it's scheduled for tonight. So we were very involved with that one.
The other one was "Cosmo Canyon," from Final Fantasy VII. I think that when we looked at Chicago, and had announced that we were going to try to do some special focus on the music of Final Fantasy VII, all of us—Nobuo, myself, Square Enix—we were all searching for what would be the best world premiere. It was actually Nobuo's choice to do "Cosmo Canyon." His team actually did this arrangement out of Japan, so it's exciting to be able to play it tonight.
In addition to Distant Worlds, Arnie Roth has also been performing and developing another concert series, A New World: intimate music from Final Fantasy. Though it has already become quite a success in its own right, A New World has only been around for a couple of years. There are a number of differences in these concerts, allowing A New World to stand on its own.
We started [A New World] in February of 2014. The concept was that, with Distant Worlds, we have well over 100 musicians on stage. A gigantic orchestra, a big chorus, a video screen—that kind of large production cannot go into all venues and formats. First of all, it's expensive. Second of all, it involves having enough resources, good orchestras, that can handle this music and correct venues for this. So it's more inflexible in terms of scheduling.
We knew there were so many other locations of the world that wanted the music of Final Fantasy that have big fan bases, but we couldn't bring the large production in all the time. We wanted to bring it down into an intimate situation where the average audience size is between, say, 450 to 900 seats. At that level, in an acoustically designed concert hall, we play chamber versions of the music of Final Fantasy for just eleven instrumentalists. You're able to focus in on the music in a different way than the huge production, where you're listening to groups of instruments and large mixes of voices and instruments. Here, you can focus in on the individual.
Also, we decided that the repertoire had to be—should be—as different as possible from the Distant Worlds repertoire. This is an ongoing challenge, because we have 125 scores now for Distant Worlds and we can just keep going. But choosing which pieces work well in the chamber music setting is always a challenge, so we had a fantastic time doing that.
What are your goals for the future of Distant Worlds?
I think the most amazing thing is how many years this tour is able to sustain itself and clearly, it can go on. Right now, we're working on plans for the 30th anniversary of Final Fantasy. We're working first on the cities around the world that we want to do this at, so that we make sure we have the right venues. The next step will be starting to work on new repertoire for that.
Before you go, is there anything that I didn't mention that you'd like to discuss?
I just want to let all the fans know how excited I am for the concert tonight. Even though Nobuo just suddenly took ill, and is not going to be physically with us, he's waiting for my report immediately after the concert. I want fans to know how much he's invested in the concert and he'll be there in spirit certainly. I'm very excited. These are always the greatest concerts, the ones we do in Chicago and a couple of other key cities. These are a lot of fun for us. Basically, I want to thank the fans for all their support.
I'm sure the fans would like to thank you as well. You and your staff have been very instrumental in keeping this music alive and bringing it to the public. Final Fantasy, in some way, has had some impact on all of us as fans, and for you to be able to do this is a massive undertaking, I'm sure. We certainly appreciate it though. Thank you for your time!