'Final Fantasy' composer on the pleasures of prog and Abbey Road

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'Final Fantasy' composer on the pleasures of prog and Abbey Road

Nobuo Uematsu is distinguished amongst game soundtrack composers not just because of his work for Squaresoft in the '80s and '90s or his lustrous mustache. He's one of the few songwriters responsible for the way video games sound across the board, influencing other creators over 30 years. Square's Final Fantasy series, on which Uematsu was sole or primary composer for the first 10 games, molded how storytelling in games should sound. The synthesized minor key melody of series theme "Prelude," the ambient wash of Final Fantasy VII's "Opening/Bombing Mission," and hundreds of other songs are landmarks in gaming's aural landscape.

While his output has slowed in recent years as he focused on personal projects like his prog band Earthbound Papas and sleeper hits like The Last Story on Wii, his style still looms tall. Uematsu has revisited his work on the Final Fantasy often since its 25th anniversary in 2012. Most recently he teamed with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios to record Final Symphony, an album based on the concert series of the same name highlighting songs from Final Fantasy VI, VII, and X. Uematsu spoke with us via a translator over email about his work on the album, the state of video game music, and how to make sure that every song in a huge soundtrack has soul.

Over the past 15 years, video game soundtracks in blockbuster games have shifted away from melodic composition as in the Final Fantasy soundtracks highlighted in the Final Symphony album and more on ambient/atmospheric composition. Why do you think the shift has happened?

Compared to the days of Famicon, today's gaming systems have much more power of expression. Due to advanced graphics and the addition of voice overs, there is no longer a need for a constant flow of music. A scene may be more effective with just the sound of the wind, instead of playing music.

Why the love of progressive rock? The Final Fantasy soundtracks are as indebted to '70s/'80s prog as they are classical symphonic composition.

I like progressive rock because anything goes.

What was unique about working in Abbey Road studios as opposed to other locations? What kind of sound do you get out of the space that you can't get anywhere else?

First of all, it is the place where many masterpieces were created, and is considered the holy land for musicians. I don't know what music would sound like were it not for Abbey Road, but, when I think of the legendary musicians that stood here, like the Beatles and Pink Floyd, I want to make work that lives up to the name.

As your work on the Final Fantasy series continued from the '80s into the '00s, you had to write more and more songs to cover the entire game, going from dozens of tunes to more than a hundred on the Final Fantasy IX soundtrack. What's the biggest challenge in working in that kind of volume? How do you maintain a unique voice for each song when working on that kind of scale?

Many tracks have to be written in a limited time frame in which hectic going-ons cannot be allowed to disturb the pace. We continue composing, unruffled, believing in the motto, "I can do this."

As for tricks for giving each track a personality... Well, that's not something we're too worried about. However, since it is assumed that you will spend dozens of hours playing an RPG, we mix musical styles together instead of sticking to a specific genre. Since long ago, we have wanted to give people something that's enjoyable.

You mentioned in an interview this past fall that you wanted to work on a new 2D role-playing game with Hironobu Sakaguchi and the original staff of Final Fantasy VI. Why do you want to work on that type of game again?

I think it is because the interest of a game is not related its novelty.

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