This is the third in our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Sebastian's book on Final Fantasy VI and Matt's book on Red Dead Redemption are funding now on Kickstarter.
First off: what's your personal history with FFVI -- and, more specifically, with FFVI's music? What made you want to embark on this unique critical project?
I actually didn't know Final Fantasy III had come out before I got it. When I was in grade school, I was absolutely obsessed with Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II. I owned Final Fantasy, but only rented Final Fantasy II (from Blockbuster, of course) — and I rented it over and over and over again, over a period of a year or so. I never wanted to return it, because that meant losing my save data, so we racked up unimaginable late fees. I'm pretty sure it got to the point that Blockbuster froze my dad's account and would no longer let him rent movies or games. By the time I hit fifth grade, my parents had had enough, threw up their hands, and decided to eat the up-front cost and buy it for me. When my dad got to Toys R Us, though, they didn't have it — But they did have Final Fantasy III. When my dad brought it home and I plopped the cartridge in, I was immediately in love.
I loved music as a kid, but didn't live in a house of melomaniacs — we didn't have a family stereo or album collection. Most of the music I knew came from a.) church, b.) oldies we listened to in the car, or c.), and most importantly, video games. I remember crying a little bit when I first heard the overture sequence of FFVI—the part with the oboe, where the Magitek armor is walking across the tundra. The opera sequence made me want to be an opera singer — and I was, for most of my twenties.
I wanted to take this project on because I think this game's three-CD soundtrack holds up against modern game soundtracks recorded by live musicians. There's some kind of magic to it. I wanted to figure out what that magic was, and figure out, from a critical distance, why I was so obsessed with the music, and why I returned to it over and over throughout high school, college, and in the post-college real-world of my 20's and, now, my 30's.
From a musician's perspective, what makes Uematsu interesting as a composer? What did he do in this game -- or what has he done, in general -- that other composers of video game scores haven't done?
Woof, what a question. To my ear, he's interesting and unique in that he hammers out melodies so effortlessly. This was the sixth Final Fantasy game, each soundtrack larger than the last, and he hadn't run out of juice! He also walks a very thin line between "classical"-sounding music and "pop"-sounding music. Almost all of his music has a string section, often brass and/or woodwinds, but it also might have an electric bass and a steady rock-like beat from a virtual drum kit. He also jerks around very clearly in other genres that do not sound anything like this: Celtic, industrial, jazz, ragtime, techno, there's a pretty big laundry list. I'm sure other composers/games do this — but I can't come up with any off the top of my head, so to me Uematsu obviously does it most memorably. Other games seem to stick to one sound without bouncing around so much—Mario's a little kooky, Zelda had its dramatic "classical" sound, Mega Man had this synth-rock thing going, etc. I don't think Uematsu even does this intentionally; I think he does it instinctively because he's so into prog rock, and pretty omnivorous (maybe as a result of the prog rock).
The opera sequence in FFVI rightfully gets a lot of attention from critics and fans, but I've always been drawn even more to the complexity of "Dancing Mad," the amazing multi-movement battle music that plays during the final fight with Kefka. I remember being obsessed with the rock version of it that Uematsu played with The Black Mages, his FF music cover band (which still owns). I'm sure this is a big topic in your book, but what's your take on "Dancing Mad"? What do you think Uematsu was trying to do with that track?
"Dancing Mad" does get some attention in my book, but not nearly as much as the opera scene. It probably could be its own chapter, though! I didn't get too deep into analyzing it while I was researching/writing, I bet a musicologist could come up with some really fascinating stuff about it. My take on it is that Uematsu took this mentally shattered character and shows us four of the shards. Each movement takes a piece or pieces of Kefka's theme and transforms or elaborates on it/them. The first movement feels pretty straightforward, hopping back and forth between grief and anger. The second is militant and unhinged. The third is fascinating to me: it's all organ. It nods a little toward baroque and early classical church music — it starts off with a bell, for god's sake, and he ramps up the reverb on the organ to give it a sense of space. It's Kefka's desire for self-apotheosis. And that final movement is just killer—the off-kilter meter, the sick bassline, the jammin' rock organ. Man—it's fun to listen to! The fact that "Dancing Mad" is in four movements may have been a choice the developers made, not Uematsu, but it's worth noting that pieces with four movements are pretty common in classical music. It's fun to think of this as a mini-masterwork.
The Black Mages version is really cool too, but amped up just slightly — it actually sticks pretty close to the original and even uses similar, but higher-quality, synth sounds for the organs (man, it would have been great if they had hired an actual organist. That would have been sick as hell.). Until it gets to that wild guitar solo at the end, I imagine this is what "Dancing Mad" would have sounded like if it had been used in FF7. Maybe with some more intense choral action, though, given what Uematsu did in "One Winged Angel."
One of the things I love about FFVI is the fact that the world ends halfway through the game: Kefka succeeds in destroying the "World of Balance" and creating the "World of Ruin," scattering the 14 heroes across a postapocalyptic landscape. Do you find that there's a big difference between WoB music and WoR music? How does Uematsu complement the game's sudden tonal shift?
By the time you hit the World of Ruin, I'd ballpark that about 75–80% of the game's music has been introduced in one form or another—but a lot of it is recycled/repurposed/massaged, so the stats are pretty subjective. Because of that, there's a limit on how much the tone can really shift. There are some clear contrasts, though. The airship music in the World of Balance sounds like a Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right, but in the World of Ruin it's a melancholy number featuring a pan flute instead of a brass section. The town music is almost performatively mopey. The overworld music is probably the starkest contrast; it, more than anything, has that post-apocalyptic Pure Moods vibe. I think the way the change is really hit home is in the music direction (i.e., the cues/placement): the strongest reminders of the World of Balance come when you reunite with friends — when their theme music plays — and when you beat the game. Other than that, things are relatively static.
As a longtime JRPG fan, I can think of a lot of great music besides Uematsu's work on the FF games: Yasunori Mitsuda's score for Chrono Trigger (which Uematsu also worked on); Yoko Shimomura's work on Kingdom Hearts, Xenoblade Chronicles, etc.; Toby Fox's music for Undertale. All bangers. Do you think JRPGs tend to have better music than other game genres? If so, why? Is it just that the genre has always attracted singular talents, or is there something about the genre that enables a different approach to composition?
So I need to come clean here: I largely fell off the JRPG train after Final Fantasy VII (for a number of reasons not related to JRPGs or video games at all). As I researched this book, though, I did touch on a lot of really great JRPG scores — and I agree with you that there are tons of amazing ones out there. These scores are memorable — I think— because of the purpose they serve and the needs the games have. JRPGs traditionally have pretty linear storylines and predefined characters, so the music has to tell a linear story, and the composer can plan ahead for how the music and characters converse. Our reception of the music is necessarily tangled up in our reception of the story; it's supposed to be. In a lot of ways, that makes the music more powerful, and I think that's why JRPG's feel like such a fount of amazing music. (Don't get me wrong, though, there are a few real clunkers in this genre.)
That said, there are so many bangers out there that aren't JRPGs—the comparison between JRPGs and other genres may be apples-and-oranges, because the music functions differently, because the games' needs are different.
If you could do a book like this about another game's music, what game would it be?
Argh, I hate to list another 16-bit JRPG here because I would love to branch into another genre and era, but it would absolutely have to be Super Mario RPG. There's a lot of rich material there! The music is really idiosyncratic, memorable, and effective — it really does feel like a mash-up of 16-bit Nintendo and 16-bit Squaresoft. I would want to explore its relationship to the Mario franchise and to its 16-bit contemporaries — FFIV–VI, of course, but also Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Breath of Fire, etc. I also want to get in Yoko Shimomura's head. She did Street Fighter II and Breath of Fire in this era, but this really feels like an important moment in her career: a real mark in the 16-bit JRPG world, where the expectations/standards are so high — especially at Squaresoft! — and in the Mario franchise. It's really wild to think about that 2-in-1. Also—Women in video game music are forgotten/marginalized in history a way that's really similar to women in classical music (and other kinds of music). Yoko Shimomura is a big exception here, and I want to know about what it was like to break in, and how she managed to break through.
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