August 10, 2009 4:00 PM | jeriaska
[Continuing his series of Sound Current music interviews and articles for GameSetWatch, Jeriaska brings us an in-depth concert report of a notable, just-concluded all-star Japanese game music concert, 'Press Start'.]
Each year the Press Start orchestral game concert takes place in Tokyo, celebrating the past and present of videogame music in Japan. Music from games is performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and well known composers appear on stage to introduce the arranged renditions of their music for this annual tradition.
While the program was posted online weeks in advance, it was not until the lights went up on the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space concert stage in Ikebukuro that audiences knew exactly what to expect of the music event, which this time included two segments marked by whole-audience participation.
This year featured selections from Persona 4, Portal, Okami, Tales of Legendia, Final Fantasy X and a number of other game titles, both new and retro, uber popular and totally obscure. This concert report takes a look at the songs selected and the commentary provided by luminary videogame musicians Shoji Meguro, Go Shiina, Keiki Kobayashi and others.
[Miyu, interpreter on the concert report, holding the Press Start concert program. Three of the attendees (Sakurai, Hiro, Meguro) have participated in interviews for this article series on videogame music in recent months. For last year's report, see the article on Siliconera.]
In an interview with the Super Smash Bros. series director, Masahiro Sakurai explained the origins of Press Start. The 2006 inaugural concert came about as the result of a nomikai, where the question was raised: What could be done to encourage the appreciation of videogame music?
Each member of the organizing committee responsible for selecting arrangements for the event was present at the gathering. They included Sakurai, composers Nobuo Uematsu and Shogo Sakai, scenario writer Kazushige Nojima and conductor Taizo Takemoto.
The creative ties formed between the various organizers extend beyond the yearly concert. Represented by Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Nintendo Wii, which received a coveted perfect score from Famitsu Magazine, the brawler featured an orchestral main theme by Uematsu, overseen by Sakai, conducted by Takemoto, and inspired by a scenario by Nojima.
Persona 4 (commentary by Sakurai)
On the concert's official site, commentary by one of the five organizers appears alongside each selection from the concert. For the three songs from Atlus role-playing game Persona 4, Sakurai expressed his admiration for the tremendous popularity of the original soundtrack album released on the Aniplex Records label. In terms of sales, the ratio of console games shipped to soundtracks sold has been favorable to Shoji Meguro’s music.
Vocalist Oriko Takahashi sang the iconic soprano vocals for “A Poem For Everyone’s Souls.” While not appearing on the game's soundtrack, Takahashi's voice can be heard on Uematsu's main theme for Smash Bros. Brawl, making the concert arrangement conducted by Takemoto something of a synthesis of Persona series and Press Start musical traditions.
The theme of the Velvet Room was followed by a non-vocal, big band styled rendition of “Reach Out to the Truth," emphasizing the bluster of brass horns over spoken word. Finally, the far more serene "Corner of Memories" brought the arrangement to a close. Those who have played the game will recall the piece plays when selecting a new game, where a silhouette of the unnamed main character is depicted running down a school hallway.
When Shoji Meguro was introduced onstage, he said that he was surprised when he heard selections from his score, characterized by elements of rap and hip hop, would be adapted for the orchestra for this concert. The musician added, listening to the medley, that he was pleased with the results.
When asked about the story behind the theme of the Velvet Room, one of the recurring motifs that ties together the individual episodes of the Persona game series, Meguro related that when he first entered Atlus he was asked if he could write a soprano solo vocal track, something operatic for a moody environment in the game. Seeing as he was practically an intern with the company at that point, he was compelled to answer yes enthusiastically, despite not having much experience with that style of composition. It resulted in the single most well recognized theme appearing in the game series.
Otogiriso and Kamaitachi No Yoru (commentary by Nojima)
Lest the appearance of the Persona series misleadingly imply that the Press Start concert series catered to an international audience, the selections directly following were from “Sound Novel Evolution Series” titles Otogiriso and Kamaitachi No Yoru, mid-'90s interactive novels by Chunsoft. Fittingly, commentary on the games was provided by the scenarist in the organizing committee.
The experience of reading a novel within the context of interactive software may sound like an innovative idea, and certainly in English language regions the concept has yet to be deeply explored, while in Japan the genre has been around for over a decade. Just this year, Chunsoft's Wii title 428: In a Blockaded Shibuya received a perfect score from Famitsu Magazine.
The sound novel themes began with "On the Road to the Mansion" and "Nami's Memories" from Otogiriso, followed by "Requiem" and "Nightmare" from Kamaitachi no Yoru. According to emcee Yasuyo Sakamoto, a note about the former, a horror sound novel, had been posted to the concert’s message board prior to the performance. The message had been submitted by someone who had been to the previous three concerts. It said: My girlfriend and I always go to Press Start, but she’s not coming this year. She’s afraid of Otogogiriso.
Suikoden & Super Mario Bros. (commentary by Uematsu and Takemoto)
For a series whose mission is in part to celebrate videogame composers together with their work, the impact of the event was stifled where artists were absent. That was the case with the following two sets, including "Into a World of Illusion" from Suikoden and various themes from the NES Super Mario Bros.
In the show notes, neither Miki Higashino nor any other composer was recognized for having written the music to Suikoden. Instead the Konami Kukeiha Club was credited for the score. The moniker was noticeably out of place in reference to the Playstation RPG, seeing as "kukeiha" refers to the square waves of the 8-bit NES sound card. Koji Kondo, a pioneer of the kukeiha, was present only for the daytime performance.
[From left to right: emcee Yasuyo Sakamoto, pianist Keita Egusa, vocalist Mariko Otsuka, vocalist/ composer Ryoko Kihara, guitarist Haruo Kubota, guitarist Takanori Goto, vocalist Oriko Takahashi, performers HIDE-HIDE]
Famicom Medley (commentary by Sakurai)
Twice the program let its proverbial hair down to actively invite audience participation. Seeing as videogames are the interactive medium of the moment, these segments turned out to be the biggest crowd-pleasers, even if momentarily a squandering of the expertise of the Tokyo Phil.
For the Famicom medley, a collection of tunes from Japan's model of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, a sign appeared on the overhead monitor instructing those in attendance to try and "name that tune." As an audience member, once you knew the name of the game, you were asked to start clapping along to the beat. The medley began with the Super Mario Bros theme, which had just been performed, resulting in a volley of claps right out of the gate.
The tunes from Dr. Mario and Balloon Fight, both by Hirokazu Hip Tanaka, were maybe a couple seconds in before an eruption of handclaps from the audience began keeping time to the music. As each played, the title screen of the corresponding game appeared on the overhead monitor, obscured by a pixilated mosaic. As more and more hands joined in clapping, coalescing out of the indeterminable blob of pixels were such familiar shapes as a Transylvanian castle and golden triforce. Mappy, Fire Emblem, Challenger, Yie Ar Kung-Fu, and Mysterious Murasame Castle rounded out the whole.
After this exercise in game theme recognition, Sakurai-san described the process behind the medley. The game director, who had previously commissioned around forty composers to arrange retro themes for Super Smash Bros Brawl, had initially chosen 60 candidates from the Famicom for the medley. Afterward, he ran the tunes by the organizing committee, and those no one could identify were eliminated.
Sakurai asked the audience if anyone had missed all of the songs. Nary a hand went up. When asked if anyone had gotten them all correct, a good number of hands were raised in the affirmative.
Portal (commentary by Nojima)
In a major change of formula, Press Start included music by a foreigner at this year’s event. Jonathan Coulton’s end theme from Portal was performed in Japanese by vocalist Mariko Otsuka, the lyrics translated by none other than Nojima himself, the Final Fantasy series scenarist.
Sensing that members of the audience were less likely to have Portal for their 360s than copies of Blue Dragon and Tales of Vesperia, Sakurai caught everyone up by bringing a Microsoft controller out on stage and demoing the ASHPD portal gun. He explained that the song “Still Alive” is sung by mother computer GLaDOS at the game's end. Otsuka’s performance in Japanese retained the deceptively innocent quality of the song, while endowing it with a human touch.
While the assimilation of "Still Alive" lent some poignancy to the space preceding the intermission, some seated in the audience may have appreciated seeing the geek culture icon responsible for the song appear on stage, or at least pictured in the program. Perhaps Coulton was invited, as Ikebukuro is a long way from Brooklyn. At least the music made the trip.
[From left to right: composer Keiki Kobayashi, composer Koji Kondo, designer Masaki Kondo, composer Go Shiina, composer Hiro, composer Shoji Meguro, sound designer Masami Yone, composer Nobuo Uematsu, composer Shogo Sakai, designer Masahiro Sakurai, conductor Taizo Takemoto, scenarist/ lyricist Kazushige Nojima.]
Okami & Ace Combat Zero (commentary by Uematsu and Sakurai)
Returning from the intermission, two smartly dressed musicians entered the stage with shamisen and shakuhachi in hand. Both named Hideki, the duo goes by the name HIDE-HIDE. "Beginning", Ryoshima Coast and "Reset" from Okami were the lone selections to feature traditional instruments this time around, calling to mind last year’s showstopping Samurai Showdown shamisen solos by Takemi Hirohara.
Composer Keiki Kobayashi was introduced onstage for “ZERO”, a vocal theme from the Playstation 2 title Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War by Namco Bandai. When asked what the game was about, the composer of the Ace Combat and Ridge Racer series mentioned that there is a theme of friendship and betrayal, though further elaboration might run into spoilers. The passionate emotions of the theme were conveyed through the arrangement of flamenco guitar performed by Takanori Goto.
Rhythm Heaven (commentary by Sakai)
The second interactive component of the evening was introduced by Sakai, whose score for Mother 3 featured its own interactive musical elements. On the overhead monitor, the Ninja game from Rhythm Heaven for the Game Boy Advance was demonstrated. The stage entails a white ninja shooting anywhere from one to three arrows and a black ninja swatting them with his sword in time with the beat, (as any other rhythm would result in his being impaled.)
The game was then performed on stage with Uematsu as the white ninja and Nojima as the black ninja. The Final Fantasy composer and scenarist then chose two members of the audience to appear on stage to form two teams. As if taking a cue from Video Games Live, the segment ended with the participants being awarded prizes.
After Nojima and his partner completed the ninja game flawlessly, it was clear that team Uematsu could go nowhere but second place. The composer made up for it by hamming it up, alternating clapping his hand against his tambourine with swatting it against his rear end, head and family jewels. His partner, chosen from the audience to follow his lead, sheepishly reenacted the testicle-swatting. To round out the segment, the entire audience was then invited to play along, clapping in time with the black ninja.
Fantasy Zone & Ore no Shikabane wo Koete Yuke (commentary by Nojima)
A medley of stage music from Fantasy Zone was preceded by comments by Sega game designer Masaki Kondo. He was joined by composer Hiro (formerly Hiroshi Kawaguchi and Hiroshi Miyauchi), who recently took part in a Daytona USA music discussion. As was mentioned in the article, Fantasy Zone was a departure from sidescrolling shooters like Gradius and Salamander by being set in a pastel-colored world, made only brighter by samba-styled background music. According to the artists on stage, there were other composers on the title, but Hiro’s songs, written over twenty years ago, were the ones that best fit the mood of the game and so made it into the final build.
The story of role-playing game Ore no Shikabane wo Koete Yuke tells of a family that is cursed with rapid aging. Instead of centering on one character, the player takes on the role of multiple generations in turn, starting with ancestors who seal away an evil demon and whose bloodline is thereby cursed. Ryoko Kihara sang the opening track “Flower,” a song that she had composed herself, while Haruo Kubota provided accompaniment on the guitar.
Tales of Legendia, Final Fantasy X & Kirby (commentary by Takemoto)
In the final piece included in the concert program, composer Go Shina introduced his theme from Tales of Legendia "melfes ~ Shining Blue". Uematsu noted the composer was one of quite a few who started off as performers of the electone, mentioning in the same breath both Meguro and Wild Arms’ Michiko Naruke. According to Uematsu, the electronic organ, capable of imitating the sounds of many orchestral instruments, was ideal for offering musicians an ear for symphonic arrangement.
Following Tales and an extended ovation, two encores were performed. "To Zanarkand", the opening theme from Final Fantasy X, was the first. Originally a piano solo, Uematsu praised Takemoto for providing the piece with an arrangement for the full orchestra. Sakai mentioned, half in jest, that as the song was performed, behind stage he had spotted the composer in tears during the daytime performance. Uematsu admitted he was proud of having written the song.
Unlike last year, in which a performance of Press Start was announced for Shanghai, there were no signs that the series had ambitions to broaden its audience beyond that assembled at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space until next year. To bring the evening's events to a close, Sakai invited everyone to sing "Happy Birthday" to Sakurai-san, who would be turning 39 the following day. To further celebrate, a medley of Kirby themes was performed for the evening's final encore.
[Celebratory gifts of flowers on display, presented by Enterbrain, Masahiro Sakurai and Nobuo Uematsu. Interpretation by Miyu. Images courtesy of Press Start Symphony of Games.]