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Benyamin Nuss Plays Uematsu

September 27th, 2010 No comments

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It’s a great time to be a game music enthusiast in Germany. The third installment of the Symphonic * concert series in Cologne last week was once again a tremendous success. As last year, the WDR Rundfunkorchester did a marvelous job at interpreting classic game tunes and as last year, they were again joined by percussionist Rony Barrak and German piano prodigy Benyamin Nuss. The very same Benyamin Nuss has just recently released a record under the renowned Deutsche Grammophon label, interpreting game soundtracks by world-famous Square Enix composer Nobuo Uematsu on the piano. Currently, Nuss is touring Germany and will also give performances in Luxembourg and Japan later this year. This author attended the second concert of the tour last Saturday in Trier, Germany.

Only two days separated the concerts in Cologne and Trier, yet they could hardly have been more contrasted. On the one hand we had the shiny Philharmonie in Cologne, completely sold out with more than two thousand attendants and a full fledged orchestra plus choir. On the other hand the cozy indie-charm of the Tufa Trier, with an audience of little over fifty people listening to a single piano on the unadorned stage. And yet, from a purely musical point of view, Nuss managed to deliver a solo-performance that was at least as fulfilling as that by the full-fledged orchestra in Cologne.

The most remarkable characteristic of Germany’s video game concerts is their willingness for experimentation. Most of the famous video game concerts out there, most prominently the American Video Games Live concerts, but also most of the Japanese orchestral arrangements, try to reproduce the original melodies as accurately as possible. Upon transposing the tracks from their 16-bit synthesizer roots to an orchestral score, they add nothing to the original track besides the increased number of participating instruments. While this still makes for some excellent fan-service, it delivers little beyond that point. In particular, those concerts tend to be utterly disappointing for anyone not extensively familiar with the original works.

A unique peculiarity of the Cologne video game concerts has always been their urge to go beyond that mere reproduction value and incorporate new influences and styles to truly elevate the compositions to a new level. Nuss’s latest work was unmistakably created in the same mindset and pushes the boundaries of musical versatility even further than its orchestral counterparts. Arranged by Japanese Shiro Hamaguchi, Russian Alexander Rosenblatt, American Bill Dobbins and of course Finnish Jonne Valtonnen, the record combines influences ranging from impressionistic music to jazz and classic modern, resulting in what is probably the most colorful and artistically pleasing contribution to the field of video game music so far.

Of course not everyone will like this. Look at the user-comments for Nuss’s performance at Symphonic Fantasies on YouTube and you will find an alarmingly high number of comments mistaking the jazzy disharmonies in Valtonnen’s arrangement of Dearly Beloved as actual playing errors. Maybe the gaming community is not ready to experience their music rearranged on this level of artistic subtlety. Or maybe the internet just makes gamers look stupider than they actually are… again.

Whatever it may be, if you have even the slightest interest in video game music as an art-form, there is absolutely no excuse for missing this seminal piece. Nuss Plays Uematsu is to be considered one of the most remarkable releases in the field, on par with the earliest orchestral arrangements of game music from Japan in the 1990s.
If you are just looking for some easy-listening fan-service, you will probably be disappointed. If you however take your time to get used to this exceptional piece of work and give it a chance to sink in, you might get a lot more than you might have expected.

The record is available for international purchase through the usual channels. Also, be sure to check out the tour dates for the live concerts, they are definitely highly recommended.

Categories: Games, Music

Zero 7 – Yeah Ghost

September 24th, 2009 No comments

Finally, the band that this blog owes its name to has finished their fourth studio album: Yeah Ghost is going to be released on Monday.

While the single Everything Up (Zizou) was made available for free download as an appetizer in late July, the band now made the full album available for free online listening. Compared to their earlier works, Yeah Ghost is more upbeat, striking new paths for the band. This is futher emphasized by the absence of the traditional Zero 7 vocalists like Sia Fuller and José González who had a tremendous influence on the band’s sound.

Instead, the new album features the first collaborations with singer Eska Mtungwazi who breezingly shatters the stereotype of the petite female vocalist, so typical for Zero 7’s previous albums. This results in songs abound with a previously untypical vitality, bursting with dominating rhythms pushing them close the edge of being danceable. One would hardly believe that Mr McGee and Ghost sYMboL were recorded by the same band that released The Garden just two years ago.

Those are however just some felicitous exceptions, as Zero 7 is still a downtempo band after all. Everything Up feels so familiar that it could have come right off the B-side of The Garden; Pop Art Blue brilliantly demonstrates the seamless fusion of acoustic instruments, electronic beats and aspirated female vocals that Zero 7 is famous for. Unlike earlier albums though, where a listener unfamiliar with downbeat would risk losing himself in the ocean of consistent sound, Yeah Ghost regularly speeds up with tracks like Sleeper, a fast paced play of electric dissonances backed up by a dominant beat. Only in the concluding three tracks Solastalgia, The Road and All of Us the band casually succumbs to the warm embracement of pure sound.

Overall Yeah Ghost leaves no doubt that the chilly days of Simple Things and When It Falls are ultimately over. Instead the band carefully explores new territory, succesfully avoiding the descent to mere easy-listening. Whether they will be able to find their defining niche like they did in Downbeat only time will tell. For now, they have released an unexpected, but highly enjoyable and promising album.

Track Picks: Everything Up (Zizou), Mr McGee, Solastalgia
Free Online Listening

Categories: Music

Symphonic Fantasies 2009

September 16th, 2009 No comments

Over the last few years, concerts of video game music have become increasingly popular in Germany. Besides the traditional opening concerts at the Gewandhaus inaugurating the Games Convention in Leipzig in earlier years, followed by a gig of Video Games Live in 2008, there has been last year’s Symphonic Shades concert, dedicated exclusively to the work of german composer Chris Hülsbeck. Due to the overwhelming success, the team of Symphonic Shades decided to reprise their success with Symphonic Fantasies, a concert dedicated to the soundtracks of the games by japanese manufacturer Square Enix.

Due to the amazing feedback on Symphonic Shades, the WDR decided to move the event from the Funkhaus in Cologne to the much bigger Philharmonie. Despite the gain in scale, tickets soon became rare, so a second gig was announced in Oberhausen, a city 70 kilometers north of Cologne. I attended the concert in Cologne last saturday.

The Philharmonie was quite crowded: With all tickets sold out, there were around 2000 people attending the concert in Cologne, with the average age being well below thirty. The organizers managed to fly in all four performed composers to the event: Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts), Hiroki Kikuta (Secret of Mana), Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) were not only in the audience on both concerts, but were also available for an autograph session.

Thanks to the smart placing of the autograph tables in the foyer of the Philharmonie, curious attendants were able to have a good look at the composers even if they did not get in line for an autograph. The actual concert was divided into four parts (à 20 minutes) plus encore (10 minutes), seperated by an intermission after the second part.

The Kingdom Hearts Segment

Kingdom Hearts was the most recent title in the program. For this segment, the WDR Rundfunkorchester under conductor Arnie Roth was joined by german pianist Benyamin Nuss. Due to its setting, the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack is largely dominated by themes from the classic animated Disney movies, which were omitted in this performance. Instead, the arrangement concentrated on the signature opening ‘Dearly Beloved‘ and the memorable ‘Hand in Hand‘, which build the central theme of the segment. The arrangement was mostly dominated by the piano, which did an excellent job at catching the melancholy of the original composition. Probably the most quiet segment of the evening, garnished with some nice highlights by the piano and violin. All in all, a wonderful opening segment, even for people who dislike the sometimes childish character of the Kingdom Hearts franchise.

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The Secret of Mana Segment

While I do like the Secret of Mana game, I consider its soundtrack to be comparably weak. Imho it lacks the memorable themes that carried the other compositions, so I was sceptic whether this segment would be able to convince me. Fortunately, my fears were in vain.

Joined by the choir of the WDR Rundfunkchor, the orchestra performed the most creative segment of the evening. Thanks to colorful arrangements and unexpected sound effects, the greyed themes from the 16-bit era felt as fresh as never before. A huge credit goes to orchestrator Jonne Valtonnen, whose reconstruction of memorable in-game scenes through original sound effects was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the evening.

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The Chrono Trigger Segment

Of the four featured soundtracks, Chrono Trigger is probably the least known in Germany, since it was not released until the Nintendo DS remake in 2008. This was the reason why, despite the concise original compositions, I considered this to be the most difficult segment of the evening.

After the intermission, the orchestra was joined by percussionist Rony Barrak, who presented a breathtaking performance on the traditional Darbouka. Thanks to his participation, the melodic themes of Chrono Trigger gained a tremendous rhythmic quality unknown from the original composition. Like Secret of Mana, this segment was able to convince with creative arrangements and further achieved to masterfully merge the various incisive motives into an harmonic piece. Arguably the artistic highlight of the evening.

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The Final Fantasy Segment

The last segment was probably the most anticipated: All-time fan favourite Final Fantasy, with the emphasis on parts six and seven of the series. The compositions are very well-known in Germany, in both the original synthesizer and rearranged orchestral form.

Once again, the choir joined the orchestra for this segment, starting with a wonderful, dreamy arrangement of the famous ‘Prelude’. Next was an interpretation of the battle theme from Final Fantasy 7, which had been previously arranged in both orchestral form and as a highly dynamic piano piece for the Advent Children movie. The arrangement here was conveyed mainly by the choir, which added an interesting facet to the piece. A personal highlight for me was the ‘Phantom Forest’ theme from Final Fantasy 6, which had been previously arranged for the Grande Finale concert, but is otherwise a rather rarely played piece. Fan-service was provided by the lighthearted ‘Chocobo’-theme and the repeated occurence of a few notes from the ‘One Winged Angel’. The overall very powerful and massive arrangement was supported by the participation of the philharmony’s large organ, which further emphasized the mountainous tone of the segment.

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Encore: Boss Medley

Since, apart from a few notes, the ‘One Winged Angel’ had been omitted so far, there was little doubt that there would be an encore. After some serious ovations the orchester rejoined with the choir and Rony Barrak for the great finale, consisting of the boss themes from all four games. As was to be expected, this segment easily exceeded the Final Fantasy segment in terms of epical grandeur. From the swelling crescendo of the choir to a remarkable drum-solo by Rony Barrak, this segment proved to be a worthy finale for a marvelous concert.

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Thanks to the surprisingly creative arrangements and the masterful execution, Symphonic Fantasies proved to be the undisputed highlight in terms of game music concerts in Germany so far. A commercial release on audio cd is very likely, so keep your eyes peeled.

Without question, it would be highly desirable if the producers decided to rejoin for a new Symphonic * event in 2010. I will certainly keep my fingers crossed.

Categories: Games, Music