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Nobuo Uematsu Gets Played

July 27, 2010

Xbox.  Playstation.  Wii.  While your video game console isn’t normally the first place you would go for musical inspiration, come Sept.17/10, gamers’ ears will have some new audio to get excited about.

German newspaper, “Der Spiegel”, reported this past weekend that the “Deutsche Grammophon” recording label is about to release an album of music by computer game composer, Nobuo Uematsu.  Performed on solo piano by the up-and-coming young German pianist, Benyamin Nuss, the release undoubtedly confirms what many have known for some time – that Uematsu is a serious player on the modern classical stage.  And ultimately, it heralds the advent of an entirely new musical sub-genre.

Uematsu, you could say, is the godfather of video game music.  The kingpin.  The highest of the high mucky mucks.  He rules this fantasy world, and over the last 10 or so years has become a significant beacon, rather than just a curious blip, on the global musical radar.  Best known for his “Final Fantasy” compositions, the self-taught pianist also holds the distinction of having been predicted as one of TIME magazine’s 100 top musical innovators of our time.

His compositions, based on the few I’m familiar with, are accessible, popular, and pleasing in a Romantic/epic/lyrical kind of way – not unlike what you would hear in a movie theatre any given night (think Hans Zimmer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtracks).  This, exactly, is part of the intrigue – as video games have evolved from the simple days of Pac-Man and Tetris into intricate, movie-like worlds of their own, so has the big-screen experience found its way into small-screen technology, inviting participants on a roller-coaster ride of adventure and emotion that couldn’t be replicated in personal entertainment software until recent years.  Much of that ride is inextricably linked to the music’s sway.

Nuss’s recording, which highlights pieces from “Final Fantasy”, “Blue Dragon”, “Lost Odyssey”, and “Rad Racer” (as well as a special tribute composed by Nuss, called “Nobuo’s Theme“), isn’t the first transcription for solo piano that has been done of Uematsu’s music (in fact, Uematsu wrote early solo piano transcriptions of his own).  Nor is this the first recording of “Final Fantasy” music to be put out.  But for such a bastion recording label as “Deutsche Grammophon” to release this upcoming disc only gives more credence to the expected staying power of this new musical avenue.

As for 21-year old Benyamin Nuss – who is also a gamer and “Final Fantasy” fan – he believes “video game music is the logical continuation of the classical masters.”

On his website, Nuss speaks about a concert he played with the Köln Philharmonie that Uematsu attended.  “But even more moving,” Nuss says, “was the atmosphere in the hall: mainly girls and boys, who listen spellbound and know every melody, react to every theme.  It’s something completely different, to live these emotions together in that kind of an environment instead of sitting at home alone in front of YouTube.”

As though indirectly underscoring his point, this past season when my symphony gave the Canadian premiere of Uematsu’s Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy, the concert sold out – a pattern that seems to be repeating itself in concert halls around the globe, wherever this music is performed.

While gaming isn’t my thing, I nonetheless find this phenomenon fascinating – like we’re getting to watch the formation of a galaxy, or the first steps of a child.  There’s a sense of holding one’s breath with no real idea of what comes next, save being aware of the limitless view of untapped possibilities that lies ahead.

It will be interesting to see how far this all goes, and how it will end up changing the landscape of classical music.

Uematsu hears “Nobuo’s Theme” for the first time:

Nuss plays “Terra’s Theme” from “Final Fantasy 6”:

For the “Spiegel” article click here.

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