Taking notes from the FF music maestro

We say thank you for the music to Nobuo Uematsu, the man behind Final Fantasy's stellar scores

He's a busy man, is Nobuo Uematsu. Not content with producing some of the most memorable and moving music ever to grace a videogame for the Final Fantasy series, Uematsu-san also finds time to rock out with his Black Mages band and produce a whole series of live compositions of his FF scores.

After successful concerts in Japan and LA earlier this year, Uematsu-san is taking his acclaimed Dear Friends - Music from Final Fantasy concert series back to the United States in February next year. Starting in Chicago, Uematsu-san will take his specially arranged Final Fantasy scores across the country, no doubt delighting fans with a combination of orchestral music, human voice, and video footage from the FF games themselves.

Nobuo Uematsu, smiling as usual

And among all that Uematsu-san still found time to sit down and have a chat with us. He's a disarmingly polite and cheerful gentleman for someone so well revered within the industry, so it was a real pleasure listening to his views on the history, present and future of videogame music. Enjoy. You've had great success with your music in videogames to the point where you've been given awards like a nomination in Time Magazine's Music - The Next Wave list and Song of the Year at the 1999 Japan Gold Disc awards. How does it feel to have brought the medium of videogame music to a point where people outside of the industry are recognising your achievements?

Uematsu-san: Is that true? [laughs] Basically, my primary concern is to make music for the game. I'm most concerned about making sure the game player enjoys the music and that it enhances his experience. If people outside of the videogames industry, or people who don't necessarily play videogames, if those people appreciate my music then I'll always be grateful for that. Do you feel you're in a position to really push videogame music into a more mainstream arena and make people aware of the fact that your compositions are real, artistic works?

Uematsu-san: To be honest, I'm not too concerned about that. I see the beauty in videogame music, whether it's the very simple electronic tunes from earlier systems or the more complicated compositions we are beginning to hear now. I've been through that. So for me personally it's more important to introduce influences from many areas of mainstream music into videogame music, like classical, folk and world music, and push the medium forward in that way. If you don't mind us saying so, you've been active in the videogame industry for quite some time now. How have you seen the industry's approach to videogame music change over the years and how has that been reflected in your own approach?

Uematsu-san: I think the main change has been how the sound can be recorded and recreated within the game. I get the feeling that the currency of the music hasn't changed that much, but the quality of reproduction certainly has, so videogame musicians can achieve more with the technology. We've only just got to the stage where videogame music can be of the same reproductive quality as film music, and so I think in a way we've only just reached the starting point in the history of artistic game music. The film comparison is an interesting point, and you've worked on both videogames and motion picture scores. In your experience how different is it scoring music for a game and a movie? Do you like to play the game before you score it?

Uematsu-san: Unfortunately it's impossible to play the game before I score it, because we start production at the same time. With a movie you have a timescale that's a wonderful help - for instance, you'll know that you need a melancholic composition at one hour and 15 minutes in that lasts for 32 seconds. With games you don't necessarily have that timescale, so you have to score around specific points and situations in the storyline. What kind of music inspires you personally?

Uematsu-san: It's very difficult to say. I honestly believe that every piece of music I've heard since I was a tiny baby until today has affected and inspired me in some small way. I do love British music, though - during the seventies British music was far more popular and influential in Japan than American music so I think that has had a large effect on me. Led Zeppelin in particular are my favourite. Videogames are becoming very powerful in an emotional sense and the Final Fantasy series has always been singled out as examples of games that can move players to tears. How do you see the relationship between your music and the emotional impact of the game?

Uematsu-san: It's very simple for me. I look at the emotion of the situation and use it as my inspiration for the score. Nothing is premeditated or contrived. If my music helps to move a player to tears then I am very pleased, because even though I wrote the music if I've done my job properly it should move me to tears. Let's stick with the Final Fantasy series. Is it a real challenge to come to every new game in the series and score it in a different way?

Uematsu-san: [Laughs] Of course! If it was easy I would be very, very rich by now! In that case, what excites you about the next generation of consoles and what do you think you'll be able to exploit with their greater power?

Uematsu-san: Well, it's kind of difficult to really pinpoint what's going to be possible with the next-generation consoles, and even which console is going to be dominant in the next five or ten years. What I am excited about is having extra power to explore totally new musical forms and themes. Up until now videogame music has had to remain relatively simple and accessible, but I think the next-gen consoles will let us try far more artistic things, like, for instance, scoring a whole game using only a human voice. Especially in Western games there's been a real move towards using licensed music rather than originally created soundtracks. How do you feel about that?

Uematsu-san: I think it'd be a shame if every game started using licensed, pre-made music, but there are still lots people committed to creating original music for videogames. As long as there are still people with the desire and creativity to produce original videogame music, I don't really see a problem with some games using licensed music. Square Enix seems to be making a move towards a 'polymorphic' idea of game design, with many games from a single universe releasing across multiple platforms like the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. Are you excited by this?

I'm very excited about it. Especially the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. It's a real pleasure for me to be able to go back and revisit the music I created for the original Final Fantasy VII and brush it up a little. It's something I always want to do after finishing a project, but I never usually have the time. With the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII I get the opportunity to do it - and I'm working on a new project at the same time!

Now, if that music was only a year or two old, I wouldn't be all that interested, but if I haven't thought about it for a long time then it's great to go back and look at it again. For instance, a few years back myself and Sakaguchi-san discussed remaking the music from the very first Final Fantasy game. I would have relished the opportunity but I never had the time. So it's lovely to get the chance with the Compilation of Final Fantasy. You have a number of other projects that you use to take your music out of the context of the game and into a different arena, like the Black Mages. How much pleasure do you get from these projects?

Uematsu-san: Well, it's business, but I'm enjoying every minute of it! It's great to think that an individual person is enjoying your music while they play a game, but when you have 2000 people sitting in the same place, listening to your music and - hopefully - giving you a standing ovation, you enjoy every last aspect of it. I love it! Videogame soundtracks are extremely successful in Japan already, but do you see them becoming more successful than movie soundtracks here in the West?

Uematsu-san: As you say, videogame soundtracks are already extremely popular in Japan so I can definitely see the same thing happening in the West. Many thanks for your time Uematsu-san.

Uematsu-san's Dear Friends - Music from Final Fantasy US concert series kicks off in Chicago on February 19, 2005. For more information and ticket details click here.