Masahiro Sakurai and Kenji Ito reminisce at Gentle Echo Meeting

Jerry on 2009-04-15
Taking place at the Uchisaiwaicho Hall in Chiyoda, Tokyo on February 21st, the "gentle echo meeting" was a special celebration of the music of Kenji Ito, organized by promotional studio and event coordinator Harmonics International. The mix of live performance and discussion brought together five musicians to play eight pieces from the composer's repertoire, largely belonging to epic role-playing games of various console eras.

Kenji Ito is a central figure associated with Square Enix's 20th anniversary of the SaGa series this year, and is currently arranging his songs for the Nintendo DS remake of SaGa 2, released in English language regions as Final Fantasy Legend II in 1991. Revisiting classics has been a returning motif of his career, as Sword of Mana for the Game Boy Advance and Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song for the Playstation 2 both contained revised arrangements from earlier titles.

Pieces from both remakes were featured at the gentle echo meeting, along with selections from Culdcept Saga, Pop'n Music, and other console videogames. Between songs the composer performed on the guitar and piano, he discussed his music with Smash Bros. series director Masahiro Sakurai.

In Japan, Sakurai has presided as an emcee over the Press Start Symphony of Games orchestral concert series. In this interview, Sakurai speaks about his dual role as game designer and commentator. In addition, we hear from Koji Suga of Harmonics International on planning Harmonics events like the gentle echo meeting. Finally, Kenji Ito shares his impressions of the event and details regarding his upcoming soundtrack to SaGa 2 for the Nintendo DS.

This overview provides some unique insights into how one of the most experienced creators of videogame music chose to connect with his listeners through a unique live performance.

Sakurai-san, thank you for joining us for this discussion. Can you tell us what led to your working with a wide variety of videogame composers in Japan?

Masahiro Sakurai: As far as Press Start is concerned, it came about as the result of five friends having a drink together.

We were saying, "You know, game music... it's so good. Don't you think we should spread the word?" And the answer was, "Yes, we should." We were just thinking aloud, but we suddenly realized looking around the table that the five of us assembled there could actually make it happen. To put it another way, if we weren't the ones to make this concept a reality, perhaps no one could.

You might call me an amateur when it comes to music, but in terms of game music I know quite a lot, about the classics in particular. This knowledge came in handy in determining which songs were included in the Press Start concert. As a game designer, it aided my direction of Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

Was there any difference in your experience between presenting at industry events such as the Game Developers Conference, and on the other hand leading this discussion in Chiyoda?

It does not make too much of a difference to me, being in front of people. The important thing is to feel that the audience is supportive of the message. In that sense, both speaking at GDC and the gentle echo meeting has gone smoothly.

How did you become familiar with Kenji Ito's music?

Speaking now of Ito-san's music, you could say that the Romancing SaGa battle themes have left an impression on me. They have a vivid beauty to them. That being said, his feeling was that for the gentle echo meeting it would be more appropriate to feature songs that were less aggressive, with a subtler mood to them. I definitely have an appreciation for both these varieties of songs.

Were there any aspects of the discussion that you found surprising?

Yes, that Ito-san had applied to work at HAL Laboratory. He could easily have joined the company and ended up writing music for the Kirby games.

How did preparation for the event go?

Very well. When we meet, the conversation always seems to flow naturally. I breathed a sigh of relief as soon as I heard that Nintendo had granted us permission to include music from Super Smash Bros Brawl. At the end of the meeting you made a special announcement confirming that the 2009 Press Start Symphony of Games will take place in August.

Suga-san, thank you for joining us. Can you tell us a little about the recent events Harmonics has been involved in organizing in Japan?

Koji Suga: As far as our activities locally, we have regularly been organizing recordings of orchestral game music. Recently we held an official event for music enthusiasts and fans of the Korg DS-10 software. As far as full orchestra performances go, we have been involved in events such as the 5th Anniversary Monster Hunter Concert and Music Festival.

My feeling is that the experience of listening to videogame music in a live venue is very special. For one, it offers a new environment for game players to socialize with one another and strike up conversations. From a developer's perspective, it is valuable to have the opportunity to see your audience with your own eyes in such a context. Organizing this kind of event is important because it can be an emotionally moving experience for listeners and motivational for creators as well.

What were some of the primary intentions behind organizing the Chiyoda gathering?

The strongest impetus was Ito-san's wish to put together his own musical event. Originally only a discussion was planned. However, when we found out that the director of the music space was an old high school classmate of Ito-san's, it became a discussion and live music performance at his insistence. The objective was to make Ito-san's first experience as the host of a musical event something that would inform the audience and add to their appreciation of the music.

In terms of the international focus of Harmonics, what are your objectives outside of Japan?

One development that is hard not to notice is that in recent years the number of people that are interested in videogame music has increased, both within Japan and abroad. However, listeners in Japan are not familiar with musicians from other language regions, and international music fans are not so knowledgeable on the whole about Japanese composers. We are investigating both here and abroad into organizing musical events that break the mold. We hope to be in a position to bridge the cultural gaps to bring together great music with listeners around the world.

In your view, what aspects of the videogame music industry do you feel are deserving of more attention?

The resources available to videogame composers today is coming closer to what is seen in the film industry, as game hardware becomes increasingly sophisticated. What might be deserving of increased attention is the role that videogame music is playing in expanding the appreciation of music in the general public, for any number of genres.

What were some of the challenges you encountered as an organizer of the gentle echo meeting?

The performers and other participants were incredibly supportive of Ito-san's music, so there were no major difficulties that we encountered. We had planned on playing background music from Smash Bros. and SaGa 2 during the discussion. Receiving permission from Nintendo and Square Enix was therefore the greatest challenge in putting the event together.

What can you tell us about the performers, credited as violinist Aya Yoda, guitarist Wanogen, bass player Hiroki Ohno and Beklee College of Music graduate, drummer Kiyotaka Takiyama?

The participants for this performance were invited by Ito-san. It was my first time working with them and I think they all were very enthusiastic in their support of the composer. I hope to have the chance to work with them again.

Ito-san, thank you for offering your time to this conversation about the gentle echo meeting. When did you first become aware of Harmonics International and how has the company been instructive in coordinating this live event?

Kenji Ito: We have had the chance to work together going all the way back to the Squaresoft days, so it has been fun to collaborate as this team has become more independent in their work projects. Moreover, the venue for this event has a long history of association with Harmonics International. When I was looking into working with the managers of the concert hall in 2008, I was surprised to discover upon meeting the director that we went to school together. It was a miraculous discovery that would not have occurred without the participation of Harmonics International.

What personal experiences working with Sakurai-san did you bring to this collaboration on the gentle echo meeting?

Previously we have worked together, behind the scenes on game design, and first met at Press Start in 2006. There I appeared on stage and performed on the piano. Just an hour after the event, we were talking and I remember he casually mentioned, "You know, I'm just beginning a new project and it could really benefit from the participation of Ito-Ken. What do you think?" (laughs)

The famous "Opening" from Romancing SaGa made an appearance at the gentle echo meeting, which is a melody that has tied together the installments of the series for the 16-bit Super Famicom. How has this song evolved over time?

During the days when I was writing music for the Super Nintendo, we were restricted on the number of simultaneous audio channels, which made certain choices for orchestration impossible. Often I would wish for the chance to hear the song performed by a full orchestra. That became a reality, both with the production of the Playstation 2 remake and Press Start 2006, which for me was a stirring experience. This time I made a conscious decision to present the audience with a new interpretation, one involving a chamber music arrangement and solo piano performance.

Departing from role-playing territory, "Dance to Blue" represents a selection from Pop'n Music 16. Does the gameplay of a rhythm action title require a different process of composing?

When it comes to composing for music games, the developers are aware that game players often request songs that ask you to tap the gamepad really aggressively. That consideration seems to cause me the most difficulty. This event was of course focused on instrumental arrangements of your music. In the past you are also known to have created a number of distinctive vocal tracks.

Can you tell us a little about writing these songs for such games as Culdcept Saga and the Romancing SaGa remake?

On these tracks, I worked on writing the vocal part and the instrumental arrangement together from the start. Above all, the song "Passionate Rhythm" has received the most positive feedback. For many listeners, a strong impression has been left by this song, which is largely attributable to the work of Kyoko Kishikawa as vocalist.

Was performing at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event in 2007 very different in its feel from the meeting at Uchisaiwaicho Hall?

The 2007 EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event was huge in scope and the response from the crowd was overwhelming. By contrast, here the emphasis was on the "meeting" of "gentle echo meeting." A blog post on the topic of the gentle echo meeting appeared on the developers' website of the SaGa 2 remake. Like this meeting, the title promises to bring together nostalgic melodies with contemporary arrangements.

Has the experience of working on remakes previously given you a better idea of what audio techniques to employ on SaGa 2?

For this remake I will be arranging Nobuo Uematsu's compositions as well as my own. To tell you the truth, it reminds me of my time working on Chocobo Racing at Square. That title included remixes of themes from various Final Fantasy series installments. In that sense, the experience is similar to arranging the soundtrack to Chocobo Racing.

In closing, for those who live outside of Japan that have enjoyed your music over the years, is there a message you might wish to share to extend this discussion of videogame music to an overseas audience?

The title "gentle echo" reflects my wish to create songs that you can listen to while you relax. I really appreciate the record label Windham Hill for this reason. I am sure I will be working on more videogame music as time goes by, but I am also interested in expanding into different forms, such as ballads. I hope you will look forward to it.

This article originally appeared on: Translation by Ryojiro Sato.