Final Fantasy: Distant Worlds – A Celebration of Nobuo Uematsu, Whether He Likes It or Not

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Distant Worlds is a musical event unlike most anything else. The music itself is adapted from either 8-bit or synth pieces, written to strengthen the emotional investment of the Final Fantasy videogame series in a massive endeavor for a sweeping, full-bodied symphony orchestra. It’s a project that not only translates the music from one medium to another, but finds new life and deeper emotion through physical instrumentation with a near-constant update to the arrangements and set list.

It makes one fall deeper in love with a game series that, at this point in its lifespan, lives off of the nostalgia and love of characters and worlds spanning three decades. With a fanbase as rich and deep as those who follow Final Fantasy, only an event like Distant Worlds has the emotional pull necessary to embed an audience directly into the world of Spira or the depths of the Shinra Corporation.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra pulled off another majestic performance, capturing the attention of a massive array of different audience members. It’s the most varied assortment of people entering the same venue I’ve ever seen: fancy dresses and suits, dress pants sitting side by side with torn jeans and t-shirts, sitting behind a couple cosplaying as Sephiroth (VII) and Yuna (X). It’s a true festivity for all involved, whether they be hardcore gamers or just simply fans of the symphony.

At the pulpit once again was Conductor Arnie Roth, leading the orchestra as he has around the world. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of nearly all 14 games in the Final Fantasy series missed what is allegedly his first appearance in years. Without his music, the game series wouldn’t have anything near the impact that they have had over the years, regardless of story and character development, as he drove the emotion before voice over was ever dreamt of as a staple to gaming.

However, this year Nobuo became ill shortly before the show and was unable to leave Japan. A representative from Square Enix was in attendance to see the legions of fans of Uematsu came out and fill the Chicago Symphony Center in near worship.

Starting the evening was “Prelude” the official theme for Final Fantasy that has been a part of almost all of the 14 games to come capacity. The strings of a massive harp plucked the opening notes, reminiscent of the 8-bit era of sound before a full choir sang in heavenly tones. It’s a simple song, but one that is powerful enough to make an attempt to pull tears from the eye of any fan.

This year’s concert was a celebration of Final Fantasy VII, with the Remake of Final Fantasy VII having been announced just months ago and the first videos of gameplay released weeks ago. Several of the themes from VII are staples of the Distant Worlds concert series, such as the whimsical and action heavy opening song, “Bombing Mission” or “One Winged Angel”, the fan-favorite theme song to the de facto villain of the FF series, Sephiroth.

However, the focus here played heavily on the rarer songs to be played live, such as “Aerith’s Theme” or the sinister “Jenova Complete”, blasting through the concert hall to a massive screen showing scenes from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy as Zach Fair learned the truth of Sephiroth and the Jenova cells before Cloud Strife took up the mantle to fight.

“Cosmo Canyon” was premiered live for the first time as a song hand selected by Nobuo Uematsu. The brooding, atmospheric piece set the tone as the theme song for the valley that Red XIII, the red lion from VII and his father called home.

Vocalist Susan Calloway appeared on stage to sing “Dragonsong” from Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensword, the song she recorded for the game itself. She appeared briefly again for a performance of “Kiss Me Goodbye”, the only song representing Final Fantasy XII.

One stand out performance was “Vamo’ alla Flamenco” from Final Fantasy IX, a majestic piece that reflects the fanciful energy of IX the same way that Zidane Tribal and his Shakespearean-esque troupe storm into the game to steal the princess. The orchestra swayed in sound like fire, frenzied with dance paired with an incredibly difficult and impressive bit of guitarwork. Not only is it a unique piece for IX as a game, it’s a masterpiece amongst over fifteen games and three decades worth of music.

Capping off the night were highlights from one of the Final Fantasy staples: combat. The official last song was a lengthy Battle Melody for Final Fantasy I-XIV, weaving the main fighting themes from each game into one suite of coherent music. Knowing each games’ battle music, it was fascinating to see how each game was interpreted into one piece just as much as it was to see the way they blended together to make one single song. All things considered, the battle melodies are more simple and straightforward than character themes, but when written into one piece, it perfectly captured the struggle, pain and bravery that has defined the heroes of the Final Fantasy games for so long.

As an encore, the orchestra pulled “Battle on the Big Bridge”, the most famous pieces from Final Fantasy V as the heroes fought Gilgamesh. Aside from different interpretations of “Prelude” being played (usually during the credits) of most games, “Battle on the Big Bridge” is perhaps the only song that has cropped up in remastered versions across several games from time to time. Being a surprise whenever it appears during a battle, it was a fitting end to an amazing show.

Distant Worlds is one of the few things that I look forward to on a yearly basis, as much as or more so than most other festivals or expected shows. Though it rehashes several of the favorite songs, Final Fantasy boasts a massive library with some of the best written music in all of gaming. Any glimpse of a new song translated to the orchestra breathes completely new life and energy into music that has been listened to over and over again for years.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago religiously plays Final Fantasy.

Distant Worlds – A Night with Nobuo Uematsu

 

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Nobuo Uematsu is a god. He is single-handedly responsible for some of the most beloved music in videogaming. He’s the composer of the soundtracks for the first ten Final Fantasy games, Square Enix’s flagship series, and the work that he is best known for. His songs are so universal and influential that even when the duty of writing the soundtracks were given to other composers, they still retain and base their music around his themes.

Part of the appeal of Uematsu’s sound is that it is extraordinarily robust. While one character theme may be a simple piano ballad, the next town’s song could be a poppy jazz song before launching into a beat-heavy battle anthem to accompany the action in the game. What’s amazing is that although most of his music was written digitally for the gaming systems of the time (Super Nintendo, Playstation 1), they translate to any medium perfectly. Uematsu’s own metal band The Black Mages shred these songs as though they were meant for the most hardcore. However, the most popular presentation of his music is through a live orchestra.

Distant Worlds is the world touring concert of live orchestras, focusing on the music of Final Fantasy directed by Arnie Roth, while Nobuo Uematsu sits humbly just off stage. The most recent concert, a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy VI played to a full house of awkward fans unaccustomed to attending the Chicago Symphony Hall, dressed in an array from fancy dress clothes, to shorts and a t-shirt, to cosplaying as their favorite character from the FF universe.

Seeing the music of Final Fantasy played live is much more than just hearing video game music; it’s the physical embodiment of reliving the wonderment that made people fall in love with the games in the first place. In an era before voice acting was the standard for the industry, the soundtrack was the only sound to accompany games. This is part of the reason why people will always remember the theme song to Super Mario. Final Fantasy X, which came out in 2000 for the Playstation 2, was the first game in the series to introduce voice acting, leaving an army of loyal fans to the franchise with over a decade and nearly a dozen games’ worth of music they had grown up on.

The setting at the Chicago Symphony Hall is quaint; a beautifully ornate hall with steep lined theater seats looking down on the stage, decked with the chairs and instruments of the Chicago orchestra, each member decorated with crisp, black dress clothes. Behind them is a massive screen, on which videos of the various Final Fantasy games plays in time with the songs so that the audience can relive the grandest moments while the instruments shake the theater.

The evening started off with the booming tenor vocals for FFX’s “Hymn of the Fayth”, backed by the otherworldly sound of a full choir against the most minimal parts of the orchestra the evening would see. The slow buildup of the song, a single voice singing operatic lines gave way immediately to the fan favorite song (and almost always an encore exclusive), “One Winged Angel” the theme song to one of the most infamous villains in all of gaming, FFVII’s Sephiroth.

The first half of the show ran the gamut of songs across the series: “Opening – Bombing Mission” (FFVII), “Chocobo Medley”, “Crimson Blitz” (Lightning Returns: FFXIII) and a stunning rendition of “Eyes on Me” (FFVIII) with vocals sung by Susan Calloway. Calloway was decked out in an amazing dress, sexily cut to either be A-List level stylish or quite possibly interpreted as a rendition of cosplay for one of the female heroines of the more recent Final Fantasy titles. She also sang “Answers” (FFXIV), the game’s theme song of which she sang for the actual soundtrack.

The real highlight of the night for many was the second half of the concert, the celebration of Final Fantasy VI’s 20th anniversary. While “Terra’s Theme”, also known as the theme for the game’s overworld, was already a well known part of the Distant Worlds concerts, one of the highlights was a new character theme medley which included parts of “Celes’ Theme” and “Locke’s Theme”, played against a video of the various characters during some of the more memorable scenes.

However, the single most powerful songs from the night came in two different songs: “The Opera” and “Dancing Mad” the ten minute final battle against Kefka, the main villain to VI. “The Opera” is a famous enough song in its own right, as the scene in the game isn’t just one of the most famous in Final Fantasy history, but gaming history in general. The version for this concert included a full choir, a narrator to outline the story, and three amazing opera singers whose voices commanded the stage. When the song had finally ended, the theater erupted in a roar of applause and a standing ovation. “Dancing Mad” included the addition of an organist playing an absolutely massive pipe organ that rattled the very theater itself during its solo. The video accompanied with the song showed a battle between Kefka and Terra Bradford from the Playstation Portable game Final Fantasy Dissidia.

Distant Worlds is one of the most emotional concerts I have ever seen. The array of songs aren’t just background music or something to sing along to as much as they are the very essence of storytelling without words. The few appearances Nobuo Uematsu made on stage (such as to play the sound of the wind during “Dark World”) was met to thunderous applause from fans who hail him as one of the heroes of gaming itself. The songs mean more than just themes or as a beloved soundtrack. Each song performed was the adventure the audience had traveled before, louder and more vivid than ever. And sitting quietly offstage is one of the world’s most beloved composers humbly watching the show along with the very fans he inspired in the first place.

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Left to Right: Arnie Roth, Nobuo Uematsu, Susan Calloway

 

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago religiously plays Final Fantasy.