Jan 16

JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Grammy Winner Arnie Roth on ‘Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy’

"I can honestly say that I currently spend much of my career involved with Japan on so many projects, that I almost cannot imagine what it would be like without all of our Japanese friends and colleagues."

“I can honestly say that I currently spend much of my career involved with Japan on so many projects, that I almost cannot imagine what it would be like without all of our Japanese friends and colleagues.” (Courtesy of Attila Glatz Concert Productions)


By Vlad Baranenko (Saitama-ken, 2000-02) for JQ magazine. Vlad is an avid photographer.

Sephiroth, meet Maestro Roth.

On Jan. 31, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center will hold a double performance marathon of Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy, an official concert program of the beloved video game series, also coming to Boston (April 24) and St. Louis (May 15). Featuring special guest series composer Nobuo Uematsu and featured soloists RIKKI and Susan Calloway, the show will feature game clips playing to the performance of a symphony orchestra, choir and renowned vocal talent, all under the direction of Grammy Award-winning conductor (and Mannheim Steamroller member) Arnie Roth.

Roth’s resume includes a long list of music direction for television, film, and video games. A veteran collaborator on pop, classical, R&B, rock and musical theater, Roth has also worked with some of the world’s greatest ensembles like the Tokyo Philharmonic and with legendary video game composers including Uematsu, Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts), Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill), Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage), and Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros.).

In this JQ exclusive, Roth shares the experience of bringing together 27 years (and counting) of Final Fantasy to the concert stage, working with Uematsu and others in the Japanese game industry, and his all-time favorite Japanese food.

How did you get involved with the Final Fantasy franchise?

In 2004, as music director of the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra, I was researching various possibilities for new and exciting programming for our concerts. A colleague mentioned that concerts of video game music had been taking place in Japan on a very regular basis for many years, since 1999 or maybe even earlier. After checking into Final Fantasy concerts, we decided to try a concert in Chicago in February 2005. That concert was titled Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy, and our concert sold out completely. That was my first time meeting Nobuo Uematsu and conducting his music, and we immediately connected. Immediately after that concert, I was engaged to conduct several more of the Dear Friends concerts in North America, and then my relationship with [Final Fantasy publisher] Square Enix (SQEX) and Uematsu grew to be a very important factor, with concerts in Japan for SQEX, and ultimately the development of the Distant Worlds project.

Did you have any exposure to the Final Fantasy games before directing and conducting the Tokyo Philharmonic in 2006?

Yes. See above for my earlier involvement with the FF franchise and SQEX and Uematsu. Another little-known fact was that I worked on the original release of the Halo video game music score, both as a violinist and arranger.

What do you think about Final Fantasy and the musical choices for the games?

The music is stunning! Final Fantasy is a role-playing game, and the combination of this type of game, along with having individual themes or leitmotifs for every character, battle, quest, relationship, and environment, has made the music of this franchise extremely beloved for the players.

How has it been working with Nobuo Uematsu?

Nobuo Uematsu actually has so many aspects of his musical tastes and style that are very close to my own. In fact, I was flabbergasted when we first met to learn that he knew so much about my own musical background, music groups that I was a member of or producing projects for, and his own tastes mirrored many of mine. It makes it a pleasure, as well as very rewarding, to work together.

What were some of the cultural challenges in collaborating with Japanese game publishers?

I have been astounded at the extremely dedicated work ethic, at their great devotion to making sure every aspect and detail of a new project is so carefully examined and continuously adjusted until it is molded into their idea or vision.

What is your opinion in regards to the Japanese music industry?

This question is so open-ended it is difficult to answer directly—we deal with many different parts of the Japanese music industry, and that is not always the same thing as dealing with the video game industry, and each has different aspects and styles to adjust to.

Do you feel the industry was affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami?

I have found the Japanese to be perhaps the most resilient people I have encountered. They always remained confident that they were strong and would rebuild. In general, that is how it seems the industry reacted, similar to the country as a whole.

How has your professional involvement with Japan affected your overall career?

I can honestly say that I currently spend much of my career involved with Japan on so many projects, that I almost cannot imagine what it would be like without all of our Japanese friends and colleagues.

Are there any new game projects that you’re currently working on that we can expect to see sometime soon?

As is always the case in this industry, there are some projects that must remain confidential, especially if it involves a new video game release. There are always new scores to bring to life from the 27 years of Final Fantasy; the library of music from these games is almost limitless. So we are in a constant process of generating new arrangements and orchestrations for the Distant Worlds concerts around the world. And there are still so many places we will be bringing the music concerts: in 2014, we launched the chamber music project A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy, designed to be able to perform the FF scores in smaller intimate settings. This project has been a tremendous new venture, including the new recording.

What do you find most fascinating about Japan, and what is your favorite Japanese food?

I am a BIG fan of udon. The best udon I had was in Kyoto, with mountain vegetables.

Do you have a message for the Final Fantasy fans in regards to the upcoming concert?

We’re very excited about this Final Fantasy marathon. Especially with all the exciting international guests, including the original vocal soloist RIKKI’s premiere performance of Final Fantasy X’s “Suteki da ne” at Distant Worlds in North America, the original vocal soloist of Final Fantasy XIV’s “Answers,” Susan Calloway, performing many of the favorite songs from the series, and of course, with Nobuo Uematsu himself attending and performing a duo with myself and the orchestra, this is actually quite a spectacular and rare opportunity! Can’t wait to see everyone on January 31st!

Visit Arnie’s homepage at www.awrmusic.com. For more JQ magazine interviews, click here.

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