The music from the Final Fantasy series is held very close to people’s hearts. One of the most recalled names as far as this music goes is Nobuo Uematsu, the original composer of the series. Mr. Uematsu’s legacy has been kept and reimagined with the help of several individuals, one of them being Mr. Arnie Roth.
Arnie Roth is the Music Director and Principal Conductor for Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy. Mr. Roth has an extensive background in working on the music of Final Fantasy, going back to 2002 and continuing through the present. Beyond his works in Final Fantasy, Mr. Roth is also a Grammy award-winning recording artist, conductor, and composer, a member of the Mannheim Steamroller Orchestra (known for their modern recordings of holiday tunes), and has conducted for some of the music world’s greatest talents including Diana Ross and Andrea Bocelli. I had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Roth leading up to an upcoming performance for Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy, to learn more about the production process involved in bringing the hit Final Fantasy music from an idea to the main stage.
Brandon Bui (BB): Hi Mr. Roth, it’s a pleasure to speak with you, thanks for taking the time to chat today! How did you come to get involved with Final Fantasy?
Arnie Roth (AR): Getting introduced to video game concerts started in 2002 and 2003. A colleague of mine introduced the concept of video game concerts in Japan. At the time, these orchestral productions for video games had no video content at all. Final Fantasy was one of the very first ones to do this in Japan, and they had been going on for years.
This was important to me at the time because at the time, I was the Music Director over in Chicago for the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra, programming all the seasonal and subscription concerts. Based on what my colleague had shown me, I started doing some research and concluded that video game concerts were never done in North America.
I was aware of one production making its 2004 debut in Europe. Thomas Becker did the symphonic work for the music as part of a Gamescom event, and after researching this quite a bit, I took an opportunity with Dear Friends: music from Final Fantasy, which was a previous, short-lived tour with Nobuo Uematsu and Square Enix, a small show that was only scheduled to play for three or four shows in the United States. This was going to open in Chicago, Illinois as the first 100% public concert for video games. We used video content for this one on-screen – Nobuo came in and it sold out quickly. Nobuo and I became close friends from this and he agreed to help me conduct the rest of the Dear Friends concerts.
BB: What was next for you after that?
AR: At that point, I got invited to do more projects with Square Enix, mainly More Friends: music from Final Fantasy, a single concert event that we did in Los Angeles, California with The Black Mages, Nobuo’s band and Fuller String Chorus. Then, Nobuo invited me to Japan to conduct Voices: music from Final Fantasy, which was a Square Enix concert they were producing. I was the only non-Japanese performer on that, and I was flattered to be asked, honored to be asked. Once that ended, I was asked to start global touring production for Distant Worlds – Nobuo wanted it, and I thought it was a great idea. The rest is history, we’ve been doing this for over ten years now! It’s doing well and growing.
BB: Congratulations! That’s a huge accomplishment! I personally enjoy the work you’ve done with the album series, and you just came out with a new one recently, correct?
AR: Yes, Distant Worlds IV just came out. I love it, and I think it’s one of the best ones that we’ve ever done. It’s an exciting collection, and I hope you like it.
BB: You had me sold on the Final Fantasy XV material. It’s gotten me through quite a bit of study sessions out here.
AR: [laughing] That’s funny!
BB: Now, I’m kind of a musician myself [a pianist], and I really wanted to know a little bit more about how a song goes from being chosen to being produced for the show. Can you talk a little more about that?
AR: It’s a collaboration effort – we work almost daily with the team from Square Enix and Nobuo himself on this. We work with some of the other composers on this as well: Sakimoto, Shiratori, Mizuta, the list goes on, they’re several that I know personally that I work with directly when we’re introducing new material.
When it comes to choosing songs, we already have over 100 scores in the Distant Worlds library to consider. It grows all the time because of the 30th Anniversary series, where we’ll be adding quite a bit of new material and premiering in Chicago. We premiered some of them in Sydney on July 1, and there’s new ones coming to Chicago – all surprises for fans.
We’re looking for balance, based off several guidelines. As Distant Worlds is the official Square Enix production, the job is to represent the entire series so that they don’t end up featuring too many from any one game. We focus on the Roman numeral games, as we don’t have the time to add in material from the spin-off games. There could be a separate production, but right now it’s too busy. We just recently added material from Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XV as well, so there’s plenty to go off of.
The decision process is a triumvirate. The Distant Worlds staff comes up with the idea and pushes it to Square Enix. That idea then gets sent over to Nobuo or the composer involved to balance the program. Do they want a new epic closing piece, or introduce a new game version that’s coming out?
There are many different plots that go into this such as tempo, pacing, and key relationship. As the team travels between cities, they look at what we did in Europe or North America and see what’s popular. They analyze how many rehearsals are needed with the orchestra and soloists. With Europe, their first Final Fantasy experience was Final Fantasy VII, which means that a lot of the material from VII and going forward are more popular than some of the older songs. On the other hand, in North America, where fans got the full spectrum, music from Final Fantasy I through Final Fantasy VI resonated more than in other parts of the world.
BB: Now, you’re a Chicago native. How does it feel to come back again for the 30th Anniversary series? Excited to be back?
AR: It’s fantastic, it’s home! I must say, it’s amazing to see how our hometown of Chicago has supported our productions Distant Worlds and A New World. I stopped counting but I think we played Chicago five or six times for Distant Worlds, not counting A New World. For the September 16 production, we’re sold out on both shows.
BB: Wow. That’s incredible.
AR: It’s an amazing show of support and we’re always looking to try new things out as Chicago is close to our heart.
BB: Anything you’d like to say to your fans and to those coming to the Chicago show in a few weeks?
AR: Well, there’s lots of things. It’s the fans we must thank. We plan on doing that a lot for the series and it’s because of the fans that we come back, the strength of the ticket sales, that we do that. We have a very deep appreciation of our fans – Nobuo and I have been working hard to introduce some new pieces that we think fans will be very pleased about. Some of them we’ve announced, and we’re in the process of slowly talking about some of the highlights. I can tell you we will have Apocalypsis Noctis from the Final Fantasy XV programming and we will also have Somnus [from Final Fantasy XV] where I will be playing the violin. We also have a brand-new piece from XII that we got from Sakimoto on there, and I think that fans will be very excited with what we’re bringing.
BB: That sounds fantastic, and I can’t wait to see you at the show. Thank you so much for your time, and see you soon!
AR: Thank you!
The Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy 30th Anniversary showing returns to Chicago, Illinois for two performances on September 16, at the Chicago Symphony Center with series composer Nobuo Uematsu in attendance, and conducted by Mr. Roth. For more information, please refer to the link here.