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Symphonic Memories: Tales of Merregnon Studios (Part 1)

Celebrating 10 years of video game symphonies, Thomas Böcker, Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo sit down and discuss all their memories over the years, detailing the creation of the very first video game symphony outside Japan in this multi-part roundtable.

Symphonic Memories

After 10 long years, the final installment of Merregnon Studios' Symphonic series will take place in London on May 30th with the London Symphony Orchestra, performing their first live video game symphony. To celebrate the occasion, the team behind this legendary series of concerts sat down together and discussed 10 years’ worth of memories and hard work, reflecting on the lengths they have traveled, the borders crossed and the personal journeys they have individually ventured.


Discovering video game music

Audun: Well I think it makes the most sense to start at the very beginning and talk about how each of you discovered video games and video game music!

Thomas: My god… let me think, you are asking an old man to think a long way back (laughs). I’ll try to remember… Well I began liking video games around the age of 7. At this time we were still living in the DDR (German Democratic Republic\East Germany) and video games were not available to most of us, but my grandmother lived in West Germany and this allowed my father to gain access to visit for her birthday. Eastern people gaining permission to enter the West would take years during the era of the wall, and the ones who did enter also got a small amount of money to spend for gifts and utilities to bring back home from the Government. My father decided to spend this money on a Commodore 64!

This actually turned out to be a blessing in my family, as everyone became very interested in computers, and both me and my brothers to work in some shape or form within the computer industry. For me, my interest came from first hearing music by Rob Hubbard and beginning to pay attention to the sound in video games, and eventually I discovered the music of Chris Hülsbeck which sparked my desire to collect and play all the games he composed from thereon out. Also, the German game media would always mention music in their reviews and articles about games during this period of time, so Chris was this sort of star to us German game fans. Later on my brother got himself a Super Nintendo, and so we would start to see a collection between us, with me focusing on games for C64 and Amiga, and him the Super Nintendo, which allowed me to discover music from Yuzo Koshiro, Nobuo Uematsu and so on.

Jonne: Well I was in this group, this demo group called Future Crew. And I did music for them. I’m going to give you the short version. So basically I knew everyone in the scene in Finland since all the demo groups were in friendly competition, and Future Crew was among the highest rated. That success led many of us to start our own small businesses and software houses, and they would ask me to do music since back then, there was quite a lot of limitations tech wise and also in memory capacity, and I was good at making the most of that.

Audun: So you weren’t too interested in playing games back then? You got more into the tech side of it?

Jonne: Oh no I was a huge gamer. I think my mother absolutely hated that fact because constantly there would be like 10 kids over at my place playing the Commodore 64. I never had any consoles, but the access to home computers made me interested in coding, and I’d start making sound and small musical shorts because I liked the fact that I could ‘hear’ the notes I wrote instantly.

Roger: I played way too much, mostly on the PC though. So I can’t say I listened to video game music as a kid because it would come from that damn internal speaker and frighten the cat all the time.

Though one of first games I really dedicated time to play a lot was Leisure Suit Larry, and I quite liked the music in that. My parents let me play [Leisure Suit Larry] at the age of 7…but I didn’t really know what Larry was up to until later in life.



 Audun: Right, so back to Thomas. You began producing Merregnon in 1999 which launched your career. How did this come about?

Thomas: Well back in the day I studied drama and theater in Leipzig, and our assignment in class was to make a short film. I thought it would be a great idea to get Chris Hülsbeck to compose the soundtrack, so I called him up. He agreed, and also said that it would be no problem if I wanted to travel to San Francisco to stay with him during the scoring of that film, I think he meant that as a joke to but I took it seriously and went (laughs). The movie is called Light at the end of the Tunnel by the way, and we performed that at Symphonic Shades.

So during this time there was this popular Chris Hülsbeck chat channel in IRC, where we’d discuss his work and such, and I met Fabian Del Priore* there and we began talking as we both had worked with Chris directly, and this is where Merregnon began to take shape, where we invited video game composers to contribute an original track that together would form a narration told entirely through music. This is where I met this one man called Purple Motion** also (laughs). This was back in 1999. So yeah, this is how I began to actively work in the industry and transition myself from being a fan to making my own projects.

Cover for Merregnon

Audun: So Light at the end of the Tunnel and Merregnon was the first time you met and spoke with Chris?

Thomas: Actually to be honest…I was such a fanboy of his in the past, and I used to call him up and ask him what games he was working on, what he thinks about this game, about that song, you know just make him so annoyed, I’m surprised we’re good friends today. But also back then, in order to get his CDs, you actually had to contact him directly to order and it would take months since those were produced in bulk based on demand.

The first time we met was actually in London where we both attended a concert at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jerry Goldsmith performing his own music. So this is where we first began to discuss if he would do the music for my movie.

Audun: Merregnon, what was the initial idea?

Thomas: Well as a kid, I loved writing stories, reading, just experiencing a story from start to finish, you know. So I had this idea, this story in my head, that I felt would be great for a project where you could read it in the booklet while listening to the CD, but not in its entirety, rather leaving certain “gaps” which the music would fill out and let your imagination create and mold from there. So you’d get fragments of text, fragments of music and go from there. Because I already knew and had a network of video game composers by this time, it only made sense to have them make the music. And they were all happy to partake, didn’t even ask for money! Always a good thing, that there. It worked out so well that I made this thing we do into Merregnon Studios.

Audun: So Jonne, what was your initial impression of meeting Thomas while working on Merregnon?

Jonne:  Well I saw him as this annoying fanboy. (Laughs) Just kidding! Well I just thought that the project sounded really great and there were already a lot of composers signed on at this point. I had been doing tracker music up until this point, and I was a bit fed up doing that style so Merregnon would give me the chance of doing something very different. For the first Merregnon we used synthesizers so I got to stretch my horizons a bit. Thomas was really engaged and excited for this project, which is really important because it got us all very pumped to do our best.


Symphonic Game Music Concerts (2003-2007)

Audun: So working on Merregnon became the inspiration to begin producing the concerts, correct?

Thomas: Yes indeed because you know, over time you start gaining a lot of contacts, doors open, and you’re young and feel like nothing can go wrong and you can do anything. You really need a lot of passion, patience, energy and it also helps not fully knowing just how much work is ahead of you. I had met the manager for the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, and also Andy Brick. Together with them, I began to develop the idea of a video game symphony, the first of its kind outside Japan.

Luckily, the Trade Fair*** in Leipzig agreed with us that this would be a great idea, and allowed us to make this into a reality as the opening event for the games convention in 2003.

Audun: When did the idea to do a symphony come about though?

Thomas: Oh there was this magazine called Power Play, do you remember that? Anyway, this magazine was really popular and good, and one time they wrote this article that video game music was so popular in Japan that even orchestras perform the music from them. They were talking about Koichi Sugiyama’s Family Concert series and Best Game Selection albums****. So I had the idea since I was a teenager, but everyone has ideas, it’s the steps to make them reality that is the key.

Böcker chronicled the creation of Symphonic Game Music Concert on Gamasutra in 2003 with this feature.

Audun: What was the breakthrough though, the moment you realized you could make this happen in Europe?

Well I was really confident that I could do it after recording Merregnon Volume II. You know the first one was all electronic, but the second one was orchestrated and recorded in Prague and New York with Andy Brick conducting it.  So I began writing the proposal as we developed our idea and sent it to Leipzig.

The Symphonic Game Music Concert

Audun: So what did you closest circle of friends and family think when you began working on the concert?

Thomas: Well my family already thought I was crazy, spending all my own earned money on orchestra recordings in Prague. The management in Leipzig, they were initially very surprised by the proposal, and even though they agreed to put it on the program, they actually told me “we only expect 50-60 people attending the concert”. But the concert sold out, and they couldn’t believe it.

Audun: You actually personally went out and got the licenses to perform the different games at the concert, how did all these game publishers react to the fact a symphonic concert was taking place in Europe?

Thomas: Well it was pretty different between all of them. Square Enix for example, they did a lot of research on my person, who I am, before green lighting it. I have to give a lot of praise to Nintendo and Konami actually, they were incredibly supportive and continued to be of great assistance in the years to come. To be honest, the hardest time I had was with some American and UK publishers, since the idea was very new to them, but they did help us out a lot in the end. Overall the reaction was positive and helpful.

Audun: What was the one thing you really wanted to say with this concert though, that the audience was going to leave with?

Thomas: It was to honor the composers, and showcase them as legends and important to the industry, as well as highlight the publishers that shined an extra light at the music and allowed it to be performed in such a way.

The fans gave us a lot of feedback, and one thing I learned after this initial concert was that the fans always want to hear the classics from the older consoles, because they can already hear the fuller sound of new soundtracks due to the use of orchestras or high production values we see today, but fully arranged and orchestrated 8bit or 16bit music allows them to see new them in a different light. So we began to mix it up in the future and mix both new and old music.

Audun: The concert marked the first time Nobuo Uematsu attended a concert outside of Japan, right?

Thomas: Yeah! And that concert marked a lot of firsts actually. It was also the first time Amiga music was arranged and performed live by an orchestra, since we had Apidya by Chris Hülsbeck on the program. And it was also the first time Final Fantasy was performed live outside of Japan, so we invited Uematsu to join us.

Audun: Was the reaction to Final Fantasy music strong even back then?

Thomas: Oh yes. Even back then. We performed the Main Theme and Aerith Theme I remember, which were arranged by Hamaguchi*****. People were in tears.

Audun: Actually at this time, were most of the scores you used from prior concerts in Japan?

Thomas: Some were, but we also had to arrange our own, like Wind Waker, Apidya…oh and Shenmue because we asked SEGA for the scores but they don’t know where the original score is and so we had to go by ear and arrange it. We also did an arrangement of Merregnon Volume II’s main suite with a full orchestra, as the album only had strings, percussion and choir, so this was pretty cool.

Audun: So with the success of these concerts, what was your personal goal moving forward with the series?

Thomas: To fully orchestra more classics that had never been performed before. You know back then, we were just in a place where we had so much music that had never been done, so it was really hard just to narrow down what to actually perform, let alone figure out how. I also wanted the shows to become bigger to give the chance for more people to attend.

Audun: What about the orchestra though, how did they react to performing video game music?

Thomas: They were really open to it. They often perform film scores and such, and we had scores that had already been performed in Japan by orchestras, so the way they were performed didn’t seem too out of place, other than the fact that it was from a video game.

Audun: Let’s talk about Andy Brick, because he had a lot of influence on the concert series.

Thomas: Yes absolutely. Andy had already worked on video games, because he did some music for a game called Rally Trophy, the trailer music right?

Jonne: Yup!

Thomas:  And coincidentally, Jonne did the soundtrack for that game. So Andy did the conducting for Merregnon Volume II where both me and Jonne attended the recording sessions.

Jonne: That was 11 years ago… I remember I was so nervous at that time because I hadn’t studied music yet, and so I just wrote something I felt would sound cool played on strings. I had never heard my music performed in such a setting before so I just sat there and had no idea what was going on.

Thomas: But actually, Andy is a very strict man, very stern. I remember this meeting so well because the very first time we met, all 3 of us, Jonne came to Andy’s apartment in Prague where me and Andy were reading over the scores. Jonne came in so excited and happy, smiling you know. But Andy asked him a few questions about his score, and after Jonne answered him, Andy just said “OK thank you Jonne, you can go now” and Jonne had to leave.

Jonne: Actually what I remember most from that was that I took my shoes off, which we always do in Europe, and Andy just looked at me with this stare of “what on earth are you doing?” I guess in the States they might keep their shoes on in social settings.

Audun: So you were already doomed by the time you took your shoes off. But Andy was an incredible support though.

Thomas: Yes. I still learn to this day, but Andy was the first guy to teach me the basics and teaching me how an orchestra really works. He read every score, made many notes for the orchestra to keep in mind; he really cared passionately about all his work and all of us.  He would also tell the arrangers to make adjustments that would better suit the music in a live setting, so he was just important to the entire production.

Jonne: And I am also so grateful to him because he was so strict and gave great and detailed feedback. I really learned orchestration from Andy and not so much from music school because there it is all theory, but Andy showed me just why things work a certain way and why it sometimes doesn’t work. He works as a teacher now I think?

Audun: Yes he does.

Jonne: Yeah that’s the perfect job for him.

Audun: So in 2005, you first made use of Jonne as an arranger in your concert, what do you remember from that, Thomas?

Thomas: Well it might sound like I am just giving a compliment here since the guy is right next to me, but I have to say that it was a life changing, well rather ear-opening experience for me. I remember a review said that “If you haven’t heard Morrowind as it was performed at the Gewandhaus, you never truly heard Morrowind’s music” speaking of the incredible potential Jonne had brought out of that score, so even at this time he was really fantastic. I also remember that Andy told me when he heard one of the pieces Jonne did for Merregnon that he wished he had composed that piece, just because he was so impressed by it.

Jonne was still learning at this time, fresh into music school so it would take him a bit longer to get things done, but it was still so rich and incredible.

Audun: How important was the special guests to these concerts? Koshiro, Uematsu, Hülsbeck, did they make a big difference?

Thomas: Some people don’t realize, but it makes a huge difference. I always like to invite the original composers to our concerts because it adds a lot to the overall atmosphere in the venue, and this has been instrumental to us and our productions. I also enjoy getting the composers’ feedback on our interpretation and have them honored in person by a sell-out crowd.

I remember at the after party when Uematsu first attended. We had already begun to eat, with Andy Brick joining us later as he had to get changed and such. When Andy arrived though, Uematsu stood up and applauded Andy, and the rest of the room followed suit. It was quite an emotional moment for Andy I think, and it certainly was for me.

Yuzo Koshiro and Nobuo Uematsu

Audun: Eventually though, other productions began to tour and put on video game music concerts in venues around the world, how did you approach standing out amongst the competition?

Thomas: You know, we try to use the traditional means of music to enhance the score. We explore the emotion and original intent of the source and create an authentic and evolved atmosphere using the music with sophisticated arrangements alone to create that story, no lights, no videos, a focus on the orchestra and the music. At first, the concept of video game music in concert was just so new that people had a tendency to not realize these differences, but now fans are more aware that we all offer very different products. But Jonne always says, and I fully agree, that this is a good thing. Competition drives us all to create better shows, and also gives fans as many experiences as we can give them.


Continued in part 2 (Symphonic Shades, Symphonic Fantasies).

* Fabian Del Priore is a video game composer most famous for his work on Extreme Assault and Giana Sisters DS.

** Purple Motion was the artist name for Jonne Valtonen in Future Crew.

*** The trade fair was an annual event held in Leipzig, Germany, first held in 2002 and featured electronics, video games and entertainment presentations.

**** Family Concert was the first video game symphony held in Japan in 1988, produced and conducted by Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama. Best Game Selection was a cd album series based on Sugiyama's concert series.

***** Shiro Hamaguchi is a long time arranger on the Final Fantasy series.

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