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Postcard From GDC 2005 - Interview with the Maestro: Nobuo Uematsu

Even in the face of an increasingly antsy crowd of game audio professionals and Final Fantasy admirers, Nobuo Uematsu strolled into the room, fashionably late, relaxed as ever. Between the aficianados who mobbed the Final Fantasy composer before the interview session and the fans who surrounded him after, Uematsu maintained his calm composure.

Even in the face of an increasingly antsy crowd of game audio professionals and Final Fantasy admirers, Nobuo Uematsu strolled into the room, fashionably late, relaxed as ever. Between the aficianados who mobbed the Final Fantasy composer before the interview session and the fans who surrounded him after, Uematsu maintained his calm composure.

Movie and video game composer Chance Thomas began the interview with a succinct exposition, introducing Uematsu as the musical genius behind the best selling games series ever, as well as the largest selling video game soundtrack in the history of the genre, and continued by delving into the very beginning of Uematsu's career.

Uematsu surprised many when he said, "My father was a teacher, and my mother was a domestic wife…there was no music learning in the home." When Uematsu was in third grade, his first spark occurred when he listened to the Vienna Chorus. His first look at the music industry from this point didn't go far, but as he got older, Uematsu started listening to more pop music ("I love Simon and Garfunkel, and the Carpenters…), and that drove him to pursue a music career.

Uematsu then described how he went about teaching himself music, beginning with the guitar, then moving to the piano. On his first day of self teaching, he borrowed his grandfather's guitar and bought a guitar magazine with tablature and lyrics. "It said: A minor, C…I wondered that is. And they have 6 lines and black dots? Maybe I should push some part and then I can make noise…" He also admitted that many times throughout the process, he thought, "Maybe my skills are not improving?" This elicited many laughs from the audience.


Nobuo Uematsu

On the recent orchestra performances of his music, Uematsu said, "I was moved. I was almost going to cry…whenever I held a concert, I was moved to tears." In trying to retain his composure during the concerts, he found himself wishing for the orchestra, "Could you make a tiny mistake so I don't have to cry now?"

Chance Thomas moved the discussion to the modern video game world and began by asking Uematsu what he thought of the American and European video game world. "I don't look at a lot of American games," Uematsu admitted. "There are a lot of games like…shooting and car racing. In Japan, we have role playing and adventure games."

Thomas then asked for Uematsu's take on where game music has been and where it is going. Uematsu began his response by describing his beginnings with the PSG chip in the original Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom and the recent rise of DVD games affording live orchestras. "However, if we were to look at whether game music has evolved or not, I don't think it has. Even with those limited tones [of the PSG], we made music that was outstanding. Even with only three tones used, it was possible to make things that are amazing."

On the challenges that face video game composers today, Uematsu said, "Basically, what I'm trying to do is write good melodies. No matter what the hardware is, no matter what kind of sound is produced, as long as the melody is really nice, I think that you can listen to it on anything."

"I think that game music is going to develop and go forward," he continued. "Currently, the way music is done in games is like the way it's done in movies. However, I think there might be a way that music is used in games that's different from any other entertainment form."

Uematsu also said that this innovation is likely to come from the Western video game world. "There are a lot of free thinkers in the U.S. and Europe, and those will be the people who create something new."

During the audience's question and answer time, Uematsu posed a question to the music world in America and Europe. "In Japan, we have a game music genre in the shops. That is very nice. Why don't you have it? That's my question." Uematsu also admitted to the audience that he is very interested in being a songwriter, now that he has formed his new company: Smile Please.

Chance Thomas mentioned to Uematsu that in an earlier interview, he admitted to not liking how many of the games he scores feature death. "In Final Fantasy, I don't think we need battles at all," Uematsu expounded. "It's hard to explain what I'm feeling now, but we don't need death to feel excitement."


One of Uematsu's many Final Fantasy CDs

Uematsu revealed his deep respect for two earlier pioneers of video game music: Koji Kondo and Koichi Sugiyama. Of Kondo, Uematsu related how he heard his music played by a radio DJ. "Why is this being played on a radio? I thought. This is game music…but then I learned [to love this particular DJ]." Uematsu stated that it is Sugiyama that started the move of game music into the popular culture by holding the first orchestra concert of game music today. "[In the original Dragon Quest] Sugiyama composed some music of only two [simultaneous] notes. This really shows his musical ability."

Uematsu also posed that maybe creativity comes from limitations. "The more limits there are, the more creative things can become… I wondered how composers and programmers [at Konami and Square] made totally different sounds from the same [PSG we used]."

He ended his talk by mentioning some of his methods of dealing with composer's block. "Walking the dog and pacing a room is somehow helpful. When I'm walking, I find that I can solve problems and find inspiration… I walk to my car, then I realize: Oh! That's how!"

He also proffered that taking a bath can solve problems equally well, causing the crowd to collapse over itself in laughter. "Maybe I decide I'm going to take a bath, and I take my pants off, and suddenly it comes to me. That actually happens a lot. Maybe you should take off your pants."

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