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Interview: Concerto Tactics - The Music of Hiroki Kikuta and Hitoshi Sakimoto

We sit down with the composers behind Secret Of Mana and Muramasa, among many other titles, to discuss their art and new soundtrack albums, joining them as they reflect on one another's work.

November 30, 2009

13 Min Read

Author: by Jeriaska

[We sit down with the composers behind Secret Of Mana and Muramasa, among many other titles, to discuss their art and new soundtrack albums, joining them as they reflect on one another's work.] Previously, composers Hiroki Kikuta and Yoko Shimomura joined us for an informal interview titled "Magical Planet" on their music for Square Enix role-playing games. Their songs from Secret of Mana and Kingdom Hearts were arranged for the orchestra for September's Symphonic Fantasies concert in Cologne. In this interview, Kikuta is joined by musician Hitoshi Sakimoto, whose music for Final Fantasy Tactics was arranged for the orchestra earlier this month in Tokyo. Sakimoto acted as sound producer on the Nintendo Wii title Muramasa: The Demon Blade, which will be receiving an original soundtrack album release from his studio Basiscape in December. The game represents a continuation of the collaboration between Sakimoto and Odin Sphere developer Vanillaware. With Secret of Mana having recently been ported to cellphones in Japan, here the two composers share impressions of their influential Super Nintendo game compositions. The conversation delves into the processes behind more recent soundtracks as well, including Concerto: The Extraordinary World of Concerto Gate and Romeo x Juliet. Both scores reflect an interplay between electronic and orchestral music that has been a central theme of the musicians' careers. [Kikuta and Sakimoto at Basiscape Studio in Tokyo] You have both taken the step of creating companies, Norstrilia and Basiscape, for the purpose of writing and publishing music. How has founding a company factored into your work as composers? Hiroki Kikuta: For me, it's simply a matter of convenience. In Japan's it's easier to negotiate with clients as a company rather than as an individual. Hitoshi Sakimoto: There are a number of staff members at Basiscape that specialize in different tasks. I do most of the mixing for my music, but there are engineers, such as [Masaaki] Kaneko, who are assisting in the process. While it's not the same process as working entirely on my own, it's never produced strange results. Dividing up the labor between staff members leads to greater efficiency and allows for working on multiple projects at once. How has process the process been adapted to the requirements of the upcoming soundtrack album for Muramasa: The Demon Blade? HS: This is a game by Vanillaware, the company responsible for Odin Sphere. Because it's set in Japan, we decided it was our job to present listeners with an interpretation of the beauty of traditional Japanese instruments. I was asked to make something spare and pure, but it may have ended up more complicated than what was requested. HK: I enjoyed the music. I thought it was a great example of mixing an orchestral ensemble with Japanese instrumentation. HS: You discover rather quickly that with traditional instruments you're limited in how you can make use of them. For this soundtrack I decided to ignore all the rules, using samples in a way that sounded as natural as possible. I experimented with this approach, tried it in the game, and it just felt wrong. HK: You mean you had the luxury of running such an experiment? HS: Well, by then we were already running out of time. (laughs) You do your best while composing, but sometimes you miss the mark. During gameplay listeners are not paying their full attention to the background music, so I had to be careful about how much of a recognizable melody was present during less significant passages. In that respect, a lot of trial and error was involved, compelling me to backtrack to correct my mistakes. HK: This process is actually the most time-consuming, and it's crucial to the success of the game, don't you think? HS: It's the unique part of making music for videogames. You're forced to consider the experience of the game player when writing your score. It's the player's reaction to the game as a whole that's most important in the end. Sakimoto-san, what was your reaction to the music of Secret of Mana when you first heard it? HS: I played it all the way to the end. That's how I discovered Kikuta-san's name, in the end credits. HK: Thank you for going through all that trouble. HS: Well, I actually had a difficult time because of those notorious programming bugs. (laughs) HK: It caught us off guard, because none of those bugs showed up during the playtesting. We only found out later that sometimes a door wouldn't open after you had defeated the boss, which made it impossible to progress. HS: There were some glitches, but it was still a really fun game. I loved the music too. I still remember the field theme in the beginning. I thought, "Wow, there are actually people out there who write this kind of music for a videogame!" Then I found out about you and it was such a surprise. HK: You were like, who's this weird Kikuta guy? HS: You did look a bit different from what I'd imagined. Your music was totally original, very artistic. [Kikuta at Sakura-Con in Seattle in 2008, where he joined a panel on videogame music] Upon encountering Kikuta-san's musical style, what would you say were your overall impressions? HS: I think composers sometime have to push their limits and do something adventurous. When I first heard this music, I thought it was by a person that lives by this ideal. I remember I wanted to meet you, but even after we first got in contact it was a long time before the subject of music came up. I kept trying to talk about it. HK: Sorry about that. HS: The subject would invariably turn to manga and high school girls. (laughs) I was trying so hard to talk with you about music. HK: Maybe it just wasn't the right time for it. Don't you think it's actually pretty rare for us to talk about music, seeing as we are constantly preoccupied with creating it? The processes of expression and absorption can crowd each other out at times. HS: Oh by the way, have you ever encountered any language deficits while working intensely on music? HK: What do you mean? HS: Okay, so I've been in situations where I won't be able to talk at all. I would be in the middle of work and someone would call me on the phone. I'd pick up and then I literally wouldn't be able to speak for a moment. HK: I've never had that happen to me, but yeah I think I know what you mean. The brain just doesn't transition between modes that quickly sometimes. When you're focused on your work it can be hard to have a conversation with people. HS: Something that interests me is having the opportunity to observe others compose and learn more about these things. In fact, I'd like to see what it's like when you compose, Kikuta-san. HK: Actually, people have told me my process is unusual. HS: In what way? HK: Well, let me think... Okay, so that's what I was told while making this arrange album called Secret of Mana+. At that time, we spent two weeks recording at this studio called Take One and it all came together without my having to second guess my instincts. It was this feeling that I could make use of whatever happened to come to mind. Everyone could observe what I was doing, so it was an interesting experience. Kikuta-san, what struck you about the Ogre Battle soundtrack when it was first released? HK: When I first heard it I thought, "Wow, there are people who are writing music that's beyond my imagination!" This was music composed by someone who's thinking was entirely different from mine. It was wonderful, but at the same time it was counter to my way of thinking. HS: I'm so happy to receive a compliment from Kikuta-san for the first time. It's been something like sixteen years since the Super Nintendo days. HK: I honestly thought that writing compositions with Ogre Battle's level of fine detail was beyond me. I just didn't have that ability. HS: Ogre Battle was my first orchestral-styled score. I discovered you can simulate a decent sounding orchestra using a Roland SC-55. It was vital that our music be dramatic because the only means we had to express emotions for our characters was through music. We had to generate the best sound quality from small sound files. [Masaharu] Iwata found a book called the instrument dictionary, and it came with a sound sample CD, so you could hear all the individual instruments depicted in the pages. To be honest, I didn't even know what a harp looked like before reading this book. (laughs) We tried so many things, and a lot simply didn't cut it. The whole process was very technically oriented and a lot of fun. HK: I think that your approach is very technical at its core. HS: Well, I am a PC otaku. Tactics Ogre, which followed, actually required more work. I put all of my passion into it, too. Tactics Ogre had a rich, meaningful storyline and was very dramatic. It had that dark [Yasumi] Matsuno narrative. You're faced with these severe choices, like having either to assassinate someone or see your family killed. Here it was even more crucial that the orchestra be in service to the drama. [Sakimoto before giving his presentation at the 2009 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco] After your presentation at GDC in San Francisco, you spoke with Vincent Diamante, the composer of Flower. Have you played this title by ThatGameCompany? HS: Yes, I actually completed it, too. I'm actually in love with the Playstation 3. I thought it's a rather innovative game. The experience is so powerful that it makes you wonder why more companies aren't making games like Flower. These days games are becoming grander in scale with more complicated, intertwining storylines. Millions of dollars are spent on the technology. From the point of view of a game company, there's a certain rationale to the approach, but does it really guarantee the most lasting game experience? I think the quality of a game experience is derived from a different source. Flower is a perfect example in that respect. I don't know how exactly to describe the experience, but it's exceptional. You become the wind in that game. And I liked the music too. What were the motivations behind your presentation at GDC? HS: I certainly have an interest in the game industry in the States, and I thought it might be a good chance to strike up a dialog. HK: I bet there were a lot of people in Japan who were wondering why you were making a public appearance all of a sudden. HS: I guess you have a point there. I don't publicize my work or talk to the press very often. Way back when, I even refused to participate in interviews. HK: I thought you were the kind of reclusive artist type that would never leave home. I was startled to hear you had gone to GDC to give a presentation. I'm certain there are a lot of people who listen to your music that would like to know what you spoke about. HS: Unfortunately I spoke about too many things and wasn't able to come to any overarching conclusions. The point I tried to get across is that it's important to cultivate your own personality and distinguish your own unique characteristics as musician. It's a relevant issue, don't you think? If you try to write in some other musician's style, you won't be able to improve upon it just through imitation. You would be much better off looking to discover something unique for yourself. HK: Isn't that something that comes through naturally? HS: For some people, yes. However, we have about eight composers at Basiscape, and the less experienced musicians have a difficult time with this problem. Personally I had never thought about it much until recently. HK: Do you think maybe you intimidate them with your prodigious success and talents? HS: I'm not so sure it's that exactly, but when I found out about this trouble they were having, the problem of discovering their voice, I spent hours and hours with them, trying to figure out a solution to the issue. That personal struggle actually motivated me to speak in public. Could you imagine a case where you yourself would not be able to create music for a given project? HS: If a direction is set, then I can decide on an approach to it. For a long time I wanted to write music for a game about a romantic relationship. I eventually did that for an anime, but what the experience taught me more than anything else was how little I was prepared for the challenge. I can't say whether I would approach the subject again because it was such an intense challenge. HK: That was "Romeo X Juliet"? I thought the quality was very high. What do you think might give you trouble? Doraemon Original Soundtrack by Hitoshi Sakimoto? HS: You know, I've done some comical themed music recently, sketches titled "Comical 1, 2, 3, 4..." so I might just give it a try. Kikuta-san, your soundtrack for Concerto Gate is in the style of an orchestral score. What is your take on the use of orchestral music in games? HK: In Concerto Gate I was able to use orchestral sounds, but I wasn't thinking of simulating the orchestra directly. The samples are recordings of orchestral instruments, but to arrange them with exact fidelity to the real thing has too many limitations. Sakimoto-san, you might be interested in the results I came up with. HS: Live orchestral recordings can be very difficult, compared with manipulating sampled sounds. HK: Well if it's a real orchestral sound you're after, then find an orchestra, right? Rather, I wanted to emphasize the effect of that sound, not struggle to create an exact replica. With this simulated approach, things a real orchestra would never be able to do are made possible, and that becomes a feature of this music. Kikuta-san, I believe you've mentioned that you are interested in the idea of making a game in the genre of a musical? HK: That's true, although it wouldn't be easy. I would first have to find good actors and singers from around the world. I think that the convention of the musical is great, so if I were to deliver that kind of emotion through a game it would be an incredible experience. I think that type of entertainment has been neglected by the whole gaming industry. It would be something new, but it would be a real challenge to do it right. Would providing interactivity in the context of such a game prove difficult? HK: I'm not sure whether interactivity is even necessary in the initial stages of planning. Personally I don't have any rules myself for how a game should be. I think that by providing the kind of experience the player is looking for, it's already an interactive process. I'm just not concerned with making something that sort of forces you to know it's a game. [This article is available in Japanese on Game Design Current, in French on Squaremusic, and in Italian at Gamesource.it. The soundtracks CONCERTO and Muramasa Original Soundtrack and CONCERTO: The Extraordinary World of Concerto Gate can be imported from Amazon.co.jp. Images courtesy of Basiscape and Square Enix. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. Photos by Jeriaska.]

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