Symphonic Fantasy Q&A with Yoko Shimomura

Posted on Oct 8, 2016 in Music, Video Games | No Comments
Symphonic Fantasy Q&A with Yoko Shimomura

On Thursday, 8th of October, the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed for the Symphonic Fantasies Concert at the Barbican Centre, London. It included rearrangements from several Square Enix games including Kingdom Hearts, Secrets of Mana, Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross & Final Fantasy.

On behalf of KH13.com and for my own interest in Kingdom Hearts, I attended the concert as well as the pre-concert with Yoko Shimomura (the score composer of the Final Fantasy XV and the majority of  the Kingdom Hearts franchise). One of the biggest perks of Kingdom Hearts in my opinion is the soundtrack and it’s probably one of the best video game soundtracks of all time for it’s variety and quality! So it was a pleasure to be in the presence of Yoko Shimomura herself and hearing her talk about her career, her inspirations and answering people’s questions.

Below is the full pre-concert talk which also features on KH13! Gareth Davies (Principle Flute player and Chairman in the London Symphony Orchestra) started off by interviewing Eckehard Steir (the conductor for Symphonic Fantasy Concert) talking about the preparation for Symphonic Fantasies. Then he interviewed Yoko Shimomura with Bethan Jones translating English to Shimomura and Japanese to the audience. And finally the audience were given the chance to ask Yoko Shimomura questions of their own.

 

  • Pre-concert talk
  • Pre-concert talk with Yoko Shimomura, Gareth Davies & Bethan Jones (photo by Aquaberry)
  • London Symphony Orchestra
  • Yoko Shimomura with the London Symphony Orchestra
  • London Symphony Orchestra 2

 

 


 

INTRODUCTION & INTERVIEW WITH ECKEHERD STEIR

 


 

GARETH DAVIES

[Massive round of applause as Davies Gareth, Ekkehard Steir, Bethan Jones & Yoko Shimomura come onto the stage] It’s started already! Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Barbican Centre. My name is Gareth Davies, I’m the principle Flute in the London Symphony Orchestra and the chairman and president for the person who won’t stop talking! Some of these people shouldn’t have to give me a microphone this evening which is clipped on; I shall not bore you too much as I’m going to be speaking to these people. I’m sure you know one of them in particular, but let me also introduce the conductor for this evening, Ekkehard Steir. [applause] And sitting on the end there doing a fabulous job of translating is Bethan Jones. [applause] And of course somebody who needs no introduction, Yoko Shimomura [cheers and applause].

What we’re going to be doing this evening is Eckehard has to be able to get changed so we’re going to talk to him first because you’ve got about 10 minutes. Now, Eckehard we’ve worked together before on these video games concerts. Last year we went round Japan which is sort of taking coals to Newcastle as we say in this country. How did you find the experience of playing video games actually in Japan?

ECKEHARD STEIR

The whole experience was absolutely stunning because the audience in Tokyo was even quieter than the audience here in London. It was amazing! At the end of the concert there was almost like a furious orc in there, the mood of the audience was so stunning and we all, meaning the London Symphony is playing all over the world so you can deal with success but this success in Japan was absolutely incredible.

GARETH DAVIES

At the end when the audience applauded, I think it was the closest most of us will ever get to feeling like we’re in a rock band! No pressure for you this evening!

It was very interesting actually because we were doing concerts with the other famous conductor Bernard Haitink and the tickets went on sale for those concerts and for the final fantasy concerts at the same time and I believe the Final Fantasy concerts sold out faster which was quite the interesting thing and shows how game music become gradually more important. It’s not simple music what we’re playing tonight, I mean we have our job but you also have a difficult job. Tell me how you prepare for playing this music because it’s not just simply we’re playing exactly the music from the computer games is it?

ECKEHARD STEIR

I mean the work starts years before because we do have all these little melodies which you know from the game of course. These little melodies were always taken and combined in a new way and of course the whole instrumentation for an orchestra; you have a huge variety of instruments which you can use to achieve new colours and new elements in the music so my score is always full. It’s like if it compared sometimes with Gustav Mahler’s; one of the epic composers from the 20th century, and of course I have to study a lot. I have to say for the orchestra musicians, it’s a bloody hard job to play!

GARETH DAVIES

Yes, well you can see actually there are some of the instruments, you can see there. What do you call that piece of floor? [pointing at metal sheet dangling in the percussion section]

ECKEHARD STEIR

The thunder-sheet.

GARETH DAVIES

You use it and it sounds like thunder basically. You’ll notice tonight that lots of the effects from the games and not just the music are actually included, and there are some bits which do make you laugh out loud as well. You have a good sense of humour and there’s a good sense of humour in music as well.

Is there a different way for you to approach this music to other music; if you were conducting, I know when you were in New Zealand conducting un-contemporary music, do you approach this in a different way or is it all just music to you?

ECKEHARD STEIR

Just music sounds a little simple. It think my approach to this music is a very special one because I know always with this sort of music it can reach completely different people, I mean you [indicating to audience]. And it’s so fantastic to have you here in this holy hall and you can feel the possibly for the first time in your life, you can feel this power and this force of the orchestra and so I’m conducting with full energy and am very serious about this music. It’s the only way you can do it, if you aren’t serious about the job, then it won’t work. It will be rubbish, I’m sorry! But tonight’s performance will be absolutely stunning! We have just about half an hour to go with transferring the instruments. It was hard work; they were with us for more than 3 hours! Imagine! And all those noises aren’t happening but tonight I think we will be much better.

GARETH DAVIES

Have any of you been to one of these concerts here before? You can put your hands up if you like, just like school. [about a quarter of the audience put their hands up] Ok so a few of you. I think those of you that haven’t, no matter how many subwoofers you have in your home studios setup, no matter how big your speakers are, you will not be prepared for the sheer force of some of this music. You’ll notice when Eckehard stands here he has a rail behind him; that’s to stop him from being blown into the audience! It’s incredibly powerful music, but also actually in this concert in particular with some of Yoko’s music, actually some of it is much more subtle. The last concert we did with the Final Fantasy stuff, everybody seemed to be dying all the time! Bombing sort of stuff going on, but there’s a bit more subtlety with the score I think than on the other concerts.

ECKEHARD STEIR

There are more silent places, more quiet places where I can feel love and all this gaming content. I love this programme in particularly very very much; it’s one of the older programmes that was made 7 year ago and we recorded this whole music with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Today are the last 50 CDs on sale here for this programme. I love this programme very much.

GARETH DAVIES

What’s interesting about this programme as well is not just the London Symphony Orchestra, but the London Symphony Chorus as well! If you’ve heard the London Symphony Chorus, they are excellent group but they don’t just sing this evening do they? Without giving away too many things, there are a few special effects they have to do.

ECKEHARD STEIR

They’re making a lot of noises with their voices. What I especially love is the idea to (how’s the english word?) crumble paper. They crunch paper and it’s like in a rainforest; you can hear this at the end of one of these pieces so they will all be like [imitates raindrops with his mouth]

GARETH DAVIES

Oh that’s cute.

ECKEHARD STEIR

It’s a new way to achieve a sort of mood in the music and they’re doing a lot more.

GARETH DAVIES

It was a really funny moment because suddenly when we were rehearsing yesterday there was this strange noise behind the orchestra, and the whole orchestra turned round to see what it was. We couldn’t figure it out; still don’t know what it was. So see if you can figure that one out. Eckehard I know you have to go and get changed, so ladies and gentlemen give a big round of applause for Eckehard Steir.

 


 

INTERVIEW WITH YOKO SHIMOMURA

 


 

GARETH DAVIES

Now, your career in video gaming has spanned over 3 decades. The industry now is changed beyond all recognition since you started composing for games. When you decided not to accept the job as a piano teacher, but you decided to compose for games instead, how did you colleagues and family react?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

Yes, now-a-days you have all these games and concerts, and so many people come to listen to them. And everyone knows about game music, but back then it was a really minor profession when I started and so the reaction I got from other people was…”You’re going to do what?” “What, you’re going to make little bleepy noises?” They just didn’t understand what it was I was going to be doing.

GARETH DAVIES

Now, the London Symphony Orchestra, as you know, has played lots of film soundtracks like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and now-a-days we do quite a lot of film music concerts and film music has been…it’s gradually being more accepted on the Classic FM Hall of Fame. Do you find that gaming music is finally now taken more seriously by people who go to other kind of concerts?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

I started checking the charts a couple of years back and I’ve been keeping an eye on it for the last year or two. And when I first saw one of my own compositions on there 2 years ago, it was a really moving experience. I thought I’m standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder with Beethoven. Hearing my music played by the LSO, by such an amazing and respected orchestra is really an honour for me. I’ve always loved orchestras since I was a child and it just makes me really happy.

GARETH DAVIES

Thank you. That’s really kind of you. We love playing your music too. Especially my flute solos.

YOKO SHIMOMURA

I actually used to play the flute as a high-school student.

GARETH DAVIES

Oh wow!

YOKO SHIMOMURA

I’m not about to play for you. Maybe in another life I can be your pupil.

GARETH DAVIES

If you teach me composing, yes. Speaking of standing shoulder to shoulder with Beethoven, what a lot of people may not know (I don’t know if you know!) is that you are, in the Classic FM Hall of Fame, the highest female composer, ever!

YOKO SHIMOMURA

What an honour! I’ve hardly ever been number one at anything. I always thought that happiness was to carry on doing what you love whether or not I got to number one or number two or number three or number four. But that was happiness and so it’s a real surprise to be number one and I’m very very grateful because it’s of everyone here.

GARETH DAVIES

Now, after graduating in Osaka in 1988, you found success very very quickly, composing many now legendary soundtracks including I have to say one of the games I used to spend hours playing when I should have been practicing flute at college: Street Fighter 2. That’s up there! Now, Street Fighter 2 was the first score that you wrote that’s actually released as a stand alone soundtrack album, which is quite a huge thing particularly for gaming music at the time. Can you tell us how important that was for you and how important you think it was for the development of the way gaming music was accepted? Sorry, they’re very long questions.

YOKO SHIMOMURA

Yes, Street Fighter 2 was such a big hit and the soundtrack did so well, and it’s an honour for me that they continue to use my music all the way through. It’s really something that has a lot of memories for me. But back then they weren’t using the internet like they do now; there wasn’t Facebook, there was no Twitter. So we didn’t really know if my music was successful or not.

GARETH DAVIES

That’s really interesting. So since the internet has been invented (yes, some of us remember when it wasn’t!) have you found that’s been a really useful tool for keeping in contact with fans and seeing how they feel about your music?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

I think in a way it’s because of the internet, that I’ve got to where I am today. That I’m sitting here on this stage because as a composer what you do is quite solitary. You’re shut away, you’re plugging away at composition and you don’t have a chance to hear what people think about what you do. So sometimes if I’m feeling down or if I’m going down in the middle of the night, I just type in I wonder what people think about such and such a piece. All these amazing positive comments and that really cheers me up and gives me that need to carry on.

GARETH DAVIES

Oh, there you are. So ladies and gentlemen; you know what to do! Get on Twitter straight away! …Don’t forget to tag London Symphony Orchestra!

Now in 1993, when you joined what’s now Square Enix, when you started working for the them the kind of games that you composed for seemed to change to more fast role-playing games which also seemed to coincide with the change in style in your music. Writing for the games which have a more complex narrative; something which attracted you to Square Enix as apposed to the not so complex narrative of Street Fighter 2, I think is fair to say.

YOKO SHIMOMURA

I’ve always like classical music so writing/composing those pieces with the drums and guitars wasn’t really my strong suit. But I did somehow ended up starting writing for all those fighting games and it was fun, but I did want to try something that was more suited to me. That was more classical and I also wanted to try composing for role-playing game and yeah there was a sense in which Square did have those kind of games that appealed to me.

GARETH DAVIES

It is very beautiful music and it’s interesting because hearing it in the orchestra. It’s like the whole thing expands.!What I do find fascinating about your music is the many many different themes for all the characters. There are so many individual motifs that are all different but they all fit together in the same way. When you compose a new game score, tell us how you do it, how you start? Do you see the gameplay, do you get shown pictures of the characters? Do you see characters and ideas for themes popping to you head? How do you start with such a huge project?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

That’s a hard question, but it’s difficult to answer because I don’t really think too hard about it, when I’m composing for a new game. I will have pictures of the characters, the story, I might see some background art, and then all of that combined stimulus comes together and I don’t really try to compose it. I just wait for something to appear.

GARETH DAVIES

Oh wow! So it’s easy?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

It’s easy if something comes to me.

GARETH DAVIES

So do ideas come to you when you’re sitting down at your piano or your desk or when you walk around? Do you have to lock yourself in room and just wait?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

I never know when the ideas are going to come to me. I don’t know when they’ll appear, I don’t know when they’ll disappear, so it’s really about how I just seize them when they do show up.

GARETH DAVIES

Well you’ve seized a lot! If you have an idea, write it down!

YOKO SHIMOMURA

If I get an idea right now I’ll have to go backstage and try to write it down before I forget.

GARETH DAVIES

Now in 2002 you composed the music to Kingdom Hearts. [crowd applause] I know where this is going! Now, it’s amazingly a game that solds 4 million copies; it’s an incredible amount of people playing it! Now, famously it’s with the Disney characters. They are already really well loved characters, but also have a lot of very famous musical themes. We’ve all whistled various Disney themes, my daughter never stops. Was that a daunting prospect, going from one set of well loved characters to another and having to integrate them?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but I would also be lying if I said that it was really daunting and that I’d feel like I’d be under a lot of pressure. I had seen a lot of Disney films myself and I had my reactions to those; you know I was moved by them or I found them sweet. I just wanted to get those feelings across in the music with their reactions. So bits of it were difficult but a lot of it was wonderful as well!

GARETH DAVIES

It’s great. That’s some of my favourite music CDs! Now, nobody’s listening…but the eagerly awaited Kingdom Hearts III? Now for a game franchise that you’ve been involved with for such a long time, how’s it been revisiting some of those characters?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

Yeah, there’s a lot of expectations to live up to and [I] think there are people that are hoping for great things and of course Tetsuya Nomura is doing his best as well. So I think I will be writing a lot of music for that, but before that there’s actually 2.8 which is coming out, and I’ve already been writing new music for that – quite a lot! It has been a while since I’ve done it and so I just hope it will live up to people’s expectations. And yeah, just watch this space!

GARETH DAVIES

[indicating to the audience] You can see how excited they all are!

Now, Kingdom Hearts is regularly listed as one of top game soundtracks, and I personally would like to know do you have a favourite soundtrack of your own that you’ve written, and also a favourite by another composer?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

That’s such a tough question and I can never answer it because when it comes of my music and my soundtracks, they’re like my children and I love them all the same even the naughty ones. The particularly bad, but I love them all and they’re all important to me and I can’t say I like this one more than that one, so I can’t answer that question. Sorry. When it comes to other people’s music, again there’s so much that I like and it’s hard to pick just one off the top of my head so I’m going to have to apologise again and say I can’t answer that one either.

GARETH DAVIES

When you come back next time, you can think about it.

YOKO SHIMOMURA

I’ll have a think. I’ll be ready!

GARETH DAVIES

Excellent! Now before we open the floor to questions with my two beautiful assistants with microphones, it has been a pleasure talking to you and it’s a pleasure playing your music! I’m sure that there might be some young people out there who would also like to compose for games. Is there something that you wish you’d known when you were starting out that you know now that you would be able to give them some advice?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

Well now-a-days I think people have much better technology than I had back then and I think the more familiar you are with that, the more technology you take on board, the better; the more you’ll be able to improve! But that’s not so much something I wish I knew back then, and neither is this, but I guess I would say just don’t give up doing what you love! Stay strong, keep passionate and value small things! Small responses; things that move you however small they are in the music. It’s there in music that you write; there’s something that moves you and that what you need to respect and to know it. Because it’s there.

GARETH DAVIES

That is very good advice for everybody I think. Thank you very much!

 


 

QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE

 


 

 

GARETH DAVIES

Now, I’m sure, everyone’s shifting in their seats! I’m sure lot of you may have some questions that you would like to put to our guest!

QUESTION 1

Hello. Thank you for joining us in London. Thank you for coming to see us and speak to us. I would like to know the story of how you composed the boss battle music for Final Fantasy XV?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

That was 2007 Tokyo Game Shows. That was about 9 years ago? Yes I’m really glad that’s finally been used! At that time I wrote it for a trailer at the Tokyo Game Show and I really wanted it to be used for a game and I wanted it to be a battle song. That’s why it’s got that intense rhythm and it’s very dramatic and fast-paced, but I also wanted you to be able to go through that whole emotion in just one piece. That’s how it came about!

QUESTION 2

What composers and artists in general have inspired you?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

When I started this work, I already loved classical music and I’d listen to so much classical music that I don’t know if I could have told you who’d written what there was so much of it and it’s all had influence on my music. As a child I just loved classical music and I loved the piano of course, so I think some of the famous piano composers like Chopin, like Rachmaninoff. Those are some of the big influences but there are so many. So so many!

QUESTION 3

Hello. You’ve had such a wonderful career. What three words would you use to describe your journey you’ve been on during that time and why have you chosen those words?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

Give me a minute. …Sounds a bit corny maybe but love, passion, feelings.

QUESTION 4

I was just thinking, you were saying there just before that you decided to be a composer, you were thinking of going to be a piano teacher. I was just wondering what made you decide not to take that easy path? What made you think, no this composition thing is a good idea?

GARETH DAVIES

I’m not sure piano teaching is quite as easy.

YOKO SHIMOMURA

Well I did like games and then there were a lot of people becoming piano teachers and I thought it’s going to be hard to stand out and be a really good piano teacher amongst so many.  So I wanted to do something that was different from what everyone else was doing and I thought no one’s really writing video game music, and I like games so why not give it a go.

GARETH DAVIES

I think it’s the other way round now; everybody wants to compose music for video games!

QUESTION 5 (KH13’s Aqua’s question)

Hi. I met you 3 years ago so I’m really happy to see you again in London. This question is actually from my friend who lives in America; she told me you have to ask her this, also she told me you have to tell her that I love her because she’s very inspired by because she also wants to be a composer. Her name’s Becca and Becca asks: when you’re composing Vector to the Heavens, what sort of feelings did you go through to or what was your journey to composing such a powerful piece because I know that there’s a lot of love and a lot of pain in that music, so we’re all very interested hearing how you composed it?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

If you’re familiar with Kingdom Hearts you’ll know how important that music is in the story and I really wanted to get across the sadness of Xion’s destiny and the sort of sense of unfulfillment. It’s really hard to describe in words; you’ll have to listen to the music to get it. But just the whole of the character and what they go through I wanted to get it there in the music and I would almost always be crying with tears in my eyes as I was composing that music. I also had tears in my eyes because of all the requests coming from Tetsuya Nomura!

QUESTION 6

Video game music is very different in certain ways from all other kinds of music because the player interacts with the game and because of that, the music as well has to be very flexible to be able to repeat, to be fade in and out as the situation changes. I was wondering as a composer how have you had to sort of shape your style around those challenges where it has to be flexible in a way that a lot of other music just doesn’t have to be; where it has to be scripted to a set scene or where it has to fit a lot of different scenarios?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

Yeah there are various challenges for example in the first Kingdom Hearts in the question/answer bit with the stain-glass, where based upon what the player chooses, that determines what the next step is, all that music is connected but you have to set up so that you can jump from there to different other pieces. [It’s] The same with the last boss battle; you have to be able to jump to different bits for the music.

QUESTION 7

What gave you the idea when composing Xemnas’ theme (Disappeared)? What emotion did you have for that sort of theme?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

Is that the fast one? They showed me the battle scene for that one and my impression was it was really fast and the attacks came really quickly so I knew it had to be a fast-paced piece that would latch to the action in the battle scene.

GARETH DAVIES

I love the fact that you’ve written so much music you have to ask everyone how it goes.

QUESTION 8

This is actually a question for Gareth. I was wondering when LSO gets music that’s new, temporary or whatever next concert you do like tonight, what’s the process i.e. how far in advance do you get the piece to read through and look at or does it come naturally because they’re such professionals?

GARETH DAVIES

Oh, we’re just amazing! But seriously, it’s slightly different for concerts; we’ve been rehearsing this for a couple of days, but  when we do film soundtracks and video games, we turn up at Abbeyway Studios usually at 10 o’clock in the morning, or 5 to 10, and at 10 o’clock a whole pad of music about that thick [indicates with his fingers an inches’ width] appears on the stand and we sightread it and they put the red light on and they record it. So when I said we were amazing I wasn’t that far! The LSO recorded the very first soundtrack in 1934 for H.T. Mell’s film and have recorded films ever since. We are now officially the most extremed orchestra in the world. So really we’re very very quick, we get given music and it’s very quick; when you hear quite often we do a lot of education work with the London Symphony and we go to schools and we recorded music for the Harry Potter films, and there’s the moment when Dobby dies which is my flute solo. I apologise if that’s a plot spoiler! Quite often when children find out that we’ve done films like that, they’ll say could you play me that bit from the film, and the truth of the matter is I probably only played three times in my life. So the answer is you get the music on the day, and you sight read it and then you record it, and that’s it! Good question, thank you!

QUESTION 9

I’m going to ask a specific question about the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack. So you write a lot of music obviously, so first of all, when you wrote the main theme Dearly Beloved, were there any pieces that you wrote and discarded or did you come to Dearly Beloved straight away? Did any of those first drafts or second drafts get reused in the game? And also this is a slightly separate question, what’s your sort of workflow? How much music do you write in a day?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

Dearly Beloved came to me quite quickly.  The opening shoot it was based on was meant to be the sea and so I think the idea of the first Kingdom Hearts but also there was this instrument back then, I don’t know if you know, it was called the sound canvas. And one of the sound effects was the sea shore and so I just used that in the demo that I created.

In terms of workflow, it really varies as to how much I can process in a day or how long I spent doing it. If it’s all going well I might write 7 pieces in a day or if it’s not going so well I might spend a few days without completing one piece. I’ve never really tried to stick to a rule like I must finish 3 a day or anything like that. If there’s a deadline coming up then that can make it a bit difficult but it’s quite flexible.

QUESTION 10

Hello. Thanks for writing so much music. I’ve got your music on loop on a daily basis; it really helped me throughout my education and work as well! My question is when Final Fantasy versus 13 became 15, what had they told you and what happened to most of your music? Also what opinions do you have regarding this change because it changed quite a lot in regards to story?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

I guess everyone was surprised by that change of title. I was surprised to be honest.

When it became 15, most of the music is just carried through apart from a very small part of music that wasn’t quite right, but it’s mostly still all there because the basic world of the music is the same! So, there may have been concerns, but as far as the music goes, there’s no need for concern. It’s still there, just carried on; my feelings for it are just the same.

QUESTION 11

Hi. So basically I was wondering with Birth by Sleep, in regards to the main trio of protagonists (Terra, Aqua and Ven), we’ve heard snippets of them at the secret ending of Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix (Fate of the Unknown). I was wondering had the you and the team decided then or did you pick them out afterwards?

YOKO SHIMOMURA

The themes for Terra and Aqua were arrangements part for that secret ending because I predicted that it was going to be their story coming up next when composing for that secret ending. So I wanted to be able to connect it through to their themes.

So I already had that in mind but at that stage it was just me thinking of what I thought might happen but when it did actually happen then I got permission from Tetsuya Nomura to use those phrases for Terra and Aqua’s theme songs and that’s how it came about.

GARETH DAVIES

Ladies and gentlemen, at the beginning of this talk, our composer was worried that we wouldn’t have enough time, that we’d have TOO much time and then nobody would have had anything to say or have any questions, but I think we could probably could go on all night! However it almost time to let the music do the talking which is the other thing you’ve came here for. So, before we just wrap up here can you please give a huge round of applause for Yoko Shimomura!

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