Have you ever been to the Final Fantasy concert called Distant Worlds?
The conductor at the concerts is Arnie Roth, but conducting is not his only role.
He is also the musical director of Distant Worlds. He does things like decide which tracks are played at which concerts. I didn’t know this beforehand, so it was very interesting to hear about it!
He collaborates with Nobuo Uematsu when creating the setlists, and I get the impression from this interview that they are quite close friends.
But besides Uematsu and concerts, he also talks about his own compositions, arrangements, and musical history. He was originally a professional violinist, but ended up conducting full-time, so much so that he doesn’t even play the violin anymore.
At the end of this interview, we reminiscence about the concert Symphonic Fantasies and the amazing drumming by Rony Barrak. I hope you enjoy the read!
(We interviewed Arnie Roth at Distant Worlds II in Stockholm, Sweden on June 11, 2010. All photos were taken by my friend Valtteri Jokinen, who also asked a few questions here and there.)
Nikolas: So, you’ve been involved with video game music concerts for quite some time. How did you first become interested in them?
Arnie: I think the very first time I became involved at all, was around Dear Friends. That tour took place in the United States in 2005. It was the first time I actually met Nobuo Uematsu. It was an odd circumstance. They had done kind of a demonstration concert in 2004 in Los Angeles with the LA Philharmonic, and it was a success. But it was kind of a mess, because the whole thing was thrown together haphazardly at the last moment. They wanted to do a tour of the same program around the United States. I was asked through a mutual friend whether I would be interested in conducting this with my orchestra in Chicago, The Chicagoland Pops. It seems that many orchestras, both in the United States and around the world, didn’t believe that Final Fantasy could be an actual concert. They thought, “Well, around a video game convention maybe,” or something like that. But can the concert really do it by itself? Draw fans and that kind of thing, you know? They just didn’t believe it.
Arnie: It’s a funny thing, I mean you know, it was a very new in the United States at that point. Nobody could really quite understand how to do this and whether this was really viable for orchestras and… So I was the first person to take a chance on this, after that Final Fantasy thing in the United States. With my orchestra in Chicago, we did Dear Friends in February of 2005. And that’s where I met Nobuo Uematsu for the first time. The concert sold out with 4000 seats. Everyone believed it after that, you know *heh*. It was one of those, like “oh, it works” *hehheheh*.
So, that was my first introduction to video game music. After the Dear Friends tour, I was involved with Play and helped put together the very first Play concert, which was brought to Stockholm as well. And then Square Enix approached me, to conduct a couple of things. One was More Friends, another Final Fantasy concert in Los Angeles [in May 2005], which we also released as a record in Japan. Then they asked me to conduct the Voices: Music from Final Fantasy concert in Japan [in February 2006]. It was a really fantastic concert.
After that they came back to me and said, “Well you know, we think that you and Thomas Böcker should get together and put together the Distant Worlds tour with Nobuo [Uematsu]”. This was Square Enix actually approaching us. It took about a year to finalize and negotiate everything, but it’s been a great success and I think we’ve done something like 30 or 32 concerts on this tour. But we keep changing it, you know, the concert. We’re adding new things all the time, so it’s lot of fun *heh*. And two records now too.
Nikolas: That sounds great. How much work does the concert tour require from you personally?
Arnie: *Hehheh* It’s a lot. I mean you know, in the symphonic world, [there’s a lot] in terms of the administration and the various layers of decision making that have to happen around these concerts. For Distant Worlds we have the whole business of “okay, are we using the choir, the various logistics, what soloists do we need, what kind of artwork for advertising and publicity. ” There’s different levels of decision for each concert. Since we’re coming down to Stockholm a second time, we had to make some of these decision differently than the first time. You know, we just recorded Distant Worlds II and there’s a lot of things to set up that are quite different. Designing a concert musically, especially the second time, when it’s different from the first one, yet keeps some of the popular classic themes, that people want to hear. I mean, how can we do a concert without One-Winged Angel, you know? It’s Final Fantasy, you know *hehheh*. So there’s a lot of administrative [work] that goes with that. And preparing all the scores and things like that, shipping out to Stockholm in advance.
Nikolas: How do we hear your personal touch in these concerts?
Nikolas: Can we hear them?
Arnie: I think that’s for all of you to decide. Well, certainly it’s me designing the concert program itself. This one was mostly done by me. I consult Nobuo Uematsu on all these things, even what we put on our Distant Worlds II record. It’s a give and take. I start with suggestions to Nobuo-san with a list of repertoire that we want to do. Then he may come back with an alternative for one out of the list of 12 or 14. I think about it, listen a little bit, and I say, “Okay we’ll do that, but for doing that, then we should add this one”. You know, it’s that kind of collaboration thing, and we always agree completely with these things. I mean, it’s not difficult to agree, I think. So yes, he is involved with Distant Worlds, in all of the concerts, but doesn’t come out to all of them. But he’s coming out to a lot of our concerts lately, I mean, almost every single one of them. He’ll be out in San Fransisco and San Diego and Houston, all three of them, so we’ll be together for two weeks *hehhehheh*.
Valtteri: And he likes to meet his fans.
Arnie: Lot’s of sushi, lot’s of beer *hehheh*.
Valtteri: We actually brought him one [beer from Finland].
Arnie: Oh, he loves you for that, yeah *heh*. That and wine, he likes wine too.
Nikolas: So, you’ve composed music for a few movies.
Arnie: Yes *heh*.
Nikolas: Do you want to, or intend to, compose for more movies or games?
Arnie: Yeah, I will continue to compose for movies and I do like them, although they’re an awful lot of work. And it really depends how much time it takes away from all the other things that I do, live conducting in concerts and things. This is always a balancing kind of act. So I look at each project as it comes in and decide, “You know what, this year I can’t do that one, It’s gonna take three months and I don’t have those three months”. And then other years I may say, “You know, this is a really great script and I really do wanna work on this”. We have several very big projects on the horizon for fourth quarter of this year, some of which are Final Fantasy related projects.
Writing for video games, I’m very interested in doing. Most of the stuff I’ve done have been working with composers of video games and doing arrangements of some of their things for the concert stage. But I would be very interested in writing for video games and I’ve made it known to some of the companies that I’ve worked with. But I haven’t jumped into it full time. I mean it’s a different thing, you know, you lock yourself in the recording studio and write. You write all day. You come out for food every now and then, but that’s *hehheh*, it’s a very different thing than the concerts. The concert has an immediate gratification thing that is quite different from all the recording works. I like them both. But you know, balance is nice *heh*.
Nikolas: Having composed and arranged and performed so much music, what would you like to do the most, if you had to pick one? Do you enjoy one of them most?
Arnie: I don’t think I’ll ever be able to surpass the great joy of performing. I mean, with a really great orchestra on stage with fans that want to hear that. There’s nothing really better than that. In our business and our music industry, that’s kind of the pinnacle of what you want to do. But on the other hand, it’s always pretty fascinating to me to be able to write arrangements and put them together on the stage for the first time. As something grows and becomes live, from the computer to the music to the musician, and playing it live is really a fascinating process. And very uplifting when you actually “oh my god, that really worked well” or “I see what I have to do to fix that”. You know that immediately, the moment that you put the down beat down and you can see what the orchestra is doing “ah, I know exactly what I have to fix”, or what I wanna redo, you know. My mind is, kind of voice going on with this stuff, so *heh*.
Nikolas: And you’re kind of trademark arrangement is Swing de Chocobo.
Arnie: *Hah!* It’s funny that that’s a trademark, but yeah. Because a lot of people don’t think of me as a big band writer, that’s not what I mostly do. I mostly do big orchestral. But that score is *heh* a lot of fun. And that turned out very well, yeah. And I appreciate it, so thank you.
Nikolas: Do you wish to arrange more Final Fantasy music?
Arnie: I’d love to, yes. As a matter of fact, Nobuo-san and I are talking about collaborating on Clash on the Big Bridge. That’s a pretty popular [piece] that fans have been yelling at us to do. And we may do more. We’re considering some projects with his new band, which we featured on our new record. Don’t tell him I said so, but I don’t know why he picked this name Earthbound Papas. I don’t know *heh* what that name is. But he likes it. I think it’s weird *heh*. But, in any case it’s a good band and we wanna do more work with them and he wants to play more, his band with an orchestra. So we’re talking about different collaborations that we can put together with that. Can’t always do it at all of our Distant Worlds concerts. It’s too difficult to add orchestra and a band on all of them, all the time. I do it sometimes, but with some concert halls it’s too difficult to make it work acoustically. And that there’s enough rehearsal time and you fly people in, you know. But we’re going to try it doing more of that.
Nikolas: Something I’d like to know is how did you become a composer? And how did you become interested in music and all that when you were young?
Arnie: I grew into a professional violinist for many, many years. One thing led [to another], you know. Being a concert violinist, contracting and hiring musicians for orchestras and recording sessions in the Chicago area, New York and LA. People would start asking me to write arrangements for various things, whether they’re commercials or singers for a record project. They had seen me anyhow as a violinist and they just asked me out of the blue to write these arrangements, so I said yes. I tried it and started having a really good time doing it. And then they said, “Well, we want you to conduct the recording session of the arrangement,” and I said, “Well that’s fine, I know it”. Obviously it was easy for me to conduct it. And somehow that morphed into full-time conducting. Don’t ask me how, but the violin kind of went *down, down, down, dadada* all of a sudden, like “I don’t play violin anymore”. And I miss it. But conducting is terrific. I can’t tell that I chose conducting over violin or that this was my goal all along. It was never my goal. Or writing or anything like that. I was a violinist and I just started writing and became in love with that and fascinated with that. And opportunities came up and they kind of steered me that way. And now that’s what I do *heh*.
Nikolas: So you don’t play the violin anymore, or?
Arnie: It’s there. I have a really wonderful old violin and I occasionally pull it out of the case. It’s only about a year ago, or a year and a half ago, that I stopped. There was a group that I played with many, many years. Twenty-five years or something. Or twenty years, I guess. Mannheim Steamroller, quite a big group in the United States, which is still in existence. And I still work with them in terms of writing and helping produce concerts. But I didn’t go out on any of their tours this last year. I’m doing more work with Final Fantasy and other things. I don’t think I’ll go out with them this year either. [Whispers:] “I’ll pick up the violin, I’ll start playing again, but then, I don’t think so.” I think it’s on the back burner still *ehheh*.
Nikolas: Have you ever played any other instrument? Would you like to learn, or would you like to know how to play one?
Arnie: Yes, I wish I was a really good pianist. And I’ll tell you, that’s really just for functional purposes. As a composer and a conductor it’s so useful to be able to have good keyboard skills. Nobuo writes as a keyboard player, because he plays a little bit as well and he writes keyboard first, then orchestrates, expands it out, you know. I see a full score in my head. I write 29 staves right away, as opposed to starting with just a piano stave and then orchestrating. That’s just the way I grew up as a violinist and in orchestras. When I hear the music as I’m writing, I hear the entire score, rather than just piano. So *heh*, it’s just what I got used to.
Nikolas: If you want to do arrangements or something, do you constantly have ideas flowing in your head?
Nikolas: Is it hard to like, umm…
Arnie: I know what you mean. Is it hard to turn it off?
Arnie: [Laughs hard] *Heheheheheh* Is it hard to stop to thinking about it?
Arnie: The answer is yes, and one of the curses is that you can’t really step into a an elevator or a grocery store or something like that. There’s music playing all the time. The curse is that you don’t casually listen to music, there’s no such thing. And again, I don’t care whether it’s Willie Nelson or whether it’s, you know, some chewing gum commercial or TV ad or whatever it might be.
[Pauses for a while.]
This is silence. There’s no music. This is fine, it’s refreshing, it’s fine. The moment I hear some notes, my mind starts: that’s how the tune, that’s late, that’s, you know. You start with this analyzing thing, or “Why didn’t they harmonize it differently?” *Hehheh* You just don’t wanna do that and I can’t turn that off. So people ask me, “What do you listen to at home, you know, music?” Nothing. I listen to music at home, but mostly for work, like when I wanna reference something or I wanna work on something. Okay, I wanna listen to some other versions of things, you know, things like that. But just casual listening? Rarely, rarely, because there’s no such thing as casual with music *eheh*.
Nikolas: If you wouldn’t do composing or conducting for a living, what would you like to do? Or did you have like a dream when you we’re a child or anything?
Arnie: No, not when I was a child at all. But I can tell you right now what I would opt to do. I’d be a winemaker. I’d work on a vineyard. I think that would be beautiful.
Nikolas: And you’d be friends with Uematsu *heh*.
Arnie: Yeah, he and I would probably be working on the same vineyard, right? *hehheheheh* [We all laugh.] No, he actually makes his own beer in Japan. He brews his own beer in little micro-brewery at home, you know. But if I had a choice, that might be it. Now I would miss music, if I actually got away from it. So, did we cover all your questions, yeah?
Nikolas: We covered them a long time ago *hehhehe* [all laugh].
Arnie: *Ahahhah* okay good, good. Well, thank you for coming.
Valtteri: Do you have any plans on coming to Finland for a concert?
Arnie: To Finland?
Arnie: Yes, Helsinki, absolutely. As a matter of fact, Stefan is part of consortium of presentors in concert halls. He and I tried to get that together around this concert, didn’t work out, but we’re still talking about a tour of Scandinavia, that would involve both Helsinki, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, maybe Hamburg, like northern Germany. A couple of different cities. He is talking about trying to put that together. I’d love to, I really would love to.
And we talk to orchestras all the time, all over the world. We’re talking to Sydney Opera house right now and a lot of different areas, so I think we’ll do a lot more in Asia as well. And a lot more in Europe next year. 2010 and ’11 there’s gonna be more European concerts.
Valtteri: Sounds good.
Nikolas: I remember your concert in 2009, Symphonic Fantasies.
Arnie: With WDR?
Arnie: Oh yes, yeah, that was an interesting one *heh*.
Valtteri: And it was great.
Arnie: How did you like it?
Nikolas: We saw both concerts. At the second concert I was sitting in the front row and you were standing five meters from me. It was so inspiring when Chrono Trigger… [arranged by Roger Wanamo]
Arnie: Oh, yes.
Nikolas: And then the build-up, the epicness and you we’re like [makes full-on passionate conducting motion – all laugh] flailing your staff or whatever it’s called.
Arnie: I was flailing *heheh*. Oh, did I throw it, or?
Nikolas: No you didn’t throw it, but you were like *whu—>* going crazy all over.
Nikolas: It was absolutely amazing.
Arnie: That’s the one that Rony Barrak played, right? Yeah. The thing with Rony is that he is very talented. But when we give him music to look at, he really doesn’t look at any of it. He’s just so creative that I literally have to teach him where I want him to improvise, and where he has to stay on this beat pattern. So the whole week before I’m sitting there, kind of teaching him painstakingly what to do. When he finally gets to the concert, he lets loose you know, and it’s great.
Valtteri: How much does he improvise anyway?
Arnie: Yeah, he improvises, it’s fantastic. The beat patterns were clearly established, where we wanted him to stay in the basic patterns. I had to show him where he should put in, at the ends of phrases, *dun-ta-dun-dun, PApapa-TAtata-tata*. That’s what you saw me doing on Chrono Cross / Chrono Trigger. That particular piece has a lot of those kinds of answers between the orchestra and Rony, that kind of thing, back and forth. So I’m having him wave and “Go!”, you know that kind of thing *hehheh*. And he’s looking at me, because he wants that. He needs my cue for that, so that’s particularly why. When you say I was flailing away it was probably because of Rony *heh*.
Nikolas: I never thought a conductor could be so inspiring.
Arnie: Oh *heheheheh* well thank you. I’m glad I wasn’t too distracting *hehehe*. Well you know what, the music is so powerful, that it’s hard for me to just say, “I’m gonna go like this the whole night” [stands emotionlessly]. I think you can do that, if you’re doing Beethoven or Brahms or whatever. There are times when you actually can establish the beat and let the orchestra go. If they’re disciplined, they can keep a nice easy 4/4 pattern and I don’t have to give them everything. I just give them accents here and there.
[Someone walks in, waiting for us to finish.]
Arnie: Yes, we’re all set!
[And a final buddy photo, with Arnie Roth and Valtteri Jokinen:]
Thank you, Arnie Roth, for taking the time to talk to us!