Roger Wanamo grew up as a PC gamer.
He never owned a console, but ended up in a career that compelled him to buy several and experience old classics for the first time.
What career would that be?
Arranging game music for symphonic concerts.
He started small-time in 2007, but hit it big in 2009 with his 17-minute Fantasy III: Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross arrangement for Symphonic Fantasies. He has been going strong ever since.
In this interview, Roger Wanamo talks about:
- his arrangement style
- his workflow
- his dynamics with concert producer Thomas Böcker and fellow arranger Jonne Valtonen.
I hope you’ll find his stories as fascinating as I did. There’s more to creating these concerts than meets the eye!
(We interviewed Roger Wanamo at Symphonic Odysseys in Cologne, Germany on July 9, 2011. Interview originally in Finnish, translation by me. Photos by my friend Valtteri Jokinen, who also asked a few interview questions.)
Nikolas: Let’s jump straight into your work with Jonne Valtonen and Thomas Böcker. Was Symphonic Fantasies your first time to work together or did you arrange anything before that?
Roger: Yeah, in fact I did a few pieces to one of the Leipzig concerts. The last one in 2007. My arrangements weren’t anything special [laugh].
Nikolas: Was it Jonne’s suggestion? Or did Thomas contact you?
Roger: It was Jonne. We were studying together and doing collaborative projects in school. We had an orchestra project where we both did some pieces. Jonne liked my scores and introduced me to Thomas. That’s how it started.
Nikolas: In the Chrono suite for Symphonic Fantasies, was it your idea to layer different themes on top of each other?
Roger: Yes it was. I like doing that.
Nikolas: Did that idea come from your own head or have other composers done the same thing?
Roger: Classical music does do it all the time, if you listen for it. Somehow I’m really interested in how different themes can communicate with each other. Not just having one theme and the next, but seeing what could happen with both themes at the same time. I’ve always been interested in that.
Nikolas: How is your arranging different from Jonne’s style? Can you put it into words?
Roger: I think Jonne is pretty impressionistic, taking inspiration from Ravel and such composers. He’s probably more experimental in his orchestration as well. My style is more like the late romantic era. I do think our styles are quite different.
Nikolas: I think your arrangements are more easily approachable. Not in a bad way, I really love them.
Roger: When I work on arrangements, I want to keep them recognizable for the fans. So they can follow what’s happening in the music. When I listen to a new song, I try to listen as carefully as possible to hear everything in it. Then I try to find the defining elements of the music. Is it the melody, a bass line or the rhythm? And then I strengthen that element and bring it forth in the arrangement.
Nikolas: Do you think there’s a difference between the orchestras you have arranged for? Like the WDR and the Stockholm Royal Philharmonic?
Roger: Yes, but the differences are very sublime. And I have to say that Stockholm is a world-class orchestra. We were totally mind-blown by them right from the start. We had the first rehearsal and these guys played near perfectly. Well, that’s how it should be *heh*. But usually the first rehearsal is experimentation and we see how it sounds. And then slowly we polish everything. But the results here [with the WDR] are also very good.
The musicians in both of these orchestras are very friendly and easily approachable. You can just talk to everyone and if you want to make changes, they just reply, “Yes, of course.” There has never been any resistance here nor in Stockholm.
Nikolas: So for this concert you did the some of the Final Fantasy arrangements…
Roger: Yeah, the piano concerto, FF X [A Fleeting Dream] and the second encore [FF VII Battle Suite].
Nikolas: I asked Thomas Böcker about the difference between your and Jonne’s arrangements. He said that when you have a medley with many different themes, you know exactly when to change to the next theme, so it won’t get boring. And that your transitions are very good. But your FF X arrangement was only about one theme. It just kept getting more intense and is very different from medleys. So is if different to arrange one theme compared to combining many themes into one arrangement?
Roger: Yes, definitely. We actually just discussed this with Jonne the other day. I spend 90% of my time on what happens when, what should happen next, should something be one bar longer, etc. And when I figure out what should come next, I write it really fast. Then I think about the next section and focus on the how, but mostly on the what. That’s the form Thomas is talking about.
Jonne on the other hand is interested in impressionistic thinking. It’s like photos, what happens in the moment. He spends a lot of time creating interesting nuances with the orchestra, polishing really small details in it. With that he creates incredibly interesting timbral worlds. That’s basically the biggest difference between our stuff.
Nikolas: When you work on a piece with many different parts, do you try to figure the whole thing from beginning to end? Or do you just take them part-by-part?
Roger: It depends. Sometimes I get a clear vision of the idea. For example, I might know that I have to use these two melodies and I might immediately get a very clear vision of the transition between them, even though it would be at the end of the piece.
When I start to familiarize myself with the material, I listen to the songs to know the entire soundtrack really well. So let’s take Mario Galaxy. I tried to hammer the soundtrack into my head so well that I could listen to any song at any time in my head. After that you can take a vacation, go sailing or whatever and the songs just play in your head and you can work and think on the arrangement. Then you get ideas, start to write and first do the stuff you know you’re going to do. After that you think about how to make a cohesive piece of it all.
But with Fleeting Dream, which basically follows the original, I just started from the first measure and wrote until the end.
Nikolas: Isn’t it Thomas who decides how long the arrangements should be?
Roger: Yeah, and then we do a few minutes longer.
Nikolas: Have you ever had to inject more stuff in an arrangement, because it wasn’t long enough?
Roger: No, never. They always end up too long.
Nikolas: Have you had to shorten them because of too much stuff or ideas?
Roger: Well yes. There’s a lot I’ve done and then realized that there simply isn’t space for it. And there’s a lot I would have wanted to use. With the Final Fantasy Piano Concerto I had all the material from FF 1-6. There’s an insane amount of amazing material there and then I got a time limit of 15 minutes, though it ended up close to 20. You can’t make anything reasonable in 15 minutes *heh*. Or I mean, you can’t make it reasonable in the way that you’d think you did everything you wanted to do. Of course there was a lot more I wanted to do.
Nikolas: Did you select all the tracks to the piano concerto entirely by yourself?
Roger: Together with Thomas. He suggested some, I suggested some and so on. I like working with Thomas because of the freedom he gives. When we’re working on a medley piece, he’s happy to have me decide myself and make my own choices. That’s important simply for a musical aspect, to make a cohesive entity of it, since some themes fit together and some don’t. Sometimes there’s a track you’d really like to include, but it’s just so different stylistically and aesthetically. If you would include it, the piece wouldn’t be itself anymore and you just have to axe it.
Nikolas: What about working together with Jonne, like the Chrono medley? Is different to work alone compared to together with Jonne? Or have you done anything else than Chrono with him?
Roger: That was kind of like, Jonne was a very close supervisor. I did the work, but Jonne gave me some basic parameters and ideas. Then I just worked daily on it and we discussed further ideas. I did write the whole thing, but I got a lot of useful [feedback].
But I mean *heh*, we always bounce ideas back and forth. We see each other a lot and send our scores to each other. Whenever I have an idea, I can ask Thomas or Jonne for feedback.
Nikolas: So you meet Jonne face to face as well?
Roger: Yeah, quite a lot.
Nikolas: And the meetings are work-related?
Roger: Yeah, work-related, I mean, there’s some beer involved as well…
Roger: When we meet, we discuss mostly work, because that’s all we’ve done for the last… year for me, and several years for Jonne. So naturally our discussion revolve around the arrangements. It’s a kind of 24/7 work anyway and when deadlines approach, it’s in your head non-stop.
[Switching topics: Roger Wanamo has a degree in composition, but I heard he is doing a piano degree on top of that.]
Nikolas: You’re doing a piano degree as well?
Roger: Yes, I just have one last examination left. I was just too busy with arrangements this year and didn’t have time to do it.
Nikolas: Do you play any other instruments?
Roger: Yeah, but… *heh*. The piano is my main instrument.
Nikolas: My question is: do you find it difficult to arrange for any specific section in the orchestra? For example, are wind instruments more challenging than the string section? You’ve done quite a lot of these piano arrangements, which is maybe why I’m asking.
Roger: You slowly learn to utilize different instruments better and better. I’ve done some pieces for a brass ensemble, a chamber ensemble and some solo pieces. That’s how you learn how the individual instruments work or a certain section, like the brass section, works.
I do admit there are some instruments I could improve my skills on. Like the harp. I feel I could use it much more efficiently. Not just put a glissando here and there, but to really let it shine and maybe do a harp solo sometime. Working together with a harpist would help me get more out of it. Jonne, on the other hand, has played harp as a side instrument and uses it way differently.
Nikolas: Do you have any favorite style to arrange in? Are piano concertos more fun than other styles?
Roger: Nah. This time I wanted to do it and asked for it from Thomas. At that time we already knew that Benyamin [Nuss] would be playing. So I asked if I could do the piano arrangement, because I really wanted to let Benyamin shine. And you learn another kind of orchestration, because the piano really is quite a quiet instrument when the rest of the orchestra plays pompously. You don’t hear the piano well. So this entire year has been about learning how to really make a piano concerto.
Nikolas: With this concert, who decided who arranges what?
Roger: Jonne is basically the main arranger. If he wants, he can choose whatever he wants. But we really are a team, though Thomas might give some unconditionals. Some of this is decided mid-way, like Fleeting Dream. Jonne realized he simply doesn’t have the time, so I arranged it. And the arrangements that use a choir [like Fleeting Dream] had to be finished earlier.
Thomas does always first decide who arranges what, but there is room for discussion, if need be. This is the kind of work you can’t predict how long it will take to finish. When you start doing it, you realize something takes a lot longer than expected, or something goes much quicker than anticipated and so on.
Nikolas: Did Thomas have any tracks he absolutely wanted to include in this concert?
Roger: Yes, he did. Let me think. Not so much regarding the medley pieces, but more like Last Story for example. I think it was the track that plays on their website, because the game hasn’t been released in Europe yet. So that was a track that people know, if they know anything at all *heh*. As for my pieces, I don’t know… Many of the tracks I used where his suggestions, but we always discuss them. But for the encore he did want it to begin with Those Who Fight.
Nikolas: Did Uematsu have any knowledge of the arrangements beforehand?
Roger: Uematsu didn’t want to know. He wanted to be surprised. He has been getting [tidbits of the program] in the same pace as the fans.
Nikolas: Did he attend the dress rehearsals?
Roger: Yeah, he did, yeah.
Nikolas: So that was his first time hearing it?
Roger: His first time, yeah. And he stuck around to listen to the second half. So I guess it was good. *heh* I mean, Uematsu really likes it. He is very satisfied with it.
Nikolas: I was wondering if he had any interesting reactions after this first concert?
[There were two concerts on the same day. This interview took place between them, after the first concert had ended and after Roger Wanamo had dined with Nobuo Uematsu and others. My group happened to go to the same restaurant, that’s how I knew.]
Roger: No. Nothing special.
Nikolas: But you did dine together.
Nikolas: And was everyone smiling?
Roger: Yeah. Well, we had all the artists there as well, so we just focused on the next concert. We don’t have any rollicking parties yet at these points. There’s still one more to go. Now I sound like a hockey player.
Valtteri: I was just going to say it sounds like sports!
Roger: *Hahahahahahaa* Yeah, let’s just focus on the next game and…
Valtteri: Celebrate afterwards.
Roger: Celebrate afterwards, yeah.
Valtteri: How much do you play games yourself?
Roger: I have all Final Fantasies from one to ten at home, or those that are available in Finland, so I think the third one is missing. I’ve been acquiring consoles from the 8-bit NES to the present era, just to get to try these things and really experience the games, whose music I have to arrange. Now I had to make the Final Fantasy concerto and found all the games as a package on an online auction site, so I bought them. I had time to play through VI, but then I had start writing music. I would probably play more, if I had more time *heh*.
During the last six or seven years I’ve been here at Tampere studying. So I’ve been trying to cut down on my playing hours. I used to play more, but I get really hooked when I start playing a game. I can’t do anything until I’ve finished it. And that’s not good for my studies. So I have have played a lot over the years. But I was always a PC gamer and these Japanese role-playing games were always unknown to me, since we didn’t have any consoles in my childhood. Now I get to experience them and boy, are they great.
Nikolas: Did you know Jonne during his demoscene days?
Nikolas: So you met him when you started to study together?
Roger: In 2004, yes.
Nikolas: Had you heard his music before you met him?
Roger: Yes, I had. I’d gone to Assembly [demo/gaming event] and I remember the demo from Future Crew [which Jonne was a part of]. I don’t remember the year, but I think the demo was Second Reality. Or possibly another one, can’t remember the name. I’ve been checking them on YouTube. So that’s when I probably heard his music. But Jonne is 5-6 years older than me and did that stuff when he was under 20 years old, so I was quite young at the time.
Nikolas: Is Jonne also a PC gamer, do you know?
Roger: Nowadays he tells you to buy a Mac. Or that’s what he’s telling me every day. But yeah, he’s a PC gamer and also has a PS3 or something. And he started out with the Commodore 64, that much I know.
Nikolas: Jonne mentioned that when he’s arranging, he always tries to do a little bit of something new in the evening. It’s easier to continue the next day, if you don’t have start from a blank paper.
Roger: I totally agree. I try to do that too, but don’t always succeed. I do strive for that, but things don’t always work out as you want them to *heh*. There are tricks of the trade as well. As for me, I have to start working straight away in the morning and get up early as well. When I take the slightest pause from work, it doesn’t go so well anymore.
Nikolas: How well do you keep your deadlines?
Roger: We’ve had a lot of concerts this spring, so I can give you an example. I had decided that by mid-March I would finish my arrangements for Stockholm [for the Nintendo concert LEGENDS]. I had been working on F-Zero a lot and two or three weeks before the deadline I started to write it for real. It was painful work around the clock. When the final deadline arrived, I finally got some kind of arrangement together. Then I looked at it and realized how bloody awful it is, ripped it apart and started from scratch. Then I did in four days the arrangement that actually ended up in Stockholm, which is like a hundred times better than the previous one. That’s how it goes sometimes.
Nikolas: Do deadlines help?
Roger: They do. I would never get anything done without deadlines. Everything can be done in a million different ways and you get a lot of ideas. You work on them, but keep on thinking that you’ll think of something better, until the deadline tells you, “There’s no more time. Just take the best idea so far and go with it.”
Sometimes I finish arranging three or four days before the deadline, but never anything like a month before. When you have to do it, you do it. But you also don’t want to let them go, since you could always imrpove upon them. Nothing is ever perfect. These pieces can have tens of thousands of sounds or notes, so there’s no way all of them are perfect *heh*. That state doesn’t exist, there’s always room for improvement. At least I want to do everything as well as possible. Having still a month to improve something but instead saying, “Nope, let’s hand it in and take a vacation”, is not my style.
Nikolas: Any plans for the future?
Roger: Don’t know, I’ll just see what comes. Did you see the WDR’s program for the next season?
Nikolas: Yes, Symphonic Fantasies next year, though it’s completely the same.
Roger: Yeah. Next year. Completely the same.
Nikolas: Böcker doesn’t have any work for you right now?
Roger: Yeah no, but there probably will be. He always conjures up work somehow. I’ll probably keep on doing that stuff and hopefully other things as well.
Thank you so much, Roger, for letting us interview you. We are always looking forward to hearing more music from you!