Thomas Böcker is the pioneer of game music concerts in the West.
He produced the first VGM concert outside of Japan in 2003 in Leipzig, Germany. Other concerts emerged, and many of them used old arrangements from the Leipzig concerts.
Meanwhile, Böcker was working on new bolder concerts that became even bigger successes, culminating in Symphonic Odysseys: Tribute to Nobuo Uematsu in 2011, which sold out in 12 hours.
He is truly a pioneer.
I go to a lot of VGM concerts, but there are only two kinds in the world I attend no matter what – anything by Thomas Böcker, and anything by the Littlejack Ochestra.
The thing about Böcker’s concerts is that they consistently have a high quality. They are held at proper concert halls, performed by good orchestras, and above all: the arrangements are imaginative and varied.
Yeah, I admit it. I’m a fanboy.
But there’s a reason most (if not all) of his concerts sell out.
I think the reason is three things: his long love for video game music, his long experience with concerts, and the two talented arrangers on his team: Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo.
In this interview, Böcker delves into all of these things at quite a length. We talked for 1 hour 27 minutes, and I didn’t cut out much, since most of what he said was so interesting.
But don’t worry, I divided it up with sub-headings and all, so you can skip and jump freely – enjoy!
- Symphonic Game Music Concerts in Leipzig 2003–2004
- Japanese concerts and VGM compared to the West
- Working with music arrangers
- Symphonic Game Music Concerts 2008–2012
- Nobuo Uematsu, Dancing Mad, and Leipzig arrangements used in other concerts
(We interviewed Thomas Böcker at Symphonic Odysseys in Cologne, Germany on July 9, 2011. Photo credit goes to my friend Valtteri Jokinen, who also set up the interview and asked a few questions.)
Nikolas: You’ve said that Chris Hülsbeck was one of the first video game music composers you liked. Was there any other composer before him, or was he the first one?
Thomas: He was really the first one. A little bit later I also listened to music from Yuzo Koshiro. But Chris Hülsbeck was really the first one for a good amount of time. I bought the Commodore 64 and I was very amazed by his music. I was 7-9 years old. I didn’t have any other computer or console at this time, so I was really most interested in Chris Hülsbeck. Of course I already knew about Rob Hubbard and all the other Commodore 64 gods [laughs]. But Chris Hülsbeck was the one who really made me interested in game music.
I started to play the games only to listen to the music, which a lot of friends at this time found very strange. But I really liked them, To Be On Top [1987, C64] and all these kinds of things. It’s a music game from Chris Hülsbeck. He actually did the programming himself. The goal of the game is to make music and to enter the charts, and to appear in a TV show and these kinds of things. It was one of the first music games for the Commodore 64. If you were listening to the top 10, you could hear a lot of different compositions, which he had done. So that’s is what I did.
I also played The Great Giana Sisters [1987, C64] quite a lot, because of the music. And of course Turrican. At one point I switched to the Amiga. Then I got even more interested in the music of Chris Hülsbeck. And this was also the time when I got more interested in composers from Japan, like Yuzo Koshiro and Nobuo Uematsu, obviously [laughs].
Thomas: Yeah, yeah, yeah [laughs], what a surprise [laughs]. So yeah, that’s the start basically. It was all a bit unstructured, but I hope you don’t write it down like I’m talking [laughs].
(We trimmed it a little bit, but only to make it a better read, without sacrificing the feel of your presence.) 🙂
Nikolas: When you realized video game music is good music, was it an instant realization? Or did it gradually grow on you?
Thomas: No, it was really instant.
Nikolas: Was it a specific game?
Thomas: I remember very well the first game, which I ever played in my life. It had music by Rob Hubbard, not Chris Hülsbeck. It was called One Man and his Droid [1985, C64]. It had annoying audio [laughs] in a way, because it kept repeating the same tune constantly. The tune itself was fantastic, though. It really got into my brain. I liked it. It made me interested in the whole audio aspect of video games. But you know, it was the very first game I ever saw in my life. So of course that leaves an impression, no matter how good or bad.
But it was Chris Hülsbeck’s music that made me amazed and impressed. I wanted to follow what he is doing, so I started to look for other games he did the music for. Other people were listening to Michael Jackson or something and I was starting to collect interviews from Chris Hülsbeck. It was quite nerdy [laughs]. I read magazines like Powerplay and Amiga Games. That’s how I collected the interviews and got more information. I also started to call him and annoy him [laughs].
Nikolas: How old were you when you started to get more… serious?
Thomas: I would say ten, eleven… It got even more serious when I was thirteen or fourteen. That was when his first CD, Shades, was released [in 1991]. At this time I was already a die-hard fan of him [laughs].
I once went to a friend and he had this Commodore 64 magazine called 64’er. We we’re just playing games or something and I looked at the magazine. It said that Chris Hülsbeck is releasing a CD and I was like “what!?” I ran home and ordered the CD. At that time you still had to write a letter saying that you wanted to buy it. It took ages. I think I had to wait like four or five months until my CD arrived. I checked the mailbox everyday, but there was nothing. This was probably my first CD and I was lucky my older brother had just bought a new CD player. They were not so common, you know, I’m from the GDR [East Germany] and Germany had just reunited and everything.
Nikolas: Was that the first time you realized they actually release video game music on CDs?
Thomas: I knew there was another guy, Jochen Hippel. He was quite famous with his Atari ST soundtracks. He released a cassette tape with his music, and later a CD as well. Chris’ CD came a little bit later. I cared much more about Chris Hülsbeck’s music, so it was not important. But at this point I knew that “okay, there are obviously people who do crazy things like putting game music on a CD.” I grew up with the Commodore 64, so only later did I realize that “oh, there’s also TONS of CDs with Japanese game music.” That was when my little brother started to play the Super Nintendo [laughs]. That was also a very big step in my life as a video game music fan.
We rented a Super Nintendo from a local shop, the console and the games. We wanted to check it out, whether it’s really worth it or not. Obviously it was, so we bought it later. Our budget was limited, so we had to decide on two games. Street Fighter 2 was nice to play to together. I was trying to find another great game, and I was especially interested in good music. I read an article about a strange game called The Legend of Zelda [laughs]. It said the music is quite nice, so we rented the game. I was totally amazed by everything, like the atmosphere when it’s raining in the beginning. These two were a very important part of my game music life.
A friend had the Mega Drive, so there was more Yuzo Koshiro to listen to. I always went to this friend and got on their nerves by saying, “Here is my cassette, can I please record some music from the games?” They didn’t really understand it, but I didn’t care because I got the music out of it anyway.
Nikolas: Did you have friends who were also interested in video game music?
Nikolas: Your brothers?
Thomas: Well, they had to live with it [laughs].
Nikolas: Did you mostly have Nintendo consoles at home? Did you also have Sega, or was it just your friends?
Thomas: Yeah, my friends had Sega. We we’re more on the Nintendo side, because the Super Nintendo had better sound, I think. That’s something I cared about quite a lot. But Yuzo Koshiro also did cool things with his programming skills on the Mega Drive. We were more on the Nintendo and Commodore side. Those two things happened basically at the same time.
Nikolas: Did you also have the 8-bit Nintendo?
Thomas: No, it started with the Super Nintendo.
Nikolas: Huh. A lot of good music on the 8-bit Nintendo.
Thomas: Yes, I know, I know. But you know, I had the Commodore 64, which was quite nice as well. I actually think the Commodore 64 had really skilled guys doing the music. What they did with the limited sound was really great. I mean now we are doing these big orchestra things, but I’m still in love with all the 8-bit and 16-bit sounds. I think what they did was very, very creative. I like it a lot. I have no problems to listen to 8-bit chip sounds today. I also like tracker music, obviously because of Jonne [Valtonen, also known as Purple Motion from his demo scene and tracker music days].
Nikolas: Do you listen to video game music which is not related to your work?
Nikolas: Is it mostly 8-bit and 16-bit or modern video game music?
Thomas: Yeah it depends, it depends. If I would have to decide between 8-bit and 16-bit, I’m a little bit more into 16-bit, because I personally think that Chris Hülsbeck’s music and Turrican for me is more of the 16-bit era. When I first heard Turrican 2, I was just blown away. I think it was was fantastic. At that time I had never heard anything like it in a video game, so I was very amazed by it.
But today there are also other very interesting soundtracks, like you know, Dead Space or BioShock. There is some very interesting music, which gets created today and which I’m still listening to. I’m saying this because you asked what is not related to my work, but of course I like Nobuo Uematsu’s music and I’m following what he is doing today. But I haven’t had any BioShock or Dead Space in my concerts yet, so this is why I’m just mentioning it. Jeremy Soule is also doing nice music.
Nikolas: Yeah, Icewind Dale!
Thomas: Yes, for example. Fantastic work. There are of course a lot of very great soundtracks today as well. Not all of them, but some [laughs].
Nikolas: When was the first time you found out about video game music being performed by orchestras in Japan? I know you were inspired by the Orchestral Game Music Concerts.
Thomas: Yes. I think it was the Powerplay magazine again. You know, at this time we didn’t have the internet [laughs], so we still had to read printed material [laughs]. No seriously, they had this very short article and wrote, “The crazy Japan people, they even have video game music in concert performed by a big orchestra,” and I thought, “What!? They are crazy!” After that I thought, “Wow, I really want to hear music by Chris Hülsbeck performed like that. That would be so amazing.” I waited and waited, it was in the 90s. I think they were talking about the Orchestral Game Concerts in this article. They said it happens every year. I thought that’s fantastic and I hoped it will happen one day, so I can attend. But then nothing happened. It was very sad for me actually. But still nothing happened in the western world…
Symphonic Game Music Concerts in Leipzig 2003-2004
…And then in 2002 I recorded this Merregnon project in Prague.
Nikolas: The second album, yeah?
Thomas: Yeah, the second album. That is when I met Andy Brick for example and also Petr Pycha, the orchestra manager. I was very young, 25 years old, and I didn’t really know what’s going to happen. I thought, “Okay, I’m now experienced because I recorded a soundtrack with a live orchestra. I have all the experience, I can do this concert.” I was young and very enthusiastic about it. Then I approached the Games Convention [in Leipzig, Germany] with this idea and we had some meetings. Obviously I was convincing enough and they said, “Okay, we can do it as our opening ceremony.” Then they said, “Okay, maybe there will be like 100 people coming, so it will be okay”.
Nikolas: So how many came?
Thomas: It was sold out. I think they had 2000 seats. Of course with these concerts they always had a lot of VIP guests. I don’t know how many tickets were really sold to the public, but I would say at least half of them. More than half of them. But we also had all these producers attending. Hideo Kojima-san [formerly Konami’s vice president] was at the concert and Yuji Naka-san, the creator of Sonic. The president of Nintendo Europe and all the big game creators were there as well. Of course they were invited by the Games Convention management just to attend. This is why it was always a very big thing. They also had politicians and managers there and it was really top class, or let’s say high level people. They were all there. So this is why we had to be quite classy. We had to have a high standard, as much as we could.
That’s how it basically started. A quite funny idea at first and then I started to work on it and realized it was actually quite challenging and demanding to do a video game music concert. But it was learning by doing. The first one was successful enough that we could do another four afterwards.
Nikolas: I read that you attended Tour de Japon: Music from Final Fantasy?
Thomas: Yes, yes.
Nikolas: That was in 2004, I think.
Thomas: Yeeees, yes.
Nikolas: So the first video game music concert you actually attended was the one you organized in 2003.
Thomas: Yes, right, right, yes.
Nikolas: That’s a really good achievement. [What an understatement!]
Thomas: Yeah, I think if you look at the concert program, you can see that I improved it [after the first concert]. I knew much better what fans want. When I did the first concert I had no idea, I mean, I could think of what I like. I’m still doing this actually. I’m always doing what I like. But there was no experience at all in the western world of what could work in such a concert. So we went with music that was already recorded by a live orchestra. We wanted to honor the publishers, who invested money to record music with a live orchestra. This is why we had like Harry Potter by Jeremy Soule and Shenmue. It was more difficult than we thought. When we asked if we can get the score for Shenmue, they said, “Yeah sorry, we lost it.” Se we had to get the mp3s and something like a hundred notes, and then we had to re-arrange and re-orchestrate everything. It was fun, but it was not so difficult to be honest. It just takes more time. We also arranged some music exclusively for this concert, like Apidya [1992, Amiga] from Chris Hülsbeck.
Nikolas: I think you had a piece from Merregnon 2?
Thomas: Yes, yes. The first time we presented the music was in this concert. We also had The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker orchestrated for this. I think the game was pretty new at that time. So that was the first concert [in 2003].
The second one [in 2004] already had a lot of things, which game music concerts today play all the time. Like Metal Gear Solid and Super Mario Brothers, the classic titles regular fans are happy to hear. This was actually the first time it was a little bit more commercial in a way. That’s why I guess it was so very, very successful. Suddenly all the media got interested. It started already with the first concert, but the second one had quite a lot of reviews everywhere. It was very surprising for me to see, because you know, I’m collecting all these things. I’m working on a website, which has all the reviews and all this stuff since 2003 until today. So we have this kind of archive where we can check what happened in the past – why and how – and just keep improving. Learn from mistakes and so on. At the first concert BBC did a radio interview with us. The next year IGN and GameSpot and all these other bigger media outlets [laughs] were coming and checking out what we were doing.
By the way, because I attended the Tour de Japon, I saw the opera [from Final Fantasy VI] and liked it so much, that we did it in Leipzig in 2004 as well. It was the inspiration coming. [laughs]
Japanese concerts and VGM compared to the West
Nikolas: Do you think the atmosphere is different in Japanese concerts?
Nikolas: Does the audiences have different reactions, or?
Thomas: Yes totally, because you know, they are Japanese so they are a little bit more shy or quiet. You attended many concerts in the western world. I don’t know, maybe you’ve also…
Nikolas: I’ve been to one in Japan, yeah.
Thomas: Ah, which one?
Nikolas: Well, it was by a fan orchestra in 2009.
Thomas: Ah, the Littlejack Orchestra?
Nikolas: Yeah, they did the Final Fantasy VI concert.
Thomas: Oh great! I heard it was very good.
Nikolas: It was.
Nikolas: Do they have standing ovations? Or have you been to other concerts than Tour de Japon?
Thomas: I have been to Press Start twice, I think. And of course Distant Worlds: Returning Home. There were two concerts in Tokyo and 10,000 people. Yes it’s different, I didn’t see any standing ovations, but not because they hated it. [laughs]
What I found most interesting and funny was how they clap. You have like 5000 people sitting there and they all start at the same time like this – [claps hands in a rapid and neat fashion, palm against palm, fingers against fingers] – and then they all stop, all 5000 together at the same time. I’m not making this up, it’s really like that. Very, very [laughs] strict. Arnie [Roth] always tells me that he turns to the audience – clapping, clapping – and the moment he turns back – silence. So everybody stops clapping immediately. The interesting thing was actually that they were like this all the time – [sits still like an obedient schoolboy] – but they got quite excited when Arnie announced Battle at the Big Bridge. I think that’s very famous in Japan. You could really hear a “whua!” — this wave of excitement suddenly going through the hall. It was even more tense, because if it’s quiet all the time, you don’t expect it and suddenly there was this “whoa! What’s going on?” [Laughs]
It was very interesting for me. It’s quite different, because in Stockholm the clapping is especially loud. In Germany I think it got louder every year. They’re more enthusiastic now.
Valtteri: I actually timed it and it was four minutes just people standing and clapping.
Thomas: Oh really? In Cologne, or?
Valtteri: In Stockholm. [LEGENDS concert in June 2011 with Nintendo’s music]
Nikolas: After Zelda? [The ~36-minute arrangement by Jonne Valtonen]
Valtteri: After Zelda, yeah.
Thomas: Super Mario Galaxy was the last title of the first half. This was the first time they gave us a standing ovation after the first half. I thought it was very interesting, I never had that before the ending of a concert. I mean at the end of a concert obviously yes, but not before that.
Nikolas: Yeah I remember, I stood up and clapped and it took a minute for everyone else to stand up.
Thomas: [Laughs] Well, thank you.
Nikolas: At least someone has to…
Thomas: Yeah, maybe you can stand up after every title, if they’re good. [Laughs]
Nikolas: Mmhm, of course. But I like Roger Wanamo [who arranged Super Mario Galaxy]. He’s really good and I’m really impressed with him.
Thomas: Yeah, we have three arrangers this time and all are from Tampere [Finland]. Jonne and Roger obviously, and then there’s one new. His name is Jani Laaksonen. He did Last Story and it’s really, really, really beautiful. It seems that somehow the Tampere guys are quite nice in arranging game music.
Nikolas: Do you think there’s a difference between Japanese and western video game music? Compositionally or in any other way?
Thomas: Yes, I think so.
Nikolas: Anything specific?
Thomas: It’s a little bit hard to make a general statement, because people like Chris Hülsbeck always say in their interviews that they were inspired by Japanese game composers. So of course you have that influence in his music. I think his game music is actually quite Japanese in some ways. Japanese game music is still very focused on melodies. The most important thing seems to be that the melody is easily recognizable. Western game music composers today are more like movie music [composers]. They are doing soundscapes. Of course there are also melodies, but they spend quite a lot of time to create the atmosphere.
I once read an article – I think it was from James Horner – which talked about today’s movie music. He said that the producers today ask them not to use any melodic stuff too much, like they did in the old times. John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith for example, where you really had this one theme that sticks in your head all the time. A lot of producers in Hollywood consider this to be old-fashioned, so they don’t like it. That’s why today’s movie music scores are more of this sound design. There are exceptions of course. I think John Williams doesn’t care too much about what the producers say.
Valtteri: I think he can do anything he wants.
Thomas: Yes, it’s always quite melodic [laughs]. So I think that since the game industry wants to get inspiration from the movie industry, there’s this kind of tendency to get a little bit more sound design than melodic soundtracks.
Nikolas: I was wondering if you think the sound of western game composers was different from the Japanese sound? Not the compositions, just the sound for the soundtracks.
Thomas: That’s actually an interesting point. Maybe it also depends on the system. You know at this time with the 16-bit or 8-bit you had to make it very melodic. It didn’t work in another way. This is why the music maybe was not so different at this time, I don’t know. I think if you listen to Donkey Kong Country, it could’ve also been a Japanese composer in a way. At least it’s also focused on melodies that you can recognize.
I think the big change came, when you could use more sampler stuff. The 16-bit also had samplers, but I mean the big step, when you suddenly had like CD music streaming and all these kinds of things. Then you basically could do whatever you wanted. You didn’t have a certain amount of channels, which were limiting you, or a certain amount of memory. They suddenly had more opportunities to do whatever they wanted. I think you can even hear it: more sound effects in the music. This always makes it difficult for people like Jonne to orchestrate. If it just has a big famous sound effect with a little bit of a melody in-between, how do you orchestrate it? It’s not always so easy. I think that Jonne likes to have these 8-bit or 16-bit melodies. You just have the melody and then you can arrange something around it. It’s something you can really work on.
Working with music arrangers
Nikolas: Do you feel that Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo have different styles of arranging?
Thomas: Yeah, totally different styles. They always talk about who is better [laughs]. But I just tell them, “No, it doesn’t make sense [to compare].” They are both very good, but their styles are totally different. It’s very easy to actually hear that.
Roger’s music is very logical, very structured. He has a very good sense for where to put all the transitions. Every time you feel like, “Okay, now it could get a little bit boring…” he’s doing something new, which keeps the interest all the time. And then this layering thing, this is what he does very well.
With Jonne it’s just crazy. Every time you think, “Okay, now he did all the crazy things,” he arranges something new and another crazy thing happens. Jonne always keeps me surprised. Also for this concert today… pfff! He just did insanely fantastic arrangements. I think they belong to the best he ever did. The same is true for Roger. He did the Piano Concerto with Final Fantasy music. It’s not just the name Final Fantasy Piano Concerto. It’s a real piano concerto, where he really took all the orchestration things into account, how it’s really done. There’s no amplification for the piano. It’s really orchestrated in a way that works with natural acoustics. And it’s not easy to do so that the piano is not drowned out by the full orchestra. If it is, then it’s intentional, just to let you know. [Laughs]
The good thing is this competition between Roger and Jonne. It’s not a real competition, but they always want to be better and better, so I think this also makes the arrangements better and better. It’s very good that they’re friends and so good at what they’re doing.
Nikolas: They’re raising the bar all the time, yeah.
Thomas: Yes, all the time. Of course the conductors are complaining because it’s getting harder and harder [laughs]. But well, it’s part of the job.
Valtteri: I think Arnie [Roth] likes the challenge.
Thomas: Yes, of course. It’s good to have a conductor who cares about it. That’s the case with Arnie.
Nikolas: What do you think is the difference when you choose a concert like Symphonic Fantasies or Symphonic Shades – where you mainly had Jonne Valtonen – compared to Symphonic Legends that had a lot of arrangers?
Thomas: Jonne arranged The Legend of Zelda [for Symphonic Legends]. It was about 36 minutes long and this quite sophisticated complex thing. So I wanted him to really concentrate on it. I didn’t want to tell him, “Do these 40 minutes and then I need you for the other stuff.” It’s art, so he has to keep relaxed and focused on this one thing. It’s so complex, like a symphonic poem. This is why I decided to ask some other arrangers as well to help with the concert. Roger’s of course always a part of our concerts anyway. I knew Shiro Hamaguchi and Hayato Matsuo. I hadn’t worked with him before, but I knew his arrangements. He did Shenmue for example, the orchestral album. And Masashi Hamauzu, I worked with him on his CD Vielen Dank, so I know him. When I saw that he’s now a freelancer I thought, “Oh okay, great. Let’s have him working for me.” This also worked out beautifully. This Donkey Kong Country is a really amazing arrangement by him. I was so happy that for Stockholm I wanted more arrangements from him, so he did two more, as you know.
Nikolas: He did Pikmin and…
Thomas: …Kirby, yes.
Valtteri: Oh yeah, Kirby.
Nikolas: Oooh yeah, yeah yeah. Oh yeah.
Thomas: They work very well in a concert program, because Hamauzu, Jonne and Roger have all very distinctively different styles in my opinion. So if you put them in a concert program [like LEGENDS, which was arranged only by them three], it’s very entertaining and you are not getting sick of a certain style. Even as great as a style might be, I guess you also want to hear something different from time to time. Hamauzu is very quiet, it’s limited, reduced. He’s working with solo parts quite a lot and it’s very intelligent. I like his style a lot.
Nikolas: Was it you that contacted Hamauzu?
Thomas: Yes, of course. I always have to contact all these people to get their arrangements.
Nikolas: Have you had any arrangers who contacted you and said, “Hey, I wanna help”?
Thomas: No, actually not. Maybe they know that I would say no [laughs]. I guess they know that I have this relationship with Jonne and Roger, so they might feel shy to contact. Or it might be also that Japanese think it’s not their style to contact others. But I think Hamauzu was really, really happy about this job. He was totally in love with it, because I told him, “Here’s the music, do what you want.” I realized that in his past he was perhaps limited sometimes by producers who wanted something specific from him, and he was not feeling like he did what he could have done. With this project I of course gave him some ideas and instructions. I said, “Maybe you can do this,” but I never force anything. I just said, “Please do what you want and here’s my idea. You can follow or not follow it.” For example in Aquatic Ambiance I said, “Perhaps, if you can do it, just put Donkey Kong Country Main Theme somewhere. Hide it somewhere.” And he did. You can try to find it, it’s not so easy [laughs]. But it’s there. I think until today nobody has found it [laughs]. Except for Jonne, he found it immediately [all laugh]. It was funny because even Benyamin [Nuss, the pianist of the arrangement] had to first think about it [laughs].
Valtteri: When you assign some music to arrangers, do you tell them they should be this long, or this long? Are you dividing it into certain sections of certain length?
Thomas: Yes. The goal is always something like four to five minutes. That’s the basic. But if it gets to six minutes, I don’t tell them, “Oh no, now you have to cut it.” But it’s mostly better to have more than four minutes. Especially if you want to use more than one theme. Then you need a minimum of four minutes, so you can feature both themes two minutes. And you need transitions and stuff and it suddenly gets five or six minutes long. Otherwise it’s not convincing. There are exceptions, but mostly I tell them just to go in the direction of four to five minutes. In the case of Jonne, I said it should be something like 36-40 minutes, but that’s another case. It usually doesn’t happen.
Nikolas: So is it you alone who decide the length of the songs? In Symphonic Fantasies the suites were 15 minutes or longer.
Thomas: Yeah, that was my idea to have these longer pieces. It was of course inspired by classical concerts, where you also don’t have 4-minute pieces. It’s always something like 15-16 minutes. I only had the idea, but Jonne and Roger had to do it somehow [laughs]. I think it worked quite well with Symphonic Fantasies. It was something very new at this time. I think it was quite cool, yes.
In terms of track selection, we’re always discussing it. Mostly I’m looking at melodies I like and what fans like. I send everything to Jonne and say ,”This is okay, that might be very important to have, and this and this and this.” But he decides by himself what he is going to use, because the most important thing is that it makes sense. The music has to make sense. We don’t want to put in some melody just because it’s the biggest fan favorite. This doesn’t make sense to us. It has to work with an orchestra as well as possible. That’s the main reason. Also Roger is always buying new consoles and playing the games to get the feeling. We watch YouTube videos and check interviews to get and idea of what composers were thinking when they composed the music, just to get an idea. You know, every composer has a certain style and has a certain inspiration. We are taking all this into account and hope we can get it right. And then we put it together.
Nikolas: So you’re trying to get the same feeling from the arrangements as the composers intended?
Thomas: Yes, like an extended version basically. If you have, let’s say Super Metroid, you can see that it’s a dark game and quite different to other Nintendo games. There’s a certain atmosphere and these kinds of things we mix into the arrangement. We don’t have any streams [of video footage projected on a big screen during the concerts]. Everything has to get created in your mind. This is why we also put in textures and soundscapes behind it, so that it helps a bit to get the idea of what the game is about. Even when you don’t know the game yourself. This has always been a goal, because of course we have game music fans attending, but also people who usually don’t listen to game music. We’re getting even more girls in the concerts. In the beginning it was like 99% boys [laughs]. Now we are like 70%? 60%? Especially with Final Fantasy. It’s really different from a Chris Hülsbeck concert, where I think there were only a few women? I don’t know. With Final Fantasy we have a very balanced audience. They are always 16-35 [years old]. People are also of course getting older, so the audiences also get a bit older from year to year. It’s obvious to see.
Nikolas: Are you afraid that video game music from older games gets lost as we who listen to it get older?
Thomas: One of the great things about the arrangements from Jonne and Roger is that they are musically so interesting. Of course the nostalgia effect is very important. No doubt about it, because you played it when you were young or just recently. And then you sit there, the orchestra is playing it and your brain connects it with the time you played it. Maybe you were 10 years old and happy to have this new console and somehow it connects to all the emotions. Suddenly you hear this music by an orchestra and it’s like “whuo!”.
But Jonne and Roger also put in their own ideas and interpretations. Like translating a poem from one language to another. It’s very interesting also for people who don’t know the game. Even if you get older, you can still listen to these orchestra arrangements, because they have depth. They have a deeper meaning. I can still listen to Symphonic Fantasies today and have the same fun I had two years ago. Even now I find things I didn’t find before. There are so many details and jokes inside. There is always something new you can discover.
This is why I think that some orchestras might one day say, “Yes, we want to take these arrangements into our record or concert program”. That’s actually my mission, my main goal. To not only have these big events once a year. I mean they’re fantastic, but I would like to see one or two pieces of game music added into regular concert programs. In a concert with Tchaikovsky it would make sense to have something from Uematsu next to it. It wouldn’t sound like a big stylistic break. Of course they’re different, but someone who never has heard about Uematsu could still enjoy it. So that’s what I’m hoping for the future, actually.
Symphonic Game Music Concerts 2008–2012
Nikolas: I wanted to ask about the themes of the concerts. For Symphonic Shades, you knew or had talked with Chris Hülsbeck a long while before the concert, that you wanted to make it happen?
Thomas: Yes, it was right after the 5th Symphonic Concert in Leipzig. I had invited Chris and Mr. Fechner, the manager of the WDR orchestra, to the concert. I told Fechner about the idea for a Chris Hülsbeck concert. He thought it was great and wanted to do it. I had met with Mr. Fechner before as well, but it made sense to mention the idea now, because Hülsbeck was there and it was a good chance to talk directly between the three of us. So right after that 5th concert in Leipzig we decided on doing the Hülsbeck concert.
Since I was a big fan of Hülsbeck, it was not so difficult to come up with the concert program. I suggested it to Chris and he had nothing to add, except for Tunnel B1 [1996 DOS, 1996 PlayStation, 1997 Sega Saturn]. We added it and started working on it. Jonne and I, we worked together on it. Chris always heard the Sibelius playback files [made by Jonne], but honestly he didn’t have too much to add.
Nikolas: Did you have a song called Licht am Ende des Tunnels?
Thomas: Yes, yes.
Nikolas: Isn’t that from a short movie?
Thomas: Yeah, yeah. I also directed a movie once [laughs] when I was young. This was the first time I worked with Chris Hülsbeck. I directed and produced this short movie. Then I thought, “Oh, I know this composer, which I really like! I should ask him, if he wants to do the soundtrack for free!” And he agreed [laughs].
Nikolas: How long ago was this?
Thomas: It was in 1999. I was still a student at that time. Chris said yes, he will do the soundtrack. He invited me to San Francisco, so I went there for ten days and stayed at his house. He composed the music for this soundtrack at the same time [laughs].
Nikolas: So about the other Symphonic Game Music Concerts. Did you have the theme in mind for them beforehand? Or did you discuss the themes with other people?
Thomas: I met with Mr. Fechner, the ex-manager of the WDR Radio Orchestra. We met in 2007 and talked about wanting to do four concerts. He asked me to send him my proposals of what I want to do. At this time I already…
Nikolas: …knew all the four [themes]?
Thomas: Yes. Of course we both knew that it also depends on the success. If Symphonic Shades would have failed, I guess [laughs] we would not have continued doing these concerts. So we moved forward with this as soon as it started to be a success. But I told him that there might be some publishers who are a little bit difficult to work with, because of their policies. This is why we needed some more time to do a Nintendo concert for example, because I knew that we would need to have something to show to Nintendo of what we did in the past. Especially with a Japanese company they need the trust, because they’re very strict about everything. Big trademarks, big titles. So of course they wanted to protect it as much as they can. They didn’t allow any live video streams or radio broadcasts in their history before. But if you work with the WDR, it’s a requirement to be allowed to broadcast it. Not live, but at least at some point. It’s one of the requirements, that’s why they exist. Because it’s the WDR Radio Orchestra, so it doesn’t make sense if it’s not on the radio. Nintendo was very supportive and helpful, but it was not easy to get all these kinds of things done. I sent Symphonic Shades to Mr. Koji Kondo, whom I’ve known for five years. He liked it a lot. I think. He helped in the background quite a lot to push this forward and get all the permission to do it.
Nikolas: I read he also liked the Zelda arrangement?
Thomas: Oh yes, very much. You know, you hardly get so much feedback from Japanese. If they like it or love it, they don’t really tell you all the time. It’s like if they don’t say anything, it’s good. But in this case he really asked the Nintendo staff to call me and tell me how much he liked it. It made us very happy, Jonne especially. If you work six months, eight to ten hours per day, it’s nice to know that the composer doesn’t hate what you’ve done [laughs].
Nikolas: Did you know in which order the concerts would be, when you knew the four themes?
Thomas: Yes. I wanted to have two tribute concerts for one person and two tribute concert for a company. Now that we’re closing this Symphonic Series for some time, it makes sense to just have first and last a tribute concert to a composer. In the middle the sandwich is two big companies. That was the idea. But there are other ideas, which I could still do. But we want to be careful about it. Every single concert now made new records, like selling out quicker and now two concerts [day and evening performance of Symphonic Odysseys] sold out. You really have to ask yourself what is next? What can possibly top a Nobuo Uematsu concert with two sold-out concerts?
Next year there will be Symphonic Fantasies again [July 2012], just to calm everything down a little bit. After this there might be some smaller event with game music [Soundtrack Cologne – East Meets West on November 16th 2012]. Then let’s see what is going to happen next. We just want to breath a little bit more, so we don’t overdo it. We don’t want to make a short thing, that happens for some years and then it’s over. We really want it to basically last forever [laughs]. For as long as possible. This is why we want to be careful.
Nikolas: Yeah, next year is your 10th year.
Nikolas: So have you thought about taking a break?
Thomas: Yes. But I want to do something special with… but I’m not really sure yet. I just realized that next year is the 25th anniversary of Final Fantasy. I have to think about it. But I also don’t want it to get boring, that it’s always the same. But on the other hand, Final Fantasy has so much great music. It’s always this question about being artistically nice and also financially and commercially nice. Of course you want to have the highest quality in terms of arrangements. But you also have to see that tickets are selling. For the WDR it doesn’t matter too much, because the ticket sales don’t cover the costs at all. They are supported by German tax, so they can do unique projects. But still, if we would now do a concert and sell 1000 tickets – which is actually quite good – compared to Symphonic Odysseys it would look like, “Oh okay, people are not interested anymore, or what’s happening?” you know. So this is why we have to be careful about it.
I have many other ideas. A concert with music from Yuzo Koshiro or Masashi Hamauzu would be great. But you really have to think about how successful it can really, honestly be. There are a lot of big people deciding about a lot of money and if they don’t see the success, they they might think, “Okay, this [game music] movement is over, let’s do something new, because people are not interested anymore.” This is why I want to calm it down a little bit, so the expectations don’t get too high. I get a lot of emails from orchestras, who are interested in performing game music. I have to tell them it’s not so easy, you need a lot of permissions. Just because you put Super Mario Brothers in your program doesn’t mean it’s selling out in 12 hours. There’s a lot of other things connected with promotion. This is what I want to be very careful about. If one of the orchestras do this and expect to sell out quickly, but it doesn’t happen because they just don’t know how to target the group of fans, they might think, “Oh okay, game music is not so great as we thought.” And then they will never consider doing it again. This is what I want to avoid.
It’s not that easy to sell out two concerts, you need to do a lot of work. We are just in a good position, because we have been doing this for nine years now. We have a certain fan base, who we know will most likely attend. But it doesn’t mean that these people will also attend all the other concerts. I mean the WDR are special, it makes sense to go there.
We now have fans from Japan coming to attend this concert just because they are so interested. There is one guy from Brazil coming to attend. And obviously Europe, like France, Norway, Finland and Poland.
Valtteri: And you have certainly built quite a large reputation with video game music stuff.
Thomas: Yeah, thanks to Jonne and Roger perhaps. Roger came in a little bit later, so this is why I can say it without offending him [laughs], but I think that Jonne is really one of the most important reasons why we are where we are now, in terms of quality. The moment he came in for Symphonic Shades, it was like “whoosh!”, quality went up to an insanely high level. The concerts in Leipzig were good, no question about it. I’m proud of them and without them we would not have done this year as well. But comparing Symphonic Shades to what he’s doing now, it’s a huge leap. It’s a step from insanely great to even more insanely great [laughs]. So that’s what I mean when I say that he always keeps surprising me. Every time I think he might have reached the level where he just stays and which would be okay, because it’s great. But then he does something else, which is even better. So it’s a bit shocking in a way [laughs] to see what he’s doing for these concerts.
Nikolas: I think I read in one of your older interviews that after Symphonic Shades you said it was your best production?
Nikolas: And after Legends you said the same thing!
Thomas: Yes. [laughs]
Nikolas: Do you think you’re saying the same thing for Symphonic Odysseys?
Thomas: It could happen, yes. Now it depends on the orchestra and the conductor. I can’t do anything anymore. But in terms of arrangements, yes I’m really happy with it. At least I think it will be the best of the four concerts with the WDR. The Stockholm concert [LEGENDS] was also on a very, very high level, also thanks to the orchestra. I think they might be both on the same level in the end, if everything works out nicely today. You will see and hear it today, I mean it’s really fantastic music. Everybody has outdone themselves. Roger did another big step with his music, it’s very wonderful.
Nikolas: What about next year’s Symphonic Fantasies? Will it be exactly the same?
Thomas: Yes, exactly the same. But I’m not sure yet about my involvement at all. It might be simply a repeat of what has been done. I don’t know if any composers will attend or anything. The WDR has to decide this. As soon as they know more, they will publish it. [In the end, Yoko Shimomura and Yasunori Mitsuda attended the concert and Thomas Böcker acted as the consultant of the concert.]
Nikolas: Have you thought about having tours of video game music concerts?
Thomas: I did this with Play! [A Video Game Symphony] for one year.
Nikolas: What about your other concerts? Have you thought about it?
Thomas: Yes, I have thought about it. For me it’s also always a question about quality. Of course I want a certain performance quality. If I would find a good orchestra willing to travel, then yeah, I might consider it. But it’s not my dream or anything. I like to have one or two big concerts per year, where I can work all the time. It’s actually quite nice for me. And it was quite challenging this year with LEGENDS and now Symphonic Odysseys. There’s a lot of work, because in Stockholm we did quite a lot of new music. We had to work quite hard to get both done with this level of quality we wanted to achieve.
Nobuo Uematsu, Dancing Mad, and Leipzig arrangements used in other concerts
Nikolas: I want to ask a little bit about Nobuo Uematsu. When was the first time you were in contact with him? Was it quite a while ago?
Thomas: Yep, 2003.
Nikolas: And I think he was inspired a little bit to do Press Start?
Thomas: Yes, he said that in an interview. It was after the second concert in Leipzig [in 2004]. He thought, “Okay, why are we not doing something like that in Japan?” Of course they have concerts, but not with music from different games. It’s mainly focused on one series. Dragon Quest has like millions of concerts every year of course. But others were just Final Fantasy and he wanted something where there are many games. I think it’s still different, because with one or two exceptions they are concentrating on Japanese game music in Japan, while in Leipzig we always tried to have as much music from different countries. I think they once had something from Jeremy Soule, it was Oblivion or something. Besides that there might have been one other title, but mainly they are really concentrating on Japanese game music.
Nikolas: Didn’t Uematsu ask if you could do Dancing Mad for the second Leipzig concert?
Thomas: No, actually I asked him.
Nikolas: I thought he said in an interview that he would like to hear it orchestrated.
Thomas: Oh yeah, that’s possible. It’s possible that he said he would like to hear this and then I thought like yeah okay, I will do it. This kind of thing, yes.
Nikolas: I think you said that the arrangement has been used or refined for other concerts?
Thomas: Yeah, it has been performed in Play.
Nikolas: In Stockholm for example?
Thomas: Yeah, but that was the extended version. But they also did the shorter version in the Sydney Opera House. And today they perform it in Distant Worlds, I mean it’s the same thing.
Basically, let’s say that 70 percent [of the arrangements] are the same as in Leipzig. It’s still going on and the same happened with Play! A Video Game Symphony. Finally after five years, they are now starting to replace the arrangements [with new ones] from a new arranger. But before that they had quite a lot of Leipzig arrangements.
Nikolas: Oh really?
Thomas: Yeah, like Chrono Trigger / Chrono Cross, Silent Hill, and World of Warcraft are basically from Leipzig. A lot of the arrangers that worked with me, worked for the Play concert. Like Adam Klemens, who did Dancing Mad. And Jonne, he did Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda for Play. So I would say that most of the music at the beginning of the Play tour was from my team, or just simply from the concerts in Leipzig. That’s why I think Leipzig was quite important for the whole game music movement. Even though there might not have been a big impact, it came out thanks to Play! A Video Game Music Symphony and later Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy.
Also Clash on the Big Bridge, which is now in Distant Worlds. You can hear it was inspired by what Jonne did for Symphonic Fanasies.
Nikolas: I think Jonne said in an interview that it’s a difficult piece to orchestrate.
Thomas: Yes, it is. Obviously he had to do it, so that other people could think, “Oh okay, it’s possible to do it so let’s get inspired”.
Nikolas: Was it you who suggested having Machinae Supremacy in Play in Stockholm?
Thomas: I did yes, but I was not there. So it was really just an idea. It seemed to make sense to be supported by a band. And it made sense to ask them, because they are known for their game music things, like Gianna Sisters for example. But I heard that it was quite difficult for the balance. [Machinae Supremacy basically drowned out the entire orchestra.]
Thomas: But as I said, I was not there [laughs]. I don’t know if I could have changed anything. Originally it was not my idea that they would play that loud [laughs]. Maybe next time it could be balanced a little bit better perhaps, if they do it again.
Nikolas: Are you a fan of video game music rock bands? Like The Black Mages and Earthbound Papas or…
Thomas: I like them, but I’m more into orchestral music to be honest. That’s what I like. But I don’t want to be negative about it. From time to time I can listen to it. I think it’s well done, it’s nice. But it’s not my favorite thing to listen to. I’m more into classic music, movie music and game music. Electronic music, these kinds of things. But rock is not so my thing.
Nikolas: I think I’ve asked a lot of questions. Do you have anything specific you would like to mention?
Thomas: Honestly I think I said everything. Maybe too much…
Nikolas: Have you thought about any other sort of career, other than a producer for video game music concerts?
Thomas: Well, I’m also the manager or agent for Jonne. We want to push his career as a composer a little bit more. So that’s something I want do do, yes. It could be game music, it could be movies. I want to help him get some composition projects. I think he’s actually a fantastic composer as well and I think he wishes to show the world what he can do. Maybe that’s my goal for the next few years [laughs].
Nikolas: I think he deserves it.
Thomas: I agree, he’s great.
Valtteri: And that’s an understatement.
Thomas: Yeah [laughs], I know. But I’m his agent, so I have to be careful.
Valtteri: Hahahaha, yeah.
Thomas: He always says to me, “Ah! Quiet!”
Thomas: I’m one of those people who can really promote something, if I have to. But I really must honestly and truly relate to it. I can’t promote something which I’m not convinced about. That’s really the case. And in terms of Jonne, he’s fantastic. This is how I feel and why I’m very honored that he asked me to help him with his stuff. It’s great when you have somebody who you like so much as a person and as an arranger, and then you can help him push his career. What more can you ask for?
Nikolas: It was really, really interesting. Thank you very much.
Thomas: Thank you for the interesting questions. It’s not a given [laughs].
Nikolas: We try to do our best.
Thomas: Thank you very much.