A misinformed man once thought that an orchestra he saw, was a professional one from abroad that specializes in video game music.
He was wrong, but he didn’t know that.
Instead, he thought Japan should have one too.
So he went and created Japan BGM Philharmonic, the first professional video game music orchestra in Japan, if not the world!
His name is Yusuke Ichihara, and in this long interview he goes into great lengths about creating an orchestra, creating concerts, and everything that happens before, during, and after.
This is one of my favorite interviews I’ve done. If you have even the slightest interest in game music concerts or creating orchestras, you should definitely read on.
Below is an overview of the entire interview, so feel free to skip and jump ahead!
- Who is Yusuke Ichihara?
- The long story of Japan BGM Philharmonic
- Delving into JBP concerts in incredible detail
- Rehearsals, concert venues, and dark stories of expectations
- Why some VGM is performed more than others
- Fan requests and feedback
- The big picture of organizing, arranging, and licensing concerts
- A final message to VGM fans abroad
(I interviewed Yusuke Ichihara on Nov 19, 2014 via email. Interview originally in Japanese by me, English translation by me as well.)
Who is Yusuke Ichihara?
Could you introduce yourself to the readers?
My name is Yusuke Ichihara. I call myself a conductor, and I get paid to conduct and lead orchestras. However, I haven’t studied in a music university and graduated from one, but have rather made it this far mostly by self-study. I did have one teacher, the conductor Katsumi Kanamaru, who taught me important things and I’m truly grateful to him.
After five years of working as a conductor, I applied for the position of assistant conductor of the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra. I passed the screening and as one of candidates had the chance to actually conduct and rehearse with the orchestra. That experience, among others, relates to the Japan BGM Philharmonic Orchestra and it’s current form, the New Japan BGM Philharmonic Orchestra, which I’m going to talk about later.
[Before diving into the Japan BGM Philharmonic Orchestra, a few more personal questions:]
What is your earliest memory of enjoying game music?
The one I remember the best is Ice Climbers for the NES. I think it was in my hometown Nara. I remember toy store in the shopping district, that had a CRT TV in the storefront and I watched images of the NES on it. I’m not sure if this is a true memory.
During that same period of time, I remember playing Galaxian and Astro Command on Cassette Vision Jr.
A bit later I had my mother help me beat Labyrinth on the NES. It didn’t have a save function and it was very difficult for me back then, so I remember my mother, who doesn’t play games, keeping company to me for a long time.
When did you first learn that game music concerts exist?
In 2002, when Nintendo held the Super Smash Bros. DX Orchestra Concert. I was aware that it was an event by Nintendo, so the first one besides that was VIDEO GAMES LIVE in JAPAN in 2009. There had been PRESS START before that, but I didn’t know about it at the time.
What was the first game music concert you went to?
The Super Smash Bros. concert by Nintendo in 2002. I don’t remember how I got ahold of a ticket.
It was conducted by Taizo Takemoto and performed by the New Japan Philharmonic. During the encore, Rainbow Cruise from Super Mario 64, the audience started clapping their hands to the beat and it was a lot of fun. I think that experience is still with me today.
Which game music concert was your favorite?
I guess the first concert by JBP, haha.
How often do you attend game music concert by others?
I don’t really have free time on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, because of my conducting activities. So I’m lucky to go once or twice a year. Unfortunately, I’m not really able to at the moment.
The long story of Japan BGM Philharmonic
Could you talk about creating the Japan BGM Philharmonic Orchestra?
I have these acquaintances with who I talk a lot about orchestra stuff, and in January 2012 I told them about my idea and asked whether they’d be interested in it. At that point it was just talking about a dream, but having the determination to take one step at a time towards the realization of it. I felt it’s okay to fail, because what’ll come will come and I’ll just do what I can.
The founder [of JBP] is none other than me. I started planning it alone and let it stir for many years. It goes without saying, but it became reality and I got support from a lot of people.
The number of people collaborating with me increased and I put up a teaser site in May 2012, but something unexpected happened. The founding of this orchestra was published on Yahoo! JAPAN’s Top News. I didn’t make any requests or anything, it was just good luck. The reaction was huge; the teaser site got 10,000 page views in one day. I was thinking that if I can appeal to people’s hearts this much, everything will surely go well. But at the same time I made my biggest mistake.
The mistake was that I had no Twitter, Facebook or any other way for people to stay connected. I didn’t expect Yahoo! JAPAN to publish an article about it, so you could say that it couldn’t be helped, but when I put up the official site later, the number of people that noticed it was astonishingly small and some people even thought it was a different orchestra. That was very unfortunate.
I took open suggestions for the orchestra’s name via the teaser site. The winner would be named “honorary supporter” and would get free tickets to JBP’s performances for many years. Over 1,500 suggestions were made, which was way over my expectations and I made a cry of joy.
Before and after putting up the teaser site, I searched for a representative director of the board. As the founder I could have taken that position as well, but on top of creating music as a conductor I don’t think it was a good idea, so I became just one of the directors of the board, and let someone else be the representative director.
I’m part of an entertainment office as special talent (just on a list of names, haven’t really gotten any jobs from there). Through that connection I was introduced to the game creator Masanobu Endo, who made Xevious and The Tower of Druaga. I went to his offices to meet him.
I was extremely nervous when I met Endo. I talked about my idea and my dreams, and asked him to be the representative director. “Let’s do it”, he said. “But it won’t get off the ground straight away and won’t be profitable in the beginning, so let’s hope we can gather many fools (meaning it in a good way), who don’t care about money.” I remember his words being reassuring.
However, he gave me one condition. I would have to find one more representitive director from the world of game music business, who had a good track record in the music field.
That put me in jam, because I didn’t have those connections. But if I wouldn’t clear this level, I wouldn’t be able to found the orchestra. Through my connections via the entertainment office I mentioned above, the name Hirokazu Tanaka came up, but that didn’t happen.
Just when I was at a loss for what to do, I remembered a composer and arranger acquaintance, who was a supporter of Yuzo Koshiro and friends with him, so I contacted this acquaintance.
I told him [or her] the details, he [or her] introduced me to Koshiro, who said he’ll hear me out and I was able to get the chance to meet him.
There’s a small prequel to this story. Going back a few months in time, I wasn’t acquainted with Koshiro in any way, but we were following each other on Twitter. I heard Koshiro only looks at his timeline when he’s tweeting himself, but he happened to see my tweet about the horns in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. I received a reply from him and we had a conversation. This was when I was reading the score to prepare to audition for the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra. That conversation ended after two messages, but when I put up the teaser site, he remembered me and sent me a Direct Message of encouragement.
So that had happened and when I asked him to be the representative director, he was very surprised. I also thought there were surprising coincidences.
The first time I met Koshiro was at a café near his workplace. We drank coffee and talked for two hours, but he didn’t make a decision then and there. He said he’d think about it calmly at home.
When I returned home, I sent Koshiro an e-mail thanking him for meeting me and saying that I respect him and that it’s okay if he turns down the offer.
At that time, we had 7-8 founding members that would form the executive office. We held a meeting and decided to go with the name “Japan BGM Philharmonic Orchestra” from the list of suggestions. After that, on July 27, 2012, we were officially established as a general incorporated association. By the way, July 27th is my birthday. It’s also the day the London Olympics started, so I remember it well.
Getting a corporate status — and being a professional orchestra — smoothens the process of negotiating rights and such with various companies. In Japan, if you don’t have corporate status, there are more than a few cases when the doors get shut for you.
I started recruiting players when I opened the official site in July . It was an open recruitment, where age, gender, race, academic background, etc., was not asked about. My objective was to select people based on real skills, personality and the whether they can work together to overcome this steep path.
For some instrument parts the number of applications was a bit insufficient, but it was just enough to create an orchestra. In September  I began carrying out auditions and doing several per month, and by January 2013 the initial members were established.
The auditions consisted of a performance and an interview. The only judge who was present every day was me, but the representative directors Koshiro and Endo took part on some days.
The performance consisted of two pieces, one pre-determined classical piece and one game music piece they would choose themselves and arrange themselves. Interviews were five mintues per person, but took about ten minutes with changing to the next person, etc. I interview all of the applicants, close to 150 people. So only that took 1,500 minutes [= 25 hours], which was quite a feat, even if I say so myself.
I rented private spaces, like music rooms and conference rooms, and the judges were in blind circumstances. Of course none of us had created a pro orchestra before, so everything was a first and I struggled and shilly-shallied, but somehow made progress.
For the free choice piece, I remember that many people performed Above Ground BGM from Super Mario Bros. It was funny that many ended the piece with Mario being defeated and the Game Over Theme. It became a topic of discussion within the executive office. In rare cases, they struggled on to the goal pole, and ended it with the Clear BGM. I thought, however, that performing Mario as the free choice piece gave the impression that the player might not be that familiar with game music.
To make impartial interviews, the order of performing and being interviewed was changed, so we didn’t know who performed what. I felt it was important to guarantee fairness and eliminate preconceptions and I think it turned out very well.
I divided the successful applicants into regular members and back-up members. The regulars members would perform on a constant basis and the back-up members would fill in, if a regular member couldn’t make it.
In this way, our professional orchestra with 70 members was completed in February, 2013.
Why did you create an orchestra to perform video game music?
A game music concert called VIDEO GAMES LIVE in JAPAN was held at the Tokyo International Forum in 2009. I bought tickets and went to see it. I was shocked that this kind of concert exists, but on the other hand I felt vexed and wondered why there’s such an orchestra abroad, when Japan doesn’t have one. I didn’t know at the time that it wasn’t a speciality orchestra that came to Japan, but rather a professional Japanese classical orchestra used for for the event. It seems like my misunderstanding led to the birth of a professional game music orchestra.
Also, I’m a conductor and love orchestral and classical music. For 200-300 years, classical music has been handed down and its fascination and force is immeasurable. At the same time I love game music. I am of the generation that grew up together with games getting more advanced. Every day I listened to the music that flowed from the game consoles. The music that I’ve listened to the most in my life might be video game music.
Orchestral music and game music. If the two kinds of music that I love unite, something wonderful must come out of it. That thought is why I want to perform game music with an orchestra. Maybe you could simply say it’s my hobby. Anyway, the answer is “because I love it”.
Could you talk about the configuration of the Japan BGM Philharmonic Orchestra?
We were 70 people in total and performed as an ensemble or an orchestra, whichever fit the contents of the program. As far as formations that we have actually used, are string quartet, woodwind quintet, brass quintet and orchestra.
As we are a professional orchestra, I want the players to only stick to playing. Other roles such as public relations, office work and the role of a librarian are all done by the executive office. I don’t think we were shorthanded and we never made the players take on other office tasks.
The roles in the executive office were: head of the office, public relations and advertising, web development and accounting. But we each of us did what we could and there wasn’t a clear division between people’s roles.
As a corporation we made an outsourcing contract with the players, so in compliance to the agreement we couldn’t have even made the players take on other tasks. This is related to the break-up of JPB that would follow, and to the objectives of the currently active NJBP.
There was one sole case of asking a player to another task, which was arranging. We were lacking in arrangers so we invited contributions from players who were able to do arrangements.
How did you recruit members for the orchestra?
I recruited members via the official site, Twitter and Facebook. I also did an announcement in a medium for classical music, but absolutely no one took notice. There were no news about recruiting in gaming media. Nevertheless, it spread through word-of-mouth and I was able to get satisfactory results. At any rate, professional players are looking for places to join.
I didn’t therefore go through any particular hardships looking for players. It seems like amateur orchestras are having trouble everywhere, but their circumstances are different. The current NJBP isn’t recruiting, but if we would do an open recruitment, I think we would get applications to a certain degree.
We had almost no players with experience playing in other game music orchestras. Even if there were some, they were extras or trainers in amateur groups. As there were no other pro orchestras, this was obvious.
How many orchestra concerts have you had so far?
Two orchestra concerts (but the second had a day and an evening performance, so three in total).
How did you feel when your first concert ended?
Before orchestra concerts we had six ensemble concerts, but I didn’t conduct at the time. I was a substantive representative that managed and hosted the concerts. When JBP’s debut finally came, many attendees gave a big applause at the end and I remember a flood of emotions and feeling “yeah!”
At the first orchestra concert the circumstances were a bit different. It’s been over one year, so I’ll just write it all. It was finally my turn to conduct, but it was killing me because my office work as the representative weighed more than my role as a conductor. I was working late every night and felt extreme pressure since I hadn’t studied the scores enough for the rehearsals. Thanks to that I lost 5 kg weight during the five days of rehearsals and the main show.
However, I didn’t think it would be right to reveal all that to others, since it would just be an excuse, so I galloped through the four days of rehearsals, the dress rehearsal on the concert day and the concert itself. Fortunately the audience gave a big applause and warm responses and feedback. That saved me. If the audience was pleased, we could continue with the next concert.
Therefore I didn’t feel joyful or sentimental, nor like just another task completed in the stream of a busy business, but rather simply relieved in somehow being able to finish. If pushed I’d say that as a conductor I have some regrets. I’m terribly sorry for the players.
So if possible, I would like to perform the concert program from that day once again. Also for the sake of thoroughly understanding it myself.
Delving into JBP concerts in incredible detail
Could you talk about your concert programs and why you chose them?
For the six ensemble concerts, I’ll summarize them in one list.
Ensemble Concerts I–VI:
2013, Jun 7 / String quartet / Guest: Yoko Shimomura, Tomoya Ohtani
2013, Jun 28 / String quartet / Guest: Noriyuki Iwadare
2013, Jul 5 / String quartet / Guest: Kenji Ito
2013, July 26 / Woodwind quintet / Guest: Nobuo Uematsu, Yuzo Koshiro
2013, Aug 17 / Brass quintet / Guest: Yoko Shimomura
2013, Aug 18 / String quartet / Guest: Yoko Shimomura, Yuzo Koshiro
Romancing SaGa — Opening Title
Fantasy Zone — Opa-Opa!
Sonic Unleashed — Dear My Friend
Space Harrier — Main Theme
Final Fantasy X — Zanarkand
Chrono Trigger — Yearnings of the Wind / Wind Scene
ActRaiser — Small Suite from ActRaiser
Legend of Mana — Hometown Domina
Chrono Cross — The Scars of Time
The tracks above were the basis of the the programs, but the combination was changed depending on the concert. We performed additional tracks associated with the guests:
Sonic World Adventure — Roof Top Run
The Final Fantasy Legend — Medley
Grandia — Lilly’s Seagull Restaurant
Grandia — From Beyond the Darkness
Final Fantasy I-VI — Field Music Medley
1st Regular Concert (2013, Oct 11)
1. Dragon Quest — Overture
It’s not exaggeration to say that Overture from Dragon Quest widely established the genre of video game music in Japan. There was no reason not to use it as our opening piece. And we didn’t use the opening from the famous fourth game, but from the original first game. Being the start I thought it should be the first game. There’s another reason also, which I’ll mention later.
2. Grandia — Theme of Grandia
This piece fits beautifully to the image of starting out on an adventure. You could say that it hints on JBP setting off on a journey. The composer Noriyuki Iwadare even came to the rehearsals and gave advice. We used an orchestral score and it’s a bit different from the original in-game tune.
3. Sonic Unleashed — The World Adventure
Sprucing up the concert with Sonic the Hedgehog, the mascot of the major game company SEGA, is quite natural, wouldn’t you agree? I met with SEGA several times and used a piece for which an official orchestral score existed. The composer Tomoya Ohtani came on stage as a guest and talked about the charm of this piece and the next.
4. Sonic Lost World — Wonder World – Title Theme –
When we performed Sonic Lost World, the game hadn’t yet been released. At one of the meetings, it was SEGA that suggested including this yet unreleased game. As a professional orchestra I think it’s our mission not only to bring back retro games and old pieces, and glorify the past — but also to look at the present and future, and to include music from the latest games as well. So I didn’t hesitate in the slightest, as this was a supreme idea that fell into the category of “future”. To perform music from an unreleased game in a concert that’s not an event by the game maker was unheard of, I would think.
5. Puzzle & Dragons — Medley
Nowadays not only console games, but also smart phone apps are an important part of video games. I think that performing music from the smash hit Puzzle & Dragons was of great significance. If “Wonder World” falls under “future”, then this piece corresponds to “present”. When I approached the composer Kenji Ito about performing the piece, he talked with GungHo [the developer], and I was able to get their consent.
6. Sangokushi V — Glittery Dragon March
This is all about my hobby (laugh).
When I was a student this piece got me hooked into computer music [called DTM, or desktop music, in Japanese]. There were a lot of game music MIDIs floating around the internet at the time, that were transcribed by ear. I downloaded a MIDI-file, played it on my computer and thought how great it is. It turned out be this track.
Playing it through the computer’s internal sound hardware resulted in a cheap sound, no matter what. So I investigated how to produce a good sound and found out that buying a better sound hardware would help. I got Roland’s SC-8850 sound module, despite being a poor student with no money. SC-8850 was the successor of the famous SC-88Pro, and likely the most evolved of Roland’s sound hardware, I would say.
Even now I remember the shock of hearing “Glittery Dragon March” with the SC-8850. It was as if an orchestra was present in front of me, and I listened to it over and over again. I was so impressed that such greatness could be made with a computer, that I started creating computer music myself. It was just a hobby, however.
I always thought I’d like to hear this piece live, so one of my objectives in life was reached in that moment. Though I never thought I would be listening to the piece as the conductor!
7. Faxanadu — Suite
There’s a whole background story to deciding upon this piece. The composer Jun Chikuma was an online acquaintance of mine even before creating JBP. We exchanged e-mails and I feel indebted to her.
It must have been around 2011, when Masahiro Sakurai — famous for creating Kirby’s Dream Land and Super Smash Bros. (I’d like to mention Meteos as well) — tweeted that “I would like to perform music from Faxanadu, but can’t make it happen, since I don’t know who owns the rights.” I knew that Jun Chikuma owns the copyright and replied to Masahiro Sakurai. So we started following each other on Twitter and exchanged messages.
I explained to Sakurai that Jun Chikuma holds the rights, that I’m thinking about creating a professional orchestra and that I’d like to perform Faxanadu at our first show. “When that happens, please let me come and listen to it,” he replied. This was before I had spoken about JBP to outsiders.
And Sakurai did really come. He came backstage before the show, remembered our talk and said, “It’s amazing that you made this happen.” It was one of those moments I was glad I started JBP.
I also met Chikuma for the first time backstage after the concert. Despite sending e-mails back and forth, we only spoke online, so I finally got to meet her as well.
- Loving this music
- Meeting Jun Chikuma
- The promise to Sakurai
These three things miraculously happening one after another is the pretext, you could say.
I think that some of the lesser known good pieces from Faxanadu should be routinely performed, but it seems difficult, since JBP disbanded and I don’t know who holds the rights to the sheet music. At least it’s not me. So I’d like to consider re-writing the music.
8. Final Fantasy IV — The Red Wings / Kingdom of Baron / Theme of Love / Prologue
From here the intermission ends and we go into the second half. In the first half the larger portion of the selection were tracks that only hardcore fans would know. In the second half the objective was to include standard game music pieces.
The first piece that we performed was from Dragon Quest, so it made sense here to go with Final Fantasy, the RPG series that make the two a matchless pair. I had also had a mental image of performing this music, which was another reason for selecting it.
It’s not written in the program, but we performed Prelude with harp and flute a few minutes before the intermission ended. During the music, the players come on stage and I take to the conductor’s podium. Everyone is one stage and all preparations are done. When Prelude ends, the intermission ends. We go straight into The Red Wings and while the volume gradually increases, the lights over the audience darken and the stage brightens, a production similar to the game’s opening.
Then, we play Kingdom of Baron, Theme of Love and the magnificent Prologue, which are the start of the second half.
9. Chrono Trigger — Yearnings of the Wind ~ Chrono Trigger
Again, I chose these pieces, because they’re famous and a lot of people probably know them. We had Yearnings of the Wind in our ensemble concerts and I wanted to show how the same music can change when performed with an orchestra. Chrono Trigger is musically the game’s symbol and I couldn’t leave it out, so we made a medley of these two pieces.
10. ActRaiser — Excerpt from ActRaiser Symphonic Suite 2013
This is one of those pieces that we presented to the audience as an orchestral enlargment from the ensemble concerts. The composer Yuzo Koshiro being the representative of the board, and this music being magnificently suitable for an orchestral performance, were the deciding factors.
At the time we had an amateur choir that co-performed with JBP, called “Japan BGM Philharmonic Choir”. We had them join us for this piece.
As it’s a symphonic suite, it included seven tracks from the game, but we only performed four because of time limitations. It’s possible to perform the piece again, and when NJBP becomes able to hold orchestral concerts, I would like to perform the whole symphonic suite.
Chrono Trigger and ActRaiser were enlargements from the ensemble concerts. In reality there was one more piece I advocated for, but for PR reasons it was dismissed.
It was Hometown Domina, composed by Yoko Shimomura. We performed this at all of our ensemble concerts and I feel terribly apologetic to Shimomura that we couldn’t perform it in the orchestral concert. This is one of those pieces I’d like to perform one day as well.
11. Secret of Mana — Meridian Dance
From here on the encore starts. I’d like to think that this piece was quite a surprise. I chose this because I felt we were lacking a bit in intense battle music, but this is an uptempo piece that gets your blood pumping and your body dancing.
12. Earthbound — Smiles and Tears
This is also my hobby. When someone asks me, “What’s you favorite game music?” I tell them it’s this piece. I thought about having this as the standard ending piece for every JBP concert. It sooths your excited heart, and gets you in a good mood with a melody that reverberates deep inside.
13. Dragon Quest IV — Overture March
This was the third encore piece, the real end and a surprising piece. We already performed the Dragon Quest Overture, so I don’t think anyone was expecting this again.
We opened the show with the first game’s overture, but ended it with the flashy and exciting version from DQ IV. This was my secret intention for choosing the first game for the opening.
Here we brightened the light for the audience, I turned towards them and invited them to clap to the beat. The entire hall started clapping together. When we were drawing out the last note, the audience broke into a huge applause. This was the first time I was glad we did it and it felt like all curses were lifted. It was the best of moments.
That was the concert program and my intentions for the 1st regular concert. Looking back at it — and me being in the worst condition, like I wrote above — I wasn’t satisfied with any of the pieces. Overture March and Smiles and Tears from the encore were the only pieces I feel l did a good job on.
As much as I was dissatisfied, it’s fine as long as the audience enjoyed their time and I’m really glad we did the concert. It’s not up to me to decide whether the concert was a success or not, it’s the audience. I guess it doesn’t really matter what I think.
2nd Regular Concert (2013, Mar 8)
Pokémon Red/Blue — Opening
Pokémon Battle Medley:
– Black/White — Battle! (Reshiram/Zekrom)
– Black/White — Battle! (Team Plasma)
– Diamond/Pearl — Battle! (Champion)
– Ruby/Sapphire — Battle! (Team Aqua / Team Magma)
– X/Y — Battle! (Friend)
– Gold/Silver — Battle! (Champion)
– Far Off Promise / Chrono Trigger
– Peaceful Days / Wind Scene / Corridors of Time
– Courage and Pride / Frog’s Theme / Battle with Magus
– World Revolution
Dragon Quest VI — Ocarina ~ The Saint ~ Ocarina
Dragon Quest III — Rondo
Dragon Quest IV — Comrades
Dragon Quest V — Violent Enemies ~ Almighty Boss Devil is Challenged
Final Fantasy IX — A Place to Call Home
Final Fantasy III — Memory of the Wind ~Legend of the Eternal Wind~
Final Fantasy V — Battle at the Big Bridge
Final Fantasy VI — Balance is Restored (Ending Theme)
Final Fantasy X — Zanarkand
Final Fantasy II — The Rebel Army
Final Fantasy IV — Battle With the Four Fiends
Finla Fantasy VI — Balance is Restored (Ending Theme)
Final Fantasy VII — One-Winged Angel (encore)
The tracks were chosen by a producer who came from the outside and doesn’t know about game music. It seems like he made the players name famous tracks that would attract an audience and randomly put them together. I wasn’t consulted in track selection and didn’t have any part in it. Therefore I don’t have any interest in why the intention was with the selection.
If I dare say my opinion, the program is like having only a main course from start to finish. It’s not an elegant selection in my opinion. Even if it would attract an audience, I would avoid that kind of program.
There were talks of firing me and bringing along another conductor, but after some twists and turns I was able to keep my job on the condition that I devote myself only to conducting.
I couldn’t agree with the track selection and the production plans at all, but I didn’t do any harm to the music or the audience. Delivering a superb performance is my mission and as a conductor I wanted to give it my all.
Thanks to devoting myself only to conducting, it was completely different from the first concert in October and I had a lot of time to read the scores. But the scores came late, less than one month before the concert.
Despite the fact that we had two performances and more tracks than last time, we were given less than half rehearsal time than last time. We were somehow able to put all these piece in order, but it wasn’t via my efforts, but rather the players’. I couldn’t have done it without them. I think it was thanks to their professionalism and I’m deeply grateful for it.
Something memorable happened in the evening performance during the last piece, Balance is Restored [Ending Theme from FF VI]. Somehow I forgot the score backstage. I fumbled around for it on the conductor’s podium and when I realized I had forgotten to bring it, the players and the audience were already prepared for the piece to begin. Time froze around me for a moment. This was the first time I ever forgot the score. And on a huge stage like this out of all places.
“I forgot the score…” I whisper to the concert master Asuka Kobayashi. Though it’s not like that make it fly to my hands. I try to get help from the stage manager, who is standing in the wing, but he doesn’t notice me. There’s no other option than to turn to the audience.
“Um, everyone, I apologize. I seem to have forgotten the score… let me dash backstage and fetch it! Please enjoy a quick chat in the mean time!”
I ran backstage and really dashed, and upon returning to the conductor’s podium I felt the lack of exercise was out of breath.
“I’m a bit tired…” I breathed heavily. My actions couldn’t be helped, but they turned out positive, it appears.
I heard from an acquaintance afterwards, that the audience was quite tired of the host, who was an idol with no interest in games and just read something in a monotone manner. (We actually did an online survey later, and positive feedback for the host was practically zero.)
During the evening show there was a lot of chatter in the audience, even when the host was talking. It might have been because of concert-goers, who also went to the day show. For that reason alone, my unexpected incident caused laughter and good feelings. I guess a lot of people felt so. Laughter is perfect for relaxing tension. Music is also the cycle of tension and relaxation, so there might be a connection.
Ever since I’ve been conducting classical music, I’ve tried to host even a little bit to bring classical music closer to the audience. I’ve had some good feedback as well. I’m glad that during the evening performance I was able to make an instant judgement call from habitual experience.
In the end, the concert resulted in two sold-out shows and business-wise it was a success.
Do you have plans for upcoming concerts?
JPB is disbanded, but as NJBP we have upcoming concerts planned.
We will do small regular live shows every month at restaurants and bar. The idea is to have game music take root in people’s lives and create an environment where they can casually come in and listen.
The form is not fixed. We will have set-ups like violin+piano, trombone+piano, woodwind quintet and violin+cello+piano. So you can enjoy a variety of combinations.
As for concert with all our members, our premiere will take place on April 29, 2015. I have invited Yoko Shimomura as the guest. We will play both major pieces and hardcore enthusiasts’ pieces in the first half. The second half will focus on Shimomura. The set-up will consist of all members able to perform and it will be different from anything thus far.
This kind of content is the succession of JBP’s principle, going towards the ideals I sketched in the very beginning.
Rehearsals, concert venues, and dark stories of expectations
I’d like to know more about rehearsals. What difficulties are there in finding concert venues and creating a schedule that suits everyone?
There is a flood of amateur orchestras in Japan and it is said that close to 500 exist in the Tokyo Metropolis and over 1000 in the entire country. All groups are searching for practice venues and finding them is a problem for the orchestra’s management.
It would be nice to have a fixed place to practice, but we didn’t have that kind of support for JBP. I negotiated with several concert halls, but everyone declined. Even being a professional orchestra, I guess it’s natural, since we didn’t have any actual achievements yet.
However, amateur orchestras rehearse normally only on weekends and holidays, and rarely on weekdays. So when we rehearsed during the week, it was easy to find a place. That was one of the easy things about JBP.
Regarding the schedule, it is assumed that the players will make time for the orchestra, as it is a professional one. But I did want to ease the burden for the players, so I made a survey for everyone about the schedule and based it on that.
Finding a venue for the concert was really hard. Reservations start 1-1,5 years in advance and while there are raffles for venues, the number of orchestras participating is high. It’s not that easy to get a concert hall of your choice. I’ve also heard that major entertainment productions have a hold on concert halls before the general reservations start. Because we didn’t have that kind of priority we had to rely on the raffles.
Whether you partner up with a production or as a franchise form an alliance with a concert hall, I think it’s difficult to have a secure position for concerts as a professional orchestra. It will be a task we have to tackle with NJBP as well.
Which concert went better than you expected and why?
Our first regular concert in October 2013.
I have a bit of a dark and negative story to tell.
Even now I think it’s deeply regretful, but I heard that when I announced the launch of JBP, some people in a certain VGM enthusiasts’ community were opposing it furiously. Apparently it was especially people who play in amateur orchestras themselves. And they didn’t talk directly to me or the orchestra, but rather bad-mouthed us inside that community.
This is truly sad, but when a certain writer from the gaming field sent me a message saying, “This is awesome. I support you!” he got direct comments from this community and the next day he bad-mouthed us and ignored my existence.
When we announced that Yuzo Koshiro and Masanobu Endo will be the representative directors of the board, the criticism faded away on Twitter and in the public eye. But I heard that the criticism continued out of sight. I was set on replying to all comments, but none were made, despite nothing good coming out of bad-mouthing us just between one’s friends. This is very typical Japanese and I mean it in a bad way.
I didn’t worry about that kind of gossip and just did what I wanted to do. But we had some players that got nervous and worried about what other people think of them.
These circumstances transformed into turning point with the first regular concert.
I think that after seeing the track selection, experiencing the atmosphere and seeing the performance, even the people who thought unfavorably of us understood what I am aiming for and trying to do. And they understood that I’m not hostile and I’m not here to destroy the world of game music fans.
Even if they wouldn’t have understood, I thought that’s that and it doesn’t matter. Because of that the thing that went better than expected was the fact that we generally received praise from game music fans. I think this goes for any field, but to convince rabid fans is not an easy task.
While there’s no need to make that the supreme challenge to tackle, there is nothing wrong in getting positive feedback from a lot of people.
I think that among other things was a chance for Japan BGM Philharmonic’s name to penetrate the world to a certain extent. As long as you act, something will happen, be it positive or negative.
Was there any concert that went worse than expected? If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?
The same one as above, the first regular concert In October 2013. We got less attendees than I had hoped for.
When I formed JBP and thought about what would be the basis of a professional orchestra, the existence of PRESS START played a big role.
As an outsider who knows nothing of the inner workings, it looked like every year PRESS START filled halls for 1,500 people. Sometimes they had two performances and both sold out. If there’s this much demand, we can get 1,500 people every time, or at least 1,000 people, I thought. Kouichi Sugiyama’s [Dragon Quest] concerts are also packed with people every year. Thinking back on it, I was overly naive.
In our public statement we said 750 people attended the concert. This was the PR guy’s mistake, who didn’t check the number and blurted it to the media. In reality, number of tickets sold was short of 600. And that’s including the discount tickets for staff. Adding guests invited by staff totals around 700, I think.
With 700 people in a hall for a little under 1,300, I can’t possibly say it was as expected. If there would have been at least 700 paid tickets it would be different, but with less than 50% capacity it’s a regretful outcome.
I think there are several lessons for the low outcome.
The concert took place on Friday evening. The venue was in Aoto, Katsushika, which is a bit far away from the city centre. Marketing started late and the time for PR was short. No past achievements, not enough credibility, lacking PR power, lacking promotional power, lacking time, etc. Those things happened and they happened for a reason (of course) and I have analyzed it all, but it’s too long to write so I will leave it out.
On the other hand, to sell 600 tickets from an inferior circumstance where no one knows our orchestra, means that it’s enough for a future. I thought that as long as we keep continuing without judging the startup as a one-time thing, everything will go well. I am deeply grateful for the people who came to the concert that day.
Below is the advice I would give to myself from the past, based on what I wrote above.
“Don’t give in to what people around you say. Stubbornly persist on doing what you doing. If you impatiently hurry, it will surely not go well. If you are urged on by the people around you and compromise, only a result of compromise will wait for you. It is you who created the orchestra and there is no need to go along with deceiving people in your surroundings or compromise. Whatever you are told, always believe in yourself.”
To this day I believe that if I would have finished everything I wanted to do, JBP would not have disbanded. However, I have no regrets. That was probably the limit of my former self. It was an extremely high price to bay for that lesson, but I think it was a rich experience that rarely happens in life. I grew so much that the guy who started JBP and the me now are different people. What happened with JBP is a source of encouragement for going big with NJBP.
Why some VGM is performed more than others
What game or game series do you perform the most music from?
We haven’t done many concerts, so it’s hard to answer with a game or a series, but the ratio of Square Enix titles is high. Even if it’s not deliberate, it will happen in the end.
The reason is that pure sales numbers of SE games are so high, that many people will have heard their music. If a person comes all they way to the concert and you want to him or her to know at least one song, you have to include some SE music.
What game music do you think should be performed more?
I don’t have any view on what game music should be performed more. I wish to present good songs and share in their splendor with a lot of people, so I think anything goes as long as it’s good music. If I would only choose songs I know, songs that are nostalgic and songs that will attract an audience – and wouldn’t show interest in anything else – I don’t think there would be any significance in doing this as a professional orchestra.
That’s the reason I will continue mixing famous songs with not well-known songs and actively put a spotlight on them. To propose songs with low popularity is one of the important meanings of doing this as a pro orchestra.
If pushed to say, I’m more for retro games and I know far less about music in recent games, but if it’s a good track I will feature it regardless of age.
If you had no restrictions, what would be your dream concert?
There’s too much I’d like to do and it’s hard to fit it all in one concert (laugh). If I wouldn’t think about the audience at all and just choose pieces I myself want to hear, here is a careful selection I made:
- Tactics Ogre – Overture
- Solstice – Title Theme
- Act 1
- Starship Hector – HISTORY1 ~ Robowarrior – Theme of Robowarrior
- Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts – Level1
- Ogre Battle – Revolt
- Fire Emblem: Awakening – You bastards…don’t you dare speak my sister’s words! (Piano Concerto)
- Act 2
- Battle Music Collection
- Romancing SaGa – Battle 1
- Tenchi wo Kurau II – Battle 2
- Unlimited SaGa – Battle Theme I
- Baten Kaitos – The True Mirror
- Secret of Mana – Crisis
- Field Music Collection
- Sangokushi V – Glittery Dragon March
- ActRaiser – Filmoa
- Castlevania – Vampire Killer
- Bionic Commando (NES) – Area 1, 3, 4, 7
- DuckTales – The Moon
- Valkyrie no Boken – Theme of Adventure
- Battle Music Collection
- Act 3, Medley Collection
- Nintendo Medley
- Final Fantasy III & VI – Prelude ~ Eternal Wind ~ Searching Friends ~ FINAL FANTASY
- Zelda Series – Select Screen ~ Overworld ~ Kakariko Village ~ Guessing-Game House ~ Dark World [ALttP] ~ Tal Tal Heights [LA] ~ Great Temple [TAoL] – Staff Roll [OoT]
- Earthbound – Smiles and Tears
- Dragon Quest IV – Overture
Below is a list of songs I’d like to do with a band, not with an orchestra. (I actually do vocals in a band myself.)
Robowarrior – Theme of Robowarrior
Dig Dug – Dig Dug Love
Machi – One and Only
Dragon Quest II – Only Lonely Boy
Dragon Quest (TV Anime) – Believe in the Dream
Resident Evil – I won’t let this end as a dream…
Bug-tte Honey – Bug-tte Honey
Mother – All That I Needed (Was You)
Idol Hakkenden – You Are the Hoehoe Girl (Encore)
Fan requests and feedback
What music did fans request the most?
We had a request section on JBP’s website. The most requested track was Yearnings of the Wind from Chrono Trigger, so we included it in the program. If we look at games, the Final Fantasy series was the most requested one.
What kind of feedback did you get from the audience? Did you get any feedback from foreigners or game companies?
It varies. Some people wanted us to include more famous tracks, because we had many lesser known tracks. But others liked our hardcore picks. The performance itself was lacking for some, while others gave it rave reviews. The feedback varied extensively, but there wasn’t a lot of negative comments.
We didn’t receive any feedback from foreigners, but right after forming JBP, I got this advice in English from a gaming site: “This is a wonderful thing, but why are you using a no-name for the conductor? You should go with someone more famous.” That kind of thinking was against JBP’s policy, so I didn’t reply.
Some game companies tweeted about us performing their music, but in the end we have a business relationship, and we didn’t have an atmosphere where they were especially passionate in supporting us or sending us messages. Even if someone would personally support us, I think it gets more difficult when you’re a company. It just can’t be helped so it wasn’t like they left a bad impression or anything.
Composers take basically the same stance. Compared with game companies, they are more actively involved, but those not involved don’t normally give any support. Though I think that’s natural. We didn’t have any past achievements and to even get someone as a guest is something I’m really thankful for.
All the people I’ve personally met so far have cheered us on, which makes me very happy. I want to live up to those expectations and repay the debt of gratitude.
At many concerts in Japan, paper questionnaires are handed out. Did you use them as well? How many people filled them out what’s the most valuable thing you learned from them?
Professional orchestras don’t do paper questionnaires so we didn’t either. Later I thought we should have, which is why we did an online questionnaire after the second concert in March . I tweeted about it the day after, asking for support, and about 10% of the attendees answered.
At other orchestras where I conduct, we almost always do paper questionnaires. There’s a tendency for the degree of satisfaction to go hand in hand with how many people fill them out. But pegcils, which are throwaway pencils, play an important factor. Any kind of writing tool will work. If they’re not attached to the questionnaire, you’ll be lucky to get 30-40% returned, but when we’ve used pegcils in the past, we’ve achieved a return ratio of 80%.
The valuable thing you can learn from these questionnaires, I think, is not the attendee’s attributes and how that information will tie into the next concert. We also receive evaluations of the performance, but that’s already done and it’s not like we’ll play the same pieces the next time, so there’s nothing we can change by looking at that feedback.
What’s your age, where do you live, do you prefer day or evening performances, was the ticket price reasonable, in what area would you like the concert to take place. It’s that kind of information you need in order to work hard and get as many people as possible to the concerts.
Furthermore, it’s important to take look at the song requests, because these are the people that actually come to a concert.
Also, comments of joy, praise or encouragement have a healing effect, haha. It is the joy of the audience that is our driving force and that’s why impressions are a valuable thing.
I haven’t seen these kinds of paper questionnaires abroad. Would you recommend using them?
Yes, I recommend them. I’ve heard that in Hollywood before completing a movie, they have thorough previews and depending on the situation they might even change the ending. For a concert you can’t have previews, but using feedback from concert-goers to improve each time is not a bad thing either.
I think it’s also fine to be the kind of person who doesn’t listen to other’s opinions and sticks to one’s own thing no matter what others say. That gives color to the orchestra and is one of it’s fascinating aspects, no? Because I have those kinds of tendencies as well, haha.
The big picture of organizing, arranging, and licensing concerts
Please describe the process of creating the concert program.
Since we sell tickets and are a pro orchestra, the first major point is whether we can get the license. Those tracks that we can’t get a license for get discarded.
We think of the concerts flow, pace and concept, and create a temporary setlist out of the tracks we think we can get the license for and start applying for the licenses. We swept out those tracks we can’t get a license for, rinse and repeat.
You also have to arrange the pieces, so we try to finish selecting tracks at least half a year before the concert. But with JBP we had all kinds of situations that led to a tight schedule. It’s one of my points of remorse.
As for the track selection, I set high value on having tracks that people will probably know, tracks that have been strongly requested in questionnaires and tracks that we have chosen. We also mix old and new works and I don’t think it’s good to lean heavily one way or the other.
Could you talk about the process of arranging the music?
We had lots of tracks and little time, so we commissioned several arrangers. Some were acquaintances, some players of our own. For one concert we had 5-6 professional arrangers help out.
One arranger who applied from the outside, Nijuhachi Haneda, felt strongly that he wanted to arrange music for us, so we hired him as the arrangement manager. JBP was his first public concert he worked on, but afterward he has arranged music for PRESS START and worked on piano scores for game music. We’ve also currently enrolled him for NJBP. After all is said and done, his sense for selecting tracks, his taste for tracks, etc. are very close to my way of thinking.
Between me and Haneda, we basically attach importance to the atmosphere of the original song and try to expand on the limited sounds it was made of. We had a policy of not making original interpretations and drastic arrangements. This is however case-by-case, and in Filmoa from the ActRaiser Medley for example, we inserted an ad-lib solo for the concert master and to the best of our abilities tried to avoid just repeating the same melody.
Our fundamental policy is to respect the original music to its maximum. Whether this is good or bad is up to each his own, but it was a characteristic of JBP and I plan to continue the policy with NJBP.
Do you collaborate with other game music orchestras?
With JBP we didn’t and currently not with NJBP either. I do have acquaintances in other game music orchestras, though.
Do you obtain licenses from game companies and composers?
Like I said above, we are a pro orchestra and obtain licenses for all tracks. The method is very simple: we contact the rights holder directly. I didn’t have those connections, so I sent the request through normal channels and started negotiations from there. This is a bit off-topic, but as far as I know, some companies asked us to not reveal any track names, before obtaining the licenses.
Outside of licenses, did you have any other dealings with game companies or composers?
Game companies are normally only concerned with licensing. In addition to that, if a score already exists for the piece to be performed, they lend us the score as well.
For composers it depends. Some only deal with licensing, some check the arrangements, others come to the rehearsals and some attend the concert as guests and talk on the podium. Noriyuki Iwadare is a type of person who wants to perform together. If we get the chance, I’d love to have him co-perform.
All the composers I’ve met so far have been friendly and have come to the after party and have fun together.
Have you thought about releasing CDs or DVDs?
Yes, I have. We actually had plans with a certain company to release our first concert on CD. But then things happened inside JBP and we couldn’t make it happen. I don’t currently hold the rights for the audio and video recording of that concert, so I guess it will never happen. It’s a huge waste.
I think it will be difficult from now on as well, to release a CD of a concert where multiple games and game makers are involved. With the first concert I had a good likelihood of obtaining full licenses, but I think there will be cases where we only get a performing license.
A final message to VGM fans abroad
Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to game music fans abroad?
Dear readers, nice to meet you (and I’m sure I’ve never met any of you before). You probably all thought, “Who’s this guy?” and you’re right. I am famous in no way, and have no merits or special talents.
That kind of me set out to do what he wanted, formed JBP and now gets an interview offer from abroad. It is a great honor for me. I’d like to borrow some space and express my thanks to Mr. Broman. I would be very happy if this chance would lead to interaction with game music fans abroad.
I’ve heard that the culture of listening to game music live has advanced more abroad. For example, Distant Worlds music from Final Fantasy concerts are more numerous abroad and events like MAGFest don’t exist in Japan. But perhaps that’s as it should be. I heard from Koshiro that there are meany zealous fans abroad. One day I would like to experience and understand the passion of game music fans abroad myself.
I’ve only been once to a foreign country (on a family trip to Hawaii when I was 10), but one of my dreams and objectives is to perform game music in front of all of you abroad. I’m ready to go whenever you call me, so please feel free to discuss things, if you’re interested. I only speak a little English, but I’ll work hard studying it in advance, haha.
It feels strange to take game music born in Japan and borrow the orchestra form from the West to perform it. I don’t know if it’s okay to say that game music and the orchestra is a combination of East and West, but it crosses borders, language, race, gender and age — and it’s unmistakable that everyone can enjoy it equally and share in that feeling.
I think that music, not limited to game music, is the most wonderful of cultures that mankind has brought forth and that it’s a power that can bring peace to the world. In the presence of good music, conflicts, quarrels and wars become meaningless and it’s just the music that exists. I wonder if you can’t make abundant hearts with music and create a world where everyone can live happy. I do think that’s a grandiose way of talking, a pipe dream or a wild tale, but half of me really thinks that way.
In short, the first feeling that comes up is that I simply want to enjoy music. I’m currently only active in Japan, but if I can share in enjoying music with even one more person around the world, I think it’s a splendid thing.
Now you can connect with anyone in the world via internet. I can’t meet you in person, but we upload videos on YouTube, so please watch them if you’d like and I, as well as the members of NJBP, would be happy to hear some impressions too.
And I’m looking forward to someday meeting all of you (no idea in how many years that will happen).
This is probably a long article, but thank you very much for reading it to the end. See you!
Alright, thank you so much Yusuke Ichihara for the longest interview I have ever done. Nearly 10,000 words, whew! Here is some up-to-date info on NJBP, check them out!
A video of NJBP performing a “medley of somewhat minor NES titles”:
Links to NJBP’s website, social media accounts, etc.
- NJBP’s official site
- NJBP’s YouTube channel
- NJBP’s SoundCloud channel
- NJBP’s Twitter account (English)
- NJBP’s Twitter account (Japanese)
- NJBP’s Facebook page (Japanese)
List of NJBP’s concerts with their full ensemble set-up (music featured in brackets):
- NJBP Live! #1 – Apr 29, 2015 – (Yoko Shimomura and miscellaneous)
- NJBP Live! #2 – Jul 11, 2015 – (Nintendo and Noriyuki Iwadare)
- NJBP Live! #3 – Nov 28, 2015 – (“Yasunori Mitsuda a la carte”)
- NJBP Live! #3 – Nov 29, 2015 – (“Chrono Trigger 20th anniversary”)
- NJBP Live! #4 – Feb 27, 2016 – (Sunsoft and Yuzo Koshiro)
- NJBP Live! #5 – Jun 26, 2016 – (Koei Tecmo and Hiroki Kikuta)
They also do “NJBP+” concerts, which have fewer musicians and take place in bars and cafes, and some other small concerts here and there. So with all these different types of live performances, they are active pretty much on a monthly basis.
If you’re interested in what their concerts are like, I wrote a review of NJBP Live! #4 on VGMO. The concert focused on Sunsoft games in the first half and Yuzo Koshiro games in the second half.
NJBP did a fantastic arrangement of Streets of Rage that will be up on YouTube soon. Want to be notified when it’s up and ready to be enjoyed? Comment below, and I will ping you when it’s up!