Final Fantasy VI (Nobuo Uematsu)

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On the heels of their wildly successful RPG Final Fantasy V in 1992, developer Square immediately began production of a sequel for the same platform, the Super Nintendo. Over a year of brisk development, a complex tale emerged with fourteen playable characters, more than any game before or since, larger and more detailed sprites and field graphics, and extensive use of Mode 7 graphics. In many ways it was the ultimate evolution of Final Fantasy V‘s style, with a straightforward first half and an open-world second. But above and beyond that, the resultant Final Fantasy VI features more pathos than all its predecessors combined, tackling weighty issues like suicide, teenage pregnancy, war crimes, and more. Its heroes actually fail to save their world and have to spend half of the game dealing with the consequences of their failure–tempered with plenty of lighthearted character moments, of course. The game was a fantastic success and has since been ported to a variety of post-SNES systems; more crucially, unlike Final Fantasy V, it was given a lovable Ted Woolsey translation and a release in the USA under the title Final Fantasy III. As a result, it influenced a whole generation of US game developers and echoes of its themes and steampunk aesthetic resonate to this day.

Nobuo Uematsu was no longer Square’s sole resident composer by 1994, giving him the freedom to devote all of 1993 to music for Final Fantasy VI while leaving other projects to fellow staffers. He tackled the project enthusiastically, writing a much longer score than any he’d penned for previous games and responding to the game’s steampunk/1800s look with a score that includes several rich classical influences. Richard Wagner’s Teutonic operas were a natural fit for the game’s story of godlike creatures interfering in mortal life and the ascent of characters to godhood (if not quite draining the gods’ power to run machines and having an insane jester be the one to so ascend), but Uematsu also looked to his beloved prog-rock groups–many of whom had themselves been influenced by Wagner and his contemporaries–for inspiration as well. Thus one can hear echoes of Queen and the rock operas of the 1970s and 1980s as well, resulting in a score that’s a fascinating melange of influences and instruments, with (synth) orchestral elements alongside guitar, synths, and the closest the SNES was able to come to human voices in 1993. Uematsu himself would later say that after finishing the score he could retire from game music with no regrets.

With fourteen player characters, and two villains to boot, Uematsu responded by adapting the Wagnerian leitmotif in a John Willams vein, giving every character their own theme and often one or two variations thereon. This thematic diversity is unprecedented, with very few games past or present attempting anything like it; Uematsu himself never attempted the same level of theme and variations even in his later leitmotivic Final Fantasy scores. There is no main theme as such, but “Terra’s Theme” serves as the closest equivalent, with the largest number of variations dominating the first part of the game where the amnesic magic-user Terra serves as a player analog. “Terra’s Theme” serves as the first world map theme, presenting a hauntingly sad melody on panpipes with synth orchestral accompaniment, but the melody is introduced in a more subdued oboe version with militaristic snare at 2:32 in “Opening Theme.” A gentle piano rendition in “Awakening” is closer to a true theme for Terra based on its usage in the game, and listeners are treated to a bittersweet full synth orchestral reprise at 7:46 in “Ending Theme” and again on solo flute at 16:46 as the character manages to survive the end of all magic in her world. Uematsu also gives “Terra’s Theme” interesting twists in “Save Them!” with the theme in counterpoint to brassy action music at :32, and twisted into an anguished form at :12 in “Metamorphosis.”

The gambling airship pilot Setzer has a surprisingly heroic theme in C major that, interestingly, is reprised extremely frequently throughout Uematsu’s score. In addition to “Setzer’s Theme, which takes up the melody on brass, there is a heartbreaking version in A major for solo piano with acoustic guitar accents in “Epitaph,” representing the character’s lost love. The first airship theme, “Blackjack,” returns the theme to brass with an optimistic, opulent air for the flying pleasure palace, while a tender reprise in C major can be found at 1:28 in “Ending Theme.” Bold and triumphant strains of Setzer’s theme dominate the latter half of “Ending Theme” during the game’s credits, providing resounding accompaniment to his airship’s triumphant sendoff. Similarly, “Locke’s Theme” presents a heroic theme for an antihero, giving the thief/treasure hunter a heroic string melody with rambunctious percussion accompaniment, a reprise in tragic mode for the character’s own lost love in “Forever Rachel,” and a reprise in the “Ending Theme” at 6:36. The latter represents some of the most complex counterpoint Uematsu ever attempted, cannily blending Locke’s theme with that of his new love, Celes, as the music deftly switches from one theme to the other. Reams more could be written on each theme and its reprises, especially in the astonishing 21 minutes of “Ending Theme” which runs through every one of them in sequence; from the Morricone-esque whistles of “Shadow’s Theme” to the resounding cello of “Gau’s Theme” there’s nary a weak link to be found.

Celes’ theme is the centerpiece of the game’s trademark opera, a 16 minute stretch that employs synthesized (wordless but synched to Japanese lyrics) vocals for a sequence in which a character takes the place of a prima donna. There is a definite influence of Wagner and Verdi in the portentous “Overture,” the tender variation on Celes’ theme in “Aria de Mezzo Carattere” (“Aria of Half Character,” presumably a reference to the character impersonating an opera singer) the overwrought “The Wedding” and the goofy “Grand Finale?” battle track. There’s no denying that the synth opera voices sound a little tinny and silly to latter-day ears–it was 1993 after all–but they do an excellent job in spite of their limitations. Taken together, the opera excerpts represent Uematsu’s music at its most comic but also its most classical, and presages the increading use of live voices in the series, in both as choral or classical and ribald pop modes.

Final Fantasy VI‘s insane jester villain Kefka and the Empire he works for (and later kicks to death) get a theme each. Kefka’s is a prancing and deceptively lighthearted comic dance that shows up in fragments in “Last Dungeon,” and “Dancing Mad” while the Empire receives the polar opposite, a dour and serious motif that ranges from martial (“Troops March On”) to ominous (“Under Martial Law,” “The Empire Gestahl”). The pick of the villains’ music, though, is the game’s battle themes; while both the electric guitar of “The Decisive Battle” and the aggressive tympani and orchestral fury of “The Fierce Battle” are notable, the “Dancing Mad” final boss suite towers over them all. Tipping the scales at over 17 minutes, “Dancing Mad” is divided into four distinct movements that each loop twice, corresponding to a different tier of the final boss and running the gamut of styles from classical opera to prog rock. The first tier reprises earlier material from “Opening” and “Catastrophe” into a fully orchestral mode with breathing noise accents and operatic voices for the most aggressive music in the game, while the second lets loose with synth opera vocals, percussion, and organ. The third tier is, of all things, an extended fantasia for organ with interpolations of “Kefka’s Theme,” not really menacing at all but impressive and abstract all the same; the final tier unleashes progressive rock with interludes of mournful voices and laughter and more fragments of the villain’s theme. It all flows together wonderfully despite the diversity of styles, and serves as an excellent lead-in to the 20 minutes of glorious thematic reprises that bring the score to a close with “Ending Theme.”

The major impediment to enjoying Uematsu’s work is, as with virtually all his pre-Final Fantasy VIII scores, the sound quality. The SPC 700 sound chip in the SNES was among the strongest synthesizers of its console generation, and sound programmer Minoru Akao and sound engineer Eiji Nakamura worked with Uematsu to wring everything they could out of it. For the time, the sound is excellent, in places even stronger than the MIDI Final Fantasy VII, and the music uses an impressive variety of specialty instruments from bagpipes to mouth harps to the aformentioned synth vocals. Final Fantasy VI‘s synths also have a rich reverb like Final Fantasy IV, eschewing the dry sound of Final Fantasy V. But the fact remains that the music is synthesized, obviously synthesized, and this will be a fatal blow for many listeners regardless of the quality of the underlying melodies. There have been rearrangements, of course, but none of them has ever matched the mix of the original: orchestral remixes give short shrift to Uematsu’s electronic and prog-rock influences, synth remixes neglect the fine orchestral lines, and even the most faithful live arrangements aren’t able to get the volume balance quite right, with some instruments drowning others out. The technical complexity of re-recording the score–which would involve recording and mixing every section of the orchestra and every line of synths separately and mixing them together–is probably too daunting, though. A few other irritating quirks–mostly brief sound effects–also mar a few tracks.

Upon release, Final Fantasy VI was a big hit for Square, and so was its score. Several arrangement albums were released before the year was out, including an orchestral album, a piano arrangement, and a full 23-minute live recording of the opera scene. This acclaim extended to the USA as well, where Square put out a deluxe 3-CD set identical in content to the Japanese release under the title Kefka’s Domain. Though available only via mail order, it was one of only three CDs released by Square during the 16-bit era (alongside Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore) and both it and the Japanese pressing remain readily available domestically or through importers. Uematsu’s score is, in strict musical terms, probably the most creative and complex of his entire career; it’s certainly the most thematic. And for all its crazy-quilt of musical influences from Queen to Wagner to Morricone, Final Fantasy VI is able to craft disparate elements into a unique and compelling whole. It was, and remains, Uemastu’s career high and the finest score of the 16-bit era and the Final Fantasy series as a whole.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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High Art (Shudder to Think)

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High Art was writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s debut feature after a number of smaller shorts and TV projects. A protege of MiloŇ° Forman, Cholodenko created a film that was a steamy dramatic look into the world of high art photography and the complex relationship between two lensers played by 80s icon Ally Sheedy and up-and-comer Radha Mitchell. Given a rather limited art house release upon completion in 1998, High Art received good notices on the film festival circuit and a number of smaller awards but was rewarded with only an indie-sized gross. It tends to be remembered today as a stepping stone in Cholodenko’s increasingly successful career as a director, which later led to 2010’s Best Picture nominee The Kids Are All Right.

Though Cholodenko’s partner, musician Wendy Melvoin of “Wendy & Lisa,” has had a successful career in scoring TV shows like Heroes and Nurse Jackie, the director’s first two films were scored by members of the indie rock group Shudder to Think. Shudder to Think had been in existence, with a varied lineup of performers, since 1986 and had seen some success both on the charts and on tour. The group’s first film score had come the year before High Art, for Jesse Peretz’s 1997 version of First Love, Last Rites, but that project had been mostly songs while Cholodenko would request substantial amounts of instrumental scoring for her project. As such, High Art wound up being virtually the first instrumental film scoring experience for the primary contributors, vocalist Craig Wedren and guitarist Nathan Larson, though the film and album also include several songs.

High Art‘s instrumental score, running about 25 minutes, begins with the lovely and ethereal “Opening” which offsets the sound of a glass harmonica with sepulchral wordless female voices. It’s very tonal and moving in the style of Brian Eno’s warmer material or Eric Whitacre’s more experimental music. Darker strands of the same sound, with more tortured and distorted vocals appear in “She Gives Tone,” and a relatively brief reprise in “End Frame,” with more muted glass harmonica chords without much in the way of vocals in “Photographic Ecstasy,” “Neoteny,” and “Last Lines.” While the style is ambient, at its best with the heavenly vocals mixed in this material is quite compelling, with “Opening” by far the strongest cue on the album.

One drawback that vocal groups often encounter with composing instrumental scores is the tendency to compose them just as they might the backing instrumentals for a song–without the strong central melody that their sung lyrics often add. Too often, this leaves these scores feeling like mixed-down multi-instrument song tracks rather than a cohesive score. Sadly, Shudder to Think does fall prey to this on a number of tracks. Music like “Dominoes,” or “Mom’s Mercedes” have that exact feel, laying down smooth grooves and languid instrumental guitar lines but ultimately seeming like vocal songs with the innards scooped out without the fascinating texture that the better tracks have. A smattering of Shudder to Think vocals and tracks by groups like Reservoir and the JeepJazz Project, some instrumental, some not, round out the rather generous 45-minute soundtrack from Velvel.

As such, High Art is essentially a curiosity, capturing a pair of composers that would go on to better things at the very beginning of their film scoring careers. The potpourri of styles and the essential weakness of many of the poppier tracks winds up detracting from the best ambient vocal material, and the disc never really hangs together as a stand-alone listen. As is often the case, fans of the band will likely be disappointed–especially given the song-driven guest-artist nature of their prior First Love, Last Rites. Still, despite the film’s relative obscurity, copies of the disc are cheap and readily available if listeners are curious.

Interestingly, High Art became a jumping-off point for full-fledged scoring careers for Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson after Shudder to Think dissolved that same year. Wedren eventually amassed an impressive list of film and TV credits, including School of Rock and Reno 911, while Larson carved out a surprising niche for himself in scoring critically acclaimed but controversial film projects, including Boys Don’t Cry, and The Woodsman. Both would work with Cholodenko again; Wedren scored her sophomore feature Laurel Canyon, while both men together wrote a score for The Kids Are All Right that was ultimately replaced by one by Carter Burwell (the director’s third feature, Cavedweller, was scored by Wendy Melvoin herself).

Rating: starstar