It's intimidating, knowing you're talking with a Grammy winner and accomplished composer like Arnie Roth, so setting the tone early is key. I felt around for the perfect remark and opened with a smooth, "I really loved your Final Fantasy show," wincing at the sheer geekiness dripping from my voice. While others may know him from his work with the likes of Diana Ross, The Three Tenors or Mannheim Steamroller, it was his conducting work on the Atlanta stop of the Dear Friends: The Music of Final Fantasy tour that brought him to my attention. I might be a bit on the reluctant side of geeky, but even I was forced to admit that the ground-shaking rendition of "One Winged Angel" with full backing choir was beyond cool.
However, the classical music world and videogames seem incompatible, on a cultural level, at first glance. I asked how him how a classically trained violinist and composer, not to mention the director of the Chicagoland Pops, wound up in front of an audience wearing everything from suits and ties to stitch-perfect White Mage robes.
"Jason Paul [creator of the concerts] and I knew each other from some other entertainment business [dealings] - Pavarotti, arena concerts, things like that we'd worked on together," Roth says. "I found out that Jason had done the one performance of the Dear Friends show in Los Angeles with the Los Angeles Philharmonic." After a quick conversation, they'd "worked out the components of a tour of Dear Friends, which the Atlanta Symphony dates were part of."
After a tour of several major cities, they worked out, "a similar show called More Friends: The Music of Final Fantasy, and Nobuo Uematsu [the famous composer of the Final Fantasy series] and his rock group came out for that, as well, so it's kind of been an ongoing process." Around the same time, Roth and Park put together their current tour, Play: A Video Game Symphony, which is currently ongoing.
I asked him if he'd call himself a gamer, of if his being one of the guys in this new nexus of the classical and videogame worlds was a coincidence. "You know, I certainly wouldn't call myself a gamer," he said, but added, "It's not a total coincidence." As a music director, part of his job is to put together concert series and shows, and being open-minded is part of the key to being a successful music director. Trying new things like accompanying a movie with a symphony and, yes, videogame concerts is one of those things you have to do to succeed. "And I've done a lot of multimedia things," he added, "I've produced a lot of film soundtracks and CDs for artists [like] The Irish Tenors and Peter Cetera, so I am constantly looking around. This was not a totally unnatural thing from an entertainment standpoint."
He says introducing the music to a symphonic perspective is "challenging. The interesting thing about videogame music is, from a creative standpoint, all of the songs [the audience] is used to hearing ... be it Halo or Nintendo games or Final Fantasy, they're used to hearing the same music tracks with the same mix and the same audio compression and the same tempo over and over again." He had to start with that music and present it to a live audience. "You start with the tempo they are used to, start with the melody they are used to, but the wonderful thing about a live symphony orchestra concert, or any live concert, is that it lives, it breathes, it has a different audio mix live than what you're hearing when you play on the PlayStation or whatever game platform you're using. The tempo will fluctuate, maybe infinitesimally, but it will fluctuate. On the end of a phrase, it may stretch a little bit longer. On a heroic scene or battle scene or whatever, it may get going a couple beats per minute faster through the excitement of a live performance, and this is what we live for as performers and what audiences should be living for, and I believe they are.