Orchestra concerts about video game music are quite common these days, and there is a decent variety of choices available to enjoy. But this was not always the case, and many concerts have never left Japan…until Thomas Böcker stepped in and helped video game music concerts become more popular. He produced many orchestra concerts like “Final Symphony – music from Final Fantasy” and “Symphonic Legends – music from The Legend of Zelda,” and he is considered to be a pioneer in symphonic video game music.
His current project, the “Final Symphony” concert, was currently held in Hong Kong a few days ago. His next project is already around the corner, with tickets to “We Love Videogame Music” in Stuttgart, Germany already available for pre-order. (You can purchase tickets here: We Love Video Game Music PreOrder Tickets ).
We got the chance to chat with Mr. Böcker through email about his career and his love for music, video games, and – of course – video game music!
(Please note: The interview was originally conducted in German, and then translated into English.)
Thank you for taking your time for us despite your busy schedule, Mr. Böcker. Do you want to introduce yourself quickly?
I’d be glad to! I’ve been working as the producer for orchestrated video game music for over 15 years now. I coordinate and organize concerts like the “Final Symphony – music from Final Fantasy” World Tour with soundtracks from Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu. On the other hand, I was also involved in the recording of [the Orchestra-Album of] the “Turrican”-franchise from Chris Hülsbeck, which was successfully funded through crowdfunding.
What was it that started your fascination for video game music and kicked off your desire to spend your career with it?
I was very fortunate to receive a Commodore 64 as a kid – and was instantly charmed by the electronic sounds from the Commodore 64’s SID chips, especially Giana Sisters, To be on Top and The Last Ninja.
I was so fascinated by the world of video game music, that I made the decision to be active there as well in 1999. For my “Merregnon” project, I invited many of my heroes like Yuzo Koshiro, Allister Brimble, and Gustaf Grefberg to contribute music to my created, tiny fantasy story. Those compositions were released as a CD including a booklet, where you can check the story and open yourself to the illustrations. But the real focus was naturally the soundtrack. While “Merregnon” part 1 was created on a sampler, first steps were made to an orchestra with part 2. The majority of the team wrote for their first time scores, instructed by the conductor Andy Brick. Seems like this is where the first signs of my later career became apparent — my love for music, my enjoyment of working together with artists and producing exciting projects were always my driving force. Nothing is more wonderful for me than to conceive and realize a project from the small idea to the publication.
You have produced many concerts based on video game music for some time. Can you remember how it first started?
It first started when I read about this kind of concert in one of the video game magazines – at that time, these events were only in Japan. I was really disappointed because I also saw the potential for this in our country [Germany]. Thanks to Merregnon, I gained experience and contacts, which encouraged me to send a concept to the Leipzig Trade Fair in 2002. I was invited and they gave me the green light. One year later and for the first time, the Leipzig Gewandhaus was filled with the sounds of video game music.
Back then, video games were still considered entertainment for children and teenagers, especially in Germany. How difficult was it to make the First Symphonic Game Concert in Leipzig possible?
My big advantage was that I found a partner in Leipzig Trade Fair, who searched for a worthy event to open the Games Convention in Leipzig back then, so it was perfect timing!
However, it was much more difficult to convince all the publishers and those responsible for licensing to get them on board. You shouldn’t forget that this was something completely new for the most of them.
Regarding the organization and cooperation with game publishers, has it become easier through the years as organization and cooperation improved, or are there still issues? Which reminds you of the early days?
Basically, I would say that a lot has been improved, with only a few exceptions; more on that later. Today, many creators of indie games allow composers to perform their music in concerts without any major copyright restrictions. I find this very commendable because in the end, everyone profits when music is performed live.
How do decide on the music selection for concerts like We Love Video Game Music? What are the factors you have to keep in mind for selecting video game music for your concert?
In this series, we try to lower the entry level for people who are not that into this subject but are open to new experiences. Casual games are excellently suitable for that. Next to this are also well-known soundtracks from Final Fantasy etc.. In the end, it’s very important to me that everything fits artistically so we can deliver an entertaining and valuable program.
In your upcoming We Love Video Game music concert in Stuttgart, Germany, you’ve included an Angry Birds medley. How much inspiration could you draw for a medley from a single music theme?
This was primarily a challenge for the arranger – in this case, Jonne Valtonen, who’s known for his imagination, was able to use the sound palette of an orchestra in a crafty way. He worked with a sense of humor to create a musical story about birds fighting pigs. It’s not enough to concentrate on the melody, you also have to capture the game’s atmosphere.
Video game music is often linked to the player’s experience with the game and nostalgia. How difficult is it to meet those expectations from the players in a video game concert?
It’s relatively easy to awake the nostalgia from fans with easy methods. But this is not our sole interest. Our goal is to offer entertainment to outsiders, so just reenacting famous melodies is not enough. To deal with this matter seriously, an arrangement requires context for a concert since this soundtrack was originally used to accentuate an event in the game. This is why it’s the task of the arrangers like Jonne Valtonen or Roger Wanamo have to add this layer musically.
You worked with many music composers for games like Nobuo Uematsu and Yoko Shimomura. What was it like to work with them and were there any enjoyable moments you can remember?
We were on tour with the London Symphony Orchestra for Final Symphony II in Japan during 2015, where performances took place in Osaka and Yokohama. In our last concert, I was with Mr. Uematsu in the backstage area; for this evening’s final title, he came up with the idea to sneak into the hall to experience the reactions. Unusual for the reserved Japanese mentality, a standing ovation followed that emotionally moved Mr. Uematsu so much, that he hugged me. This was certainly one of my most beautiful moments of my career because the whole scenario was so harmonious. The London Symphony Orchestra is one of my favorite orchestras – a marvelous musical ensemble, unparalleled. Also getting the chance to go on tour in the beautiful Japan. Which was, by the way, a novelty, because it was the first time a foreign orchestra performed video game music in that country. Last but not least, receiving a reaction from a composer I have the fullest admiration and respect for. What more can you ask for in this field?
You have a wide range of music projects beneath you, most of which you’re probably proud of. If you got the chance to lead a concert for any game or property you haven’t done before, what would it be?
After all those Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Square Enix and Nintendo concerts or events dedicated to composers like Chris Hülsbeck and Nobuo Uematsu, it would be probably most exciting for me to explore more of an own brand.
Do you have a vision of how you want to create your own music? As a concert, CD publication or maybe something in a completely new and innovative format?
Generally, the challenge to go “back to the roots” would be the most interesting. A project a la Merregnon with complete artistical control. Such production could be basically everything – CD, vinyl, collector’s edition, concert…theoretically, there are no limits. We have the knowledge.
In recent years, video game concerts have become more and more popular with video game companies like Nintendo funding more concerts worldwide. What do you think is the reason for the rise of the popularity of video game concerts?
It probably relates to the general growth of the industry; there’s a potential huge demographic who can be approached via social media or newsletters from the publishers. But it’s usually not the publisher who’s taking the plunge – it’s more that they’re licensing it to organizers and agencies. The Legend of Zelda franchise especially has the big advantage of being played by both young and old; a fact that leaves an impression on the concert audience and draws in many families.
Many of your video game music concerts involve the wide selection of Final Fantasy music. What brings you back to produce concerts about the music of Final Fantasy and other Square Enix properties?
It’s simply because of the music. Japanese RPGs offer a wide variety of various melodies, made for sometimes complex backstories. This means my arrangers can create from a remarkable pool of great themes being told as scores and work as a musical story. For every involved artist, this is an ideal condition.
Square Enix is usually known as a publisher very strict about licensing their music. Does this also reflect your relationship with Square Enix as well or are they more open to music projects contrary to popular belief?
After 15 years, we naturally have a relationship of trust with Square Enix. But this doesn’t change the fact that officially licensed productions like “Final Symphony” are linked with approval processes for every aspect. Square Enix is certainly one of the Japanese companies who are very interested in a commercial utilization of their game soundtracks. But when you dare to work with Final Fantasy, one of their most important brands, you have to expect restrictions. Though this is absolutely understandable from my point of view.
Yeah, it’s very understandable that companies want to protect their precious brands. Can you give me an example of how some of the restrictions from Square Enix looked like?
Well, that’s certainly not a uniqueness of Square Enix. Like with every big brand, there are specific rules to follow; every aspect of such a production requires approval beforehand if it’s text, artwork or music.
Here is an example from Nintendo: When we performed music from The Legend of Zelda in Leipzig, our scores went first to [Nintendo in] Japan, where they provided us with feedback a la “Please change bar X, for instrument Y the note Z should be changed into…”. Nothing will be left to chance, every detail will be controlled. But anyone who works professionally shouldn’t have any problems with those companies.
What are your hopes and wishes for the future of video game concerts?
I think it would be nice if companies like Nintendo would be more open to performing their music again. Over the years, it became, unfortunately, more difficult to get any approval despite the good relationship, which is, in my opinion, an aberration. Especially their soundtracks make it possible to encourage musical education to a young audience. Years ago, I organized a school concert for an orchestra in Germany with melodies from Super Mario Galaxy, which was met with much enthusiasm. I think there should be more of this without commercial contemplation.
Would you be interested in producing original music for a new video game? And if yes, which gaming franchise would be the most interesting for you?
I already did that together with Jonne Valtonen. He wrote arrangements for Mobile Suit Gundam: Side Stories and Street Fighter V. Especially impressive were his original compositions to Albion Online, whose soundtrack was recorded by FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague.
Oh, I actually didn’t know that and I have a feeling many of our readers didn’t know that as well. Could you quickly name the titles of your arrangements?
With Gundam, it’s actually difficult to be honest, since the working titles are not identical to the final ones.
For Street Fighter V, it was Theme of Urien. And for Dragon’s Dogma, my team was responsible for the orchestration of most of the compositions. We also worked on various arcade titles from SEGA like Derby Owners Club and World Club Champion Football.
To wrap up our interview, do you have any last words for our readers?
From the bottom of my heart, I am thanking all fans for their trust and their support over the last 15 years!
Thank you very much for this great Interview!