Distant Worlds: The Music from Final Fantasy

I’ve been a Final Fantasy fan since the 90s and while my adoration for the games has waned of late, the scores composed by maestro Nobuo Uematsu have never lost their charm or virtuosity.

Distant Worlds is a symphonic or mixed-piece performance series that has been touring for years and when my RevPub partner and I found out it was coming to our town we knew it was a must-see.  It just so happens my friend Mike and his fiancee found out about it at the same time and went as well.  We all pretty much had the same opinion: it was fantastic.

Several of the pieces were from the “Final Fantasy 2002-0220” performances from over a decade ago and haven’t needed to change a bit.  Surprisingly a few of the pieces were VERY new, including one from the latest Lightning Returns, which made conductor Arnie Roth’s statement about short rehearsal times REALLY have impact.  The music was synched to a video screen showing clips from the games, re-cut to go with music.  It was definitely a nice touch, especially for those not accustomed to seeing an orchestra live.

My Final Fantasy CD collection.
My Final Fantasy CD collection.

There is something unique about seeing symphonic music live.  The sound of a symphony orchestra fills and surrounds a venue like no other kind of music, and with pieces as well-loved and recognizable as Uematsu’s scores it made for a terrific atmosphere. Most of the time orchestras play classical/romantic music, or music composed just to be music.  Uematsu composed his music as a score for a story or capture the personality of a character.  Even more impactful than film scores, Uematsu’s scores provide the ambiance for a story YOU help tell.  So when you hear them it puts you back in the narrative; recreates the mood and the emotion of events and characters we know so well.  Not one that is an hour or two, but maybe one that was 16, 28, or 65 hours or more…  That’s a lot of time to spend with characters.  A lot of time to get attached to their personalities and motives; Uematsu’s music always masterfully captures the essence of each.

From the jaunty and upbeat “Chocobo Theme,” to the intense strains of “Don’t be Afraid;” and from the profound passion of “Eyes on Me” to the mournful and delicate tone of “Aerith’s Theme,” every piece allows you to re-live that story again, put you back in that “distant world” and relate hours and storytelling magnificently in less than four minutes.

The performance was topped off by a surprise encore (that doesn’t happen much in symphonic music, even though it’s where the term originated!) where Roth asked the audience to sing the choral lyrics to “One-Winged Angel” while the symphony played the music.  We were asked only to sing the “SE-PHI-ROTH” portion but in an audience full of fans, many of us sang the rest of the lyrics in Latin.  Short of a surprise performance of Koichi Sugiyama’s Dragon Quest title music or Uematsu himself coming out to play the Advent Children version of Sephiroth’s inimical theme with The Black Mages, it was an performance that couldn’t have been improved upon.

Uematsu composed his first Final Fantasy music for 8-bit video games.  As the technology progressed he composed for 16-bit cartridges, CD-ROM midis, and later full orchestral scores for Final Fantasy games on DVD and even for films.  But the purity and beauty of his music is it works in ALL forms.  There is as much heart in “Dear Friends” whether you heard it on a Super Famicom, PS1, or in a symphony hall.  There is true beauty to be found in the simplicity of it and it is worth traveling to Distant Worlds to find it for yourself.

Uematsu (on the big Korg keyboard) performing One-Winged Angel with an symphony orchestra, full chorus, and his band The Black Mages.

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