Final Fantasy Live in Paris
In 1913 the audience of Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées flirted with full-scale riot during the lusty premiere of Rite of Spring. That flirting no doubt felt like uninhibited manhandling for the poor, soon-to-be-bruised souls in the orchestra, pelted with whatever objects were to hand by an audience driven furious at the avant garde-ness of Stravinsky’s work. But no lasting damage was done that night.
A century later and the odd Steve Reich knees-up aside (New York, 1973: a performance of Four Organs where an audience’s jeering climaxed with a woman repeatedly banged her head on the stage, wailing ‘Stop, stop, I confess.’ A Steve Reich knees-down, then) rioting and the classical music concert have parted ways. The riot lingered, coiled and brutish for quarter of a century in the rock gigs of nethertowns; spilt-pint punk, grunge brawls, hard rock suckerpunches backed by guttural power chords. But rock music wears its anger on its sleeve (as a patch?). When you get down to it, the music’s where the real fight takes place, and the mosh-pit provides a peer-refereed boxing ring for those who need to pretend otherwise.
Today, music is often the accompaniment to rioting, but rarely its instigator. Still, one hundred years on from the Stravinsky revolt, and a mile and half down the road at the cavernous Palais des Congrès de Paris, this aromatic crowd carry with them a threat of injury. Yeah, this sell-out throng seems a bit fighty. Front row VIP tickets cost a sharp 130 Euros, and their purchasers are lacking a certain joie de vivre on finding squatters emigrated from the cheap seats into their places, hoping for a better view. It’s a quiet pandemonium, for sure – the attendants all raspy whispers and fly-swat points as they seek to shepherd disorder into order – but I can’t help but feel happy I’m not on bassoon tonight. I bruise too easy.
That responsibility falls to a member of the The Orchestre Lamoureux, a concert society founded in Paris by Charles Lamoureux in 1881 that performed the premieres of Debussy’s Nocturnes in 1900 and 1901. Tonight they debut in France a selection of pieces from Final Fantasy – a video game series currently celebrating its 25th year -under the baton of Chicagoan Arnie Roth at an event dubbed ‘Distant Worlds’. Classical music, much to the showy mortification of its most dedicated followers, has kept its well-dressed foot in mainstream culture via film scores for the past fifty years. But for the young audience of the Palais des Congrès, it’s the video game medium that’s brought them out en mass tonight. A lowbrow victory perhaps, but it’s difficult to imagine many other classical billings that would assemble a European city’s youth gratis, let alone at these prices.
The concert starts 30 minutes late, but at least everyone has a seat. Nobuo Uematsu, the Japanese composer responsible for the vast majority of music found in the series slides onto stage wearing an Axl Rose bandana and Super Mario moustache to riotous noise (the good sort, not the Stravinsky sort), before descending into the audience to feminine howls of excitement to take his position in an un-squatted seat in the crowd.
The set (and this is the correct terminology, as Distant World’s conductor has chosen a small selection of greatest hits for the night, pulled from the many hundreds of compositions that have sound-tracked Final Fantasy’s twenty-odd game releases) opens with the series’ signature harp arpeggio before seguing into Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec, an operatic piece sung with gusto by Le Choeur Lamoureux. A screen sprawls high behind the stage displaying visuals from the eighth game in the series, set to the music. I’m surprised to find myself gulping back emotion.
Music is all sorts of magic, of course, and in the most literal sense of the mystical word. Music has the power to transform the mood and temperature of an auditorium and, for the individual, it can conjure not just the emotion of memory, but the very flavour and experience of memory. Music is many spells – it has the power to reorder the mind, to raise or lower the blood, to produce tears or set teeth on edge – but it’s most powerful trick is one of transportation and, the combination of that warm Niagra of sound with these old images takes us individually and collectively to another place.
Roth turns to the French and offers a ‘mercy bow-coop’ before asking who in the crowd likes Final Fantasy XIII? This is the most recent core title in the series, one of the first produced without the steer of originator Hironobu Sakaguchi, who left the company under a black cloud worth $120 million of lost money at the box office following his movie flop, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The game was poorly received by many, something evidenced by the crowd’s reluctant applause. But Roth has another surprise for us: Final Fantasy XIII’s creators Yoshinori Kitase and Motomu Toriyama are in the crowd! The spotlight thwacks and swivels; more muted applause. I feel sorry for those guys. The billing’s all wrong, you see. Kitase has worked on Final Fantasy games for twenty years, while Toriyama was responsible for some of the most memorable scenes in the seventh game, widely considered one of the best. Still, I guess you’re only as good as your last game.
Uematsu, close friends with Sakaguchi, has had a rough ride of it too in recent years, somewhat unceremoniously dropped from Final Fantasy XIII’s compositional duties. This accounts for the cool response of the crowd to the next piece, composed by his successor. It’s not like Stravinsky, you see. When it comes to Uematsu, this crowd has his back. Uematsu joined Square, the company behind Final Fantasy in 1986, when an employee from the game developer walked into the Tokyo music rental shop where he working and asked if he’d like to write some music for a video game. Uematsu, a self-taught pianist and graduate of Kanagawa University agreed, but never thought any of it would amount to much.
It’s likely these humble beginnings that account for his attractive humility today. He approaches his career with a mixture of wide-eyed wonder and gratefulness. The excitement hasn’t dulled in him with age or accomplishment. A few years ago, after I interviewed Uematsu for a magazine, we stood eating cucumber sandwiches in a hotel lobby when he pulled a CD:R of tracks from his side-project band The Black Mages (the band played arranged rock versions of his Final Fantasy compositions – the music’s where the real fight takes place), and slotted it into my hand. It’s the behaviour of the wannabe college band member, not the multi-million selling, award-winning classical composer.
Uematsu joins the orchestra for just one song. He is a proficient pianist, but the pressure of performing in these surroundings (cavernous, fighty) evidently puts him off. Roth provides some back up on violin (the Grammy-award winning conductor is an exceptional player, despite his faux-protestations) and the crowd is a sea of screens, mobile phones acting as the 21st Century’s lighter of choice, recording for YouTube what was once the preserve of the bootlegger. The piece reaches its delicate conclusion and the lights wink out. Nobuo exits into the audience to yowls of appreciation.
The pieces come more eagerly now: boy band fanclub-esque whoops and screams accompanying the audience’s moment of recognition for each. A medley of four battle themes (the looping score that plays out behind fight scenes in each of the games) ends with a victory fanfare and the choir (who we’d forgotten were standing there, present and erect) punch the air in unison with a shout. The night is almost at an end and nothing much has been thrown when Roth asks if anyone has any requests. For the crowd this is an invitation to riot and the Palais des Congrès groans and holds a hand to the brow at the detonation of cacophony.
“Se-phi-roth!”, “Se-phi-roth!” they scream with the sort of co-ordinated timing that Le Choeur Lamoureux would be pleased to end a fanfare with. Roth, unable to stray from his pre-scripted banter says: “Well, we can do one final song, but it requires you to be able to sing a word? Can you manage that?”
The crowd continues, indifferent to his contextually ridiculous question. “Se-phi-roth!” they scream.
“Can you guess what it is”, he asks. “Se-phi-roth!” they scream.
“Sephiroth!” he says. “Se-phi-roth!” they scream.
In Final Fantasy’s peculiar police line-up of arch-villains it’s the seventh game’s antagonist, Sephiroth, that time has proven to be players’ fondest. And the piece that accompanies his on-screen swagger is one of Uematsu’s finest. One-winged angel, a brooding, rolling piece of music, all scampering timpani and hysterical brass, backed by a choir repeating the villain’s name over and over: “Sephiroth!”
Outside, the venue’s forsaken halls await the impending merch stampede. But in here Roth has found the Final Fantasy series’ spiritual centrepoint, one that the games have moved away in recent years, much to the angst of fans. “Sephiroth!” is a reminder of the passion that brought the crowd here tonight, transporting them en masse to a younger place, where the games did the things they wanted to, where Sakaguchi, like a father, would never leave them, where everything would stay the same and remain just as exciting despite its constancy.
“Sephiroth!” they chant, on their feet now. Music is all kinds of magic. I predict a riot.
Concert held at Palais des Congrès de Paris on 12th January, 2013. This article first appeared in The Guardian, here