We were lucky enough to catch up with Thomas Böcker, the creator and producer of Symphonic Fantasies. Thomas is at the forefront of bringing video game music to the masses by pushing the medium into the orchestral limelight like no-other. Thomas has even received a Cultural and Creative Pilots award from the German Federal Government.
For readers who might not know: Who are you and what is Symphonic Fantasies?
I am a producer of video game music concerts for more than 10 years, which have been performed all over the world. The recent Japan tour with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Final Symphony II programme attracted a crowd of around 7,000 attendees, with arrangements of music from the Final Fantasy franchise and Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu themselves hosting the concerts.
As with Final Symphony and Final Symphony II, Symphonic Fantasies is officially licensed by Square Enix and features the music of Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy. The scores are written for full orchestra and choir, plus solo pianist and solo percussionist: the percussion instrument specifically performed is the darbouka. It really offers the full spectrum of beautiful music from four of the most beloved JRPG franchises out there.
What inspired Symphonic Fantasies?
Symphonic Fantasies was first presented in 2009 in Germany, followed by performances in Japan and Sweden in 2012.
At the time my team and I felt that video game music concerts needed some change in order to develop musically and to gain more acceptance outside usual circles, and instead of presenting short pieces of 4 to 5 minutes in length, we decided for “fantasies” – so that each segment of the concert is about 15 – 20 minutes, re-telling the stories of the games. The story-telling aspect became the most defining element of all of our productions since then. We wanted to ensure that people could enjoy the music, no matter whether they are familiar with video games or not. We wanted the music to speak for itself, playing with the themes of the games.
Being big fans of Square Enix games, we decided to feature four franchises in order to be able to focus on the musical development of each and not get lost in a hotpot of too many games.
I love the idea of providing a European take on music which a lot of young people associate with Japanese culture and video games. Where did that idea come from?
As I am a fan of game music myself, starting with the Commodore 64 back at the age of 7/8, I always dreamt of hearing such music performed live by an orchestra. I had read in a magazine about Japanese orchestras doing so in the late 80s, and I felt there would be a market outside Japan. I waited for quite some time, and when nothing happened, I took the chance to contact the management of the Games Convention (the major European games show in Leipzig at the time) and sent them my proposal for a video game music concert. Fortunately, they liked the idea and they funded what would become the Symphonic Game Music Concert series. That went from 2003 to 2007, with me being the producer behind it, planning and coordinating everything from start to finish. In 2007, I invited the former orchestra manager of the WDR Funkhausorchester (the WDR is the West German public broadcasting corporation based in Cologne) to the Leipzig performance, and he got the concept immediately, allowing me to produce several concerts for the WDR, with Symphonic Shades (2008), Symphonic Fantasies (2009), Symphonic Legends (2010) and Symphonic Odysseys (2011) being the major ones.
The success of our concerts in Japan in 2012 encouraged me to invest in a new project without any outside financial support anymore, which became Final Symphony in 2013, the most successful production of my company to date. It does not only travel the world (Germany, UK, Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, New Zealand etc.), it also saw a chart topping album recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, followed by a highly successful sequel, Final Symphony II, which Nobuo Uematsu himself described as “the perfect match between art and entertainment”.
What’s your favourite piece of music from Symphonic Fantasies and why?
Naturally, this is very, very difficult to answer, but Secret of Mana is a gem. Especially back in 2009, when most video game music concerts featured straight-forward orchestrations (which I do not mean disrespectfully), it offered a new world of sounds and creative ideas. In the beginning, the arrangement portrays a nearing thunderstorm, with the choir making special noises to describe it, and what might sound strange from my interview answer here is incredibly impressive live in concert, as the arranger – Jonne Valtonen – did an excellent job creating a surround sound that will give you goose bumps instantly. Besides this, I personally think that the main theme of Secret of Mana is one of the most beautiful melodies in video game history.
Some of the music in Symphonic Fantasies is over twenty years old! What are your thoughts on current Japanese video game music?
I still like it a lot. Japanese video game music used to rely on strong, sometimes simple melodies, that were easily recognizable and memorable. Something that European video game music used to offer too, before it changed a bit into what has been called “Hollywood style” by some, although I think this is a bit misleading. I would describe it instead as music made to stay in the background and support the action on screen: sound design. Japanese video game music has kept its melodic tradition a little longer, although there is no denying that producers there are increasingly asking for a different approach. However, music by composers such as Yuzo Koshiro or Mahito Yokota still manages to stay melodic, and I hope for more of it in the future.
I know that the Barbican has always been very forward thinking in the way they showcase video games (even right back to their Game On exhibition in 2002), but outside of the Barbican I feel like there is still a strong stigma surrounding video games, especially in academic circles in England. Do you feel like this is the case?
I am from Germany, and I can ensure you that it is at least as conservative as it seems to be in England, judging from your question. Video games are a relatively young medium, so I think we should not be too disappointed, and we should also accept that there is a lot of unused potential for video games to grow. The story-telling aspect is just one that comes to my mind now, I personally think that there is a good chance that more and more people will realize the quality that our industry has to offer, particularly thanks to all the indie games which we have today.
And then, of course there are video game music concerts around the world, which make people aware of something they might not have known before.
How does England’s acceptance of video games as an art form compare to the rest of Europe?
It is hard to judge, but as said, in Germany we have an environment of scepticism, and discussions easily lead into controversial debates, especially due to the often depicted violence in games. With more and more quality productions, and with more and more indie games, I think critics will start to accept the relevance due to the variety of offerings, same as happened with the film industry.
You’ve won a lot of awards, just in November you were awarded a Cultural and Creative Pilots award from the German Federal Government, how does it feel to be such a pioneer of video game concerts and music?
Needless to say, it feels great and I am honored, but most importantly I see it as a key to reach a wider audience, making more people aware of video game music. As previously discussed, the environment in Germany is conservative, and especially so within orchestra managements. With the Federal Government awarding a concert featuring such scores, I hope it will be easier to convince orchestra managers to give it a try – so that more and more people will benefit from it – fans, musicians, music aficionados – and learn something new perhaps. In this regard I must say that the London Symphony Orchestra is one of the most progressive orchestras in the world, and you should be very proud having such an ensemble in England!
What is your favourite video game and why?
Another tough question, as there are so many games I like, and as it always depends a little on my current mood. I grew up with the Turrican series on the Commodore Amiga, so this game will always have a special place in my heart. But besides this, there is of course Final Fantasy (6 and 7 especially), there is Legend of Zelda – and one franchise I had a lot of fun playing with friends: Pikmin!
A typical Shigeru Miyamoto game, with lots of cuteness and clever (and often hard!) level design that makes you come back to play it again and again, as you soak into its own fascinating little world. One could just sit there, watching and enjoying the game’s love for detail.
Tickets are currently on sale for Symphonic Fantasies London (performance is on 6th October 2016) in London at the Barbican Center. Click here to find out more!