The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Coda: Partings

By Michael W. Harris

NOTE: If you have missed any of the previous entries in this series, you can read them here: Prelude, Act I, Act II, Act III, Act IV, and Act V.

Just like all the popular movies these days, this blog series has its own after credits scene. Rather than setting up the next film, though, this post is meant to highlight a few albums and items that didn’t fit in well with the more cue-focused posts that made up this series, along with offering some final thoughts and links for more readings.

I did a lot of listening in preparation of this series. I wanted to get a feel for the breadth of Final Fantasy VI musical arrangements that are currently available. While this niche fan genre has quickly become more main stream, especially as professional orchestras are trying new ways to draw in diverse audiences, I obviously pulled on a small number of albums in this blog series. Continue reading “The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Coda: Partings”

The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Act V: Many Endings

By Michael W. Harris

The last scene of the end credits
The last scene of the end credits

Kefka is defeated. The tower begins to crumble around your party. But the player’s part in the game is over and there is nothing to do but set aside your controller and enjoy the game’s twenty-plus minute ending sequence.

While I don’t have the frame of reference to compare Final Fantasy VI’s ending to other video games (I have beat shockingly few games), I can say that it has always struck me for its length and depth. It starts by taking the player through short vignettes that help up wrap up every playable character’s story line as they escape the final dungeon, and it does so while the soundtrack plays each character’s theme for a final time. It is like a last good bye to old friends. Continue reading “The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Act V: Many Endings”

The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Act IV: “Dancing Mad” and the Insanity of Kefka

By Michael W. Harris

Every great tragedy or drama or opera needs a great villain, and boy does Final Fantasy VI deliver. It is almost a given that on any list of greatest video game villains that FFVI’s Kefka will make an appearance somewhere.

Part of what makes Kefka such a great antagonist is that he doesn’t actually start out as the main villain. Initially he is the evil second in command of the empire, but is secondary to the actual Emperor. He is the Vader to Gestahl’s Palpatine. However, all that changes when Kefka steals the power of the espers, becomes a god-like being and essentially brings about the apocalypse. It is the amazing mid-game shift where not only do you have a completely new world map to navigate, but the villain actually wins. Continue reading “The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Act IV: “Dancing Mad” and the Insanity of Kefka”

The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Act III: Maria and Draco

By Michael W. Harris

Celes' Aria
Celes’ Aria

“Oh my hero, so far away now.
Will I ever see your smile?
Love goes away, like night into day.
It’s just a fading dream.”

That is how Celes’ famous aria, the “Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” begins in Ted Woolsey’s translation for the original American version of Final Fantasy VI. And it will always be how I remember the lyrics.

It is hard to overestimate just how powerful this scene was for me as a fourteen-year-old music nerd. I had been playing musical instruments since I was in either Kindergarten or first grade (hard to remember exactly when I started), and by the time FFVI rolled around I had already learned piano, clarinet, and bassoon. I listened to classical music because I honestly loved it, and had been in love with film music for as long as I could remember. Continue reading “The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Act III: Maria and Draco”

The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Act II: The Opening Sequence

By Michael W. Harris

Opening Screen
Opening Screen

As soon as you insert the Final Fantasy VI cartridge and turn on the Super Nintendo, you immediately see that this game is different. While many games with have some logos and then give you an option screen, FFVI instead blasts you with dramatic organ chords as the game logo comes on screen, the letters are colored with fire set against a stormy sky. From there, there are some narrative screens giving the background of the world, followed by the game’s first scene. After that you have something that is rarely seen in video games: opening credits. But these credits also play over the journey of the three characters just introduced to the city of Narshe, where the game proper begins. All of this plays BEFORE the player see the actual first option screen (new game, save game, etc). You are plunged into the game world first, and if the player doesn’t press a button, in theory this sequence could play on an infinite loop. Continue reading “The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Act II: The Opening Sequence”

The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Act I: The Importance of Music in FFVI

By Michael W. Harris

My small-ish collection of Final Fantasy music discs. I have a few other releases in digital only format.
My small-ish collection of Final Fantasy music discs. I have a few other releases in digital only format.

There are a few recurring things that appear in (almost) every Final Fantasy game: chocobos, some character named Cid (usually a non-playable character), and Nobuo Uematsu’s “Prelude” theme. In some ways, these, and a few other, elements are the only thing that tie the series together—at least until SquareEnix decided to start doing spin-offs and entire “series” based upon games in the core series. The Final Fantasy series isn’t an on-going story, rather it is an anthology series, and as such features more thematic ties than on-going character stories. Continue reading “The Music of Final Fantasy VI – Act I: The Importance of Music in FFVI”

The Music of Final Fantasy VI: Prelude – A Brief History of Me and Final Fantasy

By Michael W. Harris

I first heard about Final Fantasy VI (or III was it was called back then, and for the sake of my sanity, I will just call it VI in this post and the ones that follow) in an issue of Nintendo Power. I’m not sure of the date, but it was probably back in 1994, when the game was first released. I, of course, was already aware of the series, but was by no means a die-hard player. I had already played the first two Final Fantasy Legend games for Game Boy when they were released (though never actually beat them) along with Final Fantasy Adventure (which I did beat), and I remember having played the original game on NES before I sold the system to buy a Super Nintendo. However, my RPG roots actually lie in a different franchise. Dragon Warrior (or as it is now known in US by its original Japanese name: Dragon Quest). Continue reading “The Music of Final Fantasy VI: Prelude – A Brief History of Me and Final Fantasy”

Oscar Thoughts and Capsule Reviews…

I meant to write part of this post long ago…like the day after the Oscars, but life happened.  I’m getting deeper and deeper into that bottomless pit known as a dissertation and it is slowly taking over my life.  But before we get to some quick score reviews, I thought I’d try to wrap a bow on the whole Oscar thing.

Continue reading “Oscar Thoughts and Capsule Reviews…”

The Film Musicologist’s Bookshelf

About a month ago, friend of the Temp Track and fellow blogger Herr Vogler posted this over at his cyberdomain in which he details what books he feels a film composer should have on his/her shelf.  In this post I intend to do the same but for the aspiring film music scholar.

The term “film musicology” or “film musicologist” has been tossed around for about ten years to describe what it is I and others like me do, and while “film” might seem to limit the scope to just that, it is a useful catch-all term (I prefer the term “media scoring” to describe the object of my study, personally, but to each their own).  I have just recently encountered an article by William H. Rosar in the Journal of Film Music (which has an annoyingly irregular publishing history) entitled “Film Studies in Musicology: Disciplinarity vs. Interdisciplinarity” which traces some of the history and trends of the field.  I have yet to finish the article, but in what I have read he really strives to get to a core problem of the field and how it relats to this term, “film musicology:” many of the people working within the field are not trained “musicologists.”

Now, I feel that this should in no way hinder people working in the field, Herr Vogler is a trained composer and theorist but is a very intelligent and insightful scholar who has helped me greatly as I’ve delved into the field.  What Rosar is talking about is how the field developed and the “interdisciplinary” nature that the field has.  At any given Music and the Moving Image conference you’ll have scholars from musicology, music theory, film studies, literary studies, and any other field that might have a tangential connection to film or music.  What this has done, though, has made it hard to find a consistent way in which scholars approach the subject.  Since the field developed in an era already familiar with post-modern critical theory and interdisciplinary approaches, it was a sort of academic Wild West.  To that end, I would recommend looking at the Rosar’s article (found in JFM Vol. 2, No. 2-4, 2009, p. 99-125) for a sort of overview of how the current field developed in the 1980s up to the present, and hopefully some ideas for new directions (I’ll let you know how it all turns out once I finish reading the article).

But for the new scholar trying to get a feel for the field, or good reference materials to have handy, I would recommend some of the following titles.

“The Core” – Books that I would recommend for everybody:

Mervyn Cooke – A History of Film Music and James Wierzbicki – Film Music: A History: These two books were released around the same time and I really do view them as complementary titles that one should at least flip through and know the basics of.  The Cooke is a “great composers, great scores” chronological approach that is a very traditional way of doing history while Weirzbicki takes a cultural/technological viewpoint to telling the history.  Both volumes are easily available in paperback from Amazon and are a great starting point for the bookshelf.

Rick Altman – Silent Film Sound: Silent film music was always a problem in earlier studies (see Predergast – Film Music: A Neglected Art and other earlier works), but what Altman achieved in his study is a more complete understanding of how music interacted with early films and developed into the form that would give way to sound films.  It is an exhaustive study that I still haven’t read every word of, but while Cooke and Wierzbicki treat the subject at some length, Altman focuses exclusively on it.  To really understand the complete history of film music and sound, Altman has to be included in the discussion.

Michel Chion – Audio Vision: Translated from the French by Claudia Gorbman, Chion lays out a model for talking about sound in relation to film and really helps to add to the overall terminology  and approach to audio-visual studies.  As a bonus, it is relatively short, though it can be a be a bit obtuse at time.  That could be a by-product of translation, though.

A Book on Semiotics and Music – I can’t really recommend one book here because there are many different approaches to musical semiotics.  You might want to begin by obtaining a basic book that covers many different approaches to semiotics in general and from there find the method that makes the most sense to you.  I personally go by Nattiez’s Music and Discourse but I know that it does not work for everyone.  But is a basic understanding of semiotics strictly necessary?  Maybe not, but it does help to have a basic model under which to analyze the relationship between music and image.

Other Books that provide models and ideas:

Royal S. Brown – Overtones and Undertones: Brown covers a lot of film theoretical ground here, but his prose can be a bit dense.  What is really great about this book are the interviews with composers at the end.

Claudia Gorbman – Unheard Melodies: Most scholars point to Gorbman as the starting point of the field in the 1980s, and reading Rosar it is easy to understand why.  The book is out of print and expensive to get a hold of, but it is worth tracking down through your local library via Interlibrary Loan.  She lays out a good theoretical model for talking about narrative film music that still largely holds today, though some have challenged it.

Scholars whose work you should search out:

Not everybody has published a book or even a book that is easy to get a hold of, but if you have access to a good library with ILL services and subscriptions to databases such as JSTOR or RILM, then you can find a wealth of articles to read.  Names to look for, besides those already mentioned, include: Kevin J. Donnelly (or K.J.), Robynn Stilwell, Caryl Flinn, David Neumeyer, James Buhler, Kathryn Kalinak, Gillian B. Anderson…and that’s just what some call the “first generation” of film music scholars.  Another good resource is the on-line journal Music and the Moving Image which is edited by the same people who run the yearly conference of the same name at New York University (Anderson and Ron Sadoff) along with the above mentioned Journal of Film Music.

There are some other books that are about specific composers and scores (such as those listed on Herr Vogler’s list), and I would at least checkout the Scarecrow Film Score Guides series.  I’ve only looked through the ones for Batman and Forbidden Planet, but they both seemed like good ways to approach film music from a musicological perspective.  One that is as concerned with the music itself as it is the history of the composer, film, and the  circumstances surrounding the project.

As with any academic discipline, there is a balance to be struck between global knowledge about a field and more specific knowledge related to your defined niche.  That is why I have the “core” books which provide a global view (and do it very well), and have left out more specific books related to composers, periods, etc.  And since “film musicology” is still a new field that is interdisciplinary by its very nature one will also need books on film theory, music theory, and many other possible fields depending on the film subject.

I hope this has been of help to you, my readers.  Your humble blogger has yet to publish anything outside of this web space, but stay tuned as my dissertation begins to take shape – over the coming years…

YouTube is an Amazing Thing, Part III – Still Alive

In the early days of this blog (February of 2009), I did two posts on videos on YouTube (here and here), tracing a few trends or just looking for goofy and cool content.  They were light on heavy academic thought, but in a way I believe them to illustrate just what a diverse and rich source of cultural study YouTube can be for the scholar.  And while I haven’t really been able to come up with a coherent academic thesis for any of this material, I still think it is interesting (re: cool) enough to be brought to the attention of you, oh web community.

For this installment my starting point is the song ‘Still Alive’ from the video game Portal, released by Valve in 2007 (read about it here).  I’ve never played the game myself, but a friend of mine brought this song to my attention a few weeks ago, and it’s haunted me ever since.  The lyrics are tied in quite closely with the game and are supposedly sung by the computer that you defeated to win the game, but just as the player is trapped in an experiment, so does it seem that by playing the game, you yourself were furthering that experiment.  (On a purely music geek level, I love the chord progression to get from the refrain back into verse, modulating from F major to D major.)

Here is the original song as seen and heard in the game.  It’s hard to see, but on the left hand of the screen are the song’s lyrics with the credits in the upper right hand and the lower right hand portion of the screen has different signs and symbols relating to the lyrics.

After being featured in the game, the song has taken on a life of its own on YouTube with dozens if not hundreds of covers being performed by fans of the song and live performances by the song’s writer Jonathan Coulton – more on him in a bit.  What I’m going to use this particular post to do is explore on a very surface level the phenomenon of chiptune music.  I touched on this in my last post when discussing Bear McCreary’s score to Dark Void Zero, and while I am no expert on this subgenre of music, I do find it fascinating (here is the Wikipedia entry on it).  Basically, it is using either an existing program to emulate the sounds of the NES/SNES or other contemporary system when writing music, or actually using the console/computer itself (which is what I think McCreary did).  This can be accomplished by creating an interface device to run the music program through the console or, in some cases, using an existing piece of software like Mario Paint for the SNES.

In terms of classic “8-bit” chiptune versions, there are quite a few floating around on YouTube that used different filters and programs to achieve their sounds.  Here are two that I found that are pretty good.

What I also find interesting about both of these is that they actually took the time to create 8-bit style loading screens.  This next example takes the whole chiptune genre to new extremes by moving out of the video game nostalgia realm and into 1980s computing by using an old synth and Commodore 8080 to create what sounds like at times the score to WarGames.  It is an extraordinary homage inspired by the very look of the original game’s ending screens (as seen in the first video clip).

As far as chiptune versions go, I believe that final example just about makes impossible to go any further, so we shall leave that realm to discuss the composer himself, Jonathan Coulton.  First, a video of him playing the song:

As an artist Coulton has never really broken into the mainstream, but he has built a loyal following amongst geek-dom by penning some songs used in video games and also writing songs on themes near and dear to the hearts of geeks the world over, and like a true geek, he has used the internet to build his fan base.  I first heard of him a few years ago via his rather amusing, folky cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ’90s hit “Baby Got Back.”  In such a context, the sheer absurdity of the lyrics are highlighted.

But showing just how self-aware an artist he is, after the song “Still Alive” was released as a downloadable track for the video game Rock Band, Coulton actually performed the song live at a concert using Rock Band.  There is something post-modern about this and also very coy.  Many people complain about games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero because the player is not actually becoming a musician or really performing, plus that you’re not composing songs but just playing along with another artists’ performance.  But here we have the artist and his band playing the game version of his song.  What’s most amusing is that his band actually fails at many points.

Well, I don’t really have much more, but I’ll leave you with one final version of the song, this one performed at the annual Penny Arcade Expo (or PAX) by Coulton and uber-geek Felicia Day (who has appeared in many a Joss Whedon project, including Dr. Horrible and also has her own webseries The Guild which you should really check out).

Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow.