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Interview with Arnie Roth of Distant Worlds (April 2011)

Distant Worlds Logo

Under producer and conductor Arnie Roth, the Final Fantasy orchestral concert series Distant Worlds - Music from Final Fantasy is appealing to bigger audiences than ever. Building on a successful premise with new innovations, the tour has offered numerous new dates, special item additions, and CD and DVD releases this year.

On April 2, SEMO's Matt Diener was able to talk to Roth prior to the second performance of the tour in New York City. Roth speaks openly about the tour, giving special attention to the recent Returning Home concert in Tokyo and the upcoming double concert in Chicago. He particularly reflects how he is embracing new arrangements and games, while continuing to focus on the fan favourites, and tells some interesting stories about "One-Winged Angel" along the way.

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Arnie Roth
Interviewer: Matt Diener
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Szuberla

Interview Content

Matt: Arnie Roth, many thanks for speaking to us today about recent developments of Distant Worlds. It's been over a year since we've last spoke to you. How do you think Distant Worlds has developed during this time?

Arnie Roth: I'm not sure if we announced this the last time we spoke, but we recently reached agreement with Square Enix to extend Distant Worlds for another three years, and this year is the first of the three year extension. It's an unprecedented thing from our standpoint since in the past Square Enix has not allowed more than a few concerts of Final Fantasy music. And so now... six years of Distant Worlds? That's fantastic!

One of the goals for the next three years is to reach out a little further to Europe, hence the London Royal Albert Hall date and Krakow, but we're looking into concerts in Berlin, Budapest, Scandinavian countries (returning to Helsinki and Stockholm), Amsterdam, Spain, and Italy much more seriously now during these three years. Final Fantasy as a franchise seems to be extremely popular in Asia and North America, and maybe a little less so in Europe... or so we thought, but as soon as we put London up for sale it sold out within weeks. Certainly, we'll be back in North America. We just announced the Houston symphony in July 16 and I'll give you a few more sneak peeks: we've just agreed to all terms with the Baltimore Symphony so we'll be back there on July 30 and we're about to announce Vancouver again as well.

Matt Diener Interviews Arnie Roth

There's one other exciting bit of news that is an exclusive that I'll tell you here since we haven't announced it ourselves. We wanted to have a piece that Uematsu and I could play live in concert with Distant Worlds but he's always resisted that. So finally I found a piece that is very popular and he agreed. In Chicago, we are going to have the premiere of Final Fantasy VI's "Dark World". He and I are going to play live; I will play violin, he'll play on organ and keyboard with a full orchestra with it. It's a beautiful piece that's very austere, and I think it's a wonderful, fun thing to orchestra. I'm trying to push him into a little improvisation as well, and it will be premiered at both Chicago shows.

Matt: Now that the concerts are occurring regularly across the world, it must be challenging to maintain a consistent high quality for the concerts. How do you ensure that the venues, orchestras, and soloists are up to the job of presenting such a special tribute? I've seen you at Wolf Trap and here at the Opera House which are two completely different venues. So what is that challenge like?

Arnie Roth: There is an awful lot of variable in that. You gave an extreme example of Wolf Trap being an outdoor concert, so there was sound reinforcement on everything and now anything that I do on stage with these orchestras in terms of balance, attack and dynamics that we do in rehearsal we are still in the hands, ultimately, of the front of house soundmixer. When I have control of it, I try to bring in someone I trust who has a lot of experience mixing orchestras. Do I lose sleep? Yes. (laughs)

This one was a particularly interesting juxtaposition because the Brooklyn Philharmonic always plays live on the stage of BAM. It's only 2,000 seats so it seems that we should be able to play live without a lot of sound reinforcement so we didn't mic the entire orchestra — they're acoustic. The chorus is mic'd because they're in the way back so they need a little help so now we have the speaker stacks putting out sound, and we're forced to put up a small line of microphones on the principal string desks to put a more realistic on the live surround sound that the audience is experiencing from the speaker stacks. We're doing the Opera (Maria and Draco) tonight and, while those three soloists certainly can project — they're opera singers! — we have to mic them a little bit because it's a massive orchestra behind them and it's not possible to get the balance that I'd like to achieve. These are the crazy hoops we have to jump through with every venue and every orchestra being different.

And rehearsal time with an orchestra that size is precious. I had to very carefully construct these concerts. I wanted to vary the two programs here but I didn't have enough rehearsal time to do two completely different programs. With our library, I could play a week's worth of concerts and not repeat anything. We have so many scores and more that I haven't done that I'd like to do. Things like "You're Not Alone", "Balamb Garden"... we have those scores. They're sitting there, ready to go, and I'm trying to decide when I can premiere them. (laughs) Every orchestra has a different performance limit before they go into overtime so I'm literally watching the clock during the performances wondering if I can do the encore or if I have to cut something before we get there... because we have to do "One-Winged Angel". I love that challenge.

Matt: The Chicago concerts occurring are an example of the 'two concerts, two programs' format for Distant Worlds. Could you elaborate on this concept?

Arnie Roth: In those two concerts, literally nothing is repeated except for the premiere that I mentioned earlier and, of course, "One-Winged Angel". We have to do that. But they are completely separate programs, and Benjamin Nuss is coming in and he'll be doing "Those Who Fight", which we've never had the chance to do. I'd love to do an orchestra arrangement of that since it begs for it but... we'll get to that (laughs).

Chocobo on Stage at Distant Worlds Returning Home

Matt: Do you expect there will be many people who attend both concerts?

Arnie Roth: I think there will be a lot. There was a certain percentage here as well because they could see the highlights on both. But in Chicago, if you go to both you will literally hear every piece of music on the Distant Worlds I and II CDs plus a lot of the material from Japan that is not on either of those, so XIII and XIV will be represented. Tonight, we're not doing "Answers", but we're also doing "Twilight over Thanalan" which we've never done outside of Japan. I'm trying to give people as much as possible within the rehearsal and time limit constraints which I'm constantly battling against.

Matt: With the repertoire of Distant Worlds now quite vast, it must be challenging to produce balanced and encompassing programs for such events. How do you ensure the selections appeal to casual and hardcore fans alike?

Arnie Roth: The fans as I've met them fall into different categories. There are some fans that are more specifically into one or another version of the game — you find that a lot with XI, or IX, and X. Then, there is a whole core of hardcore fans that are really into VI, VII, and VIII, particularly the music which is why we have such a tremendous amount that comes from them. I had somebody come up to me last night and say 'Oh, you didn't do anything from IX...' and tonight we're doing "Melodies of Life" and "Vamo alla Flamenco". We are trying to cover everything and are trying to have a balanced program where, on each night, we have almost everything represented; but for instance, at these performances I ran out of time to do "Theme of Love" from IV or "Love Grows".

Is it difficult? Yes. There are 25 years of Final Fantasy to figure out. The way I look at this weekend is that we have two concerts in New York. If I have the choir on Friday, I have to feature them, but I have to leave out other things from other games. Then I have to worry about what sits next to each other. I can't have too much of VI, VII and VIII next to each other, so I want to break that up both from a visual standpoint as well as a reference standpoint.

But in Chicago because the shows are so completely different, we will be able to cover a lot more. We're spending a lot more of our budget in rehearsal dollars with the orchestra. We're doing two big three hour rehearsals on Saturday and another hour-and-a-half on Sunday prior to the two concerts. It's a lot of rehearsal time, but it's the only way that I can cover it. Here's one last interesting thing: in Houston and Krakow, Uematsu-san is not available so in those two places we have Masashi Hamauzu coming in and we'll be doing a much bigger segment of XIII.

Matt: As you've already mentioned, some music from Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIV has been added to the concert series this year. How did you offer a suitable tribute to these games with the orchestral arrangements and video screens?

Arnie Roth: For XIII and XIV, I don't know how popular they are yet because they're so new, but I feel that I have to do something from them. We were the first to jump on XIII and XIV arrangements when they were released. In fact, I almost had it in time for Distant Worlds II but the secret is that when I was in Stockholm, I recorded the medley from XIV because we had it there. They wouldn't let me put it on the album because XIV wasn't released until after the album was, but that's why the medley was available as a downloadable track.

The visuals from XIII and XIV are so stunning — all of them actually are from X to XIV the animation from them is astounding and we want to show that. And yet, people are still in love with IV or I.

Dissidia at Distant Worlds Returning Home

Matt: Indeed, Distant Worlds has focused mainly on the older games in the series since its premiere, particularly VI to VIII. Do you think this is proportional to fan demand, or does it ever worry you that the tour might tire existing pieces or arrangements?

Arnie Roth: The reason why we aim towards what we're trying to fulfil on the concerts is that we're trying to pay homage to the first four games. Look at what came out of it: The main theme, Chocobo theme... there's a lot of stuff out of there. And now Final Fantasy I and II are out on the iPhone, so we can't quite ignore them. When I have time to do a proper retrospective of that, I do it. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on who you ask, you'll find more stuff from VI, VII and VIII that most Final Fantasy fans will want to hear.

I have yet to have one fan come up to me and say 'You do too much stuff from the earlier games!' And you know, I look at the Distant Worlds Facebook site — we have almost 30,000 fans — all the time and read all of the comments going by. From what I see, most of the themes people are asking to hear come from VI, VII, and VIII. I'm constantly reading everything; I really do look at it. I may not be able to respond to everything, but I'm looking at the input. I make a mental note of it and I really appreciate it.

I want to keep the experience fresh and new, and I was really heartened to read the comments from Facebook fans from last night's concert pointing out the new things and saying how new it felt with arrangements like "Clash on the Big Bridge" It's gratifying to know that they understand what I'm trying to do, but on the other hand every time that I add something I have to take something away (laughs). I'm trying to balance this thing as best as I can, and I don't want to see a single fan upset by my choices.

Matt: One piece, "One Winged Angel", has featured at the finale of most Distant Worlds concerts. In your opinion, what is the reason this track is so well-received whenever it is played? Can you ever envision a Distant Worlds concert without this piece?

Arnie Roth: I'd rather not avoid it! It's a fantastic piece and, by the way, a fantastically crafted piece in terms of the orchestration. I'm going to tell you a little inside story that I haven't told a lot of people about "One-Winged Angel". When I first met Nobuo Uematsu back in 2005 at the Dear Friends concerts, we were in a car together going to a rehearsal for the second concert, and I tapped him on the shoulder (he was sitting in front of me) and I said, 'You know... I need to tell you that, every time I think about "One-Winged Angel", what pops in my head for the opening of that is Purple Haze by Jimmy Hendrix.' Then he turns around with a wide-eyed look and says, 'That's what I was thinking of when I wrote this!'

Matt: Huh... I think I can hear it.

Arnie Roth: Think about it (begins to sing the opening syncopation of "Purple Haze" and "One-Winged Angel") It's the same tempo, too if you compare them! There are a lot of things that Nobuo Uematsu and I overlap on in terms of his influences. For instance, I played and am still involved with Mannheim Steamroller for many years, and he was maybe the only huge fan of Mannheim Steamroller in Japan for 20 years. I had no idea, and then he showed me all of our old records that he had and was listening to them. Listen to his arrangements and listen to our music, and you'll hear some remarkable similarities. The overlaps are really spooky!

Matt: In November, you celebrated the series' music in its homeland with Distant Worlds Returning Home in Tokyo, where "One-Winged Angel" actually opened the concert...

Arnie Roth: In Japan, we opened with "One-Winged Angel" because I was told "Clash on the Big Bridge" was the most popular piece of music to Japanese Final Fantasy fans. I had no idea, but because it was the most downloaded and Square Enix said it was the most popular, we decided to save it for the encore.

There was a funny story with that. I learned a little Japanese beforehand, but I pre-wrote everything that I was going to say and where I was going to say it for the concerts. Backstage, they cued the Japanese subtitles live, in real-time, so I could speak in English and the Japanese translation would scroll by on the screens. It worked perfectly. Then, I got all the way down to the encore and was about to do "Clash on the Big Bridge" on the first night and the way they had broken up the text, unfortunately, had the title popped up sooner than I said it. I made it to '...and now we have the world premiere-' and there was a huge roar before I could say it (laughs) I almost jumped off of the stage.

One Winged Angel at Distant Worlds Returning Home

Matt: Let's talk about that concert a little more. Do you see it is the pinnacle of the Distant Worlds experience so far?

Arnie Roth: I don't want to say that. We really thought of it as an epic 'the circle is complete sort of thing' and, sure, it sold out in two seconds. But the culture in Japan is different to the extent that even though they're Final Fantasy fans — there is a very polite, careful applause after all of the pieces. It's not over-the-top like we see in North America, old Europe, or even other parts of Asia. Taiwan and Singapore had huge ovations, but Japan was very quiet and very respectful, but it's not a reflection of their support or enthusiasm. They would wait until I put the baton down, I started to turn and they would begin clapping. I would then take a quick bow and as I came up they would stop. We're talking 5,000 people — a huge place — stopping on a dime together. I'd never seen anything like this, and the entire concert went along this way until we got to the end of course with "Clash on the Big Bridge" (laughs)

But when you say pinnacle, I don't want to judge it by applause and number of ovations, because we had plenty of them (in Japan) and it wasn't an issue. They were all obviously really happy with the concerts. But some of the concerts that we've done in North America have been so astoundingly received where they won't let us leave. There have been five standing ovations and I'm thinking 'What else can we play?' (laughs) To me, that's astounding.

Matt: Outside of "One-Winged Angel", I would be curious to hear about your own personal favourites. Are there any particular arrangements you enjoy conducting on the night?

Arnie Roth: "One-Winged Angel" is tremendous fun because of the huge fanbase reverence for that piece. But I must say that "Answers" is a fantastic piece and I have a great time doing that. It's a very gratifying piece to play because it has a wonderful arching architecture from a capella in the beginning to adding simple elements of the orchestra in, then adding more orchestration, getting bigger and building to a big delivery, and then coming back to an a capella ending. I like that.

Matt: Its progression reminds me of Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven".

Arnie Roth: Yes! Just like that! You know, he's (points to Uematsu) constantly looking for references on how to tell these epic stories with this epic architecture. It's easy for a writer to have writer's block, and it's the same as a composer. As a writer — as a composer — you look at similar things to hang your hat on, that have been successful at telling that story, be it a structure or an idea or a form. "Stairway to Heaven" is a great example of that, how it builds and gets quiet at the end. I think that's a really a great comparison.

But as for other favourites, I never get tired of doing "Swing de Chocobo" because it's so different from the rest of what we do. Swing and big band are near and dear to Uematsu's heart so he would love to do more of that style. I also love doing "Maria and Draco" because it's also a little different from what we do. The orchestras can really sink their teeth into that because it's more idiomatic for them. It sounds like Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and they know all that stuff. They also know how to accompany singers so all of a sudden, they (the orchestra) are back at home.

Also, I really love "Aerith's Theme". I never get tired of doing that. It's so hard as a composer to write something that endearing which is told in an understated way so you're not slamming people with the emotion. It's so delicate to do that, and to let it unfold. The orchestrations do that wonderfully and it allows the orchestra to grow, unfold and tell the story. "Aerith's Theme" is another good example of a piece that is so intimate, and it is for all the fans. People write to us that they've proposed marriage to this song at our concert or that they've used it as the processional music at their wedding. It's very compelling.

Matt: Coinciding with the Chicago concert, the CD-DVD set Distant Worlds Returning Home will be released for the first time overseas. Can you tell us more about this product? Do you expect it to appeal to non-Japanese customers?

Arnie Roth: We know that it will because it's the live concert on DVD but it's also quite a package. You're not just getting a single DVD. You're getting the live concert DVD, which encompasses both performances. As you may recall, on the first night we featured a big segment of Final Fantasy XIII and, on the second night, we featured a big segment of Final Fantasy XIV. They're getting all of that, plus all of the other material that we did. Then they're getting two live audio CDs from that package as well along with a 25-page DVD book which is beautifully done. We didn't want to charge that much for it, so we brought it down to $29.99 and we think it's reasonable for what they're getting. Also, it enables fans who maybe can't come to some of these concerts to see what the concerts are like. For years, we've had fans writing in asking when we're going to release a concert DVD.

Benyamin Nuss, Masashi Hamauzu, Nobuo Uematsu, Arnie Roth at Distant Worlds Returning Home

Matt: I'm pretty sure I was one of those fans...

Arnie Roth: (laughs) I think Square Enix did a really good job with the production. You can't intrude on the concert experience that that crowd is having too much so they were very careful about how many cameras they used. They also did a good job of going up to the full screen visuals from the music that we're doing, because you can't look at the same shot of the conductor, the orchestra and the soloists over and over and over. Also, they're dealing with lower lighting because the crowd is looking at the videos and we couldn't overload them with TV lights. It wasn't so easy to do that!

Matt: Many thanks for your time today, Arnie Roth. Is there anything else you'd like to say to your fans, fans of Distant Worlds, or fans of Final Fantasy at large?

Arnie Roth: We had such a huge reception here in New York, it was fantastic and we're already looking at dates to come back here. We'll give it a year or so to do that but we're looking at possibilities already, and we will come out with follow-up on it. The fans here have been really great. The exciting news is that we have at least three more years of Distant Worlds and we are listening to the fans about developing new pieces. I am considering bringing into the repertoire some things that we've already done and some new things. "Dark World" will be introduced in June but there will be other things like "You are not Alone" and "Balamb Garden", I'm also looking at things like "Those who Fight" and others.

Matt: Once again, thank you for your time this afternoon Arnie Roth.

Many thanks to Chris Szuberla for helping to organise interview and Heather for the interview photo. To learn more about Distant Worlds, visit the official site.