Eric Roth and the Legacy of Final Fantasy Music (Interview)

Eric Roth is an internationally renowned composer and conductor, an orchestrator/arranger and producer, known in the video gaming industry for his works in producing the concert series A New World: intimate music from Final Fantasy, produced by AWR Productions and Square Enix. He is the son of Arnie Roth, conductor for Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy, and served as an associate music director for the production. His arrangements have been performed by many orchestras, with some of the more notable ones being the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony, and many others.   

It’s 10:00 AM, and I’m readying for a day working at Otakon here in Washington, D.C., at the Marriott Marquis. As I’m being escorted by the staff to my interview room, I can’t help but feel a bit nervous about missing some important points that I wanted to go over, or completely bungling what I want to say. All those fears are quick to leave though as I meet Eric, who greets me with a wide, warm smile. He’s laid back, cheerful, and excited to talk, which honestly made the process a lot easier.

Brandon Bui: Can you tell me how you got your start in music?

Eric Roth: Sure, I’m happy to. It’s very easy to say where it all started, which is that I don’t remember a time when music wasn’t important to me – you know what I mean? My father, when I was a little kid, was a professional violinist, that was what he did. I gravitated towards music, and always grew up with it around me.  When I was a kid, in Chicago, there was a big recording industry, which is not the case anymore. I’m one of the youngest people, I would say, to witness these things, and I was able to go to recording sessions.  My experiences…I was a professional percussionist and drummer, studying music in college with a graduate degree in music composition, and some years playing professionally. I went and did even more school like all but dissertation for doctorate, and I’m not going back anytime. I passed all my comprehensive exams, and went right into show business. I used to be in academia, teaching in Brooklyn for conservatory music and other places, stuff like that. That’s the general experience that takes me up before twelve years ago.

BB: How did you make a transition into conducting after all of that?

ER: Conducting has come from composing and arranging. My work as an arranger and orchestrator led to conducting opportunities, as a sub for different people and then it turned out that I wasn’t terrible, which is not always the case with everybody. I have been privileged to get more and more experience and at a certain point you get enough where it becomes a great joy.

BB: What’s it like going from being an audience musician to the conducting role? How does it feel to coordinate all of that?

ER: Honestly, part of the reason why I got away from being the instrumentalist was because it didn’t feel right to me just being, and I don’t want to disparage instrumentalists, but an individual cog in the machine. That wasn’t how I thought about music. I could have concentrated that way, but that wasn’t what stimulated me. That’s what got me moving into composing and arranging for bigger forces. That same motivation is what got me to enjoy conducting as a performer; it’s the idea of… a really different global perspective. You have to be able to look at detail but you’re not always looking at the detail. You are looking at the global perspective and different perspective – that agrees with me more.

BB: How did you get involved with A New World: intimate music from Final Fantasy?

ER: The original idea was several years after Distant Worlds came to be – having discussions about repertoire between myself, Arnie, Nobuo Uematsu, and the team at Square Enix. The discussions led to possibilities, lots of them, with room for chamber music and smaller ensembles than an orchestra. There’s just so much music in all the games, you know, and of such a great quality, that we realized that, hey, there’s enough of this stuff for a whole new production that would be exciting and different. There really isn’t another show like it, like a chamber music video game music show, so I think that it took a few trial runs like a VIP event at the Royal Albert Hall preceding Distant Worlds, or a small VIP thing in Chicago.

BB: Was this Dear Friends: music from Final Fantasy? [Dear Friends was the precursor to Distant WorldsMore information here.]

ER: No, these trial runs were after Distant Worlds had begun. In 2014, the company received approval to begin the full-blown thing and started two concerts and live recordings at LSO St. Luke’s.

BB: How did you bring the music to life, and translate it from Distant Worlds to the chamber ensemble? How does the music develop? 

ER: We’re actually not doing a ton of that. We’re not trying to scale down the Distant Worlds music down for A New World – there’s little room for overlap in repertoire for the two productions, and we think of this as a point of pride. But, that is one of the most challenging aspects for an orchestrator and arranger is when you’re taking something that’s for a big ensemble and making it work for a smaller ensemble.

BB: What’s a piece you’re particularly proud of?

ER: I think my reduction of the Hamaguchi orchestration of Zanarkand is a particular point of pride for me; it’s really challenging to make something that’s still good enough to hold up to that with a lot less forces. I feel really satisfied in how that came out. You’re absolutely right, that’s a huge challenge.

BB: Now… as far as future direction for A New World, what’s next? Is there going to be a new album?

ER: I can’t give you specifics, but what I can say is that we’ve done some recording to that end. The actual timeline and all that… I’m not at liberty to say. We have more than enough material for another record.

BB: How about the work from Yoko Shimomura and Final Fantasy XV? That body of work was phenomenal. Could we possibly see Final Fantasy XV make its way to the chamber ensemble?

ER: I think it’s phenomenal too, and a lot of people are really high on the music for good reason. In short, yes, we are absolutely doing stuff with XV.

BB: One of your big challenges was in the translation process – any other notable instances that you struggled with?

ER: It’s a huge responsibility trying to make this original music that’s designed for video games.  There are certain realities, structural and functional, about how music is supposed to interact in a video game. Things are often times played in loops. Our challenge is to translate that, keep the identity of the original music so that people aren’t confused, make sure that people maintain that rich relationship with the music, and bring something new to the table so that it’s not, you just play the thing twice and you’re done. [laughs] You need to add structural interest as it’s a concert, a performance, rather than a complement to video games.

BB: You’ve worked with Nobuo Uematsu in this, what’s it like working with him?

ER: I would say that there’s a ton of back and forth – he listens to ideas. He wants to know about different ideas. He’s not saying, “you guys are going to do this and this.” It’s very much a collaboration: different ideas come from me, Square Enix, different ideas come from Arnie, it’s a very diverse process.

BB: Was there ever an instance where the team felt like something could have been arranged better?

ER: No. The amount of respect and admiration we have for Uematsu-san’s musical accomplishments, and not just in term of his career, but the actual music, what hasn’t been said about it? The incredible number of melodies, of beautiful character melodies, place themes, and their variety. People have written a lot about his music. There’s never a dynamic of “we think this would be better,” but it’s very common for us to say, “here’s an idea of ours, what do you think?”

BB: How has the fan reaction been for you, both as to you, and to the concert?

ER: To A New World, audience members have a very special experience that they don’t anticipate. They have this deep, in many cases, relationship with the music already. But! They don’t have a visual other than the musicians doing their thing and we’re totally exposed. You know what each individual is doing if you wanted to. Each aspect of the music, you can pay attention as much detail as you want to. The audience’s individual control of their experience is different than Distant Worlds or other video game music concerts where there’s a video. When people experience A New World for the first time, they’re surprised for the intimate, in-depth experience that they end up having.

BB: I feel like A New World is geared more towards those classic symphonies, quiet, and then Distant Worlds where the reaction is louder, with people dressing up more. Is there a similarity for you in reaction?

ER: The enthusiasm is certainly similar [laughs], but what you’re saying is right. Distant Worlds is a big spectacle, but A New World is an intimate experience that’s not all quiet and somber music. It’s a different kind of thing.

For me though, I’ve gotten a very good reaction over the years. I’ve gotten close to my audience over the years, and I love when we get to talk, I love when we have a little back and forth on stage, that can be really fun. I try to be prepared and have a loose, fun atmosphere without trying to dictate the experience too much.

BB: Was there a fan experience that really stuck out to you?

ER: [laughs] A lot of them! You know, the experiences that stick out are the different individuals that I meet, I gotta be honest. How they traveled so far because they love the music and how it means so much to them. It doesn’t get old, and not because of me, but because of the energy in the concert. It’s not like, “Oh, thank you, it’s wonderful to have this attention,” but that’s not the upside. The upside is the experience that we can share.

BB: I’ve been playing the piano for twenty years now, and given your track record as a composer and arranger, what advice could you share for somebody who wants to start making his own music?

ER: One piece that I always give: record everything. Not the stuff you’re messing around with, but make a documentation of everything that you make, so that a) you can check it out as a listener and get a different perspective and b) so that you have something always available to show other people for their feedback.

BB: As far as Distant Worlds and A New World, is there a dream project or ambition you’d like to eventually fulfill?

ER: For video game music specifically, I want to see video game music less “ghetto”-ized in the concert world. The process has begun, and I think that it will continue. But I think right now what we have is some video game music productions like us, and other orchestras who will perform a program of video game music. But, I think that you’re going to see these lines break down more and more. We will embrace the egalitarian ideal that great music can come from anyplace or anybody. We don’t need to say that this is music for an orchestra, and this is for video game music people. We can mush music together – that’s an ambition.

BB: That actually answers my last question, which is perfect.

ER: And which one was that?

BB: I wanted to ask you where you think gaming is going to go in the future – maybe a little less “ghetto”-ized.

ER: I use that word pointedly towards concert presenters and the orchestra world, not towards the experience of game music performers. The truth is that these are the most beautiful audiences ever.

I’ll put it this way, and I say it a lot because it’s true. When people go to concerts and you have X number of people in the hall, some of them are there because they just have a subscription series. Then there’s those who have an interest for a song in the program. Then there’s those who are invited by their friend. People go for all kinds of reasons. But! People come to Distant Worlds and A New World for almost all the same reason! It’s amazing – this pure experience – they want to feel all the music; they have a deep relationship with almost all of the music, if not all of the music, and want to feel the live music of vibrating air molecules in a room with a lot of other people. It’s beautiful, the greatest concert experience you can have. I try to impress upon those who don’t have experience with video game music concerts.

BB: Honestly, if you asked me a couple years ago, I never would have imagined that I’d have taken a flight out for this kind of show. I’m in Arkansas for graduate school, and I never would have imagined that I would have taken a flight from there to go to Chicago for a music concert. When I heard these stories, I’m like, “no way, that won’t happen!” – but I ended up doing it, and now it’s me seeing how great it is!

ER: You know, it’s what they say, “Follow your joy.”

BB: I’ve been to several of the video game concerts over the past few years, and I just wanted to say, Distant Worlds and Square Enix – it’s absolutely phenomenal and I love that it’s in a whole class of its own. I really appreciate all of the work you do, and I’ll tell you that it’s gotten me through a lot of study sessions. [laughs]

ER: Thanks Brandon, that’s really nice of you to say.

BB: Well, Eric, this has been a memorable experience. I really appreciate your time. Thanks for talking with me today, and best of luck with the concert!

ER: Thank you!

Published by Brandon Bui, PharmD

Brandon Bui is the Editor-in-Chief and owner of Gamer Professionals. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from California State University, Fullerton, and is a Doctor of Pharmacy. Frighteningly obsessed with his Nintendo Switch and Breath of the Wild.