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Interview with Roger Wanamo (July 2011)

Roger Wanamo is a classically-trained composer and orchestrator. Fascinated by the concept of bringing game music to concert halls, Wanamo has closely collaborated with producer Thomas Böcker and arranger Jonne Valtonen on several concerts. His arrangements of Chronos (Symphonic Fantasies), Super Mario Galaxy (Symphonic Legends), and Final Fantasy (Symphonic Legends) provided definitive highlights of their respective concerts.

In this inspiring interview, Wanamo recalls the experiences that led him to work on symphonic game music concerts. He goes on to focus in on the aforementioned suites, noting particularly his story-fuelled approach to layering themes and his treatment of the piano concertino as a form. He closes by discussing his original concert works and ambitions for the future.

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Roger Wanamo
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Thomas Boecker

Interview Content

Chris: Roger Wanamo, many thanks for talking to us today about your work on symphonic game music concerts. First of all, could you tell us about your musical background? What led you to pursue a career as a composer?

Roger Wanamo: For as long as I remember, I have played the piano. In my teens I was really into it and spent most of my spare time at the piano. After high school, I had to make the choice between becoming a pianist or getting a "real job". Coming from an academic family where music was regarded a nice hobby, but a "serious education" was considered a lot more valuable, I went for the second option and went to study computer science. At Helsinki University of Technology, I quickly noticed that for school projects I was mostly writing music software or composing background music for web pages.

After a year, I decided I wanted to do something more creative, so I went to study theater. Once again, I soon found myself composing music for all the plays we were doing. At this point, I realized that it was unavoidable and I really had to do music. So, I applied to the composition program at Tampere University of Applied Sciences and, fortunately, was accepted.

Roger Wanamo © Philippe Ramakers

Chris: Unlike Masashi Hamauzu and Jonne Valtonen, you don't have much of a background as a gamer. Did you play any games or notice game music at all while young? What were your impressions when you learned game music has become popular in symphonic concerts?

Roger Wanamo: Actually, I played quite a lot of games in my childhood. I never got a console, but we got our first PC in the mid 80's. I grew up with the early Sierra adventure games, RPGs like Ultima V, and strategy games like Dune II and Civilization. In the pre-soundblaster era, the musical capabilities of the PC were very limited. My strongest game music memory from that time would be the theme of Leisure Suite Larry coming from the one voice PC speaker. And also of course the music from Mario and Zelda, which I played at my friends houses whenever I had a chance.

Since I started arranging game music for concerts, I have acquired quite an arsenal of consoles, ranging from 8-bit NES to current gen consoles. I like to get hands-on experience with the games I'm working on to truly understand the music and the game itself. Unfortunately, even though I now own a lot more games than ever before, there is really not too much spare time to play them. Feels like I'm mostly gaming for work, checking out the titles I'm about to arrange.

I first heard about symphonic game music concerts from Jonne Valtonen when he told me about his work. I was immediately very interested in the idea, not the least because he told me he had orchestrated Morrowind, which probably is the one game that I have spent the most hours playing to date. I listened to the pieces Jonne had written and thought "wow, if I one day could write something like that".


Chris: It was through your friendship with Jonne Valtonen that you started becoming involved with symphonic game music concerts, starting with Symphonic Fantasies. Could you share the story of how you met and came to write arrangements together?

Roger Wanamo: When I came to Tampere to study composition, Jonne was in his second year of the same program. We started to hang out a lot right from the start. We worked on some projects together, among others a children's play featuring our school's symphony orchestra. When Jonne saw my scores he liked them a lot and asked me if I would be interested in also arranging and orchestrating some game music. I said "of course", then he introduced me to Thomas Böcker and the rest is history!


Chris: On Symphonic Fantasies, you somehow managed to combine the often divergent melodies of Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger into a satisfying fantasia. How did you achieve this in a mature and meaningful way?

Roger Wanamo: The first thing I did was watch playthroughs of both games on youtube. This was a defining moment for me and my relationship to game music. Since I had always been a PC gamer, I was a complete stranger to JRPG's and I was totally overwhelmed by the depth and beauty of the music. As opposed to the games I was used to, music was not just a background element, music was used to tell the story.

As music was telling the story in the game, I knew that the Chrono fantasy also had to tell a story. A simple medley with a few hit themes lined up after one another with clumsy transitions would not do the music, nor the game, justice. I wanted to create a 15 minute musical drama with high points and low points, dramatic action and more peaceful parts, tragic moments as well as triumphant moments overcoming the tragedy. Most importantly I wanted the listener to feel at the and that he had been taking part in a story — a dramatical journey — not just that he had heard a few of his favourite themes performed by a symphony orchestra.


Chris: While Symphonic Fantasies was quite ambitious, the concert came with considerable expectations from fans. How did your respond to this? Did you see these expectations as opportunities or limitations?

Roger Wanamo: I always see high expectations as a positive thing. With a critical audience that only wants the best, I am also forced to perform at my best. If the audience couldn't care less about the quality of the arrangements, it would be a lot harder for me to find the motivation to really put all those hundreds of hours of work into a piece like this.

For Symphonic Fantasies, what put the most pressure on me was the fact that the rest of the concert was arranged by Jonne. By then, Jonne was already incredibly good at handling the orchestra and creating interesting arrangements, and I knew that what I write would be directly compared to his work. This does raise the bar pretty high. Though during the process I got a lot of useful help from Jonne. He was supervising the suite very closely, coming up with some good ideas and giving feedback on both the arrangement and orchestration on almost daily basis.

Cologne Philharmonic Hall © Philippe Ramakers

Chris: Symphonic Legends was headlined by two of your pieces, a light-hearted medley dedicated to Super Mario Bros. and a dramatic retelling of Super Mario Galaxy. What inspired your contrasting approaches to the source material and what do you think this diversity brought to the concert?

Roger Wanamo: Super Mario Bros. is probably the arrangement closest to basic medley form that I have written so far. At first my goal was to make smoother transitions and tell a story like I usually do. This turned out to not fit the game at all. After all, Super Mario Bros. is a game where the player just starts running around, jumping on flying turtles and eating mushrooms, then he slides down a pipe an suddenly he is in a dark underworld or swimming under water. There is no explanations to why the world is like this or why the princess is captured in a(nother) castle. The game is not as much telling a story as just presenting different situations one after another. The music for these different situations are also all very different. So at the end, I felt that a basic medley is the most representative of the game.

In Super Mario Galaxy, the story in the game is a lot more developed. Here, producer Thomas Böcker wanted me to tell the story of the game right from the start. It is told in three parts. The introduction is a quite straightforward representation of the opening scenes. The middle part is a collage showing Mario jumping back and forth between different galaxies. Then there is the final battle with Bowser, combining the different Bowser battle themes. After the victory fanfare, the piece ends with Gusty Garden, mostly because I wanted to use more of that theme and I wanted to save the credits theme for the encore, and also because it is a very nice ending theme for the suite.

I think the diversity of the concert mostly was thanks to the fact that there was a lot of different arrangers, each with their own individual style. Thomas Böcker did a great job planning the whole concert, choosing the titles to be featured, choosing great arrangers and choosing the concert order. At least for me the concert was very interesting because every piece seemed to bring a new approach to arranging, taking a slightly different view at the source material. This way every piece felt fresh and new.


Chris: Building on your achievements on the Chronos suite, the Super Mario Galaxy and encore performances in Symphonic Legends reflected your now-celebrated strategy for layering themes. Could you tell us more about this technique? How do you ensure the various pieces of these jigsaw puzzles come together to create a meaningful whole?

Roger Wanamo: I've mentioned the word "story" quite a few times. This is because I usually think of a piece of music as a story where the themes represent different characters and the rest of the texture creates an environment for the characters. A good story does not just showcase different characters in their respective environments. The drama in a story comes from characters interacting with each other, or characters getting into unfamiliar — perhaps even intruding on each other's — environments. So, if I'm writing an arrangement of a few themes, the first thing I think of is how the themes can interact together.

A lot of the layering also comes from the fact that often the original track needs something added to really fill the hall and sound full with the symphony orchestra. This does not mean that there is something wrong with the original — it's just that midi orchestration and live orchestration are completely different things. Instead of composing own countermelodies, I try to look for other themes in the game or game series that can function as countermelodies. Many of these are very subtle and there is a lot that I'm pretty sure no listener has ever noticed. Neither are they meant to be noticed as featured themes; they are just filling up the texture and, being from the same game, they keep in the spirit of the suite in question.

The third reason for layering themes is creating a sense of unity and strengthening the overall structure. If a theme is introduced at the end of the piece, I try to sneak it in in the background earlier so that it won't feel totally unfamiliar and unexpected when it finally is introduced. Like in a story, you don't just introduce the villain as a new character when it is time for the final battle, the villain has certainly been present earlier in the story as well. Sometimes these "previews" are quite obvious, like the countless appearances of Magus theme in Chrono, which makes the listener really expect Magus theme in it's full glory and, when it finally appears, these expectations are fulfilled. Other times they are more subtle, appearing as counter melodies under some other theme. Even though the listener doesn't notice these, I think they have a subconscious effect and make the themes feel more in place when they are heard later. This is of course nothing new, classical composers have operated like this throughout the past few centuries.

How to make the themes fit together of course depends on the themes. The most important thing is to find the right themes that have a chance of fitting together. Hardly ever two themes fit directly on top of each other — there's almost always a couple of notes that clash and wouldn't sound good together. In this case the next step is to find out how to change either of the themes, or both, to make them work together, but still sound like the original. Sometimes I can spend hours trying to find a solution to a clash like this, when the final solution might be as simple as changing one note one half step, or prolonging a rhythm just slightly. But finding this most simple solution can still be quite hard. My goal is always to make any changes so subtle that they aren't noticed. If the result sounds good and the music flows naturally, then usually you can't notice that a theme is slightly changed, because you can hear the familiar theme and the music feels correct. If, on the other hand, I wouldn't do small changes like this, then both themes would sound wrong because the music would feel wrong.

Nobuo Uematsu © Philippe Ramakers

Chris: Returning to Nintendo, you conveyed the atmosphere of a race with the three part F-Zero suite for piano and orchestra on LEGENDS. Can you tell us how you achieved this? Did any classical inspiration set a precedent for this work?

Roger Wanamo: Throughout this spring, a huge pile of classical piano concerto scores have occupied my desk at home. A piano concerto calls for very different orchestration than a regular orchestral piece, because you have to make sure that the piano can be heard. I did a lot of studying to learn this kind of orchestration for F-Zero and the Final Fantasy piano concerto that was to come. I'm sure I was infected by a lot of ideas from all these scores that I studied.

One piece that inspired me in particular was the third movement of Maurice Ravel's G-major concerto, mostly because it was probably the only 4 minute movement that was fast all the way through. In classical music, there's almost always a calmer section in any fast movement, but F-Zero needed to be fast and hectic all the way. I struggled a lot with this — to keep the tempo up but still keep it interesting and create a logical structure. Hearing Ravel's 3rd movement, I knew that it is at least possible and got inspired by that. I don't think I borrowed any direct ideas from that piece though.

The basic idea was to make it a race between the piano and the orchestra. This is very suitable for this format, a lot of classical piano concertos operate in the same way. The structural problem was solved when I came up with the idea of three laps. In a way, this then became a kind of theme and variation form, with the first lap introducing the theme and the next two making small variations to this, which also fit the dramaturgy of a race. Then at the end there was a solo cadenza followed by a hectic race to the finish line.


Chris: In addition to yourself, these concerts involved other arrangers, a producer, and a conductor. Do you interact much with the rest of the team while working on these concerts?

Roger Wanamo: With Thomas and Jonne we interact a lot. I think, during the most hectic times, my girlfriend is really jealous at Thomas because I communicate a lot more with him than I do with her. With Jonne, we are always discussing our pieces very openly and often send half finished work to each other to ask for opinions or suggestions. This is a really good thing if we work together on the same concert, because every time I get something from Jonne I think "wow, he's making something this great, now I really need to step it up to keep the quality of the concert on the same level". Apparently he feels the same when I show him what I am working on, so we have this kind of very healthy competition going on, where we are constantly pushing each other to improve our work.


Chris: It'd also be interesting to hear your experiences with the orchestras, choruses, and soloists. Do you feel satisfied with how they interpreted your score? Do you give much feedback to the orchestra or do the scores speak for themselves?

Roger Wanamo: The experience with these orchestras, the WDR Rundfunkorchester and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, has been truly wonderful. Up on stage, there is a hundred people who have dedicated their lives to mastering their instruments. Then they put all their professional skill and experience into interpreting the scores that I have spent countless of sleepless nights writing and finally all this hard work put into the scores pays off. Hearing the result played live is always a magical moment.

Working with Benyamin Nuss is always a pleasure. After working with him on several concerts, I know that he is truly amazing and I can throw pretty much anything at him and he will perform it with brilliance. Both F-Zero and the Final Fantasy concerto are really challenging for the soloist, but he pulled them off with ease. He is also a great guy and we always have a lot of fun when we meet for these concerts.

During the rehearsal period, I always communicate with the players and give them some feedback. I also usually do a few changes here and there to the scores. Mostly minor things like changing articulations and dynamics to balance the orchestra. Professional players usually don't need a lot of feedback — they know what to do if given proper instructions in the parts.

What I really appreciate is that, especially in Cologne where I know the players quite well by now, the musicians also give feedback to me. They tell me if something is written in an unnecessary complicated way or if something would be more effective written in another way. After all, even though I know a thing or two about the instruments in the orchestra, there is no way my knowledge could be on the same level as the musicians' who have spent the most part of their lives studying their instruments. Thanks to this I learn a lot every concert, especially from attending the rehearsals.

WDR Radio Orchestra © Philippe Ramakers

Chris: Your latest game concert, Symphonic Odysseys, recently premiered in Cologne. How did you approach your contributions to this concert in order to pay tribute to Nobuo Uematsu?

Roger Wanamo: Nobuo Uematsu is no one-hit-wonder. Neither is he a ten- or twenty-hit-wonder. He is a bottomless well of great music. I wanted to dive deep into this well and find some of those gems that are not always floating on the surface. I wasn't looking for obscure and forgotten themes (though I did pick up some of those also), but more for fan favourites that for some reason have not been performed in orchestral concerts all over the world yet. I wanted to pay tribute to him by making more tracks from his vast repertoire available to the audience in a symphonic setting, instead of only making new versions of tracks that have already been arranged for orchestra several times.

My biggest contribution to the concert was the Final Fantasy piano concerto. Together with Thomas Böcker, we decided to focus on the first six Final Fantasy games in this concerto. Final Fantasy VI became the main focus, featuring in all movements and both opening and closing the concerto. Perhaps because this was the first Final Fantasy game I played and it is one of my favourite soundtracks. The other titles are presented in chronological order, with I and II in the first movement, III in the second movement, and IV and V in the third movement.

I wanted to make this piece a lot closer to a real piano concerto than previous pieces we have arranged for Benny. In my opinion, the piano and the orchestra are of equal importance in a good piano concerto. The piano is not just part of the orchestra — it has a clearly solistic role. Neither is the orchestra just accompaniment for the piano — it should also serve an important function of it's own. To achieve this, I varied the textures a lot: sometimes the piano was playing the melodies while the orchestra was accompanying, sometimes the other way around, some parts are dialogues between the two, some parts are complete piano solos and some parts are orchestral solos. I wanted to make the second movement a lot softer than the other two, so I wrote a large part of it like chamber music, featuring only the piano and a few solo instruments from the orchestra.

Historically, the piano concerto has of course also always been the medium where the pianist really gets to showcase his or her virtuosic abilities. This is also the case with the Final Fantasy piano concerto. I believe it is by far the most demanding piece Benyamin has performed during the Symphonic series in Cologne. And what a superb performance it was! Being a pianist myself, I did of course make sure that everything was playable by trying it out on the piano (not necessarily at full tempo or even hands together). I wouldn't have been able to learn this entire piece in the short time Benyamin was given, but I know pretty well what can be expected from a professional concert pianist and had complete trust in Benyamin all the time.


Chris: Beyond game music, you've produced a large amount of original music since graduating. Could you tell us about your style and approaches when not working in game music?

Roger Wanamo: When composing for the concert hall, my style is to explore different styles. During the 20th century, a lot of different means of musical expression were developed. I want to learn as much as possible about as many of these as possible and look for ways how they possibly could interact with each other and with earlier styles. It's not uncommon that I use 12-note chords and common practise harmony in the same piece, for example. Whatever I do, my main guide is still that music is meant to be listened to. This means that my ear serves as the final judge in all cases. If I'm working within a certain system, but my ear tells me that I should break the rules of the system, then I do it.

Some other general characteristics would probably be that I write quite melodic music and I always spend a lot of time working out just the right harmonic progressions. This is all in line with the story element that I've talked so much about. Also when composing I want to create musical stories that progress logically and include both harmonic and melodic drama. This is not to say that I have some kind of verbal story in mind. I don't. It's more that the progression of the music and the overall structure often borrows elements from storytelling.


Chris: Away from large ensemble productions, you have produced several intimate works for solo instruments and chamber ensembles. Could you share the highlights of such experiences?

Roger Wanamo: Solo and chamber works are essential for anyone who wishes to write for full orchestra. One should try to get as much experience as possible from chamber and solo music before jumping into orchestral writing. This is when you can really refine your skills with the different instruments and learn how they behave and what they are capable of. Without this experience, it is way to easy to regard half of the orchestra as "those instruments that play long notes in the background". In this case, you are left out of endless textural and coloristic possibilities.

The best thing with solo and chamber music is that you usually get to work much more intimately and in depth with the musicians. Rehearsal schedules are not that tight and there is often a lot of time to try different ideas and discuss the parts in detail with the musicians. With a full symphony orchestra present, this is not possible. Time is too expensive to be wasted on experimenting.

Ovations © Philippe Ramakers

Chris: Now you have gained a taste for game music, it'd be interesting to learn about your future ambitions. Would you like to work on some scoring productions of your own for film or game, or do you prefer working in the concert sector?

Roger Wanamo: Yes and yes. I would be very interested to compose for movies or video games, but I also want to write for the concert hall. I think working on a wide variety of projects and within several different genres helps me keep an open mind and also helps me develop all areas of composing. Arranging and orchestrating game music, I come up with new ideas that are useful when composing for the concert hall and vice versa. I have written music for a lot of plays and different stage productions, which always is refreshing. Then I am I usually required to come up with totally new solutions and to write in new styles. In short, I would say that I need variation in life. I wouldn't want to be stuck doing the same thing over and over every day.


Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Roger Wanamo. Is there anything you'd like to say about concert works or other achievements? In addition, is there any message you'd like to leave to readers across the world?

Roger Wanamo: I want to thank all the fans for all the great feedback we have got! It is always a pleasure to hear your opinions about the work we are doing and to meet you all at the concerts. I am very happy that my arrangements have been so well received by the audiences and I hope that I get the chance to write a lot more of them in the future.