Interview with Jonne Valtonen & Thomas Boecker: The Symphonic Poem of Zelda
On September 23, Symphonic Legends celebrated the music of Nintendo with an orchestral concert in the Cologne Philharmonic Hall. The climax of the event was The Legend of Zelda's Symphonic Poem, a 36 minute epic telling Link's journey from child to hero.
In this interview, arranger Jonne Valtonen and producer Thomas Boecker discuss the Symphonic Poem in more detail. They especially reflect how the concept, selections, orchestrations, and lyrics for the suite were inspired by the mythology, visuals, and iconic themes of The Legend of Zelda series.
Interview Subject: Jonne Valtonen, Thomas Boecker
Chris: Jonne Valtonen and Thomas Boecker, congratulations on the success of your latest concert, Symphonic Legends - music from Nintendo. In this interview, I'd like to focus on your especially ambitious Symphonic Poem for The Legend of Zelda. Who conceived the idea?
Thomas Boecker: I conceived the concept of the Symphonic Poem within Symphonic Legends. One could say that Symphonic Legends used the structure of Symphonic Shades for the first half, and an extended version of the Symphonic Fantasies concept for the second.
Jonne Valtonen: When I started working on this arrangement, I thought quite a long time how to approach the whole piece. The thing is that, no matter what you decide, there will be people that will not like it and I have noticed that if I try to please too many people, I will end up with a "toothless" arrangement, so that is why I decided to make the arrangement as how I see and love the whole Zelda universe.
Thomas Boecker: Jonne did the Legend of Zelda arrangement for PLAY! A Video Game Symphony already (see here), and, while it is a fantastic arrangement, we wanted something that would be totally unparalleled.
Chris: Unparalleled ideas are often difficult to appreciate, particularly within a live setting. Were you pleased with how the arrangement was received?
Thomas Boecker: Absolutely! And if I may say, I think controversial discussions are a big plus of Symphonic Legends. Seeing people sharing their opinions is very interesting, and it ensures that video game music gets bigger attention.
Jonne Valtonen: I knew my new arrangement for Zelda would create some serious discussion. But if you are willing to give it a one more shot, there is a lot more detail in there and conversation between themes, textures, etc., than what one would expect at first.
Chris: Could you elaborate further on what your inspirations and ideas were when building the poem?
Jonne Valtonen: I wanted to try to develop the themes a bit further and also to have serious dialogue between themes to underline the story. I also wanted to represent the themes in a bit different surroundings and I hoped that this would take the listener to a new place, for example when the music slows down in Kokiri forest. In my mind, I will stop running around and just watch the beauty of the forest for a while.
Thomas Boecker: So one starts to realize the beauty of the whole Zelda universe.
Jonne Valtonen: ...and then the music raises to to the main theme, which is presented as grand as I pretty much am able to do. There, while actually taking the time, I would suddenly see the glory of it all.
Chris: And that's just the start of the 36 minute epic. There are lots of twists and turns from there...
Thomas Boecker: Yes, every movement had a very specific character. Jonne mentioned the first one already. Dark Lord is creepy and features a contrabassoon solo, whereas Princess of Destiny has playful celesta work. Afterwards, we have a wonderful choral part, an aggressive percussion-heavy battlefield, relaxation with a beautiful violin solo, and finally a grand ending, where everything comes together. So many wonderful tones and notes.
Jonne Valtonen: There are approximately 100,000 notes in this arrangement (not counting other markings) and I pretty much gave thought to each one of them.
Thomas Boecker: Even the dissonant ones? Some fans might wonder...
Jonne Valtonen: Yes, even the dissonances! So there is at least for me a reason for the notes being there.
Chris: Some noted that, in addition to its late romantic influences, the symphonic poem had a filmic feel reminiscent of John Williams. Would you agree?
Jonne Valtonen: Naturally yes. The composers at Nintendo seem highly influenced by John Williams, especially his earlier late-romantic-styled works, so this is the reason why Zelda also gets influenced from that idiom from time to time. I am basically trying to tell a story. One that deviates from the original story just a bit, but is universally the same.
Chris: Above all else, the Symphonic Poem tells a story familiar to The Legend of Zelda. It all starts with Link being a child...
Jonne Valtonen: Yes, Link's childhood and adolescence. Everything is carefree, the destiny is not revealed yet, and Link is growing up doing all kinds of things that children and young adults do when they try their boundaries. This is also the reason for all the dissonances. In my mind, it is reflecting the ungovernable mind that is constantly throwing itself in to different, sometimes troublesome, situations. I also tried to show that there is also more beneath the surface the quality of a hero if you will.
Thomas Boecker: But the choir at the very beginning already seems to know something. A Legend is growing... we hear the same lyrics in a later part of the arrangement again, as I'll elaborate later.
Jonne Valtonen: ...and even in the Kokiri Forest part of the music, everything still seems relaxed and fun. I imagine Link playing there, running around when he is younger, and, when he is a bit older, learning the beauty of things and looking the whole world from different angles. In the end of the Kokiri Forest segment, Link is just about to find himself as a person, as Ganondorf dissonantly interrupts.
Chris: So the evil antagonist disrupts the peaceful situation, just like in the game...
Jonne Valtonen: In The Dark Lord section, Ganondorf pretty much stays present the whole time. Sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground throughout the section. There are cries and creepiness. The main theme also gets played here quite often in a more twisted form. At the end, you can hear the beginning of the Ganondorf battle theme. In integrating this, I imagine minions and other bad things that might be lurking there finally get released...
Chris: But thankfully there are also good people in the Zelda universe besides Link, for instance the princess.
Jonne Valtonen: The Zelda section starts with the Hyrule Kings theme to underline the royal bloodline. Then it moves to Zelda. In this section, I also tried to describe the childhood and adolescence of Zelda something very innocent and soft. Like all children are until they grow up to be harder or softer people.
Thomas Boecker: Princess Zelda is a soft woman?
Jonne Valtonen: I know she becomes tough, but I have yet to meet a woman that is not soft underneath! The music gradually grows to more grander size; basically how I feel she is inside.
Chris: So we go back to Kokiri Forest!
Jonne Valtonen: This time all the three themes (Kokiri, Link, Zelda) get featured next to each other and on top of each other. Imagine it being metaphoric. Zelda has the ability of using telepathy. Basically she is able to guide Link. So the playing in the forest has became rougher as they are older. The characters show more strength, faster thinking, and various quests already getting solved. This represents getting more into the game if you will.
Chris: At which point in the arrangement represents Link's destiny being revealed?
Jonne Valtonen: The music gets wilder and faster and crazier and, in the end, Link stumbles to the Light Spirit. Everything suddenly gets out of this world and then the destiny is revealed to Link.
Thomas Boecker: ...and suddenly it becomes clearer about what you said with Zelda guiding Link.
Chris: The lyrical content of the Symphonic Poem reflect the nature of the Legend. Could you elaborate on this?
Thomas Boecker: I must say that I especially like the lyrics for Legend of Zelda. Interestingly, it was like they perfectly fitting, like somebody originally thought of them when composing the music.
Chris: All the lyrics were in Latin. Could you elaborate on their meanings?
Thomas Boecker: I have presented them with their translations below:
Chris Greening: With respect to lyrics, who was responsible for writing them?
Thomas Boecker: I am responsible for most of it, but I must give credit to Susanna Pölt who has worked with us since Symphonic Fantasies. She is a Latin teacher, and she is a choir member at the same time. So she can provide us with wonderful lyrics, based on her knowledge and singing by herself. Usually I come up with a basic idea, a rough direction, text fragments, and whatnot. Afterwards, we build up the lyrics together from there.
Jonne Valtonen: So let's continue along. The fighting starts with the Ganondorf Battle theme. The performers back between various themes, while Rony Barrak keeps everything unified.
Chris: Yes, I noticed that this part is more hectic. Themes change much more quickly than before.
Jonne Valtonen: Like in a battlefield! Things change fast, so I was trying to underline that.
Thomas Boecker: The music style also changes a bit in this part. It has to, as war is serious.
Jonne Valtonen: Eventually, the Symphonic Poem moves to the final confrontation. Basically Ganondorf's and Link's themes are juxtaposed on top of each other. Big BOOM. General Pause. Link's theme rises gradually to become really grand in size to represent emerging victory! Then the ostinato victory calms down, quiet pieces of Link's theme are heard, and suddenly everything gets grand.
Chris: ...but luckily war is over, and sp we go back to... the beginning?
Jonne Valtonen: Indeed, the repetition of exact same theme from the beginning. In this point, I offered the exact same theme, but now more matured. Following the Battlefield segment, Link's theme sounds a lot more serious. Link has grown.
Thomas Boecker: In its original rendition during the Hyrulian Child part, the theme sounded a lot more adolescent with all the dissonance.
Jonne Valtonen: But for the ending part, I was hoping to show that, even though fundamental parts of a person remain the safe, various experiences change our perception of who we are and we gain insight in ourselves.
Chris: So Link's journey is complete, at least for now. He has matured from a child into a hero...
Jonne Valtonen: Yes, to represent this, there is a lot of celebration. I offered the Light Spirit's theme in a major key, as opposed to the original Zelda theme, and various other themes swirl around. The whole arrangement ends with a big bang in a dominant key, instead of tonic, which sort of means that the story continues. That is the reason why there is no longer a lot of movement between the keys in the end, so that I was hoping you would be able to hear it.
Thomas Boecker: The grand finale features the choir singing the main theme of Link in full glory.
Chris: Now that you have both taken us through The Legend of Zelda Symphonic Poem in detail, it would be interesting to hear an overall perspective. How do you feel the concert was overall and how would you compare it to your previous concert productions?
Thomas Boecker: Some people will ask, what was the better concert, Symphonic Fantasies or Symphonic Legends? Counterquestion, who is the better composer, Nobuo Uematsu or Koji Kondo? What game has the better soundtrack, Chrono Trigger or Super Mario Galaxy?
Chris: Yes, it's not really possible to make objective comparisons. It can be frustrating when people attempt to. What about for you on a purely personal level?
Thomas Boecker: I am thinking back, and I remember the magical musical moments that I personally had. In Shades, it was X-Out and Gem'X. In Fantasies, it was Secret of Mana and Chronos. In Legends, it was Donkey Kong Country and The Legend of Zelda. As for the concerts as a whole, I liked the moderation in Shades the most. The atmosphere in Fantasies was probably the best, thanks to the four Japanese composers attending. Legends had the most enthusiastic audience, giving standing ovations even before even the intermission.
Jonne Valtonen: The great thing about music is that for every listener the experience is different and personal.
Thomas Boecker: This is what I mean. To me as a producer it is important to present something new and exciting. All three WDR concerts succeeded this way.