F & G Composer is a digital publication exploring ideas for those interested in musical composition. We feature articles about the music in films, games, world music, interviews with composers and general tips and tricks. It’s a new project in development.
Even if it isn’t a primary interest, it makes a good read (and good to write for that matter)!
Here are some of my personal articles. Check out the site for more!
The Japanese culture is one of etiquette and tradition and even their instruments reflect this. A shamisen is a three stringed instrument which resembles a banjo or perhaps a guitar. It is played by plucking, using a fan shaped plectrum called a bachi. Despite consisting of only three strings, the sound of the shamisen is very distinct and can be manipulated in a variety of ways.
Traditionally, the shamisen is constructed of high value materials such as silk and ivory however there are cheaper and more durable versions, usually used by practising students. The shamisen is comprised of two main parts which can be disassembled for convenience; the body and the neck. The frame is usually carved out of mulberry or sandalwood. The neck of the shamisen is fretless and has three pegs at the end used to tighten the strings. The strings would be made using silk, or sometimes nylon, and would be pulled across the base of the shamisen. The body resembles a drum and is covered with taut hide. For professional players, this is usually cat skin and some of the most highly regarded shamisen still feature the cat’s nipples.
The shamisen is derived from a Chinese instrument called the sanchian in the 16th century. Since reaching Japan, the shamisen has become a characteristic feature of Kabuki; the Japanese theatre. It can be played solo or as part of an ensemble. Shamisens are also often associated with geisha as maikos take lessons in learning the shamisen shape their future as geisha. They often play the shamisen at teahouses to entertain the guests. Memoirs of a geisha (a film and novel) exemplify the importance of learning the shamisen and even show the lead character performing Kabuki where the shamisen is used as an accompaniment to a dance performance.
The shamisen has a very unique sound and could be likened to a whiney twang. The piercing notes linger by the amplification of the drum body and this gives the instrument a melancholic tone. When plucked slowly, the shamisen produces quite an eerie yet calming sound with a mysterious implication. However, when tempo and volume are increased, the shamisen can create a lively and upbeat atmosphere which emanates a slight urgency.
Traditional shamisen playing adhere to very strict rules about the construction and composition of shamisen music. However, Tsugaru-jamisen is a genre of shamisen music developed in northern Japan which has been growing in repertoire. The rules are much more relaxed with this genre and has allowed for variation in shamisen playing. For example, the strings of the instrument tend to be thicker, the components are made out of acrylic materials and even an electric tsugaru-jamisen has been developed. This style of playing has a more percussive quality, created by the plectrum striking the body after each stroke.
In 1999, the shamisen was revolutionised by The Yoshida Brothers who beautifully demonstrate the variation in energy which a shamisen can have. Playing tsugaru-jamisen, they incorporate elements of jazz and rock and use other instruments such as drums and synthesizers to enhance the shamisen. They became extremely popular, reaching American ears and their music was even used to advertise the Nintendo Wii.
The shamisen is an instrument which radiates delicacy and reform. With a single note, the mind inadvertently delves into the realm of Japanese culture. An instrument which is able to do this is a powerful one and this essence must be retained. Although modernists have updated the perception of shamisen playing, the unique sound still resonates, reminding listeners of the underlying history and culture. If anything, the updating of shamisen playing has reminded the modern world of this pure instrument and has allowed it to enter the market, therefore re-entering minds.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese role-playing game released in January 2013. The developers are Level 5 and Studio Ghibli, the latter being a Japanese film studio set in Tokyo. The game is breath-taking in all elements but most specifically; its soundtrack.
The music behind the game was composed by Joe Hisaichi, who is also known for his musical contribution to films such as Spirited Away and Ponyo. For a game which has over 40 hours gameplay, the music must be captivating without becoming repetitive, which is something Hisaichi has achieved well. He even claimed he found this composition quite easy and felt very blessed with the production of Ni No Kuni. He based the music on Irish folk music and the soundtrack consists of 21 tracks which amount to 55 minutes in total. The score took Hisaichi a mere 7 days to compose and it is performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (which consists of 166 members).
Ni No Kuni is essentially a cross between Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Pokémon. The protagonist, Oliver, is a young boy travels to a parallel, magical world after the death of his mother. He uses his wizardry skills and trainable creature called familiars to restore the souls of the “broken-hearted.”
From the moment the game loads, the opening theme is uplifting and epic. There is an instant crashing of loud booming horns which grabs the attention of the player and inflicts this sense of alertness, making you want to delve into this adventure. The piece then unfolds and breaks down into softer violin strokes, topped with the subtle sound of the triangle. It then unravels further into a flute solo, which gives the piece a gentle yet magical sound. This then develops into rushing violins, reverts back to the flute and then loops back round to the opening horns. This variation tells a story in itself and prepares you for the depth of the game.
Another notable track of the game is the field track i.e. the music which plays when exploring the world map. As with the opening track, this piece follows a similar grand opening which breaks down into different, softer harmonies and then builds up again. The instruments provide a real sense of adventure while reminding the player of the sombre threat which lurks over the world as they trek to their next destination. The rebuild of the tune gives the impression of hope and ambition in conquering the melancholy melody.
The battle song consists of invasive violins using sharp and fast strokes to emit a sense of urgency and danger, while a gentle sweeping percussion induces hope. The only downfall of this track is that as Oliver levels up, the battles are shorter and the music can become repetitive and almost irritating when you have frequent battles and you only hear the urgent strings.
An example of a more sentimental piece of music in Ni No Kuni is Arie Recollection which is used to convey Oliver’s loss of his mother. This is a slow and gentle piano melody, paired with saddening violin strokes and harp harmonies. There are also high pitched yet soft tings which remind the player of Oliver’s youth and the combination of these make the piece quite emotional.
The closing track is the only one to contain vocals, sung by Hisaichi’s daughter called “Kokoro no Kakera” (which translates as “Pieces of a broken heart.”)Combined with flutes and piano, the piece is quite moving as it has a wistful feel yet it includes the field track giving a beautiful sense of victory and achievement which ends the game perfectly. You feel like you have been through a real journey and her voice makes you feel overwhelmed at completing Ni No Kuni.
Hisaichi has composed a wonderful soundtrack which not only compliments Ni No Kuni, but helps shape it. The music has such a powerful impact that when you hear it, you are overcome with the need to replay Ni No Kuni and can envision the world without visual aid. Hisaichi really has created the “nostalgic, but connected to the future” world he was aiming for while giving us a memorable and enjoyable musical experience which so unique to a video game.
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Koji Kondo
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1988 and since then has become a beloved classic. This game revolutionised RPG’s and the Zelda series still amazes the market today. Essentially, the plot consists of a young boy dressed in green, delving into an adventure to save the princess Zelda. There are many elements to this game which make it so heart-warming yet the most memorable aspect to the Zelda series, is the music behind the game which can spark a wave of nostalgia to any player.
The composer for the Ocarina of Time soundtrack is Koji Kondo – the first man hired by Nintedo for the sole purpose of composing. He is also the composer of the equally loved Super Mario series. The Legend of Zelda soundtrack comprises of 82 tracks with a total runtime of 1 hour 17 seconds. The songs are simplistic renditions of the do-re-mi scale. The music was developed using a MIDI, a musical instrument digital interface, which allowed a variety of instruments to communicate with each other and computers. The most notable instruments used in the game include a flute, piano, violin, timpani and a snare drum.
Perhaps the most nostalgic aspect of the game is Kondo’s use of the technique leitmotif. This is defined as a short, constantly recurring musical phrase which is associated with a character or place, usually serving as an introductory theme tune. However, Kondo gives each location in Hyrule its own song which plays as the player approaches the area. With such limited scales but comprehensive soundtrack, Kondo has given each character and location an associated melody which produces emotion but retains catchiness. For example, the song for Koriki
village has a light-hearted, high and joyful tone, comprised mainly from strings and wind, which replicates the nature of the residents of the village. Yet the theme for the final boss consists of fast, tumbling low notes of urgency, interjected with long alternating notes which inflict a sense of danger in the player. It’s these emotive yet simplistic songs which make the Legend of Zelda so engaging, as the player’s emotions are heightened by the appropriate music choice.
With over 70 hours of gameplay, Kondo faced a huge challenge composing a soundtrack which retained interest yet provoke emotion while avoiding becoming too monotonous. The Hyrule field track is the perfect example of this. Short stoked from strings which are harmonised by flute solos give the field track a majestic feel. However, the variations keep it interesting. While running, there is the addition of percussion but when standing still the percussion drops and the music becomes quieter and more serene. Tempo change is very significant to altering the tone. Enemy battle music often interjects the field track which returns once the enemy is defeated. The importance here is not just variation, but the interaction between the music and the player’s control. Koji Kondo was asked in an interview what he considered to be important when composing music for a game to which he replied; “First of all, each game has a unique rhythm or tempo, so I try to capture that and compose music that fits the game’s rhythm. Second of all, the balance. For games, it isn’t just the music, one also has to consider sound effects, the balance of the volume, the balance between left and right channels, and make sure the sound effects more prominent. Third, putting in variations in the music to fit with the interactivity of the game. For example, speeding up the tempo when time is running out or changing the music that plays depending on the player’s location.”
Legend of Zelda takes music to the next level with the involvement of instruments being essential for story progression. Link must learn to play songs which have specific attributes, like summoning his horse, which draw the player’s attention to the music. Notes appear on the screen to which the player must press the correct buttons to copy the tune. These are simplistic lines ranging from four to eight notes, using the five notes available on an ocarina. The analogue stick could be used to bend pitches which helped Kondo overcome the challenge of creating different melodies. Once completing the song, an orchestral version comes in underneath Link’s playing, adding a sense of achievement. These songs soon become memorable after learning to play and really heighten the appreciation for the soundtrack.
It seems the soundtrack for Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time plays an equally important role to the functioning of the game as the story does. Kondo has not only produced a majestic and fluctuating composition but has made it so powerful; it inflicts a strong reminiscence upon players which has made it such a well-known classic.