Yoshitaka Hirota Interview: Near Death Experience (November 2005)
In November 2005, we conducted our second ever interview, this time with Yoshitaka Hirota. Having occurred just as two new Shadow Hearts albums were released, the interview provides an in-depth analysis into his Shadow Hearts and other works as well as his philosophy on music and life.
Interview Subject: Yoshitaka Hirota
Interviewer: Chris Greening, Harry Simons
Editor: Chris Greening
Translation & Localisation: Kago
Coordination: Harry Simons
Chris: While a member of the sound effects department at Square, you worked on many of their most successful games, including the Chrono games, Parasite Eve, and three Final Fantasy games. How does it feel to have been part of such internationally reputable projects? Did you aspire to be part of the music team while there or was creating sound effects satisfying enough?
Yoshitaka Hirota: It is a great honour for me to work on such internationally reputable projects, especially since I could make sounds freely, adopting my own style. When I worked on Parasite Eve, we were at a studio in Honolulu, Hawaii, and worked hard through Christmas and New Year's Day. We were regarded as eccentric by people who lived there!
During my time at Square, I also released some works from domestic and foreign techno labels, and I also did DJing and live performances frequently. I was fascinated by the energy of sound itself, rather than just music, which gave me my enthusiasm. The skills I developed during this time are very helpful now in music production, especially since I have much better ears.
Chris: At Square, you worked alongside leading members of their sound team at the time, including Nobuo Uematsu, Noriko Matsueda, and Yoko Shimomura, as well as Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauzu, who remain there. How closely did you work in relation to them? Have you enjoyed seeing the abovementioned composers' careers progress and are you generally interested in new soundtracks produced on behalf of the company?
Yoshitaka Hirota: Mitsuda is my childhood friend. We drink and make noise together even nowadays, just like before. Mr. Ito (Kenji Ito) is also my friend, though we weren't involved in the same projects at Square. We promised that we would work together some day and it came true several years later. I also made friends with Ms. Shimomura and Mr. Sakimoto too. Other composers, including Mr. Uematsu, also talked to me. Of course, I made friends with other members of the sound effects team.
Talking about the staff of the sound team, I often dined out with them after a day's work was finished. I made many friends when I worked for Square. Of course, I'm still interested in the new soundtracks made by Square Enix. There are a lot of products that my friends worked on and there are a lot of newcomers in the sound effects team.
Chris: Two early non-game projects you were involved in was the experimental CD 'Tale While Asleep', released in 1995, and the score to the romance movie 'We are not alone', released in 1998. In reflection, what do you now feel about your works on these projects? Do you feel your musical affinity lies strictly within the game music field or do you feel other media is worthy of your talent?
Yoshitaka Hirota: I learn a lot from music production in non-game media, often using it to guide my experiences in the game music field, and vice-versa. I don't work strictly in the game music field and want to value the vast array of different media available.
I have spent the last few years a little too focused on game music works, I think, and I want to do more performance acts, live shows, and DJing sessions. I'm still planning a solo album, and I have received offers to work on a movie and anime that look promising. Though I am heavily scheduling on game music works over the next two years, I will work around this and challenge my versatility. I am a free spirit, after all, and will try my best, so please support me everyone.
Chris: One of your earliest professional collaborations with long-term friend Yasunori Mitsuda was the three drama albums that you released for Bio Hazard 2 and Street Fighter Zero 3 in 1999, where you sung as well as composed. What originally brought the two of you together on such an unusual project? Did your vocals skill originate from your punk rock years or are you a professional trained vocalist?
Yoshitaka Hirota: Mitsuda invited me into these projects. He wanted me to make a hard sound for Street Fighter Zero 3, and ominous music for Bio Hazard 2, using my own previous experience. We sometimes collaborated together to bring our sounds close to each other, but this mostly turned into jam sessions.
I'm happy to sing in bands, though bass guitar is my speciality. I actually received private vocal lessons at Music College for 10 years. Here, I focused on voice training and the study of the classical genre. I like Italian operatic vocal music, too. I also received lessons from a vocalist who specialised in Classic Indian Music, and we sung pieces based upon the unique scales and defined style of North India, named Raga, which also relates to Yoga and meditation. I also sung in the chorus for some pieces of music from the Shadow Hearts series.
Chris: Some of the earliest game soundtracks you composed for were Bomberman 64: The Second Attack, Faselei!, Dive Alert, and Sonic Shuffle, though none of these received the benefit of a full album release. What are your thoughts about each of these projects and the standard of music featured in them? How did your experiences on such scores influence your work on the Shadow Hearts scores?
Yoshitaka Hirota: I think that if it weren't for Bomberman 64: The Second Attack and Sonic Shuffle, then the music for the Shadow Hearts series wouldn't be like it is now. I studied music technology production in these projects, learning how to manipulate sounds effectively using recording and compression techniques.
In many ways, this really helped the production of Shadow Hearts. Though the genre and mood of the music is different between these Sacnoth scores, they were technically on the same line. In particular, Sonic Shuffle and Shadow Hearts were made very close together, so it is interesting to listen and compare them.
The music in Dive Alert and Faselei! was very hard to produce, since the specifications of the sound system used, the PSG sound source, only enabled the use of three pulse sounds at one time. These were used for a melody, a countermelody, and a bass line (though it was two octaves higher than a usual bass line). It was possible to make only one more sound with the noise generator, so this was used for drums, where the simple approach of reducing or increasing the frequency to represent bass drums and snare drums respectively was used. We had to make all of the music and sound effects with this equipment, so I learnt how to reduce the wastage of sounds, express emotion through simplicity, and so on.
Chris: Shadow Hearts is linked to Koudelka in many ways. Having worked on Koudelka yourself in the sound effects department, did you use your experiences on this game at all to help shape your score for Shadow Hearts? Were you at all influenced by Mr. Hiroki Kikuta's score for Koudelka, and, if so, in what ways? Having worked with him on this game and Seiken Densetsu 3, are you still in contact now?
Yoshitaka Hirota: Such a link isn't just limited to Koudelka; my general experiences of making sound effects largely influence the music of Shadow Hearts. I wanted the music of Shadow Hearts to succeed Koudelka by having a much more Gothic tone. In particular, I think I succeeded in adding to the Asian Gothic flavour in the first half of the game. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to meet with Mr. Kikuta directly in the last few years, but I can still contact him.
Chris: The Shadow Hearts series has achieved modest success, becoming something of a cult icon, and its hugely different and highly inspiring crazy scores are a key reason for this. What has been the most difficult part of developing the series' musical identity and why? Has it also become progressively difficult to maintain originality with later scores to the series?
Yoshitaka Hirota: Thank you. That is the greatest compliment. You need reason to create madness. And to communicate a considerable amount of it, you need even more reason. It is not difficult to maintain originality, and because the quirkiness of my style is demanded on the Shadow Hearts games, I can compose naturally.
In addition, although the games are all in the same series, each game has different colours and outlooks on the world, so I made the music match each mood. In works other than Shadow Hearts games, it is my own inspiration that is always demanded from me too. This is very fortunate and I'm grateful for the wonderful environment that surrounds me.
Chris: Your work on the Shadow Hearts series reflects your eclectic style aptly, yet it is clear that Erik Satie is the composer that you are more inspired by. What aspects of his work have particularly influenced you with the Shadow Hearts series and which pieces do you think reflect his work the most? Are there any other composers whose work has influenced you in the past?
Yoshitaka Hirota: Satie combines the beauty of melodic disjunction and a little harmonic dissonance with underlying mathematical structure, emphasising how simple technical foundations can be built on to create emotion. The idea of Musique d'ameublement (Furniture Music) that Satie advocated is connected with modern ambient music, and this also influences my music. Save for Erik Satie and David Bowie, however, it is not a collection of composers, but rather a variety of musical genres that have especially influenced my music in the past. This includes Traditional Asian music, Middle Eastern music, Punk Rock, Industrial Rock, and Techno.
Chris: Your Shadow Hearts battle themes are among the most original available, featuring particularly unique chanting and percussion use. Your latest, "Dead Fingers Talk," is no exception. How do you ensure each is fundamentally different yet retain a signature distinct to the Shadow Hearts series? What is your personal favourite out of all such themes and why?
Yoshitaka Hirota: My method of composing these tracks actually originated from the Shadow Hearts series itself. First of all, I create a refrain with my favorite electric bass using a shuffle rhythm. The kind of bass and performance technique used is changed for each of the series. Next, I make the harmony. Even if the harmony moves, the bass repeats the same phrase. This is the same method of composition used in some House Music and a lot of folk music. I want to describe the whole process, but it needs too many words, so that's all now. If more people want to learn similar techniques, then maybe I could make a collage and teach precisely all the technical and musical aspects involved.
My personal favourite battle theme? Hmm... That is so difficult. It is the same as answering to who is my favourite child. (Though I don't have any children.) The battle theme I will compose next will be my favourite, while my first child will be my favourite until the second one is born! With this answer I can escape from the question!
Chris: Many consider "The 3 Karma" to be the pinnacle of musical achievement on the Shadow Hearts series and your arrangement aptly emphasised this. How did working with two others directly on one piece compare to the process of writing solo? What did you contribute to the original piece specifically? What were main aims while arranging it?
Yoshitaka Hirota: "The 3 Karma" starts off with an Industrial Rock section, which I wrote, which is followed by a melodious Itoken part. The composition concludes with a Mitsuda-influenced Progressive Rock part. At first, we fixed the key and tempo of the piece, and from here, each of us composed freely.
Before the composition, we dined together in our private time and designated each other specific roles by asking questions like "What kind of style do you want to employ?" Though it was a little hard to connect three parts, when I manipulated them into one, I thought that a very powerful composition was born. Though we're composers in the same generation, I'm very happy to work with them in this wide world and I'm proud to be their friends.
Karma is the idea that a soul remains after a body is lost, which is reborn again into another body. This is the process of Metempsychosis. Karma is a way to move our bodies, a way of expressing our thoughts, and a way of contemplating new philosophies. Karma decides our life. So, it seemed suitable for the last battle that we'd merge three composers' Karma in one. We became united, at one with the composition, and connected via our Karma. The version used in the game has a small number of instruments because of the specifications of the battle, so, when I arranged it for Near Death Experience, Shadow Hearts Arrange Tracks, I restored it to original image as much as possible, though there are some parts that reflect only my flavour, especially in the female chorus part.
Chris: Two other less well-known composers that have worked alongside you are Ryo Fukuda and Tomoko Imoto. Was your lead a significant influence for the development of their compositions or did they adopt strictly independent styles? What was it like otherwise working with them? Again, if possible, please provide some further details about them for biographical reasons.
Yoshitaka Hirota: The pair composed in their own trademark styles, succeeding admirably, in my eyes. Mr. Fukuda is an old friend of mine. In Sonic Shuffle, we composed together, and he often comes to my studio, where we drink together. In the earlier instalments to the Shadow Hearts series, he mainly worked on integrating music into the game, but I thought he should also create compositions as well, so he also composed and arranged in Shadow Hearts From the New World. Ms. Imoto is an employee at Nautilus, who are responsible for the production of Shadow Hearts games. We first met when I played the bass guitar and she played keyboards in a band that supported a live concert featuring Akiko Shikata, who led the chorus in Shadow Hearts From the New World. They are both extremely talented people and I want to work together with them once more in the future.
Chris: Near Death Experience, Shadow Hearts Arrange Tracks featured arrangements from all three Shadow Hearts games by you, Kenji Ito, Yasunori Mitsuda, and Tomoko Imoto. Was the album conceived by you or were there other reasons behind its creation? What would you say is its best feature and why?
Yoshitaka Hirota: I planned this arranged album while producing Shadow Hearts From the New World. When the production of Shadow Hearts From the New World ended, the image of this album had already formed in my head. The title "Near Death Experience" represents the metaphor of how senses are combined through different dimensions, different boundaries, the supernatural, and eternity. That world which is paranormal yet associated with daily life.
I talked with the album art designer of the Shadow Hearts series about this, describing Near Death Experience, Shadow Hearts Arrange Tracks as a sound reaching for our spirit. In order to appreciate the album fully, comparing the original track with the arrangement might be a good idea, and it is also good to enjoy the arranger's individuality. It would be greatly appreciated if it could link to the innermost of your heart. With the cooperation of arrangers, all of the tracks will start to stir up your imagination effortlessly.
In order to make an album, each track is important, as is track order and the intervals between styles. These features considerably affect the album's meaning and impression considerably. In the Shadow Hearts From the New World Original Soundtrack, because there are so many tracks yet so little playing time, the track intervals are not sufficient. On the other hand, in this CD I can elaborate to my heart's content.
As for track order, I thought much of the order of the tracks. For example, I brought the title track first, which features the divine sound of an Irish bouzouki, with jazzy counterpoint from an electric guitar, and continues to the introductory part of Mr. Mitsuda's "Astaroth." I love the current form of these two tracks, and my connection with them, in that they are so inextricably linked, yet also very different.
In contrast, the last track of the album, "Sphere -qu-" - Sacred Shrine edit," is intended to represent healing and relief; it was inspired by the sanctuaries of the Ishigaki Island, a wonderful island that constitutes part of the remotest and most southwestern region of Japan, the Yaeyama archipelago.
Chris: Talking of arranged albums, you were involved in the production of the Angelic Vale Arrange Tracks recently. What did you feel your two arrangements added to the album? Why and how did you become involved in such a project in the first place? Unfortunately, this album isn't available outside Japan yet, so we would appreciate any further details you can give about it if you have the time.
Yoshitaka Hirota: When I participated as a composer in the solo album of Ms. Noriko Mitose, who sung the ending theme of Chrono Cross by Square, I received an offer to work on this album by the director of her production office. I haven't played Angelic Vale, but it seems to be a 3D simulation RPG. The recording of the album was very enjoyable, and I'll tell you a little about the arrangements I created.
One of the themes I worked on was the game's main theme, called "Nemuru Mizuumi (Sleeping Lake)," which I arranged for female vocals. At first I arranged this with an Arabian approach because its lyrics provided imagery of a soldier in the desert. Suddenly the lyrics changed to have a Japanese orientation, however, and created images of the petals of cherry blossoms, moonlight, and a lake-side reflecting stars. As a result, I changed my arrangement approach completely in quite a hurry. It was a hard but very enjoyable work.
I love my other arrangement too. It is an ambient piece with piano, noise, and electronica combined. I'm now writing this while listening to it, and really want people who love my style to listen to it as well. Surely, it would be loved too! I named this tune "Naada Brahma," which means "This World is Made of Sounds." I'm sorry that this album isn't available outside Japan. We must devise a method to listen to my various works all over the world!
Chris: 2005 has been your busiest year to date in terms of the number of albums you have been featured in. Is it likely that we will be hearing more of your contributions to vocal albums after the success of Saki Imozuki's single Song of the Moon and your composition "Ten no Suzu" from Noriko Mitose's Specimens of Nightly Sound? Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share or do you think this we will have to wait until the next Shadow Hearts score before hearing from you again?
Yoshitaka Hirota: Yes, I love working with vocalists, and I want to work with a lot of other skilful vocalists in the future, so please look forward to this. It is likely that I will be appearing in some future albums as a bassist or other type of performer as well.
Beyond this, I received an offer from a record label to participate in an arranged album for one major new RPG. If the album is created, it will be the newest work that you can listen to. As well as this, don't overlook my work outside the game music field either.
Your support and respect from reading this article will change into my inspiration, and that inspiration will be the source of my music, and all this inspiration will return to you when listening to my music! I plan to make a new work that will feature compositions similar in style to those from the Shadow Hearts series, so you can listen to the type of work you'd expect from me without having to wait for the next Shadow Hearts album to come out.
Chris: Thank you for taking time out of your to conduct in this interview. We would like to wish you the very best of luck for the future and thank you for being such an interesting figure both musically and otherwise. Do you have any final words to say to your fans?
Yoshitaka Hirota: Thank you for being interested in my works and for reading. To you, my fans, I wish to express my gratitude to you with the miracle of music. The music that plays in my head is in your mind now. Life is a miracle. Let's believe it, and do our best accordingly. Though I'm not good at English, please feel free to send an email to me. I wish we can actually meet in real life one day. I'll keep creating music as long as I live. I'll see you again somewhere!