Shota Nakama Interview: Creating the Video Game Orchestra (December 2009)
Shota Nakama is a busy man. When he isn't studying at Boston Conservatory or offering translations to us, he is developing the Video Game Orchestra, a Boston-based student group. The ensemble have performed a range of well-known video game music. orchestral, rock, jazz, and vocal music at several high-profile concerts at Anime Boston and the Berklee Performance Center.
On December 5, the Video Game Orchestra will present Awakening. It will feature performances of original arrangements of video game music by orchestra, choir, rock band, and chamber group. Tickets are still available for the concert and it will also be broadcast live on Internet radio. In this interview, Shota reflects on the history of the orchestra and gives insight on what more to expect from Awakening.
Interview Subject: Shota Nakama
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Hello Shota. It's good to see you finally you in the hotseat. For those who don't already know you, could you please discuss your general and musical background? How do you find the time to simultaneously study at the eminent Berklee School of Music and lead the Video Game Orchestra?
Shota Nakama: Thanks for giving me this opportunity, Chris! I am pretty excited about being featured here!
I was born in Okinawa, a small southern tropical island of Japan. I began taking classical piano lessons when I was 7 years old, but I quit after several years because, just like most other kids, I liked playing video games and hanging out with friends more. What got me back to music was when I saw this locally famous rock band playing Deep Purple. I went home straight and told my mother that I wanted to play the guitar. After gigging and doing all kinds of music stuff for a few years, I came to the US to study music to be a professional guitarist. I think it was right before I turned 19.
I actually have graduated from Berklee College of Music a while ago despite the fact that a lot of people around here think I still go there. Right now I am pursing a Master's Degree in classical guitar performance at The Boston Conservatory, which is literally a minute away from Berklee. Anyway, it is really difficult to manage the time to do all the school work while running such a big production. I just sleep a lot less than most people, I think. That is probably the only way to make time to take care of things I have to do! (Laugh)
Chris: I definitely sympathise — Ruthless efficiency and little sleep is the only way I manage to get everything done myself! Anyway, the Berklee College of Music seems to have become something of a hub for academic recognition of video game music in recent years. Why do you think this is? Could you inform readers more about the school's notable alumni and the recent conferences that have occurred there?
Shota Nakama: Yeah, they have been paying a lot more attention to the video game industry than before for sure. It kind of started with this student club, VGMC, that was dedicated to video game music — it quickly gained attention from the students, and eventually it grew big enough to make the school realize what is going on. Berklee is very lucky to have people like Dan Carlin (Chair of Film Scoring Department), Jeanine Cowen (Assistant Vice President for Curriculum) and Kari Juusela (Dean of the Composition Division). They basically acted upon this, and now there are video game composition classes that are taught by Michael Sweet, an accomplished video game composer from New York.
As for Berklee's notable alumni in the industry, I guess our readers would be familiar with these names. I have to mention Norihiko Hibino and Shiro Hamaguchi. Norihiko, in particular, has been a guest instructor for Berklee's Music for Games summer workshop in 2008 and 2009. He is a great friend of mine, and he has helped me quite a lot with VGO.
Chris: Ahh, yes, two great jazz composers. From this background, you founded the Video Game Orchestra in April 2008. What ultimately inspired you to found the orchestra?
Shota Nakama: Initially I made an orchestral arrangement Final Fantasy Theme and took it to two school orchestras in Boston to possibly perform it. Guess what? They all refused to play it! So for my pure love and passion for video game music, I decided to do it on my own.
Chris: It seems that was a great move. After all, since its foundation, over 100 members have participated in the Video Game Orchestra. Could you tell us more about the background of the various members? What do you think makes the orchestra so attractive and satisfying to so many students?
Shota Nakama: The members are mainly students from Berklee College of Music, The Boston Conservatory, New England Conservatory, and Boston University. They are all music majors who are eager to play something "different" from what they do in school. There are some professional players involved who are in the group for the same reason as the students.
We are very different from typical orchestras both musically and stylistically. We play video game music in so many different styles such as rock, metal, symphonic, and swing, and we have quite a lot of improvised solos to bring up individual talents. I guess the musicians like that kind of freedom and diversity since they cannot usually get that from anywhere else.
Chris: Though you eventually achieved widespread recognition, the orchestra's first two concerts were relatively small ones that occurred in churches. Could you reminisce about these initial experiences? How did it feel to finally fulfil all those months of work with these concerts?
Shota Nakama: Those concerts were indeed really difficult to put together even though the production scale was much smaller than now. Recruiting players was hard because people really had no idea what I was talking about, I was not used to producing an orchestra, etc. I can think of all kinds of issues we had. However with a lot of help from our friends, both concerts went quite successful.
It really took hundreds of hours to put everything together the whole thing, but it was absolutely worth spending that much time for. Listening to an orchestra that I founded playing what I have loved formy entire life was just... It made me feel like I really accomplished something for the first time in my life. That really motivated me to go forward with this VGO journey.
Chris: In addition to the performance itself, I imagine score preparation is very time-consuming, since one of the defining features of the Video Game Orchestra is its original arrangements. How do you decide on which pieces to select for arrangement? What are your main goals subsequently in actually makingthe arrangements?
Shota Nakama: Basically I ultimately get to pick whatever pieces we are going to play since I am the arranger / director (laugh). I like featuring not just the major game music but also not-so-well-known game music. You can also send us requests from our website.
Regardless of what pieces they are, I always try to make something musically satisfying for the musicians, the audience, and myself. In addition, I try my best to give something challenging for the musicians so they don't get bored playing the music!
Chris: Your breakout performance was the widely covered concert at the Berklee Performance Center on March 5. Could you tell us more about what was performed at this concert? Looking back, what do you think made it so successful?
Shota Nakama: For that concert, we performed "Bombing Mission" from FFVII, "Theme of Laura" from Silent Hill 2, Chrono Cross, Metal Gear Solid, God of War, and many pieces from major games. We also featured music from relatively less popular games like Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway and Caesar IV.
I think the concert was successful because it was the first video game music concert in Berklee Performance Center, and with much help from Berklee, the concert was well advertised. We were on every local paper and even on television news and radio shows. These things probably helped people in the New England area to get curious enough to come out and see us live.
Chris: Another interesting feature of that concert was the way it blended performances from orchestra and rock band. What do you think the ensembles bring when combined together on stage? Did your own background as a talented electric guitarist partly inspire this creative direction? Was it challenging to arrange certain pieces for this joint ensemble?
Shota Nakama: I grew up listening to Deep Purple, Yngwie Malmsteen, Angra, and Stratovarius, so this "a rock band with an orchestra" concept definitely comes from that. I have always loved the sound of symphonic rock/neo classical metal, so this idea to integrate a band came to me naturally.
The best thing to have a band is that it allows us to be very flexible. Symphonic game scores, big band game scores, rock/metal game scores — we can do pretty much anything. Plus the band brings even more stage presence, and it just makes things more dynamic, exciting, and fun for us. We often get complements from people saying that we look like we are having so much fun on the stage — I think the band has a lot to do with that.
The arranging part was actually not a problem at all because I know how to arrange band music already from years of playing with so many bands. Besides our band members are really talented so they can play anything I give them (laugh).
Chris: Vocal music was also a major aspect of the breakout concert. What do you think vocal themes such as "Snake Eater" and "Radical Dreamers" brought to the evening? Could you also discuss the choral performances of th night and, in particular, the incredible version of "One Winged Angel"?
Shota Nakama: We try to be as diverse as possible in our concerts so the audience does not get bored. I think having vocal music added a nice accent in the concert and also made people realize video game music even has vocals! I get a lot of comments from the general public saying that they never expected songs from game music.
That version of "One Winged Angel" is based on the Advent Children version, which I transcribed and then condensed / re-orchestrated a bit. I have watched the movie so many times, so the regular orchestral version started sounding not dynamic enough for me. I thought "Why not do the AC version?" since we already had a band at that time anyway.
Chris: Yeah, I personally prefer "Advent: One Winged Angel" too. Yet after that culmination, it seems your subsequent concert focused on interpretations of popular game music pieces by a chamber group. What resulted in this decision and how do you think this concert reflected a new facet to the VGO? How did you adapt the arrangement and performance approach accordingly?
Shota Nakama: The chamber group, consisting of some of the best musicians from the full group, was something I wanted to do for a long time. There were certain pieces for small formats that I wanted to do but didn't do due to the size of the full group. This chamber idea solves that pretty well. We are actually going to have one short set with the chamber group for our December show so we can give more variety to the audience.
Arranging for this chamber group is really fun. I was able to focus more on the individual players and bring up the talent they all have. These guys can play almost anything I give, so it really allows me to arrange music without any technical limitations. That is the best thing an arranger can get.
Chris: At Anime Boston 2009, you combined performances of a chamber group with a rock band. What inspired this curious twist on previous formats? What do you think were the main highlights of this popular set? I vote "Surf Rock de Chocobo"!
Shota Nakama: It was actually suggested from Anime Boston. They told me that they wanted us to rock out rather than put out just a symphonic show.
"Surf Rock de Chocobo" was pretty cool too. However, I would say the highlight was "One Winged Angel" which we have not posted on our YouTube page. We picked two people in Cloud cosplay from the audience (surprisingly, we did not find any Sephiroth there) doing an epic sword fight in front of the stage while we were playing the song, and it was so fun watching them!
Chris: Here's to hoping you post that up some time! Over the last year, you've also enjoyed considerable official support. Could you elaborate on which special guests have attended your events and which other composers have recognised your accomplishments? Do you one day plan to invite Japanese game composers to your concerts?
Shota Nakama: We invited Jack Wall, Gerard Marino, Duncan Watt, and Keith Zizza for our previous performance at Berklee Performance Center in March. I met Jack at the VGL show in Boston, and I met all the other three composers in Berklee. One of my missions with VGO is to gain more respect for video game music, and I thought featuring their music at our concert would be a great idea. I was actually surprised that they accepted my invitation like that.
I have shown our YouTube clips to Nobuo Uematsu, Hiroki Kikuta, Kinuyo Yamashita, and many other composers and they all really liked the videos. If I can get any of these guys to our future shows and feature their music, I would be very happy!
Chris: Now we've talked a lot about the orchestra's history, let's focus on upcoming productions. Your next concert, Awakening, promises to be a major one at the Berklee Performance Center on December 5. What should listeners expect from this concert and how will it compare to your past events?
Shota Nakama: The concert will feature a lot of refined arrangements from our past concerts as well as, of course, some new arrangements including a 17 minute long grand Final Fantasy VII suite that I arranged for this concert. We have been rehearsing a lot for this event to provide much higher quality performance than the last concert, and I am sure that we can represent the full VGO that musically exceeds your expectations.
Chris: I'll be sure to look forward to that suite! Moving into the next decade, what are your future plans for the Video Game Orchestra. Do you regard it as a temporary personal project or do you think it could grow into a widely recognised group?
Shota Nakama: I really think that this group has a potential to be something bigger, and I would love to continue having great concerts and expand the production scale. We, as video game music fans, all want the video game music to gain more public recognition. I will try achieving that goal while we have good times playing great game scores.
Chris: Thank you for very much for talking to us today, Shota. Is there anything you'd else you'd like to say about the Video Game Orchestra? Do you have any messages to your supporters around the world?
Shota Nakama: Thank you, Chris. I really appreciate you giving me an opportunity for this interview. We have a lot of exciting plans for 2010. Unfortunately I cannot reveal them yet, but we will announce when the time is right. The fans are the ones who keep us moving forward, and we really appreciate your support always. We will try our best to give you more great video game music!
We look forward to seeing everyone at the Berklee Performance Centre on December 5. For those who cannot make it to the show, we are going to broadcast the show LIVE on Berklee Internet Radio Network at 7:30pm US Eastern Time. Please go to their site to listen to it!