Torsten Rasch Interview: An Expressionist Depiction of Metroid (October 2010)
Born in Dresden in 1965, Torsten Rasch is a German composer of a contemporary classical music. After graduating from the Carl Maria von Weber University, he worked as a film composer in Japan for 15 years from 1990. He made his breakthrough in the world of classical music when he wrote the highly expressive song cycle "Mein Herz brennt" inspired by Rammstein in 2002. He has since been commissioned to write two operas, several small ensemble works, and, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the song cycle "Le Serpent Rouge".
In the last year, Rasch has contributed arrangements to two ambitious game music productions in Germany, namely a dark interpretation of the Metroid universe for orchestra and chorus for the concert Symphonic Legends - Music from Nintendo and a set of variations on the theme of "The Place I'll Return to Someday" for the piano album and tour Benyamin Nuss Plays Uematsu. In this interview, Rasch discusses his inspirations for these arrangements, how they relate to his classical work, and whether the organisers were correct to commission such experimental works.
Interview Subject: Torsten Rasch
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Thomas Boecker
Chris: Torsten Rasch, many thanks for speaking to us today. First of all, could you introduce yourself for those who are not already aware of your work and tell us your main accomplishments to date?
Torsten Rasch: I'm a German composer, originally from Dresden in East Germany, where I spent eight years in the Dresdner Kreuzchor. After studying piano performance and composition at the Dresden University of Music and playing in a rock band for a while, I left Germany and went to live for 15 years in Japan, where I mostly worked on film scores.
In 2000, an orchestral piece of mine ("Völuspa-Der Seherin Gesicht") was performed by the Dresdner Sinfoniker. I subsequently also recorded the song cycle "Mein Herz brennt". Various commissions for small ensembles and orchestras (London Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra) were completed in the following years.
In 2008, my first opera "Rotter" was premiered in Cologne. In July 2010, the English National Opera premiered my opera "The Duchess of Malfi", produced by the theater group "Punch-Drunk". For a more comprehensive biography, see here.
Chris: You recently attended a unique video game concert, Symphonic Legends - music from Nintendo. What was it like to be part of such an event? Were you surprised to see video game music treated in such a way?
Torsten Rasch: To see such a "different" audience in the Köln Philharmonie, while knowing they didn't come to see a rock concert, was certainly a revelation. On the other hand, the treatment of the featured game music itself wasn't that much of a surprise in itself, since I knew about Thomas Boecker's concerts and have listened to pieces that have been performed there.
My presence at this event, or rather that Thomas Boecker invited me to be part of it, was a great pleasure. I think he knew that my contribution would be a challenge for game music listeners, but simultaneously might broaden the scope of his concept.
Chris: Your own contribution was a dark and frightening depiction of the Metroid universe. Could you tell us about your visual and musical inspirations for this suite and what your intentions were when creating the arrangement?
Torsten Rasch: I must admit that Super Mario Bros. is the only game I've ever played, although I've watched Super Metroid on YouTube. So my visual inspiration concerning games is rather limited. But in asking me to contribute an arrangement, Mr. Boecker provided an immense amount of information about the Metroid universe. I'm quite familiar with the story and the main characters, and also received loads of short pieces from the game soundtrack. He again thought that the particularly dark component of the universe would be very fitting of a re-working with my means.
I understand that the Metroid universe somehow represents a "new style" in game music. In dispensing with melodies — they're there of course but much less than in other Nintendo games — Mr. Yamamoto tried to give the inner world of Samus Aran a different musical design. And since Super Metroid is somehow considered "different", he certainly succeeded.
Now, I tried to create that darkness and loneliness into which the warrior is thrown and give it the shape of a journey in which Samus encounters a "selection" of the challenges from the game by basing parts of the suite on music cues from the original which are almost "sound design" (i.e. "Arrival on Crateria", "Red Soil Swamp", "Ancient Ruins", etc.). As in the original, there's only a faint "musical signature".
I punctuated these references with the "Samus Aran - Super Galactic Warrior" theme, which flashes up here and there to show that she's victorious. But here, too, there is always a tragic component. She's not a "happy" warrior. Only the very end shows her final victory with the "Super Metroid" theme.
Chris: It was a daring decision to incorporate such an abstract arrangement in a video game concert, particularly one dedicated to Nintendo. In retrospect, do you think it was a good one?
Torsten Rasch: Yes, I do. Although I'm aware of the difficulty that my treatment of the Metroid music poses to some game players, I'm optimistic that it will be seen as a broadening of the possibilties what can be done with an existing piece of music. In the same way, games are "playing" with archetypes and character types which have existed for centuries by putting them in a different interactive environment.
Chris: This concert wasn't the first time you offered an experimental treatment of music popular with a fanbase, having previously created the song cycle "Mein Herz brennt". Could you elaborate on this work and any parallels it shares with your Symphonic Legends contribution?
Torsten Rasch: Although listeners might not be aware of it, I assigned to myself a much more narrow limit working on the existing "Metroid" material. But still, my participation was only going to be worthwhile if I transformed the material in a way consistent with my musical thinking.
The song cycle "Mein Herz brennt", on the other hand, was really a re-interpretation of existing poems (like Goethe poems have been set to music by Schubert, Schumann, etc.). While still used some of the lines from the original Rammstein songs, I attempted an absolutely new interpretation of the existing lyrics, which are very good and, in my opinion, deserve to be set to music more just once.
In any case, whether being closer or further from the original, I always try to achieve a transformation to throw a different light on something that already exists.
Chris: The Metroid suite highlighted your talents as a vocal writer, though your endeavours in this area extend much further. In particular, could you tell us more about your opera Rotter? Did your experiences on this project influence your approach on Symphonic Legends at all?
Torsten Rasch: I love to write for choir.I myself was member of a boys choir for eight years and I still feed on this experience. My opera "Rotter" had a lot of chorus in it, which of course hightened my capacity for choral writing. This probably benefited the Metroid suite too.
Chris: You also recently contributed a piano arrangement to Benyamin Nuss' album, "The Place I'll Return to Someday". Could you elaborate on how you approached this harmonically rich arrangement and what you feel it brought to the overall experience?
Torsten Rasch: I must admit that I have not listened to the whole CD yet, so I don't know how my arrangement stands in between the other works. The melody of "The Place I'll Return to Someday" is very beautiful and, just by its making, gave me a greaty variety of harmonic "angles" to look at.
The melody is simple, as something supposed to "catch" a listener's ears always should be; however, in order to keep attention, my idea was that it should be submitted to variations over and over to let images arise before listeners. The "game" is happening while you listen to it...
Chris: Through Symphonic Legends and Benyamin Nuss Plays Uematsu, you have made two major contributions to video game music. Have you found these projects satisfying and would you be interested in engaging in more game-related projects in the future?
Torsten Rasch: I've always been interested in working together with people creating visual arts. I did a lot of film music while living in Japan, which was a fascinating and instructive exercise.
Compared to the 60's and 70's it is somehow sad to see how film music especially has developed into a one-pattern and interchangeable medium. A really innovative score, like for instance Jerry Goldsmith's Planet of the Apes, wouldn't be possible today. Still, the visual component is too "tempting" for me that I probably would like to be part of more soundtrack projects with the right concept proposed.
Chris: Finally, it would be interesting to hear about what you're currently working on outside of game music. Are you able to elaborate? Many thanks for your time and best wishes for the future.
Torsten Rasch: I'm currently commissioned to write a piece for the Rundfunkchor Berlin. In addition, I will write some chamber music for the "Moritzburg Festival" in summer 2011, where I'll be composer-in-residence.