Kingdom Hearts Concert -First Breath-, a Yoko Shimomura Interview

In August 2016, I had the privilege of attending the Kingdom Hearts -First Breath- concert in Osaka. The merch line was out of control, but other than that it was all pretty magical.

Different from the Kingdom Hearts World Tour of 2017, this -First Breath- concert tour was only in Japan and was done in brass band style as opposed to full orchestra. The -First Breath- album recreates the concert setlist track for track, albeit without the encore tracks.

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To celebrate the album’s release, I have translated a behind the scenes interview with the series’ composer Yoko Shimomura, going through the track list one by one, telling old stories and discussing the new arrangements. The interview was originally included in the -First Breath- official pamphlet that was available for purchase at the concert, and from what I could tell it has not been translated yet, which makes it great kanabits fodder. Admittedly my search wasn’t very thorough, so if it already has been translated and I just missed it, my apologies.

Production Secret Story

And things to listen for in the new brass band arrangements

with composer Yoko Shimomura

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PART 1

Destati

— Today I’d like to discuss things we should be listening for, as well as any behind the scenes production stories for the concert’s brass band arrangements. The concert opens appropriately with Destati, so let’s start there.

I think what stands out in the original is the choir, but without vocals here, I’d like people to focus on the power of the brass band’s performance. This is the first Kingdom Hearts song I ever wrote, and it’s been around fifteen years since then. The way I pictured Kingdom Hearts was cute and whimsical, in that order. This first track is anything but, however, and needed to have a certain darkness to it. It took a lot of hard work to fill that gap between reality and what I had visualized. I always thought the song sounded best with orchestra and choir, but the arrangement that Kaoru Wada (First Breath’s conductor and arranger) did for us made me think that perhaps it was meant for a brass band all along. (laughs) Only he could make me change my mind like that.

 

Dearly Beloved

For this arrangement, I combined three versions of Dearly Beloved into one song. Those who have played through the series should be able to pick out which parts come from which version. If this fills fans with a sense of nostalgia, I will consider it a job well done. I’m a stickler about differentiating between versions, but you don’t want to hear me yammer on about that here. I just want everyone to enjoy the differences.

In interviews, I have always talked about how this track, originally rejected, became the title track for the series. But at some point Tetsu (Tetsuya Nomura, Kingdom Hearts’ Director) came out and said he never remembered rejecting it, so allow me to clarify here. (laughs) At the step in production right before it would have gone to Tetsu for approval, the track was dismissed on the grounds of not having any place to use it. But then one day I was approached and asked, “ We need a title track for the next game show. Do you have anything usable?” There was no way I could have come up with anything so quickly (laughs), so I had them listen to Dearly Beloved again. “How about this?” They liked it, and that’s how it became the series’ title track. So both what Tetsu and I say are true. (laughs) Because it was originally rejected soon after I wrote it, the original version is short, only about eight bars long.I thought to add to it, but whatever I came up with seemed redundant, so I left it as is. When I was making the demo version, I added the sound of waves in the background. I didn’t create the song with the idea of it being the series’ title track, but somehow it found itself in that position.

— Did it undergo any major changes for the brass band arrangement?

Unlike most brass band arrangements, it includes a piano. The piano is key to this song, and I didn’t think we could write that out. The other instruments, like the horns and wood wind instruments, play softly here.

 

Traverse Town

— Is there anything in particular we should be noting with this song?

This song is a natural fit for a brass band. The melody was written for a soprano sax, and in the original we also used a piano and cello. I’m sure it was easy to adapt. It’s one of Kingdom Hearts’ few mellow tracks, so I hope the audience uses this time to relax, because they won’t have much time to catch their breath later.

— I think fans will be happy to hear the song so close to its original form.

I think so too. This is our first official concert, so rather than trying to show off, I think the focus needs to be on delivering what fans want. We’ve still got a lot up our sleeves, after all. (laughs) This time, the program was designed for fans to relive the memories they had playing the games. We’re not trying to do anything beyond that.

— What were your thoughts when writing the song?

Traverse Town is the first town you visit in the game, and it becomes a kind of home base for players, so I didn’t want the song to be too colorful. The other worlds you visit are so vibrant and well defined, so I gave this song a more flat, natural atmosphere than the others. This is also a notably short one, because I also felt any additions were redundant and left it be. But now, all this time later, I almost feel like I should apologize for its length.

 

Hand in Hand

The melody in Hand in Hand is played by trumpets, so again I feel this is a natural fit for a brass band. The idea here is a fun battle. When first in Traverse Town, a different theme battle plays, but in the latter half it transitions to this one. It’s a song that I think makes you feel positive. Something like, “I’ve got my friends by my side and we’re going to do this…together!” I didn’t write this track with anything like fate in mind, just with the idea of moving forward and having fun in the process. I knew this was one song we had to do at the concert.

— It’s an easy song to visualize. Fans will probably recognize it by the snare drums alone. Did this song provide any challenges for you?

No, none. (laughs) These last three songs (Dearly Beloved, Traverse Town, and Hand in Hand) didn’t give me any trouble whatsoever. (laughs)

— They came to you pretty easily, then?

Yes, they really did. From start to finish. Not everything I come up with is the result of struggle.

— Gotcha. It’s good to have songs like that too, I suppose. (laughs)

Journey of Kingdom Hearts

— Seeing as this is a medley, I’m sure there are plenty of things to listen for.

At first, I thought I wanted a mix of shorter and longer songs with memorable openings that would make a lively, energetic melody, but ended up with a track full of longer songs. (laughs) I pictured it as a more mellow melody too, but it turned out anything but. (laughs) I wanted the audience to remember their experiences playing the original game with this track, but instead of a leisurely trip across worlds like I planned, the medley ended up more like Land hard, go wild, dive to next world! (laughs) There’s a lot of volume to this one. At first, I planned on a shorter track, but the arranger, Wada, thought we should let fans hear it all, and arranged it as such. That’s where my idea for a mellow track died.

— Like your plans for a nice Kaiseki meal suddenly becoming a Manchu Han Imperial Feast.

Well, they say that everyone likes sushi, steak, and Chinese food. (laughs) With this track, it’s like eating all three at once! I think we got pretty close to the original concept of visiting all of the worlds from the first game.

— Of all the songs included in the medley, are there any you thought were especially suited for a brass band?

I wrote the Hercules song (Olympus Coliseum) with a brass band in mind originally, so it’s like the song has finally found its home.

— On the other side of things, were there any particular challenges?

Probably Hollow Bastion? It was originally written mainly for strings, the pipe organ, and piano, and continually repeats the same musical phrase. I wasn’t sure it would work out well, but somehow it did. It’s always a joy to see something you are unsure of turn out well.

 

Lazy Afternoons

This song is extremely popular with fans. The melody itself is played by woodwind instruments, so that part works well for a wind orchestra, but that guitar! You may end up seeing one come performance day. You never know! (laughs loudly) We don’t have anyone as of yet, but perhaps we should be on the lookout…. I kid, of course (laughs) How we keep this track’s gentleness without the guitar and stay true to the fans is something you can look forward to. We had to do about six retakes for this one. This is probably the most reworked track in the entire series! When the song didn’t seem to embody twilight enough, we had to ask ourselves, “Wait, what does embodying twilight even mean?” When we were on about our sixth retake, I remember walking out onto the balcony of my house around late afternoon, crossing my arms, and trying to embrace melancholy. (laughs) This is a true story! So to all of you at the concert, why don’t you try embracing melancholy while listening along too? (laughs)

— Ahh, so that’s why you call it Lazy Afternoons.

We won’t be performing it here, but there is one more track about twilight, and there needed to be a way to distinguish between the two. Lazy Afternoons was a difficult song to work with, but considering how well fans took to it, the struggle was definitely worth it.

 

The Other Promise

Excuse the sigh. (laughs) Originally there was Roxas’ theme (Roxas), and I think around the time of the international releases and Japanese Final Mix versions, I was told they wanted to use the song for a battle. The first half was to be Roxas’ theme, and in the latter half, it would turn into a tragic, dramatic battle theme. I remember thinking,  “What? With Roxas?” I love the piano, and I have used it an exceptional amount in the Kingdom Hearts soundtracks, so I tried basing the track on a piano concerto. I thought the result had a lot of depth, and I was proud of it, but when I brought it in I was told: “This is great…but could you make it more dramatic?” (laughs) I said that would be impossible, but was just told: “Well, do it anyway.” (laughs) It’s a sad song, isn’t it? Roxas’ theme.  When I have to write sad songs, I get perhaps a little too deep into my visualizations, feeling truly sad as I compose. To make a sad song even sadder, just imagine what I would have to do to myself. The process takes its toll on a person. “Why do I have to keep entertaining such depressing thoughts? Now I can’t eat dinner, I’ve completely lost my appetite!” (laughs) I had to totally immerse myself in sadness to get this track done. It’s no easy task, being melancholy, being sad. Give me work that makes me happy! (laughs)

— Writing fun songs is fine then, right?

Of course! Looking back at Traverse Town and Hand in Hand, those songs were easy! Happiness isn’t something you need to immerse yourself in the same way.

— How did you go about turning this into a brass band piece?

The piano and strings are what stand out in the original, but the intensity of the horns and other brass instruments accompanied by the singing of the melody by the wind instruments was surprisingly easy to picture. Here, the piano is not the main part of the wind orchestra’s performance, just one component. You don’t often get the chance to hear a wind orchestra perform a piano concerto style piece, so I’m looking forward to this one myself.

 

Another Side

This is a song rich with change, as this was the last I wrote as a company employee (touching, isn’t it?). My life was at a turning point, and I knew there was a chance this could be the last piece I ever wrote. I hadn’t decided to go freelance yet, so the possibility was on my mind while writing the song. This is a track that accompanies a secret movie, so I decided to have it match up with the visuals completely, resulting in a track with a lot of different components. Because I knew it could be my last, I put a lot into it, and afterward, I felt almost…full. Like I ate a big meal. Because it represents a turning point in my life, this one means a lot to me. It’s a song I share a special connection with to this day.

— How do you feel about the brass band arrangement?

The original had some brass in it, so I think it works nicely. But the tempo, beat, and melody all change throughout the song, so I think it will be challenging for the conductor.

 

INTERMISSION

 

PART 2

 

Gearing up ~ Shipmasters’ Shanty ~ Blast off!

— With this, we’ve reached the halfway point.

There sure is a lot to cover, isn’t there? (laughs) As anyone listening along will surely be able to tell, there aren’t many mellow songs being performed. I think wind orchestra concerts are supposed to be fun, but with this concert, most of what we’ve talked about so far has been dark. (laughs) Because of this, I chose this track to convey some of that fun. This song is all about the gummi ships. It’s the sad and the tragic songs most popular amongst fans, but when they hear this track, I’m sure they’ll immediately recognize what it is. You spend a good chunk of time listening to this music in the games, so I think even those who have forgotten all about the gummi ships will remember them when they hear this song.

— Was there anything here that proved difficult for you?

The fun ones are always over too soon. I don’t remember even the slightest amount of trouble. (laughs) Hearing it as a brass band arrangement is worth a standing ovation. For me, anyway.

 

Destiny’s Union

This is a kind and gentle song. I don’t think it’s one that sounds that sad, but it leaves you feeling that way just the same. Put like that, it’s quite like Kingdom Hearts itself. Adding this to the set list was actually not my idea, but the request of Tetsu. Listening to it again, there really is something about it that makes you sad. It’s very, very Kingdom Hearts.

— There aren’t any wind instruments in the original if I remember correctly.

You do. I’m can’t wait to hear how it has been adapted and I hope everyone else is excited too. Try to imagine what it will sound like. The original’s melody was a violin solo. Will it be played by oboe instead? By a unison of woodwind instruments? I hope everyone enjoys the arrangement of this Birth by Sleep track!

 

The Unknown

This is a song that even now (Interview date: July 9th, 2016) I am nervous about having asked Wada to arrange. Wada said the bass of the ostinato (a musical pattern that repeats itself over and over. The word means stubborn, obstinate. In rock music it’s what is referred to as a riff) would be hard to perform with a wind orchestra. How Wada rearranged this is something to listen for. I told him that if he is going to decrease the tempo, then anything he does with the ostinato is fine, so long as it doesn’t change the overall character of the song. I’m interested to see what he did with it. This track is an intense rendition of three songs, like three of those secret boss fights in a row, so I hope those listening will remember how they felt when those bosses got the best of them. (laughs)

 

Musique pour la tristesse de Xion

This is another that the fans will love to hear. This is the theme of a girl named Xion, and it’s another tragic one. Story-wise, too. I wanted to express a sense of ephemerality, and because of the way the two are related, I wanted it to put Kairi’s theme in it as well, and do so in a way that it may or may not be recognizable. There was a fine order to the way I wanted to do things, and putting it all together was tough. I wanted it have an element of mystery, but that part seemed forced and didn’t work well. The song was completed as I worked my way through failures like that. When I finally completed the song, I had a moment of clarity, like “Oh! So that’s where that motif was always meant to be!” I worked hard on this one to ensure that both the song and Tetsu’s character were portrayed correctly.

— This one also didn’t use any wind instruments originally, did it?

It didn’t, so I can’t wait to hear how it sounds! I may break out in tears as soon as the intro begins (remembering all the hard work I put into it).

 

The Power of Darkness

— Is this going to be the longest of the songs performed?

Journey of KINGDOM HEARTS might be longer, but you really get to hear each song included in this. It’s like a full course. Like a salad with plenty of dressing, a steak covered in sauce, or kushikatsu you are allowed to double dip. (laughs loudly)

— That’s a good way to put it. (laughs) This is a collection of richly flavored songs.

It will definitely leave you feeling stuffed.

— In games, it is the tracks like these that really steal the show.

People spend a lot of time listening to boss battle music, and even more so if they listen to the soundtracks on top of that. Even if it’s been ages since you’ve heard the soundtracks, I think everyone will immediately recognize what’s included here. You might remember that one boss you had a hard time with, or that other boss that kept killing you.

— Did you have trouble with and of the tracks that make up this medley?

There is one track from each game in this. Journey of Kingdom Hearts was made with the concept of exploring the worlds of the first game, but this one is more like an overview of the entire series, so I’d like to go through them one by one. The way I write music has changed over time, so the boss battle themes for each game all have their own unique flavor. For instance, in Birth by Sleep, the boss battle theme Unforgettable, while actually the oldest story-wise in the Kingdom Hearts timeline, has the most electronic vibe of them all. The battle theme of the first Kingdom Hearts, on the other hand, has a standard orchestral vibe.  Ice Hot Lobster (Dream Drop Distance), is a song by Sekito (Tsuyoshi Sekito, composer at Square Enix) rather than one of my own. I thought it was a perfect match for brass band and decided to include it despite Seiko saying he never had a brass band in mind while composing it. (laughs) Vector of the Heavens (358/2 Days) is quite loud when played by a brass band. It’s a song incredibly popular with fans, and as with The Other Promise, was a request to do a battle track using Xion’s theme. I said there was no way I could do a piano concerto with the DS’s sound capabilities, but I was told to make it work. So I did. It’s easy for the piano to sound like noise, so it was tough. The sound staff worked hard on this one too.

 

March Caprice for the Piano & Orchestra

This is the song that plays during the credits of the game, and for me, it was what reunited me with Kaoru Wada, who was in charge of the arrangement and conducting. I have loved Wada’s work since I was in high school, but of course, I never imagined a day would come when we were working together. Years passed, and when the time came to record Kingdom Hearts’ orchestral tracks, I was surprised to hear Wada would be in charge of it. I was like, “Are you serious? I used to love that guy!” That was the first time we actually met, of course, but to me, it felt like being reunited with him and his work and was a cause for celebration. From that day on he became involved with all of Kingdom Hearts’ orchestral work, and for that, I am extremely grateful.

 

…and More! (Encore)

This is where the interview ends. If you are interested in hearing what the brass band arrangements sound like, the album’s official website has previews in the Tracks section. This has only been officially released in Japan as of yet, but considering the CD booklet it came with is completely bilingual, it’s probably only a matter of time before it is released internationally.

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