Prediction: Nobuo Uematsu will be studied in serious music circles within a century.
Aesthetics is one of those subjects which admits of very little sensible discussion. While it can hardly be denied that all experience is rooted in subjectivity, somehow the discussion of art seems still that much more subjective. Still, now and then, something of importance can be said about art, so it would seem that writing about music is not always, as Frank Zappa so wryly put it, "like dancing about architecture".
"Less is more". This truth is so often repeated that it is almost banal now to say it; one of many penetrating observations whose value has been debased through inflation by way of over-use. For any Taoist, this is recognizable as a Western formulation of the familiar concept of Wu-Wei, which I have briefly touched on previously. Allow me to flesh out this concept... but not too much. Most often translated as "non-doing" or "action without action", it refers to the fact that sometimes, it is best to do only what is absolutely necessary. What it does not refer to is lethargy, idleness or apathy. Indeed, Wu-Wei is a fundamental concept in Taoism, since, among other things, Taoism is essentially a protest against exaggerated organization and artifice. For many reasons, this foremost among them, this idea is sorely needed in our modern world as a countermeasure to the excesses of social pressure, manic ideologies, and the monolithic and all-encompassing state.
This concept of less being more is closely allied to what I offhandedly referred to as the "punk rock" approach to creative expression in a prior essay. The idea is that, in order to communicate something of universal value and original power, one does not need a highly complex mode of expression, furnished with excessive ornamentation and embellished bewilderingly with detail. Whether it be ideas, melodies, images or turns of phrase, the simplest ones are the most immediate and impactful, though they need not necessarily be primitive, and have the greatest staying power.
This is where Uematsu comes in.
For those who are not familiar, Nobuo Uematsu is a video game sound designer, whose claim to fame is as the composer of the soundtracks for the vast majority of the Final Fantasy series. Working on the NES console and starting with the inaugural title in the series in 1987, he has created some of the most sublime and emotionally resonant music I have ever heard.
The NES console's technical capabilities were unimaginably archaic in comparison with today's technology. The Ricoh 2A03 sound chip was limited to three simultaneous voices (AKA "notes"), with the possibility of a fourth which was ordinarily allotted to sound effects, but when idle could also be used for musical purposes. This sound chip was capable of producing only the most basic waveforms, such as square, sawtooth and triangle waves, as well as white noise.
With such a limited palette, most composers could scarcely come up with more than a parade of tiresome clichés in the form of irritating bleeps and bloops. Yet in the hands of a consummate master such as Uematsu, the arrangement of these primitive waveforms is elevated to the level of true art and takes on a transcendent quality, communicating a range of emotions which would ordinarily require the help of a 200-piece symphony orchestra. But it is not enough to simply point out his thoroughgoing mastery and inimitable style, what I wish to suggest to the reader is that the very medium itself, with all its limitations, is an inseparable part of what makes this music so great; both as a matter of Uematsu's inspiration and the result.
As to inspiration, working within severe constraints is what separates the men from the boys, to use another all-too-common phrase. Rigorous discipline is required to mine such perfect gems under such harsh conditions, and these arid, austere conditions can themselves be a source of creativity. It is a challenge; a challenge at which one must either succeed wildly or fail utterly. This is why in my previous essay about how to unleash the creative impulses I suggested the punk rock approach; it is an approach which can bring out incredible results by taxing one's creative powers through the merciless stripping away of possibilities. In a way, there is an interesting comparison to be made between early Uemastu and the conscious and extreme self-restriction one finds in another, more respected but no less obscure master of musical form, namely Anton Webern.
As to the actual result, though square waves and white noise may not be everyone's cup of tea, the medium through which these superb melodies are conveyed also has something to do with their enduring appeal. When listening to these pieces repeatedly through the course of truly epic stories (not enough can be said of the quality of these games, both for their time and for all time), the listener takes to filling in the blanks. No longer is it a mere sawtooth waveform, but a string section, and though there may be but a handful of voices sounding at a time, one can extrapolate them and imagine a full orchestra giving life to these by turns uplifting, foreboding and downright bizarre compositions. As I alluded to before digressing with my heaping of wild and unstinting praise on Uematsu, sometimes less is more, and as any horror movie fan will tell you, the most salient moments are those which leave something to the imagination.
So, as promised in the title, I will now give a brief and woefully imcomplete musical analysis of ten perfect compositions by Nobuo Uematsu. As the reader may guess from my gushing appreciation for this music, it was near impossible to narrow it down to ten, out of a field of nearly 100 on the NES system alone.
1) Final Fantasy I - The Prelude
A simple, 2-voiced arpeggio which the listener is introduced to at the outset of the game. The arpeggio itself is nothing particularly unprecedented, consisting mainly of the root, 3rd and 5th (occasionally the 7th) of a chord progression, which is mostly diatonic but does deviate somewhat in the latter portion. Though the theme is used and expanded upon in subsequent titles, even adding a melody as early as Final Fantasy IV, there is something about the spareness of this version that makes it my personal favourite, and thus, a perfect composition.
2) Final Fantasy I - The Prologue
I transcribed this theme for classical guitar many years ago, and friends would constantly request to hear it, as testament to its universal appeal. Based on a descending bass line which will sound familiar to fans of baroque music, this stately and majestic theme is highly reminiscent of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance"; to this day when I think of graduation music or any formal gathering of nobility, I immediately call to mind Uematsu's perfect Prologue theme.
3) Final Fantasy I - Menu Waltz
This is the theme (apart from the battle theme, or perhaps the overworld theme) that the listener will hear the most over the course of the game... and Uematsu delivers as only he can. Again based on a descending chord progression, though quite different from the Prologue, this waltz has a rather medieval/renaissance flavour to it. The bass line and melody seem quite unrelated (this theme has been a major challenge to arrange for solo guitar), yet they work together immaculately. The listener is hesitant when calling up the menu screen to even move the cursor, for fear of interrupting this masterpiece. NES games feature very few musical themes, and each of them of very limited duration before repeating, so they can get irritating quite quickly. Not so with the Menu Waltz; though short even by NES standards, its perfection can be enjoyed ad infinitum.
4) Final Fantasy I - Matoya's Cave
Themes in Final Fantasy I are re-used heavily throughout the game for different locations, and Matoya's Cave theme is one that always brings a smile to the listener's face. The "A" section is based on four chords in the key of D major and presents a very interesting inversion of the order of those chords over the course of this section. The final section of the song is one of the most uplifting of all musical movements I've heard, and will never lose its emotional impact. This theme also contains one of Uematsu's greatest-ever melodies, and he is a composer with an uncanny knack for melody. In this perfect theme, he sends us flying over mountains, exploring far-away vistas, and travelling down the road which leads forever on.
5) Final Fantasy II - Rebel Theme
Another stately and noble theme, when this theme is introduced, the listener knows that Final Fantasy II has truly begun, and will undoubtedly share the stoic resolve of the rebel army. For all its brevity, this composition is rather tonally complex, moving through both diatonic and non-diatonic moments in short order. Always present when the Final Fantasy Distant Worlds orchestration comes to town and always a highlight, this theme is one of the true perfect gems of the Final Fantasy series, with its stirring emotion and patrician character.
6) Final Fantasy II - Magician's Tower
At once complex and deceptively simple, yet unforgettable, the Magician's Tower is as formidable a location in the game as the Magician's Tower is a formidable composition. Conjuring a mysterious atmosphere with a straightforward two chord progression during the "A" section alongside yet another truly striking melody, this theme alone is worth spending the time playing through Final Fantasy II just to hear it. All the malignancy and demonic arts of the evil wizard are on display here, perfectly encapsulated in that haunted descending melody.
7) Final Fantasy II - The Old Castle
There is something ruinous and intangible about this theme, that evokes in the listener a sense of the inevitability of time, of a sunset in the late afternoon of humanity; yet vestiges of former glory remain. One of my favourite themes in the whole series, the progression takes a few unexpected turns and yet still manages to communicate a message of bygone days, with its dignified air still perfectly able to display a sense of things falling apart.
8) Final Fantasy III - Altar Cave
This, the Altar Cave theme... when you hear it you know that you are in for an epic journey, in the truest sense of the word. Utilizing a chord progression that will be familiar to Pink Floyd aficionados as being from "Is There Anybody Out There?", and a distinct and memorable melody involving a fast pedal point, if you hear it even once you can call it up in your memory at will... and that's just the "A" section, to say nothing of the freewheeling arpeggio underlying the "B" section. This composition is a perfect tour de force of melody and composition, with its tense atmosphere, yet also a sense of optimism in the face of uncertainty.
9) Final Fantasy III - Beneath the Horizon
One of the more mysterious and bizarre Uematsu compositions, it uses some exceedingly bent compositional techniques to achieve the unsettled air one encounters when descending beneath the horizon in to labyrinths and parts unknown. One of many Uematsu themes to use the whole-tone scale to achieve that atmosphere of the alien and utterly unfamiliar, yet it does so not at the expense of a hummable tune that reverberates in the mind for hours after listening. And it must be mentioned that this theme contains a truly bombastic bass run leading in to the "B" section, which calls to mind a host of expressive Uematsu bass lines, a hallmark of the soundtracks throughout the Final Fantasy series. Yes, this perfect composition is one of the exemplars of just how much can be said, with so little.
10) Final Fantasy III - This is the Last Battle
This composition would be perfect with the simple and yet hauntingly eerie opening arpeggio alone, but the listener is subsequently treated to a battle theme which leaves them breathless and exhausted after a clash with a colossal evil. The Final Fantasy series is famous for its dramatic battle themes, and this one is as good a specimen as any. Moving through diatonic and non-diatonic sections with dynamic arpeggios and pulsing bass lines, to say nothing of drum fills (certainly among the first for the NES), this perfect example of the battle theme just is excitement instantiated.
Until very recently, video game composers have been thought of as purveyors of light and unimportant background fare, hardly up to the standard of even elevator music, serving up naive themes meant not to distract too much from what is ultimately seen as just a trivial pastime. Yet video games are legitimate works of art, and Uematsu stands tall, casting a long shadow over not only game composers, but all subsequent composers, with his prowess in communicating timeless emotion, be it with an orchestra or a handful of square waves. If there is any justice, future ages will look back on his legacy as an unsung hero with a knowing amusement at our philistinism.