Interview with Thomas Böcker

JPGAMES.DE: Let’s start with a short and silly question that maybe doesn’t have a short answer. Why video game music concerts? What excites you and what do you think excites the audience? […]

JPGAMES.DE: Let’s start with a short and silly question that maybe doesn’t have a short answer. Why video game music concerts? What excites you and what do you think excites the audience?

Thomas Böcker: I remember reading an article in a German video game magazine years ago. To get the gist of it: In Japan, there are concerts with video game soundtracks that are performed by big orchestras. As a fan of such music it was immediately clear to me: I want that too! Why aren’t there such events in Germany? That was during the 90s. Every now and then, there were floating a couple of allusions and promises around but it stayed like this: no action, no video game music concerts out of Nippon.

At that time I was starting to deal professionally with video game music. Due to my my project Merregnon“, I met video game music composers like Yuzo Koshiro und Chris Hülsbeck, met conductors and gained experience with orchestra recordings. In a nutshell, there was finally the basis we needed to organise video game music concerts. Something, that had been running in my mind since back in the 90s.

But why I’m excited about that? On the one hand, there are the melodies, of course. On the other hand, there is the orchestral sound and the live ambiance! You have to experience it by yourself, the moment, when over 100 professional musicians start to breath life into the notes. Musicians, that practiced their instruments since childhood and that want to bring their talent to perfection with hard work. Nostalgia, emotional attachment to the music because you listened to it for hours at home, yes – this is an aspect, comparable to film music. But I think that the crucial point is the mutual experience of the orchestral sound, this force, this wealth, these nuances.

JPGAMES.DE: Thomas, you picked up Nobuo Uematsu in person from the airport in 2003 when he arrived for the opening concert of the Games Convention in Leipzig. At that time, you were 25 years old and you mentioned several years later that Uematsu presumably thought that you were just an assistant of the concert producer.

Thomas Böcker: That’s perfectly right! Actually, he had to be convinced thereof on the way to the hotel. Considering that the most famous concerts in Japan were, respectively are produced by the „Dragon Quest“ composer Koichi Sugiyama, then you should be a bit less surprised that Uematsu-san perhaps expected a somewhat older organiser. After the concert, he was entirely delighted and returned over and over to Germany to be live on site. It’s not for nothing that he attested Leipzig to possibly become a Mecca for video game music fans. I was really pleased with his compliment and it certainly was a big motivation. Still, I extraordinarily appreciate his support.

JPGAMES.DE: Today, you have your own Wikipedia entry and Uematsu calls you one of thekey figures behind the popularization of videogamemusic concerts outside of Japan„. This feels like being knighted, doesn’t it?

Thomas Böcker: Beyond doubt, Nobuo Uematsu is the most famous composer of video game music and in general one of the most influential. I’m pleased that he holds me in such high esteem. His „Final Fantasy“ concert in 2002 had worldwide influence on similar events, including mine. In 2003, two scores out of it were performed in Leipzig. In 2004, there was an entire concert in Los Angeles – and up to the present day, a substantial amount of the notes of the „Distant Worlds“ program is due to that time! In this respect, I gladly return the compliment, Nobuo Uematsu is also a true pioneer in the area of video game music concerts.

JPGAMES.DE: On the 9th of July, you will meet Nobuo Uematsu again. He arrives for Symphonic Odysseys. You are also organising and producing this concert. By now, is there some kind of routine or what are the differences between your work for this latest concert and the work you’ve done for your first concert?

Thomas Böcker: Routine isn’t the word I’d choose to describe it, this sounds too cold and hard-boiled. No matter how you look at it – you cannot predict a concert completely. You can have an idea what the audience will probably like the most, but there is no guarantee. In this respect, there is some unrest at every event. Not in a negative sense, it is more a healthy tension. Over the years a team was formed which advanced with the arrangers Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo. This simplifies the work. It became more and more professional this way. You have more time to even look at the smallest nuances.

JPGAMES.DE: You produced „Vielen Dank“ with Masashi Hamauzu. The Japanese video game music composer is born in Munich, but lives and works now in Japan. How does one co-produce a CD over a distance of 20,000 kilometers?

Thomas Böcker: This would have been difficult, indeed! But „Vielen Dank“ was recorded in Munich, together with Masashi Hamauzu. This was favored by Square Enix too, of course, this emotional linking to the city was crucial for the producers. The week in the studios was great, it was a lot of fun. Such exceptional projects are often stressful, because it has to be worked under serious time pressure. „Vielen Dank“ was enjoyably different, we could concentrate on an outstanding production in a calm ambiance.

JPGAMES.DE: You said in another interview that you came to video game music due to Chris Hülsbeck. You „dedicated“ Symphonic Shades to him. What was more exciting, meeting Hülsbeck or Uematsu?

Thomas Böcker: That’s hard to tell. However, I admit freely that it was the music of Chris Hülsbeck that I listened to first, just because I grew up with a Commodore 64 and an Amiga. The soundtracks of Nobuo Uematsu entered my life a bit later, but then it was immediately very intense. So, the first meeting with both composers was similarly important to me.

JPGAMES.DE: In the area of video game music, there has been quite some change and evolution. When a new Japanese game is announced, one of the most important features of this announcement concerns the composer and the vocal artist of the main theme. The fans really put emphasis on an atmospherical soundtrack. What are your thoughts on this trend?

Thomas Böcker: I appreciate this trend, of course. The game industry as a whole becomes more and more professional, the budgets grow bigger and bigger – in this respect, it’s not surprising that the musical aspect attracts this attention. The risk, however, to get into a financial disaster, is higher. That is to say that you have to take rigorously care of the quality in all areas.

JPGAMES.DE: What would you say, was your biggest challenge until now? Can you tell us a anecdote about your work?

Thomas Böcker: Probably this doesn’t sounds exciting, but the biggest challenge is to catch up all licences. That means: the legal formality. For our concert in Cologne we need the agreement of all composers and publishers, to arrange their music. They must have a lot of confidence, since we work with famous brands like Final Fantasy and Zelda.

In addition to that, the WDR offers radio-broadcast and internet live stream. Therefore we need special agreements. A great success was 2009 for example, Symphonic Legends. It was the first time in history of Nintendo, that they grant such a performance in such a dimension. This isn’t only very important for us, but also for other producers, we pave the way for them.

JPGAMES.DE: The Symphonic concerts are some kind of portraits. Until now, you portrait Chris Hülsbeck, Nintendo, Square Enix and now Nobuo Uematsu with Symphonic Odysseys. What are your plans for the future?

Thomas Böcker: Symphonic Odysseys is my ninth concert. This means, 2012 could be an anniversary. WDR already has a plan for the next year, but I can’t say anything about this at the moment. What I can say: I really wonder, if WDR won’t perform videogamemusic in future.

JPGAMES.DE: Your concerts went off successfully right from the start. Apparently the people wanted to join video concerts and you brought them to us. However – hand on heart – the first show of Symphonic Odysseys was outsold within 12 hours. Even some pop stars dream from that. Could you’ve ever imagined that at the beginning of your engagements?

Thomas Böcker: I’ve never expected such a speediness, but of course I always worked hard for having such a big success with this concerts. I’ve put a lot of years in the development. We’ve got fans joining ever since our first event. We really had to build up this relying. The media always critiques that the orchestra audience is getting older and older, too old. They were really worried, because the young visitors avoid concert halls.

Usually it starts an argument, because some want to seal oneself off the common run of mankind, stay separately, but others want to forge with traditions, because they think young persons need special effected fireworks to survive 2 hours of orchestra music. So the Symphonic Odysseys attracts this desired target audience since 2003 without using expensive light effects, laser effects or huge screens.

We expect 4.000 visitors at our „Symphonic Odysseys“ on 9 July. Everyone is concentrated on the music and the musician and thats an important fact, because it creates a relationship between the orchestra and the audience and the orchestra becomes a household name. The WDR broadcasting orchestra Cologne could increase its level of awareness considerably among young people, especially because of the video streams and of course the CDs.

JPGAMES.DE: Symphonic Shades, was the first recording release on CD.  Will there be a CD release for Symphonic Odysseys later, too? Eventually, are there any plans for a live stream?

Thomas Böcker: Yes, a livestream is planned. For the CD release I can’t say anything at the moment. Of course we think about that. If there is a decision, we will tell you soon.

JPGAMES.DE: When will you fill your first whole stadium?

Thomas Böcker: To be honest: It isn’t my ambition to fill stadiums. The terms doesn’t fit with what I think about perfect acoustic and atmosphere. Surely: for a orchestral performance. 2006 we’ve got a PLAY! concert near Washington with a very beautiful open air theatre and 6000 visitors. The vibe was great. So if the ambiance is the right one, I can imagine such dimensions.

JPGAMES.DE: How to moderate between classics and videogamemusic? Your ambitious aim have to be, to catch the concertgoer apart from videogames, shouldn’t it? Did you think, videogamemusic can achieve this?

Thomas Böcker: I think videogamemusic have already achieved this since the first concert 2003 in Leipzig. But you’re right: It has to be the aim to make videogamemusic part of regular concerts. At the moment, every videogameconert in the world is a big event. In the future I’d like to see, that besides Richard Strauss there’s videogamemusic. Of course, you have to find the right titles for that, not every title is eligible.

By the way, the WDR was precursor in this regard, 2008 and 2010 there were successful attempts. It would be nice, if we can mix up classic fans and videogame fans. This could bring even more acceptance to the videogamemusic.

JPGAMES.DE: Last year we attended the Benyamin Nuss tour as a official partner. You have provided him advices in various things. His first CD was published by the well known Label „Deutsche Grammophon“. What can you say about his future?

Thomas Böcker: The publishing by „Deutsche Grammophon“ was an great success for the videogamemusic. Same for „Symphonic Fantasies“, which was published by DECCA, another famous publisher for classic music. Thereby, Benyamin was the first one getting placed in the classic charts two times.

Benyamin Nuss is a great artist, he has all opportunities for his further carreer. On 1st of July he will play „LEGENDS“ with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, weeks later he performs at „Symphonic Odysseys“. I really like to work with him.

Benyamin isn’t fixed on one genre. He plays videogamemusic and also jazz or classics. And this is what is useful for him. Because of this, there’s the dialog. I’m convinced he can be brilliant in every genre. He’s somebody who searches and takes the challenge.