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‘Suikoden II’ OST Review, Part 2

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(continued from Part I of the review)

After hearing the opening, I again found myself shaking my head at being so out of touch with such works.  Just listening to the Suikoden II OST places it extremely high on my preferred VGM list—I only wish that I could play the actual game without spending ridiculous amounts of money (one day…!).  Regardless, however, there is, as I’ve said before, something to be said about loving a game OST without having played the game itself.   Higashino’s work on Suikoden II is so involved and so perfect for a game that I am pretty content just imagining what would be happening on-screen during a particular tune and determining how that fits in the greater context of the musical body of work.

And what a body of work it is!  I listened to the OST via a YouTube channel by a user that just uploads full video game soundtracksSuikoden II has 105 tracks in its playlist; if one looks at the list of games the number of tracks each one has, s/he will find that there are few (out of this relatively small sample size) that even come close to 105.  Regardless of length of the tracks, that’s 105 different ideas for a single game.  Including length, if one roughly calculates that the average track is two minutes long, that’s about three and a half hours of music alone.  I don’t care if the second half of most of the tracks is a loop – because, let’s face it, making something that is enjoyable to listen to after five loops is worth giving the gimmie – this is a lot of music.

Thinking about the quantity of music leads me to think about Suikoden II versus modern OSTs.  Journey, for instance, has 18 tracks that total an hour.  The difference is, Journey is an hour of non-looping music and has an average track length of 3:25; therefore, one may say that Journey has more ideas within a particular track – meaning that composer Austin Wintory took an idea and developed it over a large span of time coinciding with other ideas – while Suikoden II has an impressively robust number of raw ideas.  That’s just interesting to consider, looking at classic versus modern soundtracks and thinking about approaching composing for games.

What’s even more impressive about the soundtrack having so many raw ideas is that Higashino’s approach to Suikoden II was clearly not a linear one.  There’s such a variety in the soundtrack that the listener will be surprised from one track to the next due simply to the fact that s/he won’t be able to anticipate what kind of sound the next tune will have.  Some soundtracks might be able to be categorized into an everyday genre (i.e., electronic, rock, ambient), but this one is one of those that fall strictly under the blanket of “VGM.”  The listener will find that she wrote everything from orchestral music to Mitsuda-like folk songs and jigs to more traditional “classical” pieces to ambient abstractions.  One of the best things about it is, though, that Higashino makes her own mark and creates an OST that is distinct among its peers.

Let’s take a look at some of the elements and themes that one will find within the OST:

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VGM Review #5: “Journey” OST

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Starting today you can purchase the Journey OST on iTunes or on the Playstation Network!  *Spoiler alert for the review*: Do it. 

 
I had my first experience with the music from Journey back in early January, reading composer Austin Wintory’s own words regarding the creation of the music (check out the post).  It was from that that I had the chance to listen to his “Woven Variations,” an “extrapolation” and development of the music found in the game.  I was immediately captivated by both the ideas behind his approach to the music and by the music itself.  Thus began a long two and a half months of waiting to listen to all of the music that Wintory had been composing for the last three years for this game.  Journey was finally released on the PSN to the non-Playstation Plus masses on March 13th 

The first thing I did after the game installed was just scroll to the game’s icon on the XMB.  The theme, represented by Tina Guo’s powerful solo cello, emerged from my speakers and I simply basked in the beauty that flowed from start to finish.  Please, allow yourself to listen to it below.  The track is entitled “Nascence,” and it is fittingly the first track on the OST.  Shut your doors, set your phone to OFF (not silent—a vibrating object on your thigh is just as bad as your “Safety Dance” ringtone), press play, and close your eyes.  Wait—throw your phone out your window.  Okay, now press play and close your eyes…

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Everything is right about this piece both as a stand-alone and an in-game work.  Guo absolutely kills the theme in rubato and thus sets the precedent for the rest of the soundtrack.

The bass flute, as played by Amy Tatum, acts as perfect follow-up to Guo both sonically and emotionally.  The robust sound of Guo’s interpretation is brought to a much more mellow state with the entrance of the harp (as played by Charissa Barger), triangle, and Tatum’s flute, but despite the vibe “mellowing,” Tatum easily continues the flow of strong emotion through her part, melodiously melding her rhythmic vibratos with the natural breathy voice of her instrument.

My favorite instance in the song starts at :58, where Guo ever-so-delicately re-enters the mix atop the resolution of the bass flute and harp.  The dynamics of her playing are absolutely spot-on, complementing the features of the previous instruments while at the same time putting a sense of power into the sweetness of her tone.  This power is what leads the other strings of the orchestra in from 1:01 to 1:04.

Austin then shows off an ability of his that I admired from listening to his work from flOw: his willingness to lead the listener to that which is unexpected in a subtle manner.  At 1:16 the strings sound an intense sensual sweep behind Wirtz, and instead of having the cellos follow the lead of the violins by decrescendoing little by little, the cellos sound as if they just drop out at 1:20.  The decrease of their volume coupled with the brightness of the violins’ upper register blanks the lower instruments, allowing them to creep back in, providing the support necessary to push towards a beautiful resolution.

One of my favorite quotes from Wintory about this music from the article I had read in January – the quote that got me most excited and wanting more than just “Woven Variations” – applies directly to the prior paragraph.  Here it is again:

And yet for how ‘high-tech’ we were, this music is utterly unconcerned with technology. It is all about emotional meaning. This is part of what makes Journey itself so special. The game has no fluff, no filler. I think of it like a poem.”

The only way that I believe that Wintory could have accomplished what he aimed to do was to do exactly what he did: record live musicians.  To create something that is “all about emotional meaning” and that is “like a poem” in the most optimal sense, one cannot rely on electronic samples.  Guo, Tatum, and Barger deliver that message right from the beginning—their performance is unabashedly human, lifting Wintory’s score as far away from being technological as an instrumentalist lifts a piece away from being mere notes on a page.

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As for the soundtrack as a whole, I’ve had three totally different experiences listening to this music: one from my first play-through, another from listening to the actual OST, and the last from a second play-through.  I beseech the reader to bear with me until s/he reads about my final experience and understanding.

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“Journey” VGM looks to stun

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Today the Playstation Blog featured an article by Austin Wintory (composer of flOw) that talks about a lot of behind-the-scenes information regarding his musical work for an upcoming release by thatgamecompany (flOw, Flower) called Journey.  Coupled with gorgeous visuals, the game looks to have a beautiful soundtrack.  If you’d like to check out the whole article, you can here, but here are some highlights:

Check out “Woven Variations” and listen to it as you’re reading–the music really gives substance to Wintory’s words.  Wintory’s own description of the piece:

In April 2011, I wrote a miniature cello concerto for Tina [Guo, his “dear friend and cello superstar”]… The piece is not really a suite of my music from Journey, but more of an extrapolation. It’s an exploration of the material, taken to entirely different places.”

 

One of the inspirations for Journey was Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey.’ The knee-jerk assumption is that something this big demands epic music on the most towering scale yet my gut led me in the opposite direction. While there are definitely some big moments, I would actually describe it as intimate overall.”

I love this idea.  Personally, I feel that “epic,” as a word and as a sound, has grown stale.  These days, the tendency to use it so much undermines its “epicness,” so, naturally, something else needs to take its place.  From the sounds of Wintory’s work, “intimate” might just become the new “epic.”
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