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 soundtracks. Suikoden 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:
The other week I had posted a link to a great interview with VGM composer Miki Higashino, the mastermind behind the soundtracks to such titles as Gradius and SuikodenI and II. When I stumbled across the interview I put it on the backburner; I hadn’t heard of Higashino before and just saw it as an opportunity to introduce myself to a composer after I had finished whatever else I was doing. After reading it months later, I started to expedite that listening in my to-do list, and then fellow VGM blogger Steve Lakawicz of Classical Gaming’s comment about Suikoden II pushed it to the top. Turns out that I started with Steve’s link to the opening video of said game and have since listened to the OST cover-to-cover twice (with some tunes getting quite a few extra replays). Take a listen to the track that threw me into the fray:
*Note: I refer to both the visuals and the music in this review, but if you want to listen to a better quality version of the audio, go here
For the first minute of the piece we get a powerful choral number that sets up the visuals of a burning village, armies, and a mad knight standing atop a mound of dead bodies. What I like about Higashino’s work here is that she doesn’t give the listener a run-of-the-mill “ominous choral piece,” which is so common in pretty much every form of visual media in need of a soundtrack today. If you’re like me, you roll your eyes at the overabundance and flatness of this what-now-is-a stereotypical device. The last one I can remember being affected by is John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” from the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace soundtrack, which – aside from being awesome because of the scene and because of Darth Maul – is great because of the integration of both strong choral and instrumental writing.
Returning to Higashino, though, one of my favorite parts of the whole opening exists right at the beginning. Above the chorus shrieks this very, might I say, exotic ethnic voice whose timbre is so stark in contrast with the voices behind it that it’s almost alarming. It reminds me of when I saw the Republic of Korea Traditional Army Band at the Virginia International Tattoo in 2010, before I worked solely for the show. I remember thinking how terrified I’d be if I were in an army who went up against a Korean one that played the instruments that they did (namely the taepyeongso) due to how, to my uncultured American ears, unnatural and almost demonic they sounded in that context (read: awesome). The contrast between Korean traditional instruments and European ones is comparable to the sound of that voice as compared to the smoother European-style chorus. Its timbre combined with its melody and foreign rhythmic “hiccups” makes it razor sharp, especially when the part sounds like it splits via multiphonics at 0:21 (note that there are two voices, but their combined timbre makes me hears them in a way that’s comparable to saxophone multiphonics). Simply the idea to include that kind of voice was great, but its place rhythmically and harmonically amongst the more traditional Western chorus furthers its effect on the listener.
Before I begin, no, this new tune is not based on the picture to the right. I thought it would be nice to have a graphic on the post, so I did an image search for “fanfare” on Google and, lo and behold, there was the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland with my initials on his chest (it might be a bib) blowing a trumpet on the top row. What are the odds??
Shortly after I finished up my latest draft of “Gumshoes” I quickly inputed a few new ideas into Logic and Finale. “Fanfare and Jubilee” is one of those. It actually started off solely as a fanfare – I wanted to do a brass quintet-like piece – but something made me veer off into a different territory, namely the jubilee part, which now is the focus of the tune.
Take a listen to my first minute and a quarter or so–it’ll give you a good idea of the piece’s flavour:
Imagine: A player walks around a city and triggers an FMV of a procession. A king or hero or what have you is announced by the brass at the start of a festival and the crowd is snapped to attention. Following the appearance of the figure, shenanigans ensue–it’s a party! Woo! Everyone go have fun!
That’s the idea. Then you go and try to assassinate the figure amidst the parading and festivaling or something. Sorry, thems the dregs of some video games; your character just can’t stop and have fun playing minigames or anything–what do you think this is, 1996?
Aside from my review of Journey, for the past month and a half you all haven’t heard much out of me, and I apologize for that. My full-time job is running the operations/logistics of a show in Norfolk, VA, called the Virginia International Tattoo, which is essentially an annual international military band and cultural act show that features around 850 performers in groups from various countries (this year we had eight: US, Canada, UK, Australia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Belgium, Albania). In short, the groups are here for ten days doing rehearsals, education outreach events, and performances, but it takes all year to nail down the details. Work really starts to get busy in February, exponentially increases from then through their stay at the end of April, and remains busy through May and the beginning of June as we do wrap-up. Here’s the first eleven minutes of this year’s show on YouTube–try it; thousands like it!
I’d like to relax a bit and plan things out and get going full speed ahead with the blog again, but I think I’ll have to build up before I hit my stride ala three posts a month. Not only did I lose touch with the blog, I lost touch with the rest of the gaming world, not to mention my musical endeavours. In fact, it was actually quite a miracle that I was able to focus on and get out the Journey review on time.
That being said, I’m playing catch-up. I have one of those reading list aps on my browser, so I’ve been going through the links I’ve accrued… lots of the stuff is actually from January, heh. Here’s what I’ve been checking out: