Interview with Eric Roth, Conductor of New World: Intimate Music from FINAL FANTASY

Interview with Eric Roth A New World Intimate Music from Final Fantasy

Not all conductors who work who go on tour with famous singers such as Weird Al Yankovitch see video game music as something worthy of performing in concert halls, but Eric Roth certainly does. After working with his father, Arnie Roth, on the Distant Worlds: Music from FINAL FANTASY, Eric started A New World: Intimate Music from FINAL FANTASY, a chamber ensemble concert production, in 2014, and currently works as the producer and conductor.

While Distant Worlds focuses on grand, epic renditions of classic Final Fantasy music for a symphonic orchestra, as the title suggests, A New World takes on a much more intimate approach, offering its own unique take on the Final Fantasy music we know and love.

As a big fan of Final Fantasy music since Final Fantasy VII wowed me in the late 90s, I was thrilled to have the chance to speak with Eric about how A New World came to be, the process of translating Final Fantasy music into a chamber concert format, Eric’s personal favorite song from the program, and more!

We began by discussing how A New World: Intimate Music from FINAL FANTASY came to exist as a separate FINAL FANTASY concert from Distant Worlds. Eric began as an arranger for Distant Worlds, a concert series conducted by his father Arnie Roth. Speaking with me on Skype, he notes that “When we would be considering new repertoire to add to Distant Worlds, it became clear to us – I guess I’m using the royal us, to me – that there was a lot of Final Fantasy music that would be better suited to a chamber music setting than to a big orchestra setting.”

New World began with Eric, Arnie, Square Enix, and Nobuo Uematsu “bouncing ideas off one another,” and naturally progressed to Eric doing the shows.

Eric Roth Final Fantasy A New World concert
Eric Roth

While I had the opportunity to attend Distant Worlds in Tokyo in 2017, I have to admit that I don’t know enough about music to really understand the difference between symphonies and chamber ensembles. To this end, I asked Eric if he could explain how the experience between the two differs.

“For Distant Worlds, we’re talking about a huge spectacle, with sometimes over 100 people on stage between orchestra and choir… For the intimate experience of A New World, we have an 11 piece chamber ensemble… Everything is totally exposed, and it’s an experience where the performance is completely transparent. So, in a musical sense, they’re very different experiences, and that’s why we have ‘intimate’ in the title.”

So, does that mean that the programs for Distant Worlds and A New World are completely different? According to Eric, “There is a little bit over overlap between Distant Worlds and A New World, but it’s the exception, not the rule.”

Final Fantasy VI Opera House
Opera House, Final Fantasy VI

The process of adapting video game music to a chamber performance is an interesting and difficult one. Eric says there is a lot of correspondence between him, Square Enix, Uematsu-san, and other composers when he’s adapting their music.

Once they’ve narrowed down the new additions to the repertoire, “At that point the big challenge for me as an orchestrator and an arranger is to maintain the identity of the original soundtrack version in the new arrangements, but I need to make sure it’s fresh and has a real performance experience of it in that there’s structure and form.” Since video game music is often made to be looped, he wants to make arrangements that are more thoughtful than just looping the song twice for a live performance.

When considering the process of translating video game music to something playable at a concert, I’ve always wondered if there are any differences between adapting 8bit music and more modern music that utilizes full symphonies already. Eric notes that this is a great quest, albeit a complex one.

“When you’re dealing with the 8bit sound, I don’t find that as having more freedom. I find it the challenge of trying to use acoustic instruments to achieve certain textures… I think that that can be a real orchestrational challenge to achieve the identity of the original.”

Rather than looking at it in terms of limited technology versus advanced technology Eric views them as “different sound worlds that live at different ages of digital technology.” Rather than being a matter of less or more freedom in terms of adaptation, Eric sees it as more of a spectrum, with 8bit music featuring a certain palette of sound that is now more varied.

I asked Eric if he has any piece he’s particularly proud of. He excitedly proclaimed that he has a number he’s proud of, but if he had to choose one, his orchestration of “Zanarkand” is one he’s most proud of for achieving those goals. The song is a beloved fan favorite, making it especially difficult to adapt, but he feels he successfully achieved maintaining the identity of the original and also “making it live in a meaningful way for the chamber ensemble.”

Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X
Tidus in Zanarkand, Final Fantasy X

Eric’s comment about fan favorites made me wonder, does he feel pressure to fulfill fans’ expectations when adapting Final Fantasy music? He tells me of course, and that he carefully considers community and what their experiences of the game and music are, along with what they might want out of a live music experience.

“I think that (video game music) is some of the most vital music that is getting produced in the world today, and people sleep on it at their peril.”

– Eric Roth, arranger and conductor of A New World: Intimate Music from FINAL FANTASY

While Eric may have not grown up playing video games himself, as an adult, he has fallen in love with the creativity being expressed in video game music. He explained to me that he feels excited that there is a whole untapped world that is not historically a conventional source of great music, and he feels great about being able to work with it.

Continuing, he says, “I feel like I get to live out an ideal in my career when I get to work with video game music, and Final Fantasy music in particular. Great ideas, great art, great music can come from any origin, and there is no special knowledge or special test you have to pass to be able to make great stuff.” I love this sentiment!

Finally, I had to see if Eric could share any current or upcoming video game concerts he’s involved with. He talked about the premiere of his collaborative new production Undertale Live in Chicago, which sold out online in a whopping 2.5 hours! Eric is also involved with the Nier concerts in North America and the UK, as well as the Dragonball Symphonic Adventure in March (that’s anime, but we’ll count it!).

And as for Australia? Eric had his own question for me: What do people in Australia think of Undertale? Of course, I told him that Australians love Undertale just as much as the rest of the world! Could Undertale Live be on Australia’s concert horizon? Let’s sure hope so! Eric says to stay tuned for more info about upcoming concerts this summer (winter for us Southern Hemisphere folks).

Many thanks to Eric Roth for taking the time to talk with me – and while he was driving, no less! It was lovely to speak with someone involved with Final Fantasy concerts that is clearly very passionate about it.

New World: Intimate Music from FINAL FANTASY tours Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane Australia in February, and along with various locations in the US in the first half of 2020. Tickets can be purchased from the official website.

About Anne Lee

Also known as apricotsushi. Anne can be written with the kanji for apricot (杏), and sushi was the most quintessentially Japanese thing I could think of when I was 13, resulting in my goofy, albeit memorable, nickname.