Interview:Nintendo Power September 2005
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Part IV of Nintendo Power's series of interviews with the development team of Twilight Princess. This fourth one is with Koji Kondo, the man behind the music of Zelda.
Music has the power to soothe the savage beast--and that pretty much describes gamers. It can also work us into adrenaline overdrive, and when the music hits the heights of artistry, it can play a gamer's emotions like a keyboard. Which brings us to Koji Kondo, Nintendo's venerated sound designer (and lontime keyboard musician). He's been at the helm of Zelda's music since the earliest days of the series, and he's currently taking on what he calls one of the biggest challenges of his career, capturing the rich range of emotions in the dark world of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. While the music of the upcoming Nintendo GameCube epic is still in the works, Kondo brings NP readers a unique look into his musical world by chatting about his past, Zelda's present and the highly unusual process of creating orchestrated music for the E3 Zelda trailer.
Sound of Success
When I attended E3, it was eye-opening for me to see the incredibly long lines that people endured to enter the closed-off Zelda area of Nintendo's booth--seeing people's reactions, it was pretty clear that Zelda emerged from E3 as possibly the most anticipated title in North America. But, most of all, I recall walking through the private re-created forest area and dungeon zone by myself, truly appreciative that fans could hear our fully orchestrated E3 Zelda trailer music loud and clear--without all the noises of the main floor.
With the trailer music being so moving, it was no surprise that I was asked--during several media interviews with journalists at E3--if we plan to use an orchestra for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess music. Honestly, it hasn't been determined yet, but I would really like to push for it. In the process of recording the trailer music, I've gotten back in touch with how music from live instruments can be extremely powerful. Even when I've spent countless hours creating digital music with complex layers for Nintendo's games, artificial sounds just can't beat the real depth and expression of live instruments. Recording the trailer has really encouraged me to explore the challenges of orchestra music for the game. Since game development is still proceeding, we can't yet look into the details of how a full orchestra could be specifically used--we just can't discuss it until we reach a certain degree of the game's development. But, for the moment, I can dream big: I'd love to use a full 50-player orchestra to capture the big action scenes and an intimate string quartet for the more lyrical moments in gameplay.
I actually got my start with electric keyboards, way back when I was five years old. Though I also studied piano, the true backbone of my musicality is on keyboards. When I was in junior high and high school, I really pushed my skills in a cover band that played jazz and rock music--mainly the songs of Deep Purple, as well as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, which some people back then really considered some of the most progressive sounds in rock. Even though my bandmates eventually grew out their hair really long in tribute, I didn't go that far to copy my favorite bands! Recently, I've started to study the cello. I've had a sharp interest in the really round, deep sounds of the cello. Who knows? The cello might open up new ways of thinking about music for me that might prove valuable for my work at Nintendo.
These days, there are lots of people who want to create music for video games. New people join my group every year. Truth be told, I was the first person ever hired by Nintendo for the specialized purpose of creating music for our games. It was 1984, the second year of the Famicom system in Japan. I'd wanted to work in some kind of music career, and I'd heard that Nintendo was looking for someone to fill a music position. They hired me--what a lucky break! I had some experience creating music via computer before I joined Nintendo, so it wasn't a stretch for me to produce music for video games, though I did need to learn some programming for the first time in my life.
Zelda versus Mario
I've been involved with Zelda since the first game, released on the Famicom Disk System in Japan. That was a very tough project, since I had to create brave, gallant music through a small number of sounds, and it took a long time to complete. Generally, my style is to present a composition for feedback when it's complete, not ask for ideas along the way. So when I presented my ideas to Mr. Miyamoto for that first Zelda game, he fortunately called for only one change--the music for Link's warp. I had to re-create that sound several times before it got the green light, since it was very challenging to express the warp so simply. Another major challenge in my Zelda history: creating the ocarina music in Ocarina of Time. I had to create all of those memorable tunes with only five tones of the classic do-re-mi scale. Specifically: re, fa, la and ti (and the higher-scale re). Since each of these songs, like Zelda's Lullaby and Epona's Song, had a particular theme, it was quite challenging, but I think it all felt really natural in the end. Then as soon as I was finished with those ocarina songs, I had to create even more for Majora's Mask--I got a lot of mileage out of just those five tones! We're also exploring some music-oriented gameplay ideas for Twilight Princess. In the E3 demo, people saw and heard that Links plays a reed pulled from the grass to call a hawk; reed music was in the initial development concept for Ocarina, but we ultimately didn't use it. What instrument might Link play in Twilight Princess? For now, it's going to remain a secret.
I've also worked extensively with the music for the Mario series. Mario's an action game, so it's vital that the music sync up directly with game control. In Zelda, however, it's more important that music match up with each environment and create the atmosphere of each location. Which kind of music do I like more? A very difficult question. In general, creating the music for Zelda is far more challenging.
Another interesting factor is that music creation can vary by hardware, too. For example, the speaker on the DS is smaller than that found on televisions or home theather systems, so the bass sounds are more difficult to achieve. But I think I'm most inspired to create when I am creating under limitations--whether it's by system or musical theme.
Making the Zelda Trailer
The process of creating the E3 trailer was fascinating. Three people (including me) each composed a different approach to the trailer's music. Then we asked one of Japan's most extraoridinarily gifted composers and music arrangers, Michiuru Oshima, to work her magic on all three pieces, envisioning how an orchestra could wrap its many instrumens around the general music. We then recorded each of three orchestrations with famed conductor Yasuzo Takemoto on hand, who you might remember as the conductor who took command over the amazing 2002 Smash Bros. concert in Japan. I did have a chance to personally conduct when we recorded a chorus for one possible version of the trailer. Though I'd studied music, I hadn't studied classical music, so I'd never used a conductor's baton before (outside of the one in The Wind Waker, that is!), and it was incredibly fun.
I actually consider Michiuru Oshima one of my musical idols. She's a tremendous musician. Coincidentally, she attended the same music school where I studied keyboards and piano, and she won a major competition at elementary-scholl age--and even held concerts overseas at a very young age. I have enormous respect for her, and I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with her on the trailer project. As I always imagined, she's a genius. Actually, people often have the misperception that women composers and arrangers can't concieve really epic, powerful, "masucline" music, but they couldn't be more incorrect. She's among the best Japanese musicians who can create such grand impact.
Zelda Travels the World Beat
You may have noticed that the music for each game in the Zelda series has a slightly different vibe. Majora's Mask had an exotic Chinese-opera sound; and Wind Waker had sort of an Irish influence on its music. As we started thinking about the music for Twilight Princess, I got some guidance from the developers that they'd like music reminiscent of eastern Europe, bringing in an ensemble of percussion instruments, and simultaneously I heard that they might like to hear more modern music employed for the game. At that time, I couldn't really envision what they were asking clearly--I assumed that they might like a Gypsy vibe. Creating Zelda music always involves learning for me, since I can't create all of the music for the wide variety of environments based simply on what's already inside my head. I always do extensive research and soak up as much music as I can to expand my vision. Then after all of that, I always find it much easier to create music that I couldn't before.
The Cart Before the Horse
Like I said earlier, music creation simply can't start until game development has reached a certain level. I usually play game prototypes before attempting to capture the right feeling for its music. The results aren't good when you complete music before the game is finished. Once, when I was working very tight deadlines, for Super Mario 64, I was asked to provide "snow stage music," so I went ahead and created the soundtrack. Not having seen the gameplay at all, I'd envisioned snow falling quietly, and composed music for that kind of ambience. But it turned out that the actul game was totally different, with Mario moving around extremely fast. A total mismatch, so I needed to start over from scratch and create better-fitting music.
The Perfect Effects
My group isn't only in charge of music, but also the creation of the countless sound effects that you hear in Nintendo's games. It's a really important job that we take really seriously--though sometimes we find ourselves in outlandish situations in the pursuit of just the right sounds. One day, I had to carry a big steel pipe to work, which wouldn't have been a big deal, if it weren't for that I had to take the train to my office. Everyone on the train stared at me in the most curious way!
Outside of work, I don't create music in my personal life--but I'm a voracious listener at home! Right now, I'm listening to Jimmy Smith, a musician who made his fame bringing the Hammond organ into the jazz world, and Joey DeFrancesco, another Hammond jazz virtuoso. I also like the show-tune soprano Sarah Brightman a lot, since she brings classical music, world music, and modern music together so effortlessly. I had been dreaming about using one of her gorgeous songs for Twilight Princess--but then I found out that her music has already recently been used in another video game! But if we could find a similar musician for the next Zelda game, that would be really interesting. I wonder what fans would think of such music being used for a "Princess Zelda Theme" for the upcoming game.
I've paid close attention to what Zelda fans have said about music in online forums, and I've listened to the many MIDI music files that people have posted. It's all very interesting. I feel like music transcends language barriers and crosses all nations' borders. That will be a very important consideration for what we do with the music for Twilight Princess. The work ahead will be one of the biggest challenges of my life, and I can't wait to explore the directions that I'm sure we'll be able to go once the game is a little farther in development. No doubt, I'll be spending my summer vacation along with everyone else to ensure that Zelda will be the richest experience possible. But I won't mind one bit--I look forward to helping millions of Zelda players travel to musical landscapes that have never been heard before!