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Born in Hiroshima, musician Kumi Tanioka joined Square to write music for the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles series. Late last year, on 11/11/11, she performed on stage at the Vana♪Con orchestral concert, featuring her compositions from Final Fantasy XI. She played solo piano and also accompanied the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Having gone freelance, Tanioka has founded her own company, named Riquisimo, and scored three independently developed interactive storybooks. Published by DICO, Snow White, The Ugly Duckling and Hansel and Gretel contain multiple translations of all text and narration, making them a cutting edge language tool for the young.

We had the chance to catch up with the musician to hear what draws one of Japan's leading game composers to the indie scene.

What kind of background did you have in gaming that would interest you in pursuing a career writing game scores?

Composer Kumi Tanioka: Growing up, my younger brother often played games. I would mostly sit behind him and watch. We only had a single television in the house, so if my brother was playing I had to be a spectator. In all honesty, I'm not all that good at playing. But my familiarity with gaming stretches back to Xevious, Yie Ar Kung-Fu and Pac-Man. I completed Final Fantasy IV on my own. Same with The Legend of Zelda. Often I watched my brother play the Mana and SaGa games, but I occasionally played those, too.

What strategy did you feel was appropriate for writing music for DICO's interactive storybooks?

My feeling was that the music should be simple, first and foremost. It was also important not to draw too much attention, to write songs that could repeat without detracting from the mood created by the visual art and story. Those were my primary concerns.

Has founding Riquisimo made it easier for you to organize your own live events?

Sadly, it's not yet a full-fledged studio. I'm doing my best as a freelancer at the moment, which has allowed me to confront a new set of challenges. I want to write music in some unfamiliar contexts and expand my experiences within my profession. Those are the kinds of thoughts I have about working freelance.

What helps you determine a sound for a story-driven title? Are there steps that you feel are important to take before you begin the composition process?

At first I take a look at the world being depicted in the game, and also ask the producer and director what they wish to create. I then determine what kind of music would be appropriate to that setting. Really, it's much less about what kind of music I personally want to create. If I'm composing for a certain game, it's very important that I ask myself how I ought to approach that music. Until I've established a sense of the game's world, there isn't yet a way to discover what kind of music is appropriate.

How did you go about creating a particular style for the fantasy genre?

Ancient forms of music have always appealed to me, particularly the use of the gamelan in Indonesian music and all forms of Celtic music. I really have not studied them deeply, just appreciated their sound casually. I was interested in bringing these regional instruments together and blending their melodic styles to see what resulted.

At the same time, I got inspired by a group called Roba House. I had gotten my hands on one of their CDs, and listening to it, I thought, "This is really good!" It led me to wonder, if we were to work together, what kind of music would I write for them? And of course, I was also thinking about what would work best as music for a game. Those turned out to be three major components.

How did your collaboration with Roba House develop during that the making of Crystal Chronicles?

Working with Roba House, they were never instructed on how to perform the music. Rather, I was often discussing with synthesizer operator Hidenori Iwasaki how to go about determining the sound for the game. Over time I composed the melodies, while Iwasaki provided arrangement for the rhythm track. The results we shared with Roba House, and discussed how to introduce live, acoustic instrumentation to the mix.

At the same time, they offered us their advice, which influenced the overall presentation of the soundtrack. Particularly their participation figured into the latter stages of development.

Hansel and Gretel interactive storybook trailer

Iwasaki and other sound designers at Square Enix have collaborated with you on the Crystal Chronicles series as synthesizer operators. How has this role influenced your music for console game soundtracks?

Generally speaking, the composer is responsible for writing the music. The synthesizer operator, meanwhile, engineers the properties of the sound and makes adjustments to the final mix. On Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Iwasaki was additionally providing arrangement of rhythmic elements.

With synthesizer operator Yasuhiro Yamanaka, we were working with the Nintendo DS. The range of sounds and number of instruments available to us was narrower. I was involved in composing music, which Yamanaka arranged to suit the DS console's hardware specs.

During the Vana♪Con concert, you performed solo piano and accompanied the orchestra. Could you tell us a little about your experience of the event?

The music I composed for Final Fantasy XI was for the very first installments of the game series, so performing those pieces immediately brought back memories of those days. And having the chance to play [Naoshi] Mizuta's compositions as well left me with an all-encompassing sense of the game world. Almost as soon as I touched the keys, there was a feeling of nostalgia. I enjoyed the entire event, from hearing the orchestra's performance to spending some time with devotees of the game.

The score to Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles introduced many people to your music for the first time and was also an early demonstration of your use of regional instruments. How did traditional music styles serve as the basis for this particular game score?

Although I cannot claim to have researched the subject in depth, what I suspect is that most musical instruments resist being pinned down to a single geographical region. Instead, they spread to different territories, migrating together with other cultural phenomena.

Historically, musical instruments have emerged and the way they are played is an expression of the culture of the region. The way it is performed undergoes many changes over time, and that phenomenon gives rise to regional music styles. For instance, if you take a look at the Indian sitar and the Middle-Eastern santur, these instruments are played in entirely different ways, even though they most likely have a common origin.

As a consequence, while I write I try to imagine what would happen if an Indian instrument and a Celtic instrument were played as a pair. If I'm working with a flute that has a limited musical range, I think about what other instruments might complement that specific limitation. This was how I was thinking while writing the score for Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles.

Something that you notice about game composers in Japan is that many play live events, as acoustic performers, rock musicians or DJs. What has attracted you to the live environment over the years?

Live performances are really interesting. Even after you've completed your work on a game, you still have no idea how people felt about it as they played. You can only imagine. That's not the case with live shows.

There you can see the audience right in front of your eyes. I can play something from a game that I wrote, and hear people whispering, "Hey, it's that song, it's that song!" That sense of excitement shared between myself and the audience makes me feel so happy.

Tanioka performing "Gustaberg" from Final Fantasy XI

Having performed outside of Japan at the Final Fantasy XI fan festivals, have you observed significant differences in how the audience reacts to your music?

For Japanese audiences, it is expected of you to sit and listening quietly until the end, then clap to show your appreciation. American audiences are different. They will of course also listen quietly to the performance, but when you're coming out on stage and during the breaks from the performance, they're screaming. To me it's kind of inexplicable, but it's a lot of fun. When the show is over, you hear the audience go wild. It's such an unbelievable experience.

Are there particular songs that you look back on as having been significant milestones?

A special song to me is "Starry Night," the end theme from Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. The opening theme, the one that appears in the promotional videos, was also significant. Those songs contain a whole lot of ideas that for a long time I'd been eager to put to the test. It was really just a matter of my wanting very deeply to express certain musical concepts. I was very pleased that those results were accepted.

Another special music track was "Awakening" from Final Fantasy XI. It was the first battle track I wrote for that game, but it was intended to be for the final boss. Everyone's image of a boss battles is something aggressive, right? But for me, my image of "Awakening" was one of darkness. While writing, I imagined the ruler of darkness, languishing in anguish. I'm relieved that this unexpected choice wound up matching the mood of the battle scene in the end. When it became a popular music track for the game, it made me very happy.

That was one piece where I was not sure how it could be arranged for the piano. But I thought I'd give it a shot. I should mention that Iwasaki-san had previously arranged many instrumental layers for "Awakening," so I was a little worried about how to communicate all that through just one instrument. The piano alone doesn't have the same kind of intensity. I tried it out a number of ways and something clicked. When I've performed that piece live, it is without any sheet music. I have it all committed it all to memory.

Now that you are an independent artist with your own company, what has changed for you as a game composer?

There's a sense of freedom now. I have many opportunities to meet other freelance musicians. While I was working in-house, we musicians had the chance to delve into many instrumental styles, but at the same time they all had a similar color. I recognize there is room for such colors in other environments. When I reunite with those previous co-workers, I can build upon the know-how we've developed previously.

Of course, the contact I had with game developers is not as close these days. But I recognize that in this industry there are so many different kinds of people trying their best to create music. I understand that well, as a freelancer. The chance to meet new people is very interesting and the number of professional circles that I'm in contact with is growing day by day. It's healthy to be expanding my knowledge of all of these areas of creativity.

Do you have specific objectives going forward?

My objectives? I guess to take pride in my work. I would like to say, "Here's what I can do as a songwriter." "I wrote music for a new game." More than simply completing work, I'd like for people to respond to the songs I write, saying, "Hey, that's Tanioka's music!"

For more information on the music of Kumi Tanioka, visit the Riquisimo homepage. To find out about DICO's storybooks, visit their weblog. This article will be available in Japanese on Game Design Current. Images courtesy of Square Enix and DICO. Photo and video by Jeriaska.