Monday, 21 December 2015

The Musical Counterpoint of Final Fantasy VII

This year, the Final Fantasy VII remake was announced as a real, actually going to happen thing, and lo, did the people rejoice. I decided to play it for the first time in well over a decade, to see if it lived up in any way to my lofty childhood/teenage memories. It was, in all honesty, a mixed bag. In short it was easier than I remembered, more tonally disparate than I was able to understand as a youngster, and wonkier in many other ways: those hideous mini game mechanics made my head shudder. The one thing that anchored it to my grand memories was the story - not its characters - and the counterpoint that the superlative music formed to that.

Before I carry on, I’ll point out that I’m working off Michel Chion’s idea of musical counterpoint - the notion that earlier film theorists rather wrong headedly adapted the word ‘counterpoint’ when they actually meant ‘dissonant harmony’. For Chion, the former term arranges music in parallel with the visual, the latter represents the juxtaposition between image and sound. Nobuo Uematsu’s virtuoso score form such a unique and deep counterpoint to the themes and visuals in FFVII, that it ensures it will forever stand the test of time. It works so well in fact, that I think the all the missals of praise directed towards the relevance and poignancy of the game can almost be entirely laid to rest at the feet of these compositions.

I’m not going to bother taking a fine toothed comb to the soundtrack, because it’s sprawling, and has too many points to sanely cover, but a few highlights are as follows (in playlist form if you so wish)

“Aeris theme” is wonderfully fragile and full of hope, beautifully opposed by Sephiroth’s leitmotif “Those Chosen by the Planet”: the malignant heartbeat that runs courses through the veins of the game’s most oppressive scenes - a fuzzed out synth aligning you with Clouds fracturing mental state. “Anxious Heart” and “On That Day Five Years Ago” take the key motif from the game’s main theme and stretch it into plaintive yearning, backed up by xylophone and harp melodies respectively.

It’s also a creepy soundtrack, the rippling synths of “J-E-N-O-V-A” perverting the organic pulsing and plucked strings of “You Can Hear the Cries of the Planet” and the pitch shifted piano arpeggios frail reworking of the main theme in “Who… Am I?” .” I also can’t ignore the “Turks theme” insistent finger snapping noir, or the sleazy shuffle and bass freak out of “Lurking in the Darkness" (both anchoring the game in what Uematsu called a vision of “a dirty city of the future) but enough! I’ll never get anywhere if I carry on like this.

The three songs that I want to focus on are the three world themes that is “Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII” “The Great Northern Cave” and “The Highwind takes to the Skies”. The reason for this is that they feature prominently due to the time you inevitably spend on the world map, and they are so perfectly pitched that they complement the game in a myriad of ways: setting the tone, facilitating a sense of urgency and purpose, and dividing the game into three distinct acts.

Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII
When you first step out of the dirty slums and cyberpunk nightmare of Midgar, it isn’t a happy time. Sephiroth is on a journey, and you’re fated to follow. Instead of a huge rousing theme, the score greets you with the main notes of the theme, followed by an apprehensive synth and maudlin strings in the background. It slowly fills itself out with a restrained variety of instruments (Uematsu only had access to 16 track recording for VII, the other 8 tracks were reserved for sound effects) before taking on a hopeful, majestic tone. Eventually it transitions into a flutes and a piano, a humble melody to remind you of Cloud’s background (this is Cloud’s theme after all) that eventually segues via orchestral rolls and eulogistic horns into the grand sweeping theme melody that everyone knows. It is soaring, majestic and full of vigour, but if it had remained that way it would have sold the game short. VII is complex, full of misdirection and dismal, fatalistic ecological parable.

Just like the game, the theme can’t stop thinking about the portentous clouds on the horizon. Every location you visit is sullied by Shinra’s legacy, Sephiroth’s rampage, or the past of its characters haunting them. The bassy piano chords bring to mind the Jaws theme, and stabbing brass notes underline a narrative that is about facing up to past sins. The theme continues on, a mix of trepidation and heroic reserve. It’s quite easy to see FVII as a simple good versus evil narrative, and it certainly has that basic plot in its pocket, but returning as an adult it alarmed me in how defeatist and grey a lot of it was. Cloud as a moody hero is certainly an identity that his character has been lumbered with, ignoring the return of his memory and true, more upbeat personality.

Before the final descent into the Northern Cave, Cloud tells everyone to go home and find out why they’re fighting. He renounces the blind optimism of “fighting for the planet” because it is too naive, too simple, too virtuous. Hands are dirty on all sides of the conflict, but he needs everyone to have a reason to follow him to get his bloody revenge. Everyone goes off to make their peace before committing to their suicide mission. Their characters remain rather sketchy and inert - Yuffie has no real epiphany, Cid is far too blasé about the whole thing, and Cait Sith just seems happy to have a group of pals, regardless of the impending disaster - but they are finally anchored in something beyond mere black and white conflict.

The main theme reflects these thoughts, and it reflects the ultimately hopeless journey that the group find themselves on. In the end Cloud isn’t sure how their gambit against Sephiroth will pay off. There is no way of knowing, and until Advent Children canonised their success, the ambiguity of the ending was always disquieting. The cut to “500 Years Later” after the credits does nothing to explain what really happened when Meteor was stopped, other than Red XIII survived and the planet eventually prospered again. As a side note, the reprise of the first few notes from “Opening - Bombing Mission” is still shiver inducing, the work of an incredibly smart team of creatives.

The Great North Cave

This piece of music first plays when you reach the uh, North Cave. It might be hands down one of the most imposing and foreboding pieces of music in a videogame. The brooding bass swell is extremely disconcerting. Firstly, it is backed up by nothing but silence. Each note is allowed to decay before after a few thuds a ghostly wind instrument comes in - clarinet? piccolo? - it riffs on the main theme, before a disturbed piano or harpsichord riff comes in. Importantly the swelling bass never leaves, no matter what builds on top of it, be it synthesized chanting or a dour oboe and bassoon.

It’s designed to echo the the events, counterpoint is what soundtracks do best after all, and when you finally reach the world map to see Meteor hanging in the sky, nothing fits the sight better than the gravity of that synthetic bass swell. It hammers everything home with its incessant, indefatigable rhythmic pulse. Every beat is another grain of sand, another thousand leagues that Meteor has travelled towards the planet. Repackaging the main themes motif into this reflects everyone’s state of mind. This is a battle that might not be won.

With the Remake becoming a real thing that is really happening, there’s no doubt the music will be updated. The team behind Advent Children and various orchestras have had a stab at them, but they all have the same problem. 16 tracks of midi forced Uematsu and the rest of the sound design team to be creative, striving to synthesise interesting sounds like the doom laden bass throbs, vicious ear-splitting spell sounds, and the eerie alien whale song that signify the ‘cries of the planet’. With more tech and higher fidelity available, there’s a risk of music being less evocative. The midi songs of VII may be a little harsh on the ears of those used to full HiFi sound experience, but they are urgent, sincere and full of nuance. Fussy detailing and confused additions to the austere but meaningful original compositions add little, and to my ears detract a great amount instead. I hope the team in charge of Remake manage to respect these songs when they transfer them to HD.

The Highwind Takes to the Skies
The last and most rousing of the world themes, as your ragtag band of misplaced identities, environmental terrorists, and various other ragtag miscreants finally gain their own autonomy, careening in the skies beyond the reach of Shinra’s machinations, but constantly reminded of the impending disaster; a teleological omen punctuating the glory. It’s a simpler song than its two stable mates, but there are still moments of reflection. A muted trumpet casts doubt on the grandeur at hand, before a horn sections and flute play in tandem to thunderous drums to pick the song back up.

The most important part might be the strings supported by horns in the mid section, refusing to ever allow the song unfettered glory. The Highwind isn’t lofty escapism, it’s just a temporary swell of pride and hope, a reprieve from the oppression of Meteor, and the casts mission to defeat Sephiroth. If its moments of restraint are the uncertainty that underpins the plot, the ecstatic symphonic bursts are the boundless optimism that Cloud eventually digs out of himself - the constant need to thrust forward despite all odds.

Without ...Takes to the Skies, the atmosphere of VII might be too grim. The writing remembers this often, the ill omens of Sephiroth’s plight and the alien misery of Jenova’s reunion and the planet’s response to these threats - chthonic nightmares named WEAPON - are frequently diffused by goofy humour, capped off by a slap fight on top of a canon in the middle of a kaiju attack reminiscent of a natural disaster. People remember Cloud and his moody demeanour, but they often forget his about face into unsure but hopeful leader. His introverted search for a true history to call his own (backdropped by an Escher aping impression of the lifestream, and the woozy, nauseating strains of “ I”?) elevated him beyond the teenage moodiness of Squall.

“The Interactive Movie”

Those were the infamous ‘dirty words’ that Edge suggested Final Fantasy VII joyously rebuked. A game that was cinematic in scope and execution, without ever letting the player take a true back seat. Though graphical advances and melodramatic storyline were cited, it’s really the music that shouldered the majority of the burden. A perfect use of counterpoint enabled Squaresoft to elevate blocky polygons and stilted, poorly translated text into something transcendent and intoxicating.

Whilst modern games strive to act as simulacrum to Hollywood films, their bristling detail misses a large part of what makes VII so defining: its simplicity and attention to quiet detail could be seen, perhaps short-sightedly, as quintessentially Japanese rather than bustling Hollywood - Japan can do pomp and bluster with the best of them - but instead it’s simply heartfelt and full of earnest feeling. There is nothing mechanical about Uematsu’s music, it brought the lofi world of VII to life in a way that people were taken aback by.

Whilst Western blockbuster games had a well publicised moment of epiphany around the time of Uncharted 2, and the significance of a quiet moment amongst the high-stakes action, Squaresoft had already orchestrated multiple poignant quiet moments. The hush on the Highwind before the deciding mission, the deafening silence shared between Cloud and Tifa as they wait for the sun to rise, and the one everyone remembers: fighting Jenova to the tender, heartstring tugging theme for Aeris. No amount of musical spit and polish will ever be able to usurp the impact of that innocent four bar melody.

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