Game Music

Dragon Quest IX In Concert: Impressions Straight From Japan!

September 5, 2009 | | 7 Comments Share thison Facebook Dragon Quest IX In Concert: Impressions Straight From Japan!on Twitter

[Editor’s Note: I’ve been asking Tim for concert reports from Japan for quite some time now, and he’s finally come through in a big way. He was at the August 29 performance of music from Dragon Quest IX, which was conducted by Koichi Sugiyama himself. Through Tim’s lengthy write-up, you’ll get a feel for what was performed and how it was received. I always love hearing the details about these shows I know I’ll never get to attend, and I hope you enjoy his review as well!]

First, let me start off by saying that I am not too familiar with the Dragon Quest series. Despite being a huge JRPG fan, the Dragon Quest series has never really quite cut it for me gameplay-wise, and as such, I know little about its musical history.

Of course I am aware of Mr. Kouichi Sugiyama and his place in the VGM industry, but I know little of his actual music (except for the Dragon Quest “Overture” and level up jingle) so I went into this concert as a relative layman. I had only played Dragon Quest VIII before which, despite not managing to please me in the gameplay department, had an enjoyable soundtrack which would eventually turn into a great orchestral album (note: the Japanese edition of the game was completely midi, whereas the US localization used the orchestral version).

That said, I try to attend any and all game music concerts that come to the Kansai area, just to show my appreciation, because most concerts take place only in Tokyo. To prepare for this particular one, I decided to pick up the game, which was fun, and despite the fact that I did not manage to finish it in time for the concert, I had heard most of the songs (there aren’t that many to begin with), so I think I was well enough prepared.

With that, the day began. Read our report from the Dragon Quest IX concert after the jump.

On the way there, the subway was much more crowded than usual, and I could see people playing their DS’s left and right, so I knew I had at least boarded the correct train. Even after getting off, lots of people were walking with their DS’s firm in hand, which was funny to see, especially since there were a lot of couples who apparently preferred playing games cooperatively over actual conversation. My kind of people!

But this was only a prelude of things to come, for when I arrived at the Kyoto Concert Hall, there was a veritable sea of people, and EVERY SINGLE PERSON was playing Dragon Quest IX. Every. Single. Person. Seriously, I have never seen so many people playing a DS in one room, it was awesome.

The crowd seemed to consist of every kind of person imaginable: young, old, male, female, ranging from 6-year-old boys to elderly ladies. The majority looked to be of around my generation (late twenties, early thirties) and slightly up. As mentioned before, lots of couples too, and a decent amount of mothers with children. I had the impression the crowd was a bit more varied than at the average game music concert.

Before getting to the actual concert hall, there was the obligatory merchandise table selling the recently released DQIX on Synthesizer and Original Soundtrack as well as reprints of some of the older DQ orchestra albums, posters of the concert, and piano scores (if I had been able to play the piano, I would definitely have picked one of these up).

The whole place was packed, sold out from what I could gather, which goes to show the immense popularity of the Dragon Quest series and its music. I had a B class ticket, which was the cheapest available, putting me on the second floor to the immediate upper left of the orchestra. Perhaps not the best place from an acoustic point of view, but I was REALLY close to the performers so it was pretty good considering the price.

The first thing I noticed when sitting down was that there was a big video camera to my immediate left. For the second part of the concert, the camera moved to the front of the hall, so there is a chance that the concert might be released on DVD at some point. I also noticed a microphone suspended right above the stage, so a CD is also a very real possibility, but I would be surprised if they wouldn’t bring this out in some form or other, since they have released every concert to date so far.

Before going to the concert, I had made my own conjectures as to which songs were going to be played, and as it turned out, I was pretty close. The simple explanation for this is that they performed pretty much every single track in the game, so if you have a favorite, it’s likely to be here. The DS OST fits neatly onto one CD, so I guess if you’re doing a 2-hour concert you should be able to perform every single piece in, and they pretty much did.

The program used some translations that are pretty liberal, so I don’t know if these are the “official” track names or not, but for the remainder of this review, I shall adhere to these titles, for the sake of convenience.

First off, Mr. Sugiyama took the stage to a smattering of applause. I had no idea the man was this popular, but I guess that is to be expected in a hall filled with Dragon Quest fans. He looked surprisingly fit and healthy for a 78-year-old, although he had a small chair to sit on for the duration of the concert, instead of standing up.

Without any introduction, “Overture IX” started. It is to be expected that a Dragon Quest concert should start off with the series “Overture,” and this arrangement is in no way different than any that precede it, but still, listening to it live gives me goose bumps and makes me slightly giddy. In a good way.

After the overture, Mr. Sugiyama turned to the audience and talked a little about Dragon Quest IX. The newest feature added to this game was the “surechigai mode,” allowing up to 4 players to form a party and play simultaneously. This mode is often colloquially called “surechi” and Mr. Sugiyama’s mentioning of this neologism got some good laughs. He cordially requests the audience not to engage in cooperative play during the concert. Man, they really love this guy.

Next up was my favorite track from the game, “Angelic Land,” the divine home to your main character. Considering that this is one of the most significant areas in the game, Mr. Sugiyama considers the music that plays here to be DQIX’s main theme. The harp is featured prominently in this piece, which is to be expected for Heaven, but the main melody is also beautiful and calming. Very well done.

Then came “Destiny~Prologue to Tragedy,” which I don’t quite remember from the game. It wasn’t all that memorable, and I don’t have much to say about it. Mr. Sugiyama took to the stage once more to explain that this was the first time the main Dragon Quest series was released on a portable platform, and that the sound programming was done by Tose, the same company that was responsible for Dragon Quest Monsters, Dragon Quest VIII, and the Gameboy Advance iterations of old Final Fantasy games.

The next piece performed was “Oboe Melody in the Castle,” the castle town theme. This one is also one of the more enjoyable tracks in the game. The orchestration stayed very close to the original, and I thought it was pretty good. Then we moved to a medley of town themes. I rather like the town themes in the Dragon Quest series, so I was looking forward to this, but this was the first performance that really didn’t sit that well with me. Perhaps this was because of my location, but the tambourine sounded way too loud and was kind of obtrusive. Also, I associate “tambourine playing” with drunk, middle-aged salarymen at karaoke bars, but maybe that’s just me.

Speaking of alcohol, however, through clever use of the “good night” jingle, the next piece transitioned into the tavern theme, which was a lot of fun. It’s a very upbeat melody with lots of handclapping (performed by the percussion players in the back row) and it’s fun to listen too. The audience did not join in on the clapping however. The performance ended with the save jingle, which was a nice touch.

Time for some talking again, and this time Mr. Sugiyama told us that they switched their soundtrack publisher to King Records. Lots of gratuitous brown-nosing ensued, and you could tell the audience is not quite sure how to deal with this information. At some point some people hesitatingly decide to give something approaching an applause, without much dedication. Mr. Sugiyama didn’t really seem to know what to do with this here-nor-there response either, so he said “Let’s hear it for the people at King Records, eh!”

Smooth, Sugiyama, very smooth.

He then went on to announce that there would be 2 more consecutive pieces until the intermission. A slightly confused murmur was heard throughout the hall. “Uh… wait… not 2, I mean 3!,” causing the crowd burst with raucous laughter. Damn you and your wily charm, Sugiyama!

The first of the last 3 pieces was a medley comprising of the world map theme, “Hills and Meadows,” a theme I did not recognize called “Together in the Fields” (possibly multiplayer related) and the airship theme, “Soaring in the Sky.” The world map theme is another personal favorite of mine and didn’t disappoint. The next piece was another town theme, complete with “day” and “night” versions. This one also ranks at the top of my list of performances for the day. Very beautiful.

Then came trouble. I had kind of been dreading the battle themes because I just couldn’t imagine them sounding very good coming from an orchestra, and sure enough, I didn’t like this performance at all. The percussion and brass instruments for the normal battle theme were WAY too loud and totally drowned out the main melody, which was a shame. It sounded much too messy. Then, after briefly touching on the “Angelic Land” theme once again, it moved into the boss theme, which is a bit more balanced. Too bad the original composition is just not that interesting. To top things off the performance ended with a rather annoying drawn out wail, which I didn’t like AT ALL.

During the intermission, many people fired up their DS’s again for a quick bout of co-op play. I had more or less anticipated this might happen, so, being the subversive bastard that I am, I whipped out my PSP for a short sparring match of Street Fighter Alpha 3. Also, I was wearing my 8-bit Megaman T-shirt, and really couldn’t have been any LESS appropriate.

After the intermission, Mr. Sugiyama came to the stage once again, and mused a bit about how wonderful classical music is, and he encouraged us to visit more concerts. You could tell that he was being sincere and that he really loves his profession. Even when talking, his mannerisms and body language are conductor-like; flowing, sweeping, moving to some inner rhythm only he can hear.

So on to part 2, which kicked off with a dungeon theme medley. I rather like “Gloomy Cavern,” so it started out really good, but got kind of weird towards the end. I am not familiar with “Atmosphere of Death,” but the piece makes use of some kind of really odd and hard to describe sound effect performed on the congas. I’m not even sure what it’s supposed to sound like, although Wikipedia informs me it is called a “moose call” or “glissando.” To create this sound, the conga player was rubbing some kind of colored ball over the surface of his instrument, which was an odd sight to behold. Also, it didn’t help that, towards the end, one of the little balls slipped from his hand and made a sound more like a moose whimper than anything else.

The next part was another highlight of the show. “Gathering Place” is a retake on the Dragon Quest theme and as such not that interesting, but the transition to “Altar of Change” was formed by an eerily haunting solo by the main violinist. I think this was one of the very rare instances in this concert where they made place for something completely new and improvised, because all the other pieces did not stray a single note from their DS counterparts. It then concluded with “Sadness of the Heart,” one of the more melodic and dramatic pieces on the soundtrack, and a great way to finish off this medley. Very impressive.

The following piece was the theme of Sandy, the Ganguro fairy much maligned by DQ purists, that serves as your guide in the game. It’s actually a really happy and upbeat melody that greatly suits the character and forms a nice break from the relatively soft overall tone of the concert. Very cute. After this trio of songs, Mr. Sugiyama turned around to address the audience, but his microphone was switched off. These people laughed at just about ANYTHING Sugiyama did throughout the show. There was also a respectful round of applause for the violinist.

From there, we moved to the final part of the concert. The last 3 songs started with “Pathway to Good Fortune~Cathedral of Emptiness.” I am not familiar with either of these songs, and they didn’t particularly impress. “Final Battle,” on the other hand, started with a big bang on the drums, slightly startling me whilst I was taking notes. As can be expected of the final battle theme, it quoted the Dragon Quest “Overture” and “Angelic Land” to good effect. I wish they’d stop pounding the drums so hard though. At the end Mr. Sugiyama made a kind of “that felt good!” gesture towards the audience. Funny man.

What better way to end a concert than the ending theme? That’s exactly what we got. This is another really well-done piece, very suiting to the end of a grand adventure. After this performance, Mr. Sugiyama left the stage without saying a word. He returned once, and left again. He returned a second time and then started the encore. Is there some kind of “Concert Code” that states it has to go like this every time!?

The encore is a piece called “海図を広げて” (“Opening up the Sea Chart”), which, if I understand correctly, was originally composed for Dragon Quest IV, but was reused in IX. Pretty nice, but kind of a “meh” choice for an encore.

But of course, this was not all. Mr. Sugiyama did the leaving and coming back twice thing again, finally and proudly announcing “I brought my stick with me again!,” to much merriment. He went on to say that the final encore was rather special, a fan favorite, and that he was really glad to be able to perform it again: the Dragon Quest IV ending, to which the crowd went absolutely bonkers.

I kind of regret not having a history in the Dragon Quest series now, but I assume Dragon Quest IV must be one of the most popular scores in the series, perhaps akin to the sixth installment in the Final Fantasy franchise. I know I’d go absolutely bonkers if Uematsu announced the Final Fantasy VI ending as an encore (would be a pretty damn long one too). And indeed, this was great. The man knows how to compose his ending themes, obviously. The show closed with a smattering of applause. It’s nice to see a video game composer so popular and beloved by such a widely varied fanbase.

In closing, I had a good time, but it didn’t turn me into a Sugiyama convert or anything. If I’m feeling nice, I’d say his work is of consistent quality, or if I’m feeling mean, I’d say it all kind of sounds the same. The orchestral arrangements featured hardly any improvisation at all. Everything was relatively close the original DS soundtrack, which I guess is a good thing in itself, but a little bit of variation wouldn’t have hurt. It is obvious that Mr. Sugiyama writes his music with a full orchestra in mind right from the start, and the discrepancy between original and arranged is therefore not as large as you might think/hope/want, but at least it means that you will be getting very loyal arrangements of your favorite songs, which is definitely a positive thing.

[All photos courtesy of Tim van Ingen]

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