Square-Enix Piano Collections pt.3: Ten to Ten-Two

May 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm (Editorials, Soundtracks) (, , , , , , , , , )

Although I had heaped much praise on the first six Piano Collections albums, all was not quite that well in the Final Fantasy world. While there was a clear progression with each album, keeping an arranger for three albums straight was bound to cause some stylistic repetition as resources became exhausted. For one unfamiliar with the source material, many of the songs between the albums could easily be mixed up on early listens.

Even more of a concern was the root of the music, Nobuo Uematsu, who had seemed to be running out of ideas. The music was always good on its own, but it was clear that many songs were drawing on others, even capturing entire phrases of previous songs and simply reworking them (a prime example of this would be Aerith’s and Celes’s themes). This seemed to reach its peak with the score for Final Fantasy IX, which contained elements of all of the Final Fantasy scores that preceded it. Sure, it may have been intended to be a throwback (there are many other elements of the game that also drew from predecessors), but there was no denying that these grounds were well tread, and growing stale. Surely, the series with the name “FINAL Fantasy” needed to come to an end.

But it was not so. Final Fantasy X was the first in the series to be released on the PlayStation 2, with critical reception on par with the previous entries. The music was noted as being fresh and well varied, but this was not due to Uematsu’s hand alone. For this project, they had decided to hire on two more composers to assist: Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauzu. Where Uematsu was known for writing pop-like melodies for his compositions, Nakano specialized in ambience and atmosphere, while Hamauzu handled some of the more foreboding, dramatic tracks. A few months later, a “Piano Collections Final Fantasy X” album was released, solely arranged by Masashi Hamauzu.

Hamauzu has said before that Uematsu was a big influencing factor in his efforts, especially having played through some of the Final Fantasy games himself before his career. One may have expected his work to be fairly similar to Uematsu’s as a result, but that is actually quite far from the truth. Where Uematsu was focused on melodies, Hamauzu was more classically trained with a strong sense of structure and progression. Having previously released a piano album for his earlier work on SaGa Frontier 2, he had already proved himself to be a capable composer and arranger, but no one would’ve imagined what came out from this.

Back on the release of the OST for Final Fantasy X, many people noted that Uematsu’s compositions were not quite up to par, save for a few really good tracks. Part of the fault of those tracks I would place on the arrangement, because half of the tracks on the Piano Collections album were Uematsu compositions, and they all sounded fantastic. The tracks that were already strong like “To Zanarkand” and the Ending Theme were fairly straightforward in arrangement, but then there were tracks like “Via Purifico” and “Rikku’s Theme” that managed to capture the spirit of the original while reworking the song to a completely different pacing. Most transformed was “Hymn of the Fayth”, which  was turned into a full standalone track with a real spiritual progression. While it sounded almost nothing like OST hymns, it filled the listener with the same sense of discordant peace and sorrow. Kudos went to the performer, Aki Kuroda, who never missed a beat and wonderfully completed the transformations set out by Hamauzu in the arrangements.

Most interesting from the album though, were Hamauzu’s self-arrangements, and the lone piece composed by Nakano. Hamauzu took each of his own pieces and only retained about half of what was heard in the OST versions, improvising or writing entirely new segments that almost alienated listeners who didn’t know what to look for. “Besaid Island” for example took the spacious melody that carried the original and accelerated it to more than twice its original speed for the piano. “Thunder Plains” took its original melody and sent it through countless variations. At the climax was “Decisive Battle”, which took out the grand orchestral and percussion backing and focused solely on the virtuosic piano, rivaling the battle themes from Final Fantasy VII Piano Collections for epicness and surpassing them in terms of technique and difficulty. As different as the piano tracks may have sounded from the originals, like Uematsu’s compositions they again somehow still embodied the spirit of the original. Last to mention is Nakano’s composition in the centre of it all, “Guadosalam”. While the original was heavy on percussion and featured almost no detectable melody, Hamauzu worked with it and somehow (and really, I have no idea how) managed to transcribe the different elements of the original into their own notes and rather than sounding like a mess, became a cohesive and mysterious work that was still very much the same piece as it was on the OST.

As a highly interpretive work, the album easily induced varying opinions. Depending on the listener, the album was either a work of genius (I myself hold this view) or it was quite aloof and distant. For those with a classical ear for music, the album was definitely a breath of fresh air after the previous piano forays, and for the casual listeners it was…interesting on early listens. In either case, it raised the burning question of what was to come next.

For the last game before the merge with Enix, and in an unprecedented move after the success of “Final Fantasy X”, Square released the sequel, “Final Fantasy X-2”. It was the first direct sequel to any Final Fantasy game, and took the series in a new direction that divided a lot of players. The tone was upbeat, the main characters were all female, and the music was headed by two newcomers to the series, Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi. The soundtrack received lukewarm to poor reception as a result. It was quite unexpected that a Piano Collections would be released for the game (especially as VII’s had only just been released by this time), but for whatever reason they went ahead with the project against all odds, and it was a good thing they did.

Further expanding the horizons set by the previous album, “Piano Collection Final Fantasy X-2” (notice the strange lack of ‘s’ on ‘Collection’) now not only featured work from multiple composers, but also multiple arrangers and performers. While this was sure to set it apart stylistically from the previous albums, would it work cohesively?

Yes. In such a way that it would be pointless for me to single out each arranger. Taking from the criticism of the preceding entries in the Piano Collections series, the arrangers here brought a perfect balance of new and old elements. None of the original melodies were distorted or changed, but the backing arrangements and improvised sections were unbelievably fresh and rich. The entire album had a bit of a free, jazzy feel as a result. Even though the tracklist did not include some of the more memorable themes from the game, it made the pieces memorable, and even captured a spirit more appropriate than the originals did. “Paine’s Theme” for instance was now much more mysterious than the original, and “Zanarkand Ruins” now gained the sad tinge that one would have expected from such a place. The album also did justice to the more epic tracks like “1000 Words” and “Eternity ~Memories of Light and Waves~”, making for an album that for every listener was very hard to dislike, regardless of their opinions of the original soundtrack. Somehow from a poorly received soundtrack was conceived a piano album that was universally acclaimed from all kinds of listeners and backgrounds.

It’s a bit of a shame though, that this was the only project of this series that these arrangers ever worked on. After these two brilliant entries and the constant progression seen throughout the Piano Collections, it seemed that the series might never top itself again.

pt.1: Shiro Satou’s Triad
pt.2: the Other Shiro, Mr. Hamaguchi
pt.3: Ten to Ten-Two
pt.4: Back to Basics
pt.5: Branching out
pt.6: the Other Collections
pt.7: Looking out ahead, filling the gaps

1 Comment

  1. Marvin said,

    Can’t wait for part 4!

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