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News / 2007 / May / 05

The Pioneers: Masashi Hamauzu

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Masashi Hamauzu is a classically trained musician and vocalist. Inheriting the talents of his father, an opera singer, the composer lent his voice to the chorus of "One Winged Angel" in Final Fantasy VII, and years later was selected to compose music for the game's long-awaited sequel. Here, ten music samples highlight the composer's career thus far, from his interning position at Square on up to his preparations for Final Fantasy XIII.

Masashi Hamauzu
Masashi Hamauzu was born on September 20, 1971 in Munich, Germany. His mother was a professor of music specializing in piano theory, while his father was a bass vocalist opera singer. It is far from difficult to imagine how, from a young age, Hamauzu gained a deep and lasting appreciation of music. It was not until he enrolled in college, however, after his family moved to Osaka, that the musician first began seriously composing music for the piano. At the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts, the composer joined a student group as a clavierist. It was there that he met two important people: collaborator Shiro Hamaguchi, and his wife.

In 1996, Hamauzu took a job as a trainee for Squaresoft's sound design department following his graduation. He had long been a fan of gaming, and found he had lots in common with a young composer there named Junya Nakano, who had worked previously as a synthesizer programmer on Konami arcade games. Hamauzu was invited to join the team working on the Front Mission spin-off, a sidescroller called Gun Hazard. The lead composers on the project were Final Fantasy veteran Nobuo Uematsu and his partner on Chrono Trigger, Yasunori Mitsuda. The young musician soon found himself transitioning from vocal music studies to videogame soundtracks, contributing several songs. "Impatience," with its synth vocal track and pulsing techno beats, counts among the most memorable songs found on the two disc soundtrack.

Front Mission: Gun Hazard, "Impatience"

Hamauzu's next assignment as a Square employee was to compose three tracks for Tobal No.1. The soundtrack was produced by Mitsuda, and brought together a circle of young musicians and sound designers from Square. Most tracks are experimental in nature, catering to the improved sound card offered by the new Playstation hardware. Hamauzu's "Shinto Shrine" combines harp and xylophone samples along with ambient sound effects. The duplicated repetitions of the vocal tracks call attention to their synthetic nature, in clear contrast with the traditional Japanese stylistic elements. The conflict between organic and synthetic sounds would become a recurring theme of Hamauzu's music as he gained greater access to live instruments.

During that same period, Hamauzu got together with Uematsu again to collaborate on vocals for the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack. Employing his university training, he performed as a bass vocalist in the chorus of such tracks as "Shinra Company" and the famous Sephiroth battle theme, "One Winged Angel."

Tobal No.1, "Shinto Shrine"

The same year Final Fantasy VII debuted in Japan, Hamauzu began work on the light-hearted soundtrack for Chocobo no Fushiga na Dungeon, a dungeon crawler starring the yellow avian of the Final Fantasy series. In the materials packaged with the original soundtrack, the composer explains that while the project was assigned to him unexpectedly, he had long been a fan of the chocobo's personal history. "When one says 'Chocobo,' I'm sure you all think of Uematsu-san's famous theme, right?" Hamauzu writes in the liner notes. "I think I was still in high school when that lovable character first made his debut in Final Fantasy. And accompanying his entrance was a perfectly matched theme. 'I'd love to try doing this kind of work,' I often thought back then..."

When the time came to create his own Chocobo themes, the composer decided to arrange the opening and ending of the album for a fifty-piece orchestra, a challenge that was met with such success that the experiment was expanded into an orchestrated soundtrack called Coi Vanni Gialli. A special disc was made available that same holiday season, offering the festive "Chocobo Happy Christmas" song. It remains one of the most refreshing riffs on the well worn tune.

Chocobo no Fushigi na Dungeon, "Chocobo Happy Christmas"

"Demand for classical music in Japan is still low compared with other countries," the composer writes in the insert for the arranged album, which he composed together with game musician Yasuo Sako. "Moreover, the market is limited to recorded media. In the post-war days of the 1950s, performers made an effort to popularize classical music, and believed somewhat naively that if they committed themselves steadily and wholeheartedly to that venture, the culture of music appreciation would take root... I still feel that I'd like to spread the word on this style of music by any means necessary. Had I tried to make my living in classical music, to rise to the status of giving my own recitals, I wouldn't be able to say that. And even if I could, I'd only be preaching to the choir of classical music lovers... but I've never been one for cutting corners. Anyway, allow me to express a tired, yet true platitude on classical music: take your time with it, and the day will come when you appreciate it."

With the favorable outcome of Hamauzu's foray into symphonic arrangements, the composer was assigned his first RPG project in 1999, working together with producer Akitoshi Kawazu on the next Playstation intallment of the SaGa franchise. For the soundtrack, Hamauzu paired up with the skilled synthesizer programmer, Ryo Yamazaki, who had managed to capture the feel of acoustic instruments for Mitsuda's Chrono Cross score. The project would mark the beginning of a long and harmonious collaboration between the two musicians. The composer said of SaGa Frontier 2 that his approach to the game soundtrack was a departure from standard RPG scores. But when the experiment turned out both to express his artistic ideas and also worked well for the game, the methodology became the basis for his style. Hamauzu supplemented the original album with an arranged soundtrack centered upon piano arrangements. Called Rhapsody on a Theme of SaGa Frontier 2, the live music accentuates the great success accomplished by Hamauzu and Yamazaki on their first collaboration in synthesizing a rich orchestral sound using digital instruments.

Rhapsody on a Theme of SaGa Frontier 2, "Rhapsody on a Theme 1 [Romance]"

"The idea that game music should sound a certain way is a common sentiment," Hamauzu writes in the liner notes for SaGa Frontier 2. "But I felt that conforming to the atmosphere of the previous games in the SaGa series was not entirely necessary. I asked myself why was I chosen to write music for the new SaGa if only to defer stylistic judgment to the preconceived expectations of SaGa's history. I felt it would be a mistake to fabricate a copy that any other composer could do just as well. It was important to me that I work on discovering my own voice. Only in the final two months of production did I realize that attempting to express my own unique character to the utmost was the best medicine for dissolving concern over how suitable my music was to the task of continuing the tradition of this series. I extend a heartfelt thanks to the SaGa staff for dealing with these self-absorbed struggles of mine. And also to the synth manipulator, Yamazaki-kun. In addition to the brilliance of his work, it was the appreciation he showed for my harmonic style that was my greatest source of happiness."

After SaGa Frontier 2, it would be a full year before fans would hear from Hamauzu again. There was good reason for the silence: the musician was working together with Gun Hazard composers Nobuo Uematsu and Junya Nakano on Final Fantasy X. By far the most popular title he had ever been assigned, Uematsu was involved in over thirty tracks, both solo and working together with his collaborators on the project. Again, Yamazaki's synthesizer work proved invaluable. At the time of the soundtrack's debut, Hamauzu wrote, "I also grew up on gaming, from Final Fantasy in 1987 to Final Fantasy X of today. The potential of game music is still very much untapped. It's like being placed in the middle of the huge Sphere Board, with a wide area of growth available."

Final Fantasy X, "Splendid Performance"

Following his work on Final Fantasy X, Hamauzu took on the project of arranging tracks for a piano album, a roll previously assigned to Shiro Hamaguchi, who had his hands full with the anime Final Fantasy Unlimited. The finished pieces were performed by pianist Aki Kuroda. The composer expressed the opinion in an interview with RocketBaby that arranging electronic videogame tracks for the piano must be one of the most difficult adaptations imaginable. For the piano album, not only would the musician arrange his own tracks, but he would also tackle the compositions of his colleagues. The composer said that this was something of an intimidating task, but he was also intrigued by the idea of approaching songs like "Guadosalam" by Junya Nakano, whose arpeggios and the placement of the instruments the composer greatly enjoyed.

In the material for the Final Fantasy X Piano Album, dated Jan 8, 2002, Hamauzu writes, "For someone like me, who usually relies upon MIDIs, confronting the staff music for a piano score is an arduous process. One does not have the option of burying clumsy progressions in the mix, or altering the surface of the music with other instruments. Nor can you predict the results until the occasion of the performance, when your sheet music is interpreted by the pianist. So you have to prepare the score with every bit of thoroughness and precision. It was a trying experience but, as someone who came to composing late, participating in such a musical project was a valuable opportunity for leveling up, for which I am extremely grateful."

Final Fantasy X Piano Collection, "Battle"

Hamauzu's next project, UNLIMITED: SaGA, was the first by the composer to rely entirely on streaming music, without substituting for synth. Contributing to the live instrumental score was Hamauzu's colleague from his university days, Shiro Hamaguchi. The new process somewhat raised the stakes, because with live instruments corrections could not be made after the recording. "Once you've recorded at the studio, you can hear all the parts clearly," Hamauzu wrote on the project. "You can't make any corrections, so you can't tolerate mistakes in recording."

For the project, Yamazaki was involved in recording instrumental parts separately and organizing the digitized information. "When working with MIDI, in trying to provide a sense of realism it's essential to keep every instrument's characteristics in mind. No matter how good the instrumental sample you have, if you write in an unidiomatic effect you'll betray the mechanical nature of the music. On the other hand, we did live recording of small ensemble pieces, because isolated solo instruments are actually very hard to simulate! After all, if you want human expression, the best way to go is to get humans to perform." One such example of the live chamber music recorded for the game is the Latin style fight song, "Battle Theme IV," which brings together the seemingly incongruous combination of tempestuous salsa rhythms with a romantic French melody on the accordion.

UNLIMITED: SaGa, "Battle Theme IV"

Musashi: Samurai Legend marked another successful collaboration between Hamauzu and Junya Nakano. The sequel to Brave Fencer Musashi also featured tracks by Wavelink Zeal, a group composed of married couple Yuki and Takayuki Iwai. The result of Nakano's electronic sounds blending into and contrasting with Hamauzu's orchestral sounds is a vivid and rich game soundtrack. "A New Hope" demonstrates Hamauzu's sophisticated control of a complex combination of slow and fast-paced instruments. The bass guitar and saxophone give the track a relaxed and euphoric atmosphere, even while the synth, drum machine, and strumming acoustic guitar kick the tempo into high gear. The ability to balance the inorganic synth sounds with live horns and piano samples illustrates the composer's grasp both of classical elements and more experimental techno qualities.

Musashi Samurai Legend, "A New Hope"

In 2005, Square continued the pattern of bringing Hamauzu in on game series with an involved history, this time enlisting the composer on the sequel to Final Fantasy VII, entitled Dirge of Cerberus. As with his previous engagements, the composer chose to rely upon his own style rather than repeat what came before. The score features a variety of ambient tracks, where rhythmic patterns and sound effects play more prominently than melody. Perhaps the greatest surprise found on the soundtrack is the notable diversification of Hamauzu's style. Certain songs clearly display a turn in the direction of jazz improvisation, contrary to the composer's classical music background. More surprising is the addition of rock elements, complementing the vocal tracks contributed by JRocker Gackt. Pieces like "A Proposal" show that Hamauzu had no qualms with taking the series to unfamiliar aural territory, as female vocals accompany a melody played by strings and acoustic piano. In stark contrast to the synth that dominates Final Fantasy VII original soundtrack, Dirge at times heavily favors organic sounds and classically inspired compositions.

Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, "A Proposal"

This week, Masashi Hamauzu will be appearing at the Square Enix Party to sign promotional copies of his upcoming piano arrangements album, entitled Vielen Dank. The soundtrack, meaning "Many thanks" in German, features thirteen new piano compositions and thirteen arrangements from the composer's previous works. The track number has a particular significance: the composer's next project for Square Enix is the soundtrack for the highly anticipated Playstation 3 title Final Fantasy XIII.

Top to bottom: Feltschlacht 5 from Saga Frontier 2, Vielen Dank
Amano illustration for Final Fantasy XIII
A signed copy of Hamauzu's sheet music
And the musician at the Square Enix Party meet and greet

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Totz, Square Enix Music Online, Masashi Hamauzu Biography,

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Square Haven, People Database, Masashi Hamauzu people profile,

Chudah's Corner, Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon Original Soundtrack, Liner notes,

Chudah's Corner, Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon ~ Coi Vanni Gianni Arranged Soundtrack, Liner notes,

Chudah's Corner, UNLIMITED: Saga Original Soundtrack, Liner notes,

Chudah's Corner, SaGa Frontier 2 Original Soundtrack, Liner Notes

Chudah's Corner, Final Fantasy X Piano Collection, Liner Notes

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