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Game Music's New Canon: The How and Why of Brave Wave

COVER STORY: A small, fan-driven music label is bringing newfound respect to game music by offering veteran composers a safe haven for the classic tunes they love making.

Profile by Jeremy Parish, .

Transformative works

As they spoke, Taher discovered the reason for Yamagishi's disappearance: A profound sense of obsolescence.

"In the PlayStation 2 era, everyone began making orchestrated soundtracks," explains Taher. "He did not know how to make orchestrated music, and he just thought that no one would want his style of music any more, so he quit. That kind of broke my heart, because I love his music and would love more of it. I told him that I’d finance his album if he’d do it, if he’d publish it with me. He took some time to think before he agreed. That made me think: 'Well, if I’m going to have my own albums, and Keiji’s album, then I need some kind of place to put them together.' That’s how the idea of starting a label came to be."

Yamagishi's retirement from game composition speaks to a shift in the role of music not only in games, but in media as a whole. It's been a subtle change over the past decade, as strong melody and dominant tunes have slowly slipped from fashion in favor of more atmospheric compositions.

"Going forward, I'm open to both working in games and creating original music [like Retro-Active]," says Yamagishi. "The problem is that the game industry doesn’t really currently need the kind of music that I'm good at making, or that I want to make. People want soundtracks that are Hollywood-style, epic, bombastic themes, stuff like that. There isn’t so much demand for my kind of music."

This trend has only recently become a topic of widespread discussion, thanks in large part to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Despite sharing a common composer with the previous six films — John Williams — the score to The Force Awakens presents a completely different style of music than the older movies, even the prequel trilogy. Gone are the leitmotifs and character themes, absent the rousing symphonic anthems. Though a few pieces of music stand out, particularly the gentle melody that accompanies Rey's introductory montage, the film treats music much more as a background detail than as the bold accompaniment it provided in older Star Wars films.

One of the few memorable tracks from The Force Awakens, and even then a far more subtle composition than the bombast of classic Star Wars.

By no means is this shift in the nature of music unique to Star Wars; rather, Williams simply adapted his writing style to fit the trends of the times. Film and television have generally moved away from bold themes — the strident opening fanfares of the Marvel films being a rare exception — and with them have shifted video games as well.

Video games, ever clinging to cinema's skirts, have similarly moved away from grandiose compositions and memorable ditties, at least in the blockbuster space. This change was perhaps inevitable once Hideo Kojima tapped composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Enemy of the State, The Martian) to put together the score for Metal Gear Solid 2's cinematic cutscenes. Today, many big-budget video games sound indistinguishable from films, in large part because they draw upon the same pool of talent.

Of course, video games have been shaped by another major factor as well: The march of technology. The best-known Japanese game composers got their start in the ’80s and early ’90s, when game consoles offered far more humble musical capabilities than the PlayStation 4 or even the Nintendo 3DS. Constrained by devices that could only generate a handful of sounds at once — including game audio effects — pioneering game musicians drew influence from electronic bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk, or from classic and contemporary rock acts of the era, to create sharp, memorable tunes that defied genre classifications.

"It wasn't quite rock, right?" says Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae, who like Yamagishi has found in Brave Wave an outlet for her newer work. "At the time, since the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System) had a lot of limitations to its technology, especially in the terms of data size and the amount of sound you could use, one of the gimmicks we used was repeating short phrases – you know, short but sweet. By repeating those, you can turn those into music that’s very easy to memorize and that’s considered very catchy and memorable. So maybe it’s not quite rock."

Not quite rock, as Matsumae says... although Elec Man's theme comes close, thanks to its melodic similarities to Journey's "Faithfully."

Old folks' chiptune home

This has been Brave Wave's strength: Providing a home for musicians with a sizable fan following but whose preferred mode of work has grown unfashionable at the corporate level.

"Sometimes I’ll get projects for smartphone games, smaller projects like that," muses Yamagishi. "But even then, I can’t always make what I personally want to make. In that sense, having projects like Retro-Active around are good for being able to do what I want to do."

As projects like Retro-Active have circulated and spread, so has Brave Wave's reputation. Currently, the label works with 18 artists, 10 of whom hail from Japan — and of those 10, most have direct connections with Yamagishi (having worked with him at Tecmo) and Matsumae (through her time at Capcom and SunSoft). Business in Japan relies heavily on personal relationships and connections, and Brave Wave's growing stable of veteran musical talent reflects this.

"There’s a lot of freedom," says Matsumae of her work with the company. "It’s always refreshing to do projects with them. I've made game soundtracks through Brave Wave as well as original work, and those have followed the convention for working with companies and not original albums. But even then, I feel very relaxed when I work with them."

Matsumae's "One-Shot Kill" from Brave Wave's World 1-2.

"From a strategic point of view, the community of game composers is really small," says Taher. "If the composers themselves see that you're really doing good work with others, they'd want to join you. I think that’s why a lot of people like Ryuichi Nitta and Kaori Nakabai [Yamagishi's fellow NES Ninja Gaiden composers] joined, I think... when USgamer's [article on Retro-Active Vol. 1] went out, Keiji wrote a long Facebook post saying something like, 'Look at all the attention I’m getting from western publications, while no one from Japan is writing about it.'

"That’s one of the main things that these composers want. They've exhausted their options in Japan, even to fans, and they don’t really know how to tell people about their music. They see that we could do something about it, and that we have a fanbase."

Yamagishi concurs. "[My new work] is all thanks to Mohammed for encouraging me to get back into music, because – I mean, I don't think I'm famous, especially in Japan. But after meeting him for the first time, I learned that I had this fanbase overseas.

"I looked on YouTube and saw a lot of remixes for Ninja Gaiden’s music. I guess people from overseas eventually found out who 'Keiji Yamagishi' is! In Japan, no such thing really exists, though. It was kind of a surprise to me... I guess you could attribute it to the Internet, and YouTube, and Facebook and Twitter. There are more opportunities than ever to kind of be connected with your fanbase. Learning that such people are around... that was a huge motivation to get back into composing."

Brave Wave brings a different, more personal, sort of fulfillment for Yamagishi and Matsumae as well. "At Tecmo, we always listened to the kind of music that people at other companies made," recalls Yamagishi. "One particular company that we paid a lot of attention to was Capcom, so I'd listen to the soundtrack for Mega Man and try to figure out exactly how we could reproduce — not the exact same song, but try to get the same level of fidelity and quality. So it's interesting that I ended up working with Matsumae-san from Mega Man a collaboration song for my album! It's kind of funny how things come full circle sometimes."

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