Distant Worlds Music Director and Conductor Arnie Roth - Behind the Scenes

We talk to star Music Director and Conductor Arnie Roth about his passion project: the Distant Worlds series of musical events touring the whole planet.
By Square Enix

Distant Worlds - the symphonic carnival of FINAL FANTASY’s greatest songs and themes - has been playing to sold-out audiences since 2007. Since inception, Music Director and Conductor Arnie Roth immerses himself into the planning and execution of these global music events.

We got a chance to sit down with Arnie in-between productions to ask him a variety of questions. He gave us insight into such things as technical conditions, where the idea came from, and what the future of the series might look like.

This one’s for the music fans!

Where did the idea for the Distant Worlds concert series come from?

Well, it grew out of my involvement with the Dear Friends: Music from FINAL FANTASY concert tour. That was back in 2004, 2005.

That was the first time I met Nobuo Uematsu - when we did the first public concert of Dear Friends at the Rosemont Theater in Chicago. I remember well because it was February of 2005 and at that time in history there weren’t video game music concerts around the world other than Japan. Colleagues of mine that had worked on various concerts had suggested that we look into that.

At the time I was a music director and conductor of an orchestra in Chicago, and we were looking at different things for programming. I did some research on it and said, “I think that’s a great idea, let’s try it.”

We were all shocked that it sold out quickly. Nobuo and I got along famously - I mean, he’s really an amazing man and musician. Shockingly, he knew every artist I’d ever worked with, bands that I had played with at a very early age. He knew everything about me. We share a lot of the same influences, both from a popular music standpoint and a classical music standpoint.

I did the rest of the Dear Friends concerts, which was a very short little run - maybe five or six concerts. After that, I was invited by Nobuo to do ‘More Friends’ in LA as a single concert, and then he invited me to conduct VOICES: Music from FINAL FANTASY in Yokohama, Japan.

After that, Distant Worlds was kind of a mutual project, but really driven by Nobuo. He wanted to have a touring entity that could bring the music of FINAL FANTASY around the world to other locations. Since we had finally just introduced it to North America, we thought: “What about Europe? What about Asia or Australia?” That was really the driving reason for Distant Worlds.

When was the first official Distant Worlds concert?

We did the first one in a very memorable concert in Stockholm with the Royal Stockholm Film Harmonic in December of 2007.

What’s interesting is that we share anniversary dates with FINAL FANTASY. Our first year, it was the 20th anniversary of FINAL FANTASY. Then on the 25th anniversary it was our fifth, 30th was our tenth, and the recent 35th anniversary of the series was our 15th. It’s a fun parallel.

It’s been tremendously rewarding and an honor to work on all this. I feel like the fans have really embraced Distant Worlds in a really unusual way. It’s kind of regarded as THE vehicle for the official FINAL FANTASY concerts.

It’s always amazing: you can land in Singapore, you can land in Bangkok or London, and it’s the same community of fans, with the same appreciation of the same highlights and the same love of the classics from FINAL FANTASY. So, it’s a very unique experience.

What is it about the music of FINAL FANTASY that appeals to you and fans so much?

I think there are some basic reasons for that. One of them is you have to go back to Nobuo-san’s original music, all the way back from the first versions of FINAL FANTASY. His style is very much melody and structure in a very classical style.

His idea was that in an RPG, every character, every battle, every environment, every love relationship, every one of these things has its own leitmotif. And because of that, they come back throughout the series. The characters maybe develop with new arrangements; famous battles come back.

So, you get fans playing the same melodies and themes over and over again, and it becomes so ingrained and beloved. I think that’s one of the real driving reasons for this. And that would not have worked had Nobuo not started out by assigning all these what we call Peter-and-the-Wolf style compositions, meaning that every character gets its own theme.

He was the one who said all of this, and to this day that formula is really what drives the love of the music of FINAL FANTASY.

How do you select the orchestras and ensembles to perform for each region?

Obviously, we can’t really tour with 100 musicians - it’s impossible, too big of a thing.

We do that sometimes in certain regions. For example, we might use one orchestra for three cities in Europe, or we might use one orchestra for a couple of cities in the Midwest. But usually, Distant Worlds is either presented by a name orchestra - for example, San Francisco Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Boston Symphony, the Fort Worth Symphony, the Dallas Symphony - or we work with presenters and put together our own group of musicians in each city.

It turns out that AWR Music, our company, actually contracts musicians from all over the world all the time. Not just for FINAL FANTASY but all kinds of international tours - long list of things: Game of Thrones, Diana Ross - you know, all kinds of things.

We have a very deep list of the top professionals in each city. Actually, putting that together is no problem, keeping the quality level at the highest point.

So, in terms of choosing, yes, it’s people that we know well and have experience performing with.

What about the name of Distant Worlds? Did you come up with that?

No, I did not! Nobuo Uematsu came up with that.

The way he comes up with that - if you look at the history behind the FINAL FANTASY tours - he searches for a specific score title. So Dear Friends was from FINAL FANTASY V, and Distant Worlds comes from the score he wrote for FINAL FANTASY XI (which by the way we have to get back to, we haven’t played that in a long time!)

That’s how he devised his concept for each one of the tours, it should have a relationship to one of the songs.

What other video game soundtracks or composers do you admire?

Oh, there’s a lot. I mean, Yoko Shimomura of course, and Masashi Hamauzu, they have such different styles. I love (Hitoshi) Sakimoto as well, and I’ve done work with (Naoshi) Mizuta - he has fantastic compositions.

There are a lot of video games that have very heroic main themes or anthems, but a lot of the gameplay itself is not as memorable in terms of music, it’s not as significant, which is something that I think is unique to FINAL FANTASY.

Although (Keiichi) Okabe with Nier, of course, is great. There are so many more. Masayoshi Soken!

What’s interesting is that so many composers have taken over the various games - XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI – and they all have very different vocabularies and styles. It’s fascinating, and Distant Worlds is the only place where you can put a score by Sakimoto and a score by Hamauzu and a score by Uematsu next to each other and hear the different changes.

Tonight, for instance, we’re doing Jessie’s Theme from FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE. You can hear that kind of writing style from Hamauzu - a very impressionistic style - right next to big battle themes from the classics, or next to (Yasunori) Mitsuda’s Ignis and Ravus from FINAL FANTASY XV. We’re doing two scores by Soken from FINAL FANTASY XIV, right next to Those Chosen by the Planet from FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE or One-Winged Angel by Uematsu. It’s fascinating to see the changes in the styles!

Really, the variety is part of the attraction of all this. Some of the same themes keep coming back, but they’re in these new settings and new arrangements. It’s a mark of longevity and standing that a famous theme can last 30 years, 40 years. And we have those in FINAL FANTASY.

I mean, when the Prelude begins, everyone’s immediately locked into their experiences with the game. It’s fantastic.

The last concert I went to for Distant Worlds, when they debuted Jessie’s Theme, everyone started crying!

Well, it stands out from a lot of the other ones. I’m not talking about better or worse, it’s just so different in terms of style and very moving. A beautiful kind of setting, that theme.

What’s the most challenging thing about directing the Distant Worlds series?

We have more than 160 scores in our library from Distant Worlds. One of the challenges is balancing the actual programming so that we have classics that everyone wants to hear, but we’re also introducing new scores all the time.

Originally, we were striving to represent most of the whole series rather than little segments of it. What’s difficult is that we’re limited by the amount of time, contractually, that we can keep the orchestra on stage. Some places it’s two and a half hours, sometimes three, sometimes less. There are some orchestras that are only two hours, two-oh-five, that kind of thing.

Other limiting factors are how much rehearsal time do we have? How good is the orchestra? How good is the chorus? Do we have any soloists? Have we played that city before and what did we do last time? I’m literally looking at all of those factors every time we go to a city or region, and also looking at the newest releases that we want to feature as well. I look at the minutes of music, look at the schedule, and figure “I can do this, I can’t do that”.

But overall, the big challenge with Distant Worlds is that it’s a HUGE production. We have a hundred musicians on stage with the video screen, and just that alone limits the number of places we can play. It’s really hard for us to get into conventions unless they have a whole extra room set aside for us, which has happened, but rarely. We tend to sometimes play larger venues because – for presenters – the cost of putting on this production is so high that you need to have a larger capacity venue.

If we’re playing with orchestras that are named orchestras, like San Francisco Symphony, we can go to their own venue with their own setup - 2,000-2,500 seats or something like that. And it’s a beautiful experience, because you can play acoustically, and it’s a little more intimate for the audience. There’s also the business challenge making finances for the presenters, Square-Enix, and all of us.

The other challenge is the musical challenge, but that’s a great one! I love that. Juggling all those things, it’s always fun to look at that, and I have to say I never run out of new choices of music with FINAL FANTASY. I mean, it’s infinite.

How does it feel to see Distant Worlds expand to such a successful and global series?

It’s absolutely amazing. There has been an arc of growth, interrupted by the COVID pandemic. It was on a big upswing leading into 2019 and going into 2020, with huge years for Distant Worlds, and then everything stopped for a while.

Coming out of it and everything being sold out was so rewarding. Every single performance we did, coming out of the pandemic, showed there was clearly great demand for us to be back out there doing the concerts. And this continues, which is amazing.

I don’t see really a drop-off, and what I’m actually working on now is different ways to present Distant Worlds now that we’ve been here for fifteen years. We’ve gone through the pandemic, we’ve come out of that, we celebrated the 35th anniversary of FINAL FANTASY. Now we’re looking at different ways and unique new ways to program Distant Worlds where we can maybe concentrate on one or two or three games. Not for the whole concert but maybe the second half or some segment of it.

Looking forward, I think you’ll see more of that, where instead of trying to present everything, we can actually concentrate on certain songs - either it’s a new release or it’s something that fans have been crying out for. Or perhaps it has to do with the composer and soloist that we have that we can concentrate on a few games that they were involved with.

I can see all kind of exciting ways to program going forward, which will make it different from where we’ve been. To me, that’s exciting, that’s what keeps it exciting, really.

Finally, why should people go see the Distant Worlds series?

You know, that’s probably a question that doesn’t require an answer from me, because clearly the fans of FINAL FANTASY are there! What’s so rewarding is that they know that this is the place to hear all the best FINAL FANTASY music, and the official arrangements as well.

There’s another kind of concert, which is an arranger’s fantasy on themes by FINAL FANTASY. I’ve conducted many of those as well, but it’s a very different animal than Distant Worlds. We strive to present the music as close to the way they heard it in the game as possible. Sometimes there’s new arrangements but still, it’s trying to be very close to the way they heard it, as opposed to a 30-minute fantasy on these themes where it’s as much about the arranger’s thoughts as it is the original composer’s.

Distant Worlds is really focusing on the original composer’s compositions and style. I think fans recognize that.

I’m really proud and happy to stay in that lane, to be the official spot for the official sanctioned arrangements and the way the composers wanted their pieces to be heard. So often we’re asked to work on new arrangements, but the composers want it to be very close to what it was in the game. They really don’t want it to diverge very much, and so developing it for a concert arrangement, the starting point for all the new arrangements is “How was it in the game?”

That’s what Distant Worlds is about: it’s about authenticity and really presenting things exactly as they heard it in the game. We’ll keep doing that, but still vary the programming while we do it.

Thanks one more time to Arnie Roth for taking the time to speak with us about something so clearly near to his heart.

For more about Distant Worlds, to hear samples of the music, or see if they’ll be playing near you, just click on over to ffdistantworlds.com and learn more.

You can also listen to the series’ albums on Streaming services, including Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music.