More than Two Sides

I admire musicians who not only work in different genres and settings but also relish and even excel in them. That is just the kind of musician I myself strive to be, as well. I suppose it relates to my belief that it makes more sense to look at how different kinds of music relate to each other rather focus on what sets them apart. ”Music does not exist in a vacuum” and all that.

One such musician whom I really admire is my dear acquaintance Jonne Valtonen. (I would like to call him a friend but feel our correspondence is too sporadic for that choice of word to be entirely appropriate.) He got started in the demo scene in his teens, making himself known as Purple Motion and working with the world-renowned Finnish demo group Future Crew.

I first came to know his work as an arranger working with the industrious impresario Thomas Böcker on game music concerts some 15 or so years ago. I remember Böcker’s concert production ”Symphonic Shades” coming to the Stockholm Concert Hall featuring game music composed by Chris Hülsbeck and arranged by one Jonne Valtonen. In an interview with Chris Greening at the time, Böcker – who already had several years of experience organizing orchestral game concerts – lauded Valtonen’s arrangements:

”It is almost unbelievable what Jonne Valtonen did […] It will take some serious effort from the musicians to perform this work. […] they will have fun, though, as there is no single watered-down arrangement that could bore them. I know Chris shares my opinion – basically, we are constantly in awe when checking Jonne Valtonen’s work. He is a real genius.”

One of many examples is the title track from the 1991 puzzle game Gem’X. Listen to the original version as it sounded in the tracker-based Amiga version and compare it to Valtonen’s arrangement where the simple, naïve melody and short, repetitive form is presented with lots of clever little embellishments and delightful orchestral details.

Whereas tracks like the Gem’X title music and others are very much arrangements, later efforts move in my opinion far closer to composing original work, rather than simply making an arrangement of existing music. Specifically, I am thinking of works such as the symphony in three movements based the music of Final Fantasy VII or the orchestral suite Library of Ancients based on the music of Final Fantasy V.

Rather than a simple medley of tunes dressed capably and elegantly in orchestral attire, these works are essentially original compositions where themes and melodies from the games are used as musical material or leitmotifs in a brand new musical structure. This has two great benefits working in tandem in presenting this music in a concert setting:

Firstly, concert works like these are exactly that, concert works, contrary to the original game music which was very consciously written for a different setting and medium. Secondly, recontextualizing the music in this way benefits the experience of both game fans and non-game fans; the former hear the music put together in a way that makes narrative sense based on the game, and the latter can enjoy a deliciously varied and cohesive musical work that does not require any previous understanding of the original game.

It would be remiss of me not to also mention Roger Wanamo, an equally brilliant composer and arranger, with a personal and identifiable style to his treatments. Wanamo even moreso than Valtonen tends to weave together different themes in brilliant contrapuntal settings, as well as juxtaposing ideas and melodies in unexpected but effectful and exciting ways. Listen to his symphonic poem ”Born with the Gift of Magic” based on Final Fantasy VI‘s music and then try to guess which other tracks on the album are also his.

Both Roger and Jonne also write entirely original compositions. One of Jonne’s more recent original works not for a video game is a lovely trio for clarinet, violin and piano inspired by an early composition by Jean Sibelius, ”Vattendroppar” – water droplets – for violin and violoncello. Sibelius wrote it some time in his teens according to the official Sibelius website, possibly for himself to play (on the violin) with his brother Christian (who had taken up the cello).

Sibelius’ piece is written entirely in pizzicato, an element which Jonne transferred to and transformed in his own composition: ”The Droplet is a fast and short pizzicato-like motive that bounces and plays around. […] The Ocean is represented by waves of piano clusters. Also, the clarinet and the violin contribute to the ocean by fast runs and mimicking wind noises. The Droplet and the Ocean meet in various ways – fun, wild, mysterious and dark. In the end, things settle and the droplet dissolves into the ocean.”

Additionally, Jonne has been composing and producing music for the MMORPG Albion Online, adding more tracks with each new expansion, most recently the Lands Awakened update which also got a corresponding digital soundtrack release. Also, he is apparently returning to the Purple Motion moniker with a brand new track released only three days ago as of today! In his liner notes, Jonne writes that the track ”started as a study to learn different synthesizers and production techniques” but that it grew into ”such a nice tune” that he decided to release it.

Recoding hardware synthesizers such as the Moog Matriarch and Roland Juno-60 into ProTools is surely a far cry from using tracker software on the Amiga, and the music isn’t quite the same as it used to be – but then again, neither is he! – but it is rather deliciously retro sounding. It quickly reminded me of Daft Punk’s soundtrack to Tron: Legacy (which I love), particularly the tracks ”The Son of Flynn”, ”Outlands” and ”Solar Sailer”. Not necessarily a bad thing and I look forward to what comes next – Jonne’s plan is for monthly releases, so bookmark that link and check back regularly. I know I will.