I was never a fan of the Final Fantasy piano albums. With the exception of VI's, which did feature several adaptations of substance but still took no risks, these albums seemed to aspire to nothing, taking a simplistic, pop-minded approach to piano arranging that led them straight into an ivory quagmire of banality. Even at their most competent, I still found them tedious, colorless recreations of score material, their lack of experimentation and rigid adherence to standard "melody + accompaniment" textural formulas betraying the quick-buck intent of these productions. The albums offered no creative reinterpretations of the material contained, simply the short-lived novelty of hearing FF themes in a slightly different instrumental context. But it would be unfair of me to single out Final Fantasy as the lone cash cow hawking spoiled milk. Piano VGM typically exhibits all the professional mien of a pre-adolescent piano recital. A problem seemingly endemic to the piano-arranged VGM album as a micro-genre is the arrangers' consistent failure to acknowledge timbre and texture as essential components of piano composition, as if all that writing for piano entailed were lining up a melody with some broken chords that you could get away playing with 3 fingers to the hand. Whether a defect of amateurism or unfamiliarity with the keyboard, the results of this myopic focus on clear melody and simple harmonic accompaniment materialize in dull arrangements as 2-dimensional as the color scheme on a piano's keys, unlit by the rainbows true arrangers know lie hidden between the black and whites.
Masashi Hamauzu knows they're there, and draws shades of light and texture across the keyboard as if piano hammers struck bands on the color spectrum rather than strings. In his hands, the music of Final Fantasy X is not turned into the sort of fodder that makes parents beam when their 10 year-old plays it to a capacity crowd of eighteen. Taking a stand against the inertia of tradition, Hamauzu has fashioned an album of true concert pieces, and made his forebears to look the slowest children in the class. Finally, here is VGM piano music that actually sounds like piano music.
Of course, there should be no mystery in Hamauzu accomplishing this. His protean brilliance in composition in the original FFX soundtrack and piano-arranging debut with Rhapsody on a Theme of SaGa Frontier 2 gave clear notice of his capabilities. But even the SaGa album had a touch of the transcription about it; the pieces were not reinvented for the piano so thoroughly as they are here.
Consider, for example, the centerpiece of the disc: the arrangement of the "Song of Prayer" theme. Hamauzu takes this simple, unremarkable modal theme and builds from it a sprawling, spectral nocturne, a nightscape of flickering half-lights that pays direct homage to Debussy in its archaic harmony and gossamer thin texturing, openly referencing the water textures of his "Reflets dans l'eau" and, in the swelling climax, the pealing modal homophony of "The Sunken Cathedral". The original theme is ever-present, and yet, transformed by Hamauzu's impressionistic legerdemain, unrecognizable as anything presented in the score.
Indeed, the aesthetic of impressionism is clearly the most significant source of Hamauzu's fundamental influence, evident in his harmonic sense and gestural figures, his concern for the infinite gradations of tone color the piano permits, and above all the organic nature of his writing. Each piece breathes with a measureless, extemporaneous flow only those who truly understand the piano can achieve.
After all, what good is an arranged album, especially a piano one, if no attempt is made to translate the music into terms idiomatic to the instrument? Hamauzu steers smartly through the Scylla and Charybdis of slavishly preserving even the most non-idiomatic effects in defiance of the chosen instrument's capabilities, and stripping the original piece down to the barest of recognizable elements, far below the point of interest. He has the acuity to recognize where a direct pianistic reproduction of some instrumental component of the original piece is not possible, and invents an analogous texture that fills the same musical space. Rather than attempt to cram an orchestra into the soundboard for "Final Battle", essentially a piano concertino to begin with, Hamauzu concentrates and expatiates on the thematic material present in the original piano part and fashions a rhapsody that preserves the spicy, angular harmonies of Bartok and Ravel but attenuates its rhythmic insistence, interpolating in extended passages of surprising, even subversive lyricism. For "Besaid Island", Hamauzu takes the contour of the melody as point of departure and glosses it with a brush dipped in note paint, as one would a variation on a theme. How Hamauzu conceived of turning an abstract bit of chill-out electronica into a delightful, soaring melody with the wit and poignance of a Poulenc chanson is a bit of alchemy I could grow old in a day pondering. More sensible simply to enjoy it. The transformation of "Travel Agency" from OST piano piece to Piano Collection piano piece is rather less dramatic, but no less charming. New interstitial passages, a further developed bass line, and a more considered tempo add to the static beauty of the original, creating a still-life painting for piano. Every track of Hamauzu's composition delights with its ingenuity, and adapts the original score material to the most ideal pianistic permutation imaginable, his intentions impeccably executed by pianist Aki Kuroda.
Junya Nakano is sadly represented on only one track, but better one masterpiece than ten pretenders. For "Guadosalam", an oneiric slice of electronic ambience in the original score that would seem to defy any attempt at acoustic transcription, Hamauzu pulls off an upset, improbably translating every nuance of Nakano's work into pianistic terms. The rich percussion reinterpreted as a subtle bass ostinato, echo-delay pizzicato preserved as a soft treble staccato figure, and fragmentary melody expanded, displaced, and threaded circularly through the middle with no obvious beginning or end, create a piece wholly new in its own right, yet parallel to the spirit of the original. The piece is the antithesis of melody and accompaniment, a creature of morphing colors and multiple fields of motivic activity, shifting in and out of focus like a camera lens resolving objects across different planes of distance.
Of course no album is perfect, and this balm's captive fly is the regrettable but understandable inclusion of many of Uematsu's main themes. While I would have been more than happy to see Hamauzu disregard these and put his powers to use on more of his and Nakano's material, I'm sure The Fans would have made their displeasure known, possibly with the aid of large wooden bats. To Hamauzu's enduring credit, he does what he can with hopeless schmaltz like Tidus' and Rikku's themes, "Yuna's Will", and the inescapable "Suteki da ne", displacing rhythms and refining the rote diatonic triads of the originals with harmonic largess. No clowns have ever worn such fine tuxedos, but one can only do so much with melodies as insipid as these, and their arrangements don't quite generate enough velocity to escape Uematsu's gravity well of musical platitudes. What wonders might have followed from arrangements of Nakano's "Illusion" and "Luca", or Hamauzu's own "Splendid Performance" are left to personal contemplation. He does however coax out the latent pianistic potential within "Road to Redemption", with undulating colors of figuration and judiciously placed melodic embellishment twining flesh and muscle around the bones of Uematsu's embryonic arrangement. The result is a full-bodied piece that sweeps the dull mechanical-ness of the original away with broom bristles culled from Chopin's piano strings. The "Ending Theme" brooks no significant complaint, but as a relatively straightforward piano reduction of Shiro Hamaguchi's orchestral arrangement, it's the only track lacking Hamauzu's voice. Still, not every sentence need end with an exclamation mark.
FFX Piano Collections offers a kind of music that's never been heard on any game music album, piano or no, and puts the prior body of piano-arranged VGM to shame. To encounter music so literate and utterly free of juvenilia within the game music realm is all too rare. It's efforts like this album that have the potential to rescue game music from its maligned status as the bastard cousin of film music, and earn the parvenu some well-deserved recognition. Bravo Hamauzu. Whatever Square's paying you, tell them to triple it.