We featured his excellent rag time jazz renditions of Zelda themes last week, this week we get to talk to the man tinkling those ivories! Without further ado – Kento Watanabe:
So when did you first begin to learn the piano and why?
I started learning piano around 8 as my second instrument after guitar. I didn’t choose to play piano at the time, but piano was the one instrument I kept coming back to because it was the instrument I could express myself in real-time to the fullest through improvisation. On piano, I can choose the accompaniment as well as the melody on the spot, which allows me to improvise a complete song on the spot, with only physical limits from my technical ability.
What drew you to the Zelda series of music?
I’m very fond of early videogame music in general, particularly on the SNES and Gameby. For Zelda, it was Link’s Awakening that really did it for me. I played Link’s Awakening too much when I was younger, so my parents didn’t let me play it for several years. I really liked the game and solving the forest level before stage 1, so I would dream about that dungeon and getting Roc’s Feather, which is fitting since the whole game’s about dreaming. Anyway, I have very strong emotional associations with some of the bare 8-bit songs, such as the one at the Temple or the Dream Shrine. I’m interested in dreams in general so the musical association of Zelda’s music to dreams really drew me in.
Another aspect that really draws me in is how memorable and recognizable Zelda themes are, particularly from the earlier games. Mario Brothers is also very recognizable, but the more fantasy and RPG-oriented sound of Zelda moves me more. As for why earlier games have more memorable melodies, I think the limitations of instruments €in earlier games forced composers to think more in terms of polyphony (multiple independent parts) and melody. Now, the focus seems more on orchestration.
Do you have any particular favourites from the Zelda series?
I like most of the moodier or surreal themes in Link’s Awakening, as well as all the ocarina melodies in Ocarina of Time. I’m also fond of the dungeon theme in the original Zelda (NES), and the Dark World theme in A Link to the Past.
What made you go for rag-time/jazz arrangements over other styles for your recent arrangement?
I chose to do Saria’s Song / Lost Woods as a ragtime-influenced piece because the repeating 3-note motif at the beginning. I noticed this one night and thought about how this one ragtime riff repeats a 3-note motif, and after that I heard all of Saria’s Song as a ragtime in my head. I wasn’t sure it was worth pursuing but I couldn’t sleep because it kept playing in my head, so I decided to at least right an outline of the idea. I ended up starting to hear a piano solo in my head, so I ended up staying up all night and writing the entire piece in one sitting.
Now, I’m finding that jazz piano arrangements of videogame songs are a little unusual in general and come relatively easy, so I’ve been doing it with other songs as well.
The card concept you’ve used for a couple of videos is really unique and interesting. How did you come across that concept and how do you work your way from one transition to another?
I’ve been improvising before composing since I was 13, so I’ve been playing specific improvisations for a while now, although I’ve rarely demonstrated it so formally. Whenever someone asks me to “play something” on piano, I would do a total improvisation (not based on a particular song) catered to them in particular. Sometimes, I would have references to music they like, or I started making my own rules, like avoiding consonance or using a certain motif. Recently I came across videos of Jennifer Lin improvising based on a melodic motif determined by letters written on cards. Although I was disappointed by the performance because her improvisations on a Ted.com and Oprah had a nearly identical left hand (meaning it wasn’t very improvised) and similar feel in the right hand, I liked the idea and helping communicate the magic of improvisation so I decided to record some of my own. After this, I thought it’d be interesting to improvise a variation of a familiar song with specific mood rules to demonstrate that on-the-spot writing. It’s more comfortable for me than playinga formal piece because I’ve been doing it since I was around 14 or so, when I improvised themes and variations on piano based on the spoken summaries of Romeo and Juliet, playing different moods of my “Romeo” or “Juliet Theme” to fit the situation and who they were talking to.
Are there any plans to release your works as mp3’s or CD’s in the future?
Ultimately this depends on interest. If enough people get interested, I would like to invest more time in doing elaboarate videogame melody-based music. I’m most interested in doing live shows with videogame music right now in a jazz trio setting as well as with chamber ensembles, and drawing people from outside my friends and farther away to come listen.
What’s next for Kento Watanabe?
I want to plan to release some elaborate videogame arrangements to the extent that composers have using folk melodies in symphonies (like Bartok) for chamber ensemble or orchestra, and try to get them performed within the next school year. I’m really hoping that people outside of Boyer College/Temple University in the general Philadelphia area would be interested enough to come check it out. I think the videogame music community is a smaller community than other mainstream music, but we’re definitely out there and I would like to meet more people genuinely interested in this music in person through composing, arranging and performing.