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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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04/01/2006 Archived Entry: "Interview with Michael Gluck"

Interview with Michael Gluck

by Tom Good

Michael "Piano Squall" Gluck arranges music from anime and video games for the piano, and performs them while dressed as the character "Squall" from Final Fantasy VIII. I participated in a press interview with Michael at Sakuracon 2006 in Seattle.

How did you get started playing video game and anime music?

I began when I was about 9 years old. I started with a very popular video game called Final Fantasy IV, which was one of the original Super Nintendo Final Fantasies. I turned on the console and listened to the first song of the game, and I just . . . that was it. As simple as that sounds, that was a major transition point in my life.

I decided to try to play that song, for whatever reason, on a nearby piano, which was conveniently located next to my console. And I was listening to this piece. I didn't know how to play the piano, but there was a piano in the house and I started pushing notes with one finger, trying to see if I could find this melody.

I actually had some rudimentary ability to translate what I was hearing in the game to the piano, and that was extremely exciting to me. I wondered if I might be able to translate other pieces from video game to piano music, and that was the beginning of everything for me.

Which song?

It's the prelude, the Final Fantasy prelude, which is a recurring theme throughout the series, but I found it particularly moving. And I asked my mother for piano lessons, so I could learn these songs. So I began to play because of these games [ . . .] and developed my video game repertoire pretty much exclusively.

Did you like the song from Final Fantasy because you liked the game, or was it the other way around, that the music itself interested you?

It was the music, because it was my first Final Fantasy, so I didn't know that I liked the game yet. [. . .] The music was the first thing that jumped out at me about Final Fantasy, that's what made it unique. I've probably beaten about 70 console RPGs by this point in my life, and still I've never found a series with music that inspires me the way Final Fantasy can.

Did you base your cosplay character on the first game you played?

No, because I'm actually cosplaying Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, which I played much later. With Final Fantasy IV, the sprites in the game are almost unrecognizable in terms of what they're actually wearing. It would be very difficult to make a costume. If you had enough skill to make a costume based on that, you wouldn't be me, because I have no skill at making costumes.

The reason I chose this costume, is that when I began to do this, I decided I was going to do more than just sit up there with a suit and tie and play the piano. I wanted to express some of my pride in where I began, which was Final Fantasy, the series that got me into this. As far as the choice of character, it was a pragmatic decision, I have no craftsmanship, and this was the only costume I could make, so I chose Final Fantasy VIII and the lead character Squall, and made that my show.

What's your favorite Final Fantasy?

Final Fantasy X. I'm not a graphics buff, that's not why I play the games, I play it for the plot -- and Final Fantasy VII may have had a better plot -- but the ability of the graphics to convey facial expressions and emotions that you could see on the characters, like crying -- that brought you into the game more because it was a total experience, and I found that I got into the character personas more in that game than anything else. That pushed it over the edge for me. Plus, master Uematsu did a phenomenal job on that score, as always, and I've enjoyed playing many pieces from Final Fantasy X.

Since you've been interested in video game music for such a long time, how would you say the music in games has evolved over that time?

This is a great question. Over all, obviously technologically there are more possibilities in newer consoles. For example, if you listen to the music of Megaman, you have phenomenal melodies, right? But you're limited from being able to use real instruments. So what you're hearing is this awesome MIDI. Newer consoles give us the ability to create orchestral scores. For example: Dragon Warrior VIII, where the entire game is performed by an orchestra. I think that's phenomenal. An orchestra performing a soundtrack will really bring you into it.

I don't think, however, that just because the instrumentation and technology is better that the music is better. The core melodies, and the way the earlier stuff is composed, I think is just as powerful as some of this later stuff, and it's certainly just as arrange-able for piano.

You do your own arrangements. What are some of the challenges in arranging these songs that were originally on a console for the piano?

The biggest challenge is the instrumentation. Sometimes it's figuring out which instruments you want to put in. You only have two hands, and one hand is taken by the melody line, so you have to do something with the left hand. It's never going to be just like the orchestra, or just like you heard it in the game. I consider it a creative challenge, because I get to bring in other influences.

For example, I'm a big fan of Scott Joplin, a very famous Ragtime composer, actually credited as being the father of Ragtime music. So in a lot of my arrangements I will incorporate a left hand, as he would have, into the melody line. Or I'll incorporate something from a classical piece that I like. The harmony doesn't always have to exactly line up with the video game. But I try to keep the melody as consistent as possible, and that's usually easy, because if the piece is memorable that means you can probably sing it. And if you can hear the melody line you can play it.

You also publish your arrangements on your web site for people to download. What kind of response have you gotten to that? Have people performed your arrangements?

They have. It's funny, I publish my arrangements for free, so people download and learn them. They've been downloaded thousands of times, and it's very rewarding for me. It takes a very long time to write out what I'm hearing into the sheet music, and I like seeing that people are downloading it, and watching videos online of people performing the arrangement that I made, or seeing someone at a convention sitting down at a piano playing that piece. And I come up behind them and I say, "That's awfully familiar, I really like that arrangement. I gotta tell you, you did a great job on the left hand."

It's very rewarding. What more does a performer want than to be able to get their work out there and see other people enjoying it? That is, to me, the purpose of this. I have 25 arrangements on my site and I'm always working on more.

Do you have a favorite?

My best arrangement? I did a pretty good job on Time Scar, by Yasunori Mitsuda, the opening theme to Chrono Cross. And I'm still writing it out. I've been getting emails from people in Sweden who are like, "We've watched your video, where's the sheet music?"

Is this your first time to Seattle?

Yes, this will be my 20th concert, but my first one on the West Coast.

How did your piano teacher feel about you wanting to play video game music?

Probably the reason I'm still playing the piano today is that she was extremely supportive of what I wanted to study. We worked on a video game repertoire. I guess it was non-traditional. But I'm still playing today and enjoying it, whereas I know many people who were forced to play things they didn't want to play, who just quit. So I'm very happy that she was a supportive teacher.

What would you tell someone who is just starting out who wants to start performing?

You know what I did? I took my keyboard and put it on my back, and got on a train, and went to the nearest convention, set it up in the hallway and just started playing. And that was about three years ago. I'd just play for anybody who would listen.

People would talk about it at the convention, and post about it on the forums: "Oh did you see that nerdy guy in black leather pants, playing the piano?" It starts to come up more and more, and eventually the convention organizers come to recognize that maybe it is something they want to include in the program.

So I'd encourage people to just get out there and perform in venues where people are into that kind of music. This is a fan-driven industry, and if the fans like it, they will put you in the program. That's where it starts, with getting out there and meeting other people who love what you do, and performing for them.

[Inaudible question from the back of the room about a previous convention.]

. . . Video game music is unique in that it is always attached to visual imagery. So when you hear the music, all the emotions of the scene where it was once heard come back to you. And that's why people get so excited about it. It's like, not only do I remember that melody, but I also remember the character associated with it, and the scene where it was heard.

That's what makes it a different experience for someone who has never played the game. I can play Aeris' theme for somebody who has never played Final Fantasy VII, and they go "that's a pretty song." But the person next to them could be crying uncontrollably, because all they can remember is that scene. So it can definitely elicit a heightened response. It's the same with movie music, because you hear the Star Wars theme and you think, oh, I remember that feeling.

Is there anything on the marketing side of EA games that you can share with us?

My job isn't particularly in sales, my main responsibility is to use statistics to figure out how many units of the product we're going to sell before we launch. I'm an adviser to the head of the sales team when we're planning our inventory, and part of that job is a lot of research about games. I have to learn about the market and the consumers and gauge interest, and look at a whole bunch of metrics.

That's all well and good, but then when the day is over I get to go home and write video game music, because I met a producer who is making a new game, and he's interested in getting some music from me.

Have you checked out the gaming level at the convention, and what do you think?

The video game room? Of course! I'm a big DDR [Dance Dance Revolution] fan.

Any plans to do arrangements for instruments other than the piano?

No, not really. I started doing the arrangements because I play piano, and I don't play any other instruments. I tried the guitar once, but found it was better suited as a blunt object. But I do take it outside of conventions. I use the music for charity work quite often. I've raised money for cancer research, for multiple sclerosis research, food drives, for literacy programs.

There are college campuses out there looking to put together a fund-raiser, and they're an anime club, and who are they going to bring in to do a concert? Well there aren't that many choices out there, so I get a call. For example, I just did a concert in Baltimore, for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Maryland Food Bank, and Baltimore Reads, which is a literacy program where you donate books and they are distributed to inner city children to learn to read. I've been doing this show for a few years now, and the concert is publicized in the newspaper and it's open to the general public, not a convention environment. So we're getting people that are local, that are into conventions, and then we're getting their parents, and then we're getting senior citizens who see that there is a piano concert and just want to check out what's going on. They're always the most interesting, they're like, "uh, what is this? I like this."

Getting the general public exposed to video game music, it just helps that I'm dressed up as a character. They don't know what I'm trying to do with this design.

"Is he a biker?"

Yeah, "is he a biker, is he a rock star?" Or animal activists? Oh, I've gotten that before. [Points to the imitation fur collar on his jacket.] I've gotten PETA business cards. "That's not real is it?" I say, "actually it's $5 synthetic rabbit fur." They're like, "Just checking. We would have had to spray you."

You've been playing Magic: The Gathering for years, what's your favorite one?

My favorite Magic card? This is a new question I've never gotten at a press interview. My favorite Magic card is a black swamp. Mana, there's an answer for you. My favorite card is a swamp, because it allows you to do other things. No, actually my favorite card is two blue mana, so I can counterspell. There you go, write it down. Two blue mana, so I can counterspell. Oh God, that was a nerdy answer.

I read on your blog that until recently, most of your coworkers did not know that you did this. Can you talk about that a little bit?

I did a little performance, a five or ten minute thing, at EA for my team, and I played very popular music. Because you'd be surprised, even though it's a video game company, not everyone there plays video games, especially on the business side.

So I brought my keyboard, I dressed up in full costume of course, and I told them "yes, you probably already thought I was very weird, well now I'm going to show you that you were absolutely right. I am weird, and when I'm not doing financial forecasting, or composing video game music for our products, I dress up like a video game character and I perform video game music. This is what I enjoy doing in my free time, and I wanted to share some of it with you."

So I played some Mario Brothers, some Tetris for them, and they just flipped out, they just loved it. So we're going to be organizing another concert at EA.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you for having me.

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