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About ten years ago he was known just by a small circle of people. Nowadays nearly everyone who is more or less interested in video game music stuff and its scene knows him. In the past years the Finn Jonne Valtonen acquired an outstanding reputation as an arranger of video game music and together with Thomas Böcker and Co-Arranger Roger Wanamo he succeeded to get every year thousands of fans crazy with their concerts. In the following interview he tells us „a bit“ about his work and also gives us a sneek peek what we can expect in the future.

VGM Lounge: Hello Jonne, thank you that you share some of your time with us. I guess many readers already know you but for all the other: Could you please introduce yourself in a few words?
Jonne Valtonen: I am a Finnish composer living in Tampere and at the moment mostly known for my work with orchestral game music.

Your musical origin lies within the demo scene where you have published under the name „Purple Motion“. Today you are in the role as arranger and composer for classical orchestras. How rough was the transition between this two worlds?
The difference between electronic and orchestral music is not that far off. Ideally the parameters (rhythm, timbre, color, pitch, harmony, etc.) are the same no matter what the medium. The difference is that grasping the idea how to write for an orchestra is a lot wider. There are so many variables when you write for full orchestra and quite often (especially in the more experimental parts) you’re left only with your imagination and „inner ear“. Compared to electronic music you’ll always hear what you’re working on real time. On an orchestral setting you hear the notes you´ve written only couple of times. This happens in rehearsals right before the concert and most of the time you can’t fix any major things that are not working. When you’re recording it has to work right away!

Basically an orchestra is like a huge sequencer with fixed instruments and every instrument has it´s own quirks and „errors“ you have to deal with. You have to learn all the instruments and combinations of them: what to choose and how to position everything to get the maximum result you want. Someone once said that orchestra is like a big mistake and that is the beauty of it! You get to hit the „play button“ of this wonderful mistake only couple of times like mentioned. Imagine writing a whole electronic piece without listening to playback at all and when you’re finished, then you’d get to hit play only maximum of three times and make only small fixes!
The biggest thing of course is that there are real people playing your notes. You have to know the tradition how to mark and write things so that you´d get the emotion and the effect you want. But, OH BOY when they do, there isn´t anything more beautiful in this world!

© intuitive fotografie köln // Philippe Ramakers

© intuitive fotografie köln // Philippe Ramakers

How does it work to compose for an orchestra? I mean you can’t call out a whole orchestra just for testing whether an idea sounds good or not. How much can be done on computers?
Trial and error. And studying things that work from scores/sheet music from the old masters to the new ones. I do this all the time. I also attend to a lot of concerts and always keep ears open how things are done and balanced. Afterwards I usually get the scores (or before the concert) and study them.
I do use computer to check the timings of different sections in the music (using Sibelius 6 still, and will change to something else due to AVID sacking the whole Sibelius Team -> which Steinberg hired -> will go for their note-editing-software in the future). This is the hardest part for me. How long different sections are played and what is introduced and where. This is especially important in those longer arrangements I´ve done. I still have that god awful general midi sound set in Sibelius just to remind me that THIS IS NOT THE BALANCE THAT WILL BE! So I tend to listen with my imagination more than with an actual playback.

You work successfully together with Thomas Böcker for a lot of years now. How have you met him and what is the story behind the idea to work together?
Thomas originally got in contact with me somewhere in 2000 and asked if I’d work some music for his upcoming „Merregnon“ CD. He liked my stuff and later asked If I’d arrange Morrowind and Zelda for the PLAY! A Video Game Symphony tour he was producing at the time (2004 or so). So I got more gigs and got more involved. We’ve also become very good friends and frankly could’t think of doing this with anybody else. He’s always aiming for the highest quality possible, no matter what the cost. This is so inspiring for me and makes me want to work my absolute best as well! We’re all actually (my colleague Roger Wanamo included) highly motivated and pushing ourselves every time to make everything as good as possible. My friend once said that „if something is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing“ and I guess this is something we all live by.

Only a bunch of people had the chance to work with melodies from Final Fantasy or Zelda. Some melodies are really loved by the fans and who knows what happens when an arrangement of One-Winged Angel fails. Have you ever thought about such scenarios and that you put yourself under pressure?
I always arrange how I would like to hear the music. If you’re too afraid what people might think (if you have a great idea how to execute something that is) then your music will be quite toothless and irrelevant imho. I do a LOT of background research and study the styles of the composers, etc, so that I’d be more in touch with the original material. Thomas has always gotten me “free hands” pass from the composers of the original music and for this I’m extremely grateful! But I try not to stress about what people think. I just try to bring this wonderful music as much out there as I’m able!

In the Symphonic concerts you have done a lot of experiments. For Symphonic Fantasies you presented all songs as symphonics, at Symphonic Odysseys you have been sit down the orchestra and let the chorus do all the work at Chrono Trigger. And that are just two examples. Are there still things you want to try?
Actually I’m not thinking „Now I will try this crazy experiment“ first. Usually the music itself presents how it should be done. F.e. the Secret of Mana game is about misuse of nature, so after some time I started to hear wind, thunder, and other sounds associated with nature. Then I decided that these sounds would be what the arrangement was going to be about. Nature is the glue, like in the game. In the Symphonic Fantasies the pieces are actually Tone Poems. By doing this we wanted to drop the listener into the games itself by telling the stories of the games thru music only. With Fantasies we wanted each piece to have a narrative and with longer arrangements you can really dwell more into the world of each piece. It’s a bit like reading a book for me. If you have shorter stories or longer novels. With longer novels you can really loose yourself into the world more profoundly. But. I love short stories and I love novels. Maybe some piece (or a game) in the future will reveal itself to be something totally different!

© intuitive fotografie köln // Philippe Ramakers

© intuitive fotografie köln // Philippe Ramakers

Your symphonics are called rather ambitious. So it can happen that you layer multiple melodies or touching a melody just before you switch to a different song. Many fans love this kind of playing around but others critisize exactly that and keep themselves to concerts like Distant Worlds. What do you think about this topic?
Well as mentioned, that is the way I´d like to hear the music. I and our team always have a reason of doing the things we do. And the reason is that we´re trying to tell a story. The melodies are like actors in a movie or in a theater play and they move around. Suddenly they are cut off (something bad? or funny happens?) and sometimes the melodies duet against on each other (love scene?, fight scene?). And so on… From the day one we knew that this would be controversial and we´ve been gradually testing how far we can go with it. These days everything is so much laid out to you that you don´t have to use your imagination anymore. You´re constantly being told what to think and what to feel. So we are providing only the music and letting you make a personal and a unique interpretation of it! But I like Distant Worlds a lot as well and I don´t even think that we´re in competition or anything like that. Our views of this wonderful music are just different and I think that this variety is nice for the fans as well.

This question is some kind of egoistic but as a fan of this specific instrument I have to ask it. It’s like a force within me! Could you imagine to write an arrangement just for an organ pipe only?
Sure, why not!

One question about Final Symphony which were performed last May. In general how was the concert for you? What did you like most and were there some points which would you do differently today?
Oh, it was truly wonderful! I learned a lot again! I also like the symphony quite a lot and most of it worked as intended, but I will be revising it. Like I’ve revised almost every score I’ve arranged, if there has been a possibility to do so. There were couple of places that were more experimental (like the fight and the fireworks) and I had couple of neat ideas how to improve them further. I also had a really nice idea for the „How to become a warrior“ in the 3rd movement, so I’ll be touching that as well. For me the piece is never done really. There are only deadlines that make you give the score(s) away. :)

This November we have the pleasure to listen to another concert: Symphonic Selections. Are you in schedule with the work?
Yep, doing three pieces. Roger is doing the big ones this time.

Do we have to expect some experiments again or do you arrange rather traditional like in East meets West?
It will be more traditional. I don´t know though. Actually I always start with more traditional and then I have an idea and it goes to somewhere totally different.. So let´s see.

If I remember correctly, then Roger Wanamo is working with you since Symphonic Fantasies. Regarding music what would you say what are the biggest differences between you and Roger?
We do have different (and complimentary) styles imho! Rogers style is clearer at the moment and he is doing this layering thing. His timings (and layering) are so insanely good. It´s so nice to work with him since he´s keeping me on my toes and we constantly try to outwork each other!-) I guess I´m more into the experimental side of things and really love experimenting with color and masses of sound. I´m also layering, not melodies though, but textures etc… Dunno. Hard question. I know I can do functional arrangements as well (like Starfox and the two encores in East Meets West) but mostly I do seem to gravitate more towards color (like Zelda : Light Spirit in East Meets West).

© intuitive fotografie köln // Philippe Ramakers

© intuitive fotografie köln // Philippe Ramakers

Alright, let’s imagine you have to write an arrangement with an lenght of about ten minutes to a game soundtrack you don’t know and the deadline is in about nine months. How would you tackle this job?
That´s WAY too much time! Maybe when I started, it would´ve taken me that much time, but not anymore. If I try to pursue something „more“ then I definitely would want to use as much time as given. Trying to find a brilliant and working concept for an arrangement takes time. At least for me that is. Lets take the Blue Dragon Waterside arrangement as an example. This is an arrangement I wrote for Symphonic Odysseys and which I´m really the most proud of. After some time thinking of how to approach the arrangement I saw visually waves washing the chords of the music away. I pondered the idea for a week or so and then decided that this would be my approach. I wanted to use only the strings, because that way I felt I could get the most „water“ out of the piece. The WHOLE string section is playing individual (solo) lines and since strings are quite homogeneous from the lowest C to the highest high note it was almost like operating with sine waves (additive synthesis).
At first the original melody is played conventionally, then you have a transition and the chords start gradually getting washed away from below so that in the end you´re left only with the melody on the 1st strings. After that the same accomp. that was playing earlier comes back, but now it’s blurred, sort of like under the water and you have the main melody on top of this. So it’s like melody is on top of the water and the accomp. is under water. After that the music gets out of the water washed out and you have a violin solo playing the melody once more. This is propably the best idea and execution I’ve ever done and it took me three weeks to do. One week to come up with the idea and two to write down the notes. I could’ve done this in couple of days but it would´ve been WAY less than what it´s now…

But getting back to your question:

  1. I would play the game or watch it from youtube (longplay). I prefer watching longplays, since that way I can stop the „playing“ more easily and make markings and other observations about it.
  2. I would write down all the individual pieces used in the game (on paper yes) all the melodies, things that are recognizable (like rhythm, colour, etc) and chords. The end result looks a bit like fake book sheet music. I play around on those pieces so that I became familiar with them.
  3. I try to come up with an idea that would present the idea of the music and the game the most. After I’ve had a insanely good idea ->
  4. I write a long form „guide map“ that has no actual notes in it, but graphics, timings and other markings: where and how themes and pieces are present and presented. I also flesh out the long form harmony. This way I can listen to the piece before I´ve written any notes down. If something feels off, I change the road map and when it feels finished, I start writing the actual notes down.
  5. I write down the music.
  6. Something doesn’t work and I think about it furiously as long as there is no time left (deadline). I usually find a solution though.

Another mind game: You are 20 years old and I say to you that you will work someday together with Nobuo Uematsu.
„insert your greatest sound of excitement here“!!

Just wondering: Do you speak better Japanese or German?
Unfortunately no Japanese but studying German (so maybe some day!)

Thank you Jonne and keep up your good work!
Thank you for this interview!