Sound Byte: Meet the Performer - Malaysian guest artist for Distant Worlds

We had a short online chat with Az Samad, a Malaysian guitarist and composer who was a guest performer for Square Enix's Final Fantasy-themed music concert.

On November 2012, the Distant Worlds concert made its presence felt at the Kuala Lumpur Philharmonic Theatre in Malaysia. For those not in tune, the Distant Worlds concert is a celebration of music from the long-standing Square Enix franchise, Final Fantasy. The orchestral arrangements were done by local orchestra troupes, with conducting duties falling to Arnie Roth.

Kuala Lumpur-based musician Az Samad had the grand privilege of performing a rendition of Dear Friends (Final Fantasy V) and Vamo' Alla Flamenco (Final Fantasy IX) in front of a huge live audience in his home country. He is renowned for performing in the Folk Segovia Festival in Spain with the Tara Linda & The Tortilla Western Trio, as well as working with conductors Richard Kaufman and Mark Fitz-Gerald.

We had the opportunity to have a quick chat with the musician about his video game music cover work, as well as his thoughts on modern video game music.

Tell us about your background in music. When did you start?

I started playing when I was 16 years old. I was very blessed as my grandmother gave me RM80 to purchase my very first Sunburst Blue Kapok Guitar from the Spectrum shopping mall in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur. After 3 months, my dad noticed I was still intent on playing the guitar so he bought me a proper classical guitar on the condition that I took classical guitar lessons.

I was initially into hip hop & rap. I wanted a keyboard but never got one. Keyboards were so expensive!

The turning point was when a friend introduced me to Nirvana, which was a complete opposite of the R&B music that I was listening to. I enjoyed the different levels of energy in their Nevermind album. The MTV Unplugged in New York album inspired me to want to get a guitar because that was an acoustic album.

I lived in Boston for two years where I pursued my Bachelor of Music in Jazz Composition and Performance (Summa Cum Laude) from Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA. I also spent four years in Berkeley, California, and during that time, I obtained my Masters in Music (Jazz Studies) from San Jose State University.

My parents were very supportive and bought me supplementary learning material such as guitar magazines. On my side I would try to figure out as much as I could--ask a friend, check out books.

You recently performed for the Distant Worlds concert. Could you tell us more about your experience?

I started gaming on the Atari 2600 and then went through the NES, Super Nintendo, Gameboy and Sega Genesis when I was a kid. Video games were such a big influence in my life. To have had the opportunity to perform this music with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra as a guitar soloist is a huge honor.

I performed on two pieces, Dear Friends (Final Fantasy V) and Vamo' Alla Flamenco (Final Fantasy IX) for the concert. ‘Dear Friends’ was very special to me as it’s a very beautiful piece and the melodies and harmonies really paint the beautiful poignant emotion in the song.

As part of my preparation, I listened to different versions of the pieces and also the original video game versions. It was a bit nostalgic listening to some of the video game music. Also very surreal to be actually playing this music because as a kid, I didn’t play any musical instruments and now when I play and study this music--I can really see and hear more of how well crafted and composed it is.

I spent the past two month rehearsing for the show, from listening to different versions of the song to analyzing the chords and melody to figuring out alternate ways to play the parts. It’s a process that I enjoy and through it, I understand and love the music more and more.

The Final Fantasy repertoire includes jazz elements. In addition to that, it includes world music, classical, rock and folk influences. For me, the best part of great video game music--especially in amazing RPGs--is that it can borrow freely from different musical styles and genres depending on the story. Also, it’s all about painting a mood to color the emotion of the characters using beautiful and amazing music.

As a musician, what are your thoughts on this generation's video game music? Will it go beyond how it is right now in its state? If so, how?

I think it’s an interesting time for video game music. There’s so many ways to go for a composer. Because of the real wide range of possibilities that exist now, there really exists no real boundaries compared to how video game music used to be back in the '70s to '90s.

Video game music used to have much more hardware limitations and it was always very interesting to hear how the composers stretched the limits of the hardware. During the 8-bit gaming era, for instance the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or Famicom only had five channels in mono. A lot of the time, the composer made it sound like there was a lot more happening. Compare that to the possibility of 256 channels on the XBox 360--it’s pretty amazing how things have developed.

I think right now the main thing, as it’s always been, is creativity. With more possibilities, any kind of music from really dense orchestrations to simple sparse atmospheric music to retro-tinged beats and melodies are at the disposal of video game composers. I think it will definitely go beyond with the possibility of any style of music or instrumentation being used to set the mood for different games.

In my opinion, because of how many platforms exist now--with games being developed for Android platform, iOS, mobile gaming, retro gaming, console, PC gaming and to some extent, arcade gaming--there exists the possibility for new games to be developed anywhere around the world. With this, there’s a market for new composers with varied backgrounds and musical traditions to contribute music that is varied.

For example, if a team developed a game set in Brazil and wanted to have authentic Brazilian bossa novas, sambas and choro music in the game, it’s possible to source a composer with that musical background. As more musicians compose for different video games, as more people get involved in it, new ideas will come in and hopefully it will enrich and stretch the dimension of gamers everywhere.

What are your future plans?

I would very much like to be able to score a video game in 2013 and will be reaching out to a game developer to explore possibilities. I’d love to score an atmospheric open-ended game, something like Shadow of The Colossus or a game with an interesting premise like Beyond Good and Evil.

I would also perhaps like to include some video game music into my solo repertoire and even with my Az Samad Trio.

Check out more of Az Samad's music on his site here.

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