Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Interview: Composer and Pianist Aivi Tran

A couple years ago, I was surfing the Internet when I came across a Youtube channel created by a lady named Aivi Tran (also known as "waltzforluma"). Judging by the name, I figured it would have plenty of videos related to video games. Little did I know that almost all of her videos were performances of her own arrangements of video game music. Aivi is an accomplished pianist, arranger, and composer with a passion for video game music. Given her many beautiful arrangements, I recently contacted her to ask for an interview. I soon learned that she also has quite a way with words!

Aivi Tran

Q: How did you first get interested in music?

A: I come from a musical family where everyone likes to gather around and sing, so my interest in it came pretty naturally. I asked my parents if I could play the piano when I was 5 and took lessons from my aunt.

Most musical pieces tell a story. Now I can attribute it to narrative structure, but as a kid, I heard it like this: here comes the hero (exposition/A section). Here comes the bad guy (B section/development). The hero comes back and defeats the bad guy (recapitulation/A' section). I narrated things in my head like this whenever I played piano or listened to music and loved getting lost in those imaginary worlds.

Q: How did you first get interested in video games? Do you play very often, or is your interest mainly in video game music? What are some of your favorite (games and/or soundtracks)?

A: My first console was the Nintendo 64. I was pretty "hardcore" at that age and gave the boys a run for their money in Mario Kart and Star Fox! Truthfully though, I haven't loved any console as much since. I'm much more familiar with soundtracks than I am with actual games, since videgame music as a medium really resonates with me. I believe that what's being said is often more valuable than how it's being said, and game music embodies that sentiment for me: it's ingenious art created through the overcoming of technical limitations. Game soundtracks from the 90's tend to be my favorites, since they're a blend of technology that's modern enough for you to hear a semblance of orchestration, but classic enough that they're reminders that beautiful melodies can come from anywhere if you listen with care.

I absolutely adore Bomberman 64 and the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, both as favorite games and soundtracks. I spent ages playing and running around exploring, even long after I beat both games.  The Bomberman 64 soundtrack by Akifumi Tada is really cool, and it has an addictive upbeat energy. Ocarina of Time's soundtrack by Koji Kondo taught me about articulation, elegance, and crafting melodies with clarity. These days, I find myself getting into Masashi Hamauzu's work, especially the SaGa Frontier II soundtrack and Final Fantasy X Piano Collections. They exhibit a lot of my favorite characteristics in music - striking harmonies, fleeting sounds, and a degree of unpredictability.

Q: Very few of your arrangements are straight covers, and you seem to have the ability to breathe new life and meaning into some compositions. Do you chart your musical progressions, or do you improv? Tell about your arranging process.

A: My passion lies more in composition than performance, so that's probably why my arrangements usually aren't "straight." Even though I'm quite faithful to the original pieces, the element of surprise is something that I strive for. I'd love for someone who admires the original theme to feel satisfied, but for someone with a keen musical ear to still feel stimulated. Especially in my more recent arrangements, I've tried to avoid repeating details; for example, if the main melody returns in the right hand of the piano, I'll re-harmonize the left hand the second time, or move everything to a different register, or something subtle that keeps it fresh while sounding familiar. I always end up throwing in non-chord tones and unresolved suspensions (7ths especially) - I love that tension, and it makes regular major/minor chords so much more effective when they do appear. I don't know if most people notice those little details, since I'm pretty subtle in my writing, and when everything is played on the same instrument it's hard to hear the difference. But I get excited whenever someone calls me out on them!

In general, my covers probably reflect my current musical interests. Hearing things and playing them directly back on the piano is pretty easy for me, so I've always tried to come up with my own personal touches to challenge myself. I'm not brave enough to record myself improvising yet, but eventually that's something I'd love to do. I usually plan what I'm going to play and compose my solos beforehand, but hopefully it's only a matter of time before I start tearing my keys up!

(An example of one of her more recent interpretations is her take on "To Zanarkand" from Final Fantasy X. It's quite a different sound, but it's also positively thrilling):

"Zanarkand Sunrise" - arranged and performed by Aivi Tran (originally by Nobuo Uematsu)

Q: Your website showcases quite a few of your original compositions. Do you feel that your work is any way influenced by any video game music composers? If so, which ones? Who are your non-video game related musical influences?

A: Videogame music is definitely a big influence on my own work. Apart from the tonal sensibilities that I've picked up on, the structure of classic videogame songs is pretty compressed. For example, you might have an in-your-face A section, a guns-blazing B section, and that's a loop. No time for meandering, no development. I'm usually in that mindset that every note needs to count, and my pieces tend to be concise, with each note put into a specific place for a specific purpose. The bulk of that probably came from listening to Koji Kondo's music in the Mario and Zelda games - even now, with more expansive orchestral works for the newer games, Mr. Kondo's music gets to the point, and I think that's what makes his themes so universal.

I'm inspired by many composers outside of video game music, too. I love listening to earlier 20th century composers like Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Faure, Ginastera, etc. I really enjoy some minimalist pieces as well, like "Electric Counterpoint" by Steve Reich and much of what John Adams writes. My biggest role models are probably outside of the classical world, though: I'm sure everything I've written can be traced back to Joe Hisaishi, or jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara, or Astor Piazzolla.

Q: Where did you go to college? Did you know when you first started college that you wanted a job in the music profession? Would you ever consider a professional career in video game music composition?

A: I studied music theory and composition at the University of California, Davis. I didn't think that pursuing music was a real possibility and I took all these chemistry classes during my first term, thinking I'd major in something science-related. I signed up for a few music classes for fun, and soon felt that it was the right thing for me. I'm lucky to have supportive parents who let me pursue the arts - though they're quite pragmatic and made it clear that I had to find a way to support myself off of it when I graduated! I took my studies very seriously and was determined to do music full-time.

I've aspired to compose music for videogames since I was young, and would love to do it more professionally. I've had a few opportunities to work on some independent projects, so hopefully someday one of those projects will see the light! For now though, I'm content with where I am and grateful for it.

"The Enchanted Rose" - Aivi Tran

Q: Your piece "The Enchanted Rose" is unique in that it was composed as a response to the music used in Kingdom Hearts II for Beast's Castle. You phrased it quite eloquently in the Youtube video description when you said "the original theme didn't capture the haunting enchantment of the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack by Alan Menken." Are there other compositions in other games that you feel don't fit with the areas in which they're placed? Have you thought of composing any other alternate themes?

A: I can't think of anyone would could've fused Disney with Square-Enix more elegantly than Yoko Shimomura. I just happen to be a big Disney fan and the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack is sentimental to me, so I had a preconceived notion of how the Beast's Castle world in Kingdom Hearts II should sound, prompting me to compose my own. Other than that, it's never crossed my mind to compose any alternate themes for any games. Even if I don't particularly like a song, it's how that composer envisioned that world and I totally respect that.

"Cavern Tango" - Aivi Tran

Q: I'd love to learn a little more about "Cavern Tango." You said that it was a homework assignment that was then tailored for a non-existent RPG. Could you tell me a little about the concept of that game, if there is one? What atmosphere were you trying to convey with the piece? Is your piano rendition an accurate representation of what you call the "original theme"?

A: The non-existent RPG was a personal project between me and a good friend. I composed some faux-chip music for an imaginary RPG starring him as the main hero, and we got such a kick out of it that we decided to collaborate on an entire soundtrack based around classic RPG archetypes. We had everything from a "Hometown" to an "Airship" theme, and ordered the pieces according to what we imagined our heroes' journey to be like. At the very end, the characters wound up in the "Mystical Plane" where the most insane, over-the-top "Final Battle" took place (split into parts 1 and 2, naturally, for what self-respecting villain doesn't have more than one final form?) There was never an actual game, but we drew some accompanying artwork and finished nearly 30 tracks, not including the fake "piano collections" that I was working on. 

Cavern Tango was one of those "piano collections" arrangements. (In case you're curious, the imaginary RPG Cave theme sounds like this!) I learned a lot from arranging our music for piano, since I wasn't worried about "disrespecting" the composers and was in a comfortable environment where I could try unusual things. Cavern Tango was really just a chance for me to stretch out and explore, and that was my main objective with it. I played around with trills, messed with the structure of the piece... and I really, reaaaaally just wanted an excuse to smash the piano. I have trouble identifying what exactly constitutes the "original theme" in the same way that a person might have trouble choosing an ideal realization of a jazz piece. It's a 3-dimensional piece with many sides to its face, and you can only see it from one angle in a single performance.

Q: What are you currently working on professionally? Do you have any other video game arrangements lined up?

A: I teach piano full-time during my days, mostly working with kids. They are so much fun! I've taught a few game tunes to some of my students, like the Song of Healing from Majora's Mask and the Super Smash Brothers Brawl theme. Like I hinted at before, I've been composing for a couple of indie games being developed for Facebook and the iPhone, so hopefully one of these days we'll have a chance to see them come to fruition. As far as game arrangements go, I always have tons of ideas in the works! I'm in the final recording stages of "Humoresque of a Little Dog" from Earthbound, a duet that I'm doing with a college friend, and I've been in talks with several amazing musicians that I admire about other collaborations. I also have solo ideas jotted down on manuscript paper and impromptu recordings of game tunes scattered all over the place.

Last but not least, I should mention that I'm contributing a track to the Mink Car Cover project, a charity album benefiting the NYFD Foundation based on They Might Be Giants' original Mink Car album. I'm arranging the actual song "Mink Car" as a piano solo. I'm very excited about the project!

Q: What is it about video game music that compels you to arrange and perform it?

A big part of arranging game music for me is the community of game music fans. It's so nice to interact with friends who have the same hobbies, and who likely have similar childhoods and values as me. I personally am deeply affected by game music and being able to connect with someone on that level is really rewarding. It probably has to do with nostalgia, too (although I haven't actually played most of the games that I cover).

I also think it's a solid source of instrumental music these days. Lyrics depict specific ideas that can enhance or diminish your listening experience, but there are endless possibilities for how you can interpret the meanings of notes. Instrumental pieces touch me in a way that lyrical music usually can't, even though I enjoy plenty of the latter. Games are prevalent in a lot of households these days so people are more exposed to game music than before, and the aesthetics of it are just more relevant to our time than, say, classical works. I can see young people hitting the symphony halls more often if orchestras would play music that's more relevant to them, like the music from movies and games. Not that I mean to disrespect academic music (I go to the symphony a few times a year!) but let's face it - it's just really old music, and typically requires specialized knowledge to get into, which isolates a big chunk of audience.

As for performance, I think that performing a song that I love, whether from a game or anywhere else, is the ultimate way to express my affection for it. I get to learn it inside-out, how it works, and I make it my own.

"Rainbow Castle" - Mario Party (composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, arranged by Aivi Tran)

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say to video game music enthusiasts?

A: I think it's great to see that so many people appreciate game music these days! It's nice that a previously esoteric genre is being acknowledged as something pretty cool, and probably a natural result of the gamer generation growing up. I'm always excited to meet someone who I can talk to about game music - someone who doesn't necessarily love it for its nostalgic value, but who like me just appreciates a good melody, wherever it comes from.

To anyone who eagerly awaits composers' names in the end credits, and to anyone who's spent hours in the option menu solely for the jukebox: my heart goes out to you, and I'd probably be sitting right there with you if I were present.


To learn more about Aivi and her musical projects, check out her website ( or check out her Youtube channel here. Aivi is one of my personal favorite arrangers in the gaming world today; her technical prowess and creative ability know no bounds, and I can't wait to see her name in the credits of a game very soon!

1 comment:

  1. I've been a waltzforluma fan for several years now, so it was so nice to find this interview, even if I was a bit late to the party. :) Best of luck Aivi!