Josh Barron Composes and Arranges Classical Music Inspired by Video Games

If you’re anything like me, then it’s possible that you grew up playing classic video games like Final Fantasy, the science fiction/fantasy game that teaches you of all things resource management.

Subconsciously, the music plays an important role in establishing tone and our accompanying emotions when playing video games. Josh Barron, composer and arranger of groundbreaking project The ETHEReal String Project, decided to team up with The ETHEReal String Orchestra (Andrew Steffen on violin, viola, and double bass, and Andrew Stern on cello) and pay homage to classic scores that accompany some of the world’s classic video games.

When did you decide to become a composer?

I know plenty of people say this, but when I hear the music while playing Final Fantasy VII, I knew I wanted to make music like that. Just hearing music like “Opening ~ Bombing Mission, Main Theme,” “Aerith’s Theme,” and “One Winged Angel” made me see that this music is fresh and nothing like I have heard before. Nobuo Uematsu’s music showed me a lot in my childhood and without it I would never have chosen this as a career.

What do you usually start with when composing/arranging?
When composing I simply take a walk outside and enjoy nature or I read fantasy/sword and sorcery novels. I try not to listen to music as I don’t want to plagiarize someone by mistake, but every now and then I will get inspired by listening to someone’s work.

For arrangements like what you hear on my album ETHEReal String Project, I usually arrange something I am very familiar with. Many of the arrangements on the album I did not use their originals to guide me. I knew what they sounded like so I focused on musical narrative since this is the music by itself and no visuals. Take the “Tactical Espionage Suite” from Metal Gear Solid, for example: I used many themes from the game to tell the story of Solid Snake infiltrating the tanker in the opening of the game. I used various themes to create a detailed narrative such as “Snake’s Theme/Main Theme” in fragments, “The Russian Theme,” “Fight Theme,” and the “Main Theme” in its entirety in the end. Mainly my purpose is to not only create a refreshing, detailed arrangement, but to also re-create the nostalgia in the listener by making this story through the music itself.

How did the project with ETHEReal String Orchestra come together?
Well, I had been on the hunt for musicians and a friend of mine had told me I should contact an amazing string musician named Andrew Steffen. I messaged him and as fate would have it he was also looking for an arranger to make music for his experiment. His experiment, of course, was The ETHEReal String Orchestra which is made up of two musicians (Andrew Steffen and Andrew Stern). Most every string piece on this album is played by just two people. Andrew wanted to see if he could create the sound of a string orchestra with minimal musicians and make it sound as real convincing as possible. I believe he achieved that aim as we have fooled many into thinking this is a full group!

How long did it take to finish?
The album, from start to finish, took a little over a year to complete. It was a long road because starting out I had no idea how to write string music. Since Andrew is also a teacher by trade, he helped me learn how to orchestrate strings and how they operate. This goes back to why collaborating is so important and having a willingness to learn from others will make someone a better composer.

Are you a video game fan? Why this project, and how long did it take you to remember the scores?
I am definitely a video game fan! I still play them even though my current schedule doesn’t really leave much time for me to play them these days. As for why I chose this project… I believe it only made sense for me to arrange game music since I had made more of a reputation as an arranger, but on the album I did compose a piece to show that I can write my own music. Honestly my composition “Forest of Awakening” is what I get the most comments about! People love it and that makes me want to write more original music in the future.

Tell us more about “Forest of Awakening.” What is the story behind that?
I am influenced by Yoko Kanno, Joe Hisaishi, Debussy, and Masashi Hamauzu… I was very much influenced by their music when writing it. I love writing piano music so I got pianist Kevin Won to feature on this with the string orchestra. I was playing the game Ori and the Blind Forest and I remembered how I love forest themes in games. I wrote this piece to express my enjoyment of forest theme music. Imagine yourself in a massively lush forest, and in the morning you wake up under a tree and you see the dew on the plants on the forest floor and you walk down this path to a huge tree. You climb it (1:30 in music), and it takes you all day to do so, but finally you reach the top and you gaze over this large forest and butterflies and birds take flight around you (2:22 in music) and then night approaches and you sleep on a big tree branch in a (2:46 in music).

The ETHEReal String Project is one of a multitude of online stars creating covers of their favorite video game themes. Here, it is featured with around 50 other video game music fans.

What advice do you have?
Collaborate with people, learn from them, and forge friendships because you never know who will be successful. There are more things I am sure, but those are among the most important at least to me because I am self-taught and I have learned from many great musicians.

Any plans to do another project similar to this one?
We are doing an entire album of Yasunori Mitsuda music titled Continuum: Melodies of Time: The Music of Yasunori Mitsuda. This is the official follow-up album and will feature music from Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Xenogears, Xenosaga, Shadow Hearts, KiRite, and many more.

I have recently announced my next production, called The Travelers, which is game music arranged in various European folk styles. For this album, I have gathered a super group of some of the best arrangers and musicians from the Materia Collective. This album is completely different than anything anyone has heard and will provide refreshing takes on JRPG music in traditional Euro-folk fashion. That will be released this summer.

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