Xenosaga – “Last Battle” (Yasunori Mitsuda)November 13, 2010
Xenosaga is one of Yasunori Mitsuda’s best works. Mr. Mitsuda is known for his high quality of composition and memorable melodies as well as a mix of Eastern and Western music. One of the most interesting pieces from the Xenosaga soundtrack is “Last Battle”, which is an excellent example of minimalism.
Minimalism is characterized by severe limitations in the number of instruments, silence, concept music, continuities, and phase shifting, the last of which “Last Battle” is characterized by. Phase shifting is taking two identical sound samples and playing them back at slightly different speeds to create a gradual shift in the music. Steven Reich was one of the first composers to use the form. Above is Piano Phase, played by James Wiman and Brandon Kelly.
“Last Battle” begins with a kind of phase shifting, beginning with two short complementary melodies, one on piano, the other on violin, which has a little tail emulating a fade-shift that is played out further at 0:22. Of course, this phase shifting is not extended throughout the piece, as it is difficult to maintain interest in a largely conceptual work. Also uncharacteristic of pure minimalism, “Last Battle” gradually layers new instruments throughout the first movement such as organ, bells, choir, and drums. As such, Mr. Mitsuda takes elements of the form that are interesting and applies his own style. At 1:21, the piece breaks from the underlying melody of the first half to a darker melody recalling bars from the main theme played in “Prologue” (as well as in Xenogears). This technique is used in vgm often, recalling a main theme with variation to let players know this is the final conflict or segment of the game by returning to melodic themes established in the beginning. Additionally, Mr. Mitsuda uses a dance-like mix of piano and drums characteristic of “Black Omen” from Chrono Trigger. The mixing of both minimalism and this piano style seems thematically tied to the last boss, a Gnosis, an inter-dimensional, phase-shifting being of immense power.
(Xenosaga was originally supposed to be a six-part epic, ending with a remake or retelling of Xenogears, but due to the commercial failure of the first three titles, the series was discontinued… Yasunori Mitsuda composed only Xenogears and Xenosaga Episode I, with Episodes II and III scored by the phenomenal Yuki Kajiura and Shinji Hosoe.)
Other examples of minimalism reside in game music, including “Departed Way” from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. However, game music possesses a unique form of minimalism that I like to call “environmental” or “atmospheric minimalism”. This form is largely amelodic, consisting of instruments used to replicate environmental sounds such as wind, sand, static. The style is used to increase the sense of environmental space and atmosphere, making the player feel as if they are in a different location. While melodic music can be atmospheric, it is the minimalist nature of the music – a lack of traditional melody and shunning of instrumentation – and its desire to return to or replicate the natural environment, which makes it a unique form. Incidentally, the Metroid Prime games contain a large number of this type of music (example: “Agon Wastes” from Metroid Prime 2).