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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Disinterested Lecturer - Touhou Music 101

I talk a lot about music from the series of bullet hell shooters known as Touhou, specifically about works based off of them.  Naturally, anyone coming across this on the internet likely doesn't know what a Touhou is or what music sounds like.  This is problematic.  For one, people won't understand half of what I say.  While it's obvious I don't write this with the idea that people actually read it, it'd be nice if any hypothetical readers were able to understand it.  Also, Touhou music is amazing and people don't know about it: this is a huge problem.

So, to help with this, I've put together a guide to 15 of the most prominent compositions from the Touhou series, along with a short explanation.

The ZUN Scale - Menu Music

F A# C D# C A# F A# C D# C A# F A# C D# C A# F A# C D# C will hear this on opening almost any of the windows era Touhou games.  It may not be in the same key, or in the same place compositionally, but it will be there.  It gets you in the mood to dodge rain high above the scenery of Gensokyo - a serene yet surreal place where gods have nothing better to do than shoot lots of magic at each other and drink tea and sake.  It's not as often you hear it arranged, but when you do, it's usually the first track on the album.  For instance, R.E.D. from Sound Holic's album Metallic Vampire.  ZUN says the theme sounds "Japanese" to him.  ZUN says that about a lot of his work, and still nobody really knows what he means.  It's definitely a very calm and airy sort of progression, and as ZUN pointed out himself, doesn't sound much like a shooting game.

Bad Apple!! - Elly's Stage Theme (Lotus Land Story)
While arrangers frequently use music from the PC-98 era Touhou games - you still see lots of Casket of Stars and Romantic Children - few of the originals are within the fandom's consciousness.  They're known almost solely by their remixes.  This is mostly because the PC-98 soundtracks were not encoded into mp3 files, and must be played through an emulator.  Bad Apple!! is Elly's stage theme from Lotus Land Story, but is more commonly known because of Alstroemeria Records' seminal work based on it, and the PV that helped make it famous.  The Alstroemeria verison's riff is actually slightly different: it ends up at the bottom of the octave rather than the top of the next.  Its actually kinda odd, being used to the one that ends in A#6 instead of A#5.  It's also a good place to track the progression of ZUN's style, since according to him, this is like his earlier works from before he began making the Touhou games.  Most obviously, all the PC-98 compositions had to be simpler in structure because FM-synth only allowed for so many tones at once, without as much variety in tone type.

Beloved Tomboyish Daughter - Cirno's Theme (Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil)
Cirno is a simple character, and she has a very simple and melodic theme.  ZUN set out to write a stupid sounding song, and in a way, I suppose he succeeded.  It has a certain air of innocence and simplicity about it, certainly.  There's not much complexity to the composition itself: a beat, a bass guitar, and a keyboard part (followed by a piano part).  A few measures into the main body of the piece after the introduction, the keyboard joins the piano, and there is some minor polyphony between them.  This is a popular song to play on the piano due to the simplicity of its arrangement, and yet, one does not too often hear doujin arrangements of it.  In a way, having such an easily recognizable and simple melody makes it hard to make an arrangement of it that doesn't simply take the song verbatim and transpose it onto different instrumentation.  No matter what you do with it, it'll always be Beloved Tomboyish Daughter, and nothing else.

Locked Girl - Patchouli Knowledge's Theme (Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil)
ZUN wrote Locked Girl to be very heavy despite its fast tempo.  He rather succeeded.  The composition is fast, with a constant percussion part and base, but the melody itself has a sort of air of melancholy to it, as well as the grandeur given to it by its form.  The introduction of the piece with a strongly stated melody rather reminds me of some of some of the more bombastic stuff to come out of the late classical and romantic period.  Certainly, Dvorak loved this trope.  We also get introduced to ZUN's love of trumpets here.  Those trumpets appear in freaking everything.  Locked Girl is known in the fandom both on its own, and also for Cool&Create's arrangement of the same name.  Understandably so: both the song and PV are ridiculously cute.  The melody and feel of the song lend itself very well, being already very expressive and voice-like.  At least, that's what I seem to take from it.

Septette for the Dead Princess - Remilia Scarlet's Theme (Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil)
Remilia claims to be a descendent of Dracula himself.  This is a rather obvious lie, but nobody calls her out on it: she has nothing to prove, and would rather sit inside and drink tea all day anyway.  Because of this, her theme doesn't sound much like a final boss theme at all.  It's got ZUN's signature percussion, and despite the complexities of its many layers, has a strong central theme to it.  It's one of the most "charismatic" songs from the Touhou games, befitting Scarlet.  It's not actually a septette: there's percussion and trumpet, piano, and some other synthesized instruments that don't quite have any equivalents.  Unlike most of his other pieces, it doesn't have a real prominent continuo or bass part, not like, say, Locked Girl anyway.  ZUN says it's a Jazz-Fusion sort of piece...ZUN's descriptions can be pretty weird sometimes.  Given how he writes most of this stuff while drunk, this is unsurprising.

U.N. Owen Was Her? - Flandre Scarlet's Theme (Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil)
Flandre is gonna kill you all.

But at least the last thing you hear will be here theme song.  It's probably the second most well known composition from Touhou besides for Bad Apple!! and Doll Judgement.  It's been spread around the internet as McRoll'd and as John Stump's Death Waltz (the latter was how I found Touhou to begin with), some people never even realizing what it actually was.  It's a pretty strange piece structurally.  You have the intro segment with the rapid fire riff, string continuo, and weirdly non-metric percussion, which goes into the much simpler coda that transitions to the main melody.  It's a simple melody, as always, and a powerful one.  There's a tempo shift as it goes into the next segment, which is several octaves lower and serves as a coda back into the melody.  ZUN said he had a lot of fun writing this one.  It definitely comes through.  It's interesting to note that the weirdness with the tempo and meter creates some pretty big problems for people who have tried to make arrangements of it.  Incidentally, here is the arrangement through which I discovered Touhou in the first place.  It's like Scott Joplin decided to write a piano rag that could only be played on player piano.

Doll Judgement - Alice Margatroid's Theme (Perfect Cherry Blossom)
Kirai...kirai LAABIN~
Dare ga, dare ga KAN BI ALI FAU TSU
Doushite?  Naze kashira...

For doubtlessly a good 90% of Touhou fans, they will feel the urge to sing these lyrics on hearing this song.  This is called IOSYSitis, and it kills untold multitudes each year.  In all seriousness, the IOSYS arrangement called Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (listen at your own peril) is probably why it's so well known, but it'd be one of my favorites regardless.  It's got ZUN's ever common busy piano work, which works with some synth sounds to create some rather eerie feeling polyphonies, that lead without coda into the main melody.  ZUN says that he composed this one with renewed vigor, and that he wanted to emphasize how laid back these girls are as they blast each other with arcane power for fun and profit.  I don't think he quite nailed the laid back part, not with the erie feeling and melancholic melody.  A lot of ZUN's better work feels kinda melancholic, come to think of it.  That, and nostalgic, but this is definitely not a nostalgic piece.

Ancient Temple - Youmu Konpaku's Stage Theme (Perfect Cherry Blossom)
If you were to ask me which composition most embodied ZUN's style, it'd definitely be Ancient Temple.  It's got the eeriness and nostalgia, the laid back feeling, the pentatonic scales, the key shifts, and the semiquavers, all conversing the same ideas and melodies.  It doesn't feel much like any other soundtrack I've heard, and doesn't fall neatly into any compositional category besides romanticism.  ZUN said (I feel like I'm quoting Confucius or something) that it expresses a "nostalgia that is deep within every Japanese and the frantic feeling that arises when someone is approaching."  For once, ZUN's commentary actually makes a whole lot of sense: the pentatonic scale and shinto-like flutes and percussion seem very nostalgic, and yet, I also get a strong feeling of ZUN despite it.  I wonder if ZUN would want to live in Gensokyo...he always comes through so strongly here.  The music helps define the world, so it's very much his world, reflecting his beliefs.

Love Colored Master Spark - Marisa Kirisame's Theme (Imperishable Night)
This one isn't nostalgic at all though.  Marisa climbs through windows and borrows peoples books with no intention of returning them.  She spends all her time coming up with inventive and impractical spells and teaching youkai lessons in respect with her love-colored magic.  When it comes down to it though, make no mistake: she's chaotic, but chaotic good, and her theme reflects it perfectly.  It's got the ZUN trumpets, and an electric guitar part, a heavy beat, and lots of energy.  It's got a grandiose sort of feeling, but it's also very directed.  I don't really have much to say about it compositionally, except that it seems to have a very FM-synth like continuo part during some segments.  Perhaps it is a callback to Casket of Stars, one of her themes from the PC-98 era.  Come to think of it, Marisa has a lot of themes, but this is really the only one you ever hear about.  Anyway, it's rather direct for ZUN - it's very game-like.  He doesn't do game-like often.

Maiden's Capriccio - Reimu Hakurei's Theme (Imperishable Night)
This is the theme of Touhou's other rather dubious protagonist.  It is not actually a capriccio.  Like Love Colored Master Spark, it's a very game-like and direct.  It fast in tempo, and it moves along quite rapidly structurally too.  Unlike Marisa's theme, it has a strange feeling of valor and power that really doesn't feel like Reimu.  She's the protagonist of these games only when people yell at her enough to actually do her job and keep Gensokyo from falling apart while she pretends to clean up the shrine and drinks tea on the veranda. I think it's the fact that it feels like a victory march played in double time, with the constant trumpet melody and simple structure.

Maiden's Capriccio is also a victim of IOSYSitis, with their seminal earworm Neko Miko Reimu.  Sing it with me:

Neko Miko Reimu, ai shiteru! (Cat-eared Miko Reimu, I love you.)
Neko Miko Reimu, nani shiteru? (Cat-eared Miko Reimu, the hell are you doing?)
Neko Miko Reimu, shuran yurari... (Cat-eared Miko Reimu, hopelessly drunk...)
Neko Miko Reimu, muron furari! (Cat-eared Miko Reimu, and aimless, of course.)

Lunatic Eyes - Reisen Udongein Inaba's Theme (Imperishable Night)
Actually, come to think of it, most of Imperishable Night's soundtrack was pretty heavy.  However, there's nothing so "heroic" in Lunatic Eyes as Maiden's Capriccio or Love Colored Master Spark.  It's actually a rather spooky theme, which is fitting for an encounter with an uncanny lunarian rabbit in the middle of a bamboo forest during an unnaturally long night.  The frantic lead-in piano and synth to the kinda hard-rock-ish melody feels like an idea I've heard before somewhere, and not just in other soundtracks either.  I think the defining feature of this piece is how its A melody is a restatement of the same riffs in different keys.  I think there must be something inherent to that construction that resonates with us as being "frantic" or "insane."  Anyway, Lunatic Eyes also has a well known IOSYS arrangement called Stops At the Affected Area and Immediately Dissolves.  It will not leave you singing any lyrics, only saying to yourself "wh...what just happened to me?"  I think this song is the closest I'll ever come to an acid trip.  There's rabbits...and everyone is speaking nonsense...and some girl who looks like Robin Hood if he were a girl and dressed like a nurse talking about suppositories...and now they're playing DDR...WHAT'S HAPPENING?

Flowering Night - Sakuya Izayoi's Theme (Phantasmagoria of Flower View)
Sakuya had a theme in Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil, but this one is probably her better one, even though I hear arrangements of both with equal regularity.  It's a softer feel to it than her other theme, though it also feels a lot more generic in form and structure.  It's got a simple melody without too many moving parts.  It's A segment goes C G F# G F# G A G F# G D E B A B A B D B A B in various keys over and over, unless it's doing the B segment, which does something else over and over again.  This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just a trait it has.  ZUN said that he wanted this one to sound more human, and at the very least, he made it sound not nearly as noisy and cluttered as Lunar Dial (her theme from Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil).  It's another one of those pieces one doesn't see too many arranges for, except on piano.  It lends itself quite well to piano (I even taught it to myself for the computer keyboard - it's not difficult either).

The Gensokyo the Gods Loved - Nitori's Stage Theme (Mountain of Faith)
In a way, you can call this "Gensokyo's theme."  ZUN wrote this to be a liberal and melodious piece to reflect the scenery of Gensokyo that appears to Marisa or Reimu as they enter the Youkai mountain: a place of majesty and beauty where mythic beings live apart from humans, unused to them.  For this reason, it's a simple piece, with a strong but complex melody stated in different keys by ZUN trumpets and piano, with his usual percussion and subtle FM-synth continuo.  Unlike, say, Ancient Temple, this composition isn't generally associated with the boss it precedes - Nitori Kawashiro.  For this reason, it made a good choice for Yuuhei Satellite to arrange for the OP to Manpuku Jinja's Memories of Phantasm: The Spring Snow Incident.  Given how well The Spring Snow Incident embodies the soul of the Touhou games, it was a good choice.

Naitive Faith - Suwako Moriya's Theme (Mountain of Faith)
Gensokyo has many gods, and yet, none.  To ordinary humans living there, even the lowly fairies are gods, not to mention the human magicians and mikos that can strive even with the real gods.  This is the theme of a god: a rather childish looking god with a hat that looks like it has googly eyes stuck on it.  Such is Touhou.  Befitting such a character is a rapid, childish sounding theme.  ZUN used lots of piano in Mountain of Faith, and it shows up here, doubled up with some sort of synth string.  In structure, it's not unlike The Gensokyo the Gods Loved, except far more rapid and game-like.

It suffers from IOSYSitis, at least, to people who understand some Japanese.  The song in question is Kero⑨Destiny, which turns it into the worlds weirdest childrens' song.  Odd how the life of a several thousand year old god who once led an army has been simplified to that of a child.  There's a lot to be said about Suwako's character in general, really.

Nuclear Fusion - Utsuho Reiuji's Theme (Subterranean Animism)
Utsuho Reiuji - better known as Okuu or Chernobyl-tan to fans - is the most outright "villainous" boss character of the Touhou games, but not because she means to be.  She was a hell-raven who obtained the power to control nuclear reactions and misheard some voice that she thought told her to destroy the surface world.  A misunderstanding or not, in terms of sheer power and dangerous intent, she's one of the most formidable characters in Touhou, and her theme - Solar Sect of Mystic Wisdom ~ Nuclear Fusion - reflects this.  ZUN tried to make it as "boss-like" as possible, and gave us a very heavy and complex piece with trumpets and pianoforte and heavy percussion.  It starts with a descending scale reiterated in different keys, starting strong, and going into an A melody, and flowing naturally into the main B melody: a strongly stated, dangerous piece, aided by the persistent percussion, and yet always remaining clear.  Though they are both final boss themes, it's interesting to note how diametrically opposed Septette for the Dead Princess and Nuclear Fusion are.

Personally, I consider Demetori's version almost canon.  The original may as well be metal anyway.

Homework Assignment:
Now that you've been introduced to the barest essentials of the Touhou musical canon, if you've got another 20 minutes, here is an excellent piano medley, which includes all of the songs mentioned here.  It highlights some of the problems encountered when trying to arrange these compositions, as well as ways in which these problems can be turned into features.

Here are some of the better known doujin composers:
TAMusic: Makes good chamber music, crappy electronic-chamber hybrid.
WAVE: Arranges for a real orchestra, forgets what they were arranging.
Virus Key: Arranges for a midi orchestra, adds faux choir to ALL the things.
Buta-Otome: Makes cool fusion arrangements of Magical Astronomy.  Also, sometimes actual Touhou.
Alstroemeria Records: Makes house, sometimes quotes Touhou and calls it an arrangement.
Syrufit: Makes electronica and engrish.
Demetori: Makes a lot of incredibly awesome noise.
Xi~On: Makes slightly less noise, slightly less awesome.
ShibayanRecords: Makes bad easy listening, kick-ass electronic music.
Unlucky Morpheus: Makes kick-ass Jazz, kinda neat speed metal.
EastNewSound: Makes you forget you're listening to pop.
Sound Online: Doesn't make much nowadays, but used to make really clean sounding electronica.
Sound Holic: Makes lots of different stuff with varying degrees of awesome.
Cool&Create: Makes alternative rock, funny sounds into the microphone.
Tomoya: Makes awesome piano music, awful recordings.
REDALiCE: Doesn't make much anymore either, but used to make lots of really fast techno.
Yuuhei Satellite: Makes awesome PVs and electronic music.
IOSYS: Makes absolutely no fucking sense.

1 comment:

  1. Marisa's Love-coloured Master Spark is ZUN's original remix of her original Love-coloured Magic from Story of Eastern Wonderland. Back when Marisa had red hair.