Three Beautiful Live Performances of Animation Soundtracks

If you’re lucky enough to know me, you know that there are precious few things I obsess over more than animation and soundtracks. That’s why, in what may be my most on-brand act yet, I’ve decided to share with you all the very inner-workings of my brain: my favorite live soundtrack medleys from animated shows and movies.

I could (and most likely will, at some point) write at absurd length about these particular pieces of music and how they interact with and enhance the works of art that they accompany. But the real purpose of this article is to highlight true gems online that some of you may have missed. In all three of these examples, music from a movie or series has been re-orchestrated or newly arranged for the sake of a live performance.

The ability to free a piece of music from the structure of a film is something that has always fascinated me. In many cases, movie soundtracks excel because of the limitations placed on them by the medium, rather than despite them. However, to later arrange that same music as the centerpiece of a performance allows us to experience it in a fresh way, often closer to what the composer originally had in mind than what we saw in a final cut.

  1. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra – Playfest 2014 in Málaga, Spain

Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn, known collectively as the Track Team, composed the rich, complex soundtrack to Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. They both stayed on board for the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, in slightly rearranged roles (Zuckerman as composer, Wynn as sound designer).

In September of 2014, just months before Korra’s iconic, groundbreaking series finale, the music from the Avatar series was performed at Playfest in Málaga, Spain. Playfest was a music festival with a focus on video games and animation, but I’ve been unable to find any information about it happening in recent years, so it may have gone defunct (which is honestly a real loss, because it’s that kind of recognition that continues to help legitimize these mediums).

Posted by Zuckerman on his Soundcloud, these suites draw attention both to the wide range of instruments and moods featured in each show and also to the cohesiveness and intermixing of themes. Character leitmotifs enter and exit, action and romance commingle, and occasionally, you can hear a baby crying in the audience. Fans have spent years fighting for the full soundtracks of these shows to be properly released (of the combined seven seasons of TV, only Korra season one has had a soundtrack album release). We’ll keep fighting the good fight for those soundtracks, but in the meanwhile, we have these performances. 

  1. Cowboy Bebop – The Seatbelts live in Shibuya, 2001

Yoko Kanno, the honest-to-god genius behind Cowboy Bebop’s stunning, electric blend of music genres, created a real life band to record the show’s soundtrack. Unlike with the Avatar soundtracks, there’s no shortage of official releases here – the group, called Seatbelts, has released no less than seven albums of Bebop music.

Seatbelts, which was more a loose collective of musicians than a consistent lineup, disbanded in 2004. They made a few live appearances during their run, though, including in Shibuya in 2001, two years after Cowboy Bebop’s premiere.

The video above (the audio from which appears on disc 4 of the Cowboy Bebop Boxed Set release) is from the 2001 performance, but it doesn’t feature the full band. Instead, it’s a solo piano medley performed by bandleader Yoko Kanno. Kanno cycles seamlessly through some of her most memorable compositions from the show, including “Farewell Blues,” “ELM,” “Green Bird,” and “Piano Bar.”

  1. Joe Hisaishi – Budokan, 2008

This one is the Holy Grail of live animation music. In 2008, one month after the Japanese theatrical release of Ponyo, a concert was held to commemorate the 25-year collaboration between director Hayao Miyazaki and composer Joe Hisaishi. This may sound hyperbolic, but I mean it – their creative partnership is one of cinema history’s greatest.

Studio Ghibli pulled out all the stops for this event, which spanned three nights and involved over a thousand musicians. Images from Miyazaki’s films were projected above the 200 members of the New Japan Philharmonic World Dream Orchestra. Three choirs, a combined 800 voices, sang Hisaishi’s pieces, and a marching band entered the hall to join in as well.

The icing on the top of this performance (which was broadcast on TV and released on Blu-ray in Japan) is the heartfelt tribute by Miyazaki. Midway through the show (at 1:06:50), a video is played on the big screen of Miyazaki telling the story of how they met and thanking Hisaishi for his collaboration over nine films. Late in the concert, though (at the 1:41:00 mark), Miyazaki himself appears, walking up to the stage with a bouquet of flowers for his friend. The crowd is shocked, and Hisaishi looks emotional. It’s a really touching moment.

Apart from 2013’s The Wind Rises, all of Hisaishi’s scores for Miyazaki are represented here. This includes the instantly recognizable themes from My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away. It’s particularly great to hear such huge, full orchestrations of the earlier works like Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, movies which originally relied more on synthesized melodies. The timecodes for each film’s section are available in the video’s description.

This concert is one of my favorite things available on the whole goddamn internet. Years ago, I downloaded the audio from YouTube and went through the unnecessarily painstaking process of creating individual tracks of each movie’s section so that I could listen to them separately on iTunes. Decades of work and hundreds of people combined to make this event possible, and yet, it really comes down to the magic partnership of two individuals. It’s a celebration so big, so all-encompassing, that it feels like something historic, a moment that can never be replicated. 

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