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How Civilization Online brought a Grammy-winning composer back to games (interview)

Above: The man behind the wildly popular "Baba Yetu" is returning to the Civilization franchise.

Christopher Tin is best known as the composer of the first video game music theme to win a Grammy Award.

But beyond the massive success of his Civilization IV theme “Baba Yetu,” Tin’s career in classical composition has earned him equal — if not more — praise from the recording industry. His 2009 classical crossover album Calling All Dawns also won a Grammy the same year as “Baba Yetu.” His newest album, The Drop That Contained the Sea, premiered at Carnegie Hall this past April before releasing at No. 1 on the Billboard Classical charts in May.

With a new album in circulation, Tin is returning to the video game franchise that gave him his big break. The Korean MMO Civilization Online launched with a new World music theme from Tin called “Song of the Mountain.” I recently talked with Tin over the phone about his success and future in music both inside and outside video games.

GamesBeat: How has your success with “Baba Yetu” and Calling All Dawns affected you and your more recent compositions?

The Civilization IV theme "Baba Yetu" won a Grammy in 2009 for 'Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)'

Above: The Civilization IV theme “Baba Yetu” won a Grammy in 2009 for “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s).”

Image Credit: Christopher Tin

Christopher Tin: Interestingly, the Grammys only opened up a little more new video game work for me. But what “Baba Yetu” and Calling All Dawns did do … is launch a new classical career for me writing commissioned concert music. My first real commission happened right after the Grammys — a piece called “Waloyo Yamoni” written for the St. Matthews Chamber Orchestra, that has since become the grand finale of my new album “The Drop That Contained the Sea.”

GamesBeat: You hold a rather prestigious role within the Recording Academy. What does it entail, and has it provided you with any sort of perspective on video game music as a whole? 

Tin: I’m currently serving as a governor of the L.A. Chapter of the Recording Academy. Governors are essentially ambassadors into the musical community. We hold events, clinics, mixers, panels, and so forth … to help people advance their careers, no matter what stage they’re at.  In my own role as a governor, I try to service the classical world, and video game [musical] communities. For example, recently I moderated a panel for Grammy U students on music and the video game industry [with] fellow composers Jack Wall and Russell Brower, music supervisor Raphaella Lima, and agent Sarah Kovacs.

The role hasn’t actually provided me with much of a top-down view of the video game industry, but has given me a much closer look at all the issues affecting recorded music on the whole. That includes legislative issues, like songwriter fairness bills and performance royalty issues that are currently [under debate] in Congress. As a matter of fact, this past April I participated in “Grammys on the Hill,” a two-day event where musicians from around the country visit Capitol Hill and talk to legislators about issues like copyright reform.

Christopher Tin returned to the Civilization franchise to compose the theme for the franchise's Korean MMO.

Above: Christopher Tin returned to the Civilization franchise to compose the theme for the franchise’s Korean MMO.

Image Credit: Take-Two Interactive

GamesBeat: What about the Civilization franchise made you return for your second major composition? Did Civilization Online’s Korean release and audience focus have an effect on your work?

Tin: I was incredibly excited to be asked back to work on a new song for the Civilization franchise, as it’s long been one of my favorite games, and one which I feel a special kinship with. The fact that it was principally an Asian launch didn’t influence me too much, except for one key creative decision. I was looking for an otherworldly choral sound, similar to the African gospel choir that I used for Civilization IV, but with perhaps more of an Asian root. And so the idea to use an aboriginal Taiwanese children’s choir was born. A friend of mine, six-time Grammy-winning producer Daniel Ho, introduced me to a great choir that he worked with in the past: the Taiwu Children’s Ancient Ballads Troupe [a group from the Taiwu village in the Paiwan region of Southern Taiwan]. After I went to hear them live, I knew they had an amazing sound that I wanted to harness.

GamesBeat: What was the inspiration behind “Song of the Mountain”? In particular, what drove you toward your use of the children’s choir?

Tin: “Song of the Mountain” was very much inspired by the voices of the children I was writing for. The choir is from the Paiwan people, an aboriginal tribe in from the mountains of Taiwan. I was drawn to them because they had the sound that I was looking for — a full-throated, powerful sound that belies the fact that they’re barely teenagers. The lyrics are based on traditional Paiwan prayers, including one asking for a blessing for their ancestral home: the mountain.

GamesBeat: Talk about the decision process behind The Drop that Contained the Sea? How did you come to the decision to compose each song in a different language?

The Drop that Contained the Sea is Christopher Tin's second album.

Above: The Drop that Contained the Sea is Tin’s second album.

Image Credit: Christopher Tin

Tin: The decision to have each song be in a different language was largely due to my interest in different styles of world music, and the fact that the new album is a compilation of a lot of diverse collaborations and commissioned works.

It’s a formula that got me a lot of critical acclaim with Calling All Dawns, including the two Grammys, which set an intimidating bar.  But rather than hide from the challenge of trying to top that album – and the song “Baba Yetu,” which to date is still my most popular piece – I wanted to tackle it head on. I wanted to see if I could write something with the same general blueprint of Calling All Dawns, but more challenging and sophisticated. Likewise, I wanted to see if I could top “Baba Yetu,” and feel like I did with the finale of the new album, “‘Waloyo Yamoni — We Overcome the Wind.”

GamesBeat: What’s next for Christopher Tin? Are there any fantasy projects you’d like to see come across your desk any time soon?

Tin: I’ve got a few commissions lined up which I’m looking forward to, and I’m faced with the daunting task of coming up with a successor to The Drop That Contained the Sea. I also have a couple of pieces to write for my 2015 and 2016 concerts at Carnegie Hall as well.
But on the game front, I’d love to score a complete Civilization game. Writing the title songs is a blast, of course, but I’d love the opportunity to conceive the complete musical identity of a Civilization game from start to finish. I can’t imagine a more exciting scoring opportunity, one in which music from every culture and every era of history is yours to explore and integrate into a musical whole. It’s like getting to write your own musical encyclopedia. I find that idea thrilling.

The Drop That Contained the Sea released May 8. It is available through most music retailers and through Christopher Tin’s website.


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