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Interview: Christopher Tin - From  Civilization IV  to Calling All Dawns
Interview: Christopher Tin - From Civilization IV to Calling All Dawns
September 29, 2009 | By Jeriaska

September 29, 2009 | By Jeriaska
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More: Console/PC



[We sit down with Civilization IV soundtrack co-composer Christopher Tin, whose new album, inspired by one of the signature Civ IV songs, represents his personal interpretation of the classic series.]

Musician Christopher Tin made his debut as a game composer with the tracks "Baba Yetu" and "Coronation" for the 2004 strategy title Civilization IV. His contributions to the score earned him two awards from the Game Audio Network Guild, for Best Original Vocal Song and Rookie of the Year.

Music from Civ IV has graced the stage numerous times as part of the Video Games Live concert series, allowing for "Baba Yetu" to be performed around the world. On October 1st the composer is publishing an album of music inspired by the piece.

Called "Calling All Dawns," the collection assembles twelve songs in twelve languages, including a brand new rendition of the celebrated videogame vocal theme. The album represents the culmination of an artist's personal interpretation of a computer software series that has inspired him since his youth.

In this interview coinciding with the release of "Calling All Dawns," Christopher Tin describes being a part of the VGL concert series. The discussion offers a personal perspective on the position of game soundtracks as an art form with international appeal.



As an intersection of Civilization IV and the entirely new material present on Calling All Dawns, "Baba Yetu" is also an example of bringing together ancient musical traditions and modern game software. In your work as a composer, what have you observed about the interplay of the canon and today's videogame industry?

Sadly, on a macro level, there is no interplay between classical music and videogames. This is not to say that the classical world doesn't explore adaptive and dynamic music (Steve Reich, John Cage) and that game music doesn't flirt with the classics (Civ IV had a number of licensed pieces, including 20th-century works by John Adams). But the circles have been wary of each other for awhile.

Tours like Video Games Live are helping to redefine those boundaries, but it's an uphill struggle, and videogames and the classical canon have little to do with one another for now. But really... why should there be any interaction between games and the classical canon? Why can't game music evolve as its own distinct art form? Why should it rely on the Western classical tradition at all?

Videogames (and their music) are complex, evolving, and technologically mediated. Why should the music in videogames rely on a the classical tradition that's centuries old, linear in definition, and based on artifices of 16th-century technological limitations?

Does the idea interest you of writing music that includes an interactive component and responds dynamically to the feedback of the player?

As far as effective uses of interaction in games, I'd have to say that Troels Folmann does this very well in his scores (matter of fact, Troels does many things very well).

I would certainly love to write more dynamic and adaptive music. I've done it for various sound installations and product design applications, but not yet in a game context. I certainly have a lot of ideas as to how it could be done; some of which may extend beyond the limitations of the current generation of consoles.

The key, though, is that I consider myself a highly structural composer; for me, the second most important element of music is form (the most important element is melody). So the challenge becomes how do you maintain a cohesive and satisfying musical form, while still relying on an adaptive engine? How do you have sensible modulations, recapitulations, developments, counterpoint, etc.? Is this possible, practical or even desirable? Maybe someday when the technology catches up, someone will hire me to solve this dilemma.



Prior to contributing to the score of Civilization IV, what had been your experience with the computer game series?

Civ was a huge part of my childhood. The funny story is that it was my college roommate, Soren Johnson, who turned out to be the lead designer for Civilization IV. I ran into him at our five-year reunion at Stanford. We had done an overseas study program together at Oxford. He was studying history and computer science, which is perfect for Civilization, and I was studying music. We caught up and he had just finished Civilization III as one of the co-designers. I told him I had been a huge Civilization fanatic growing up.

A couple months went by and I got a phone call from him saying, “Hey Chris, we are in the process of putting together the opening animations for Civilization IV. I took a track from one of the Stanford Talisman a capella albums recorded back at Stanford, and everyone loved the world vibe of it.” Talisman specializes in African choral music, so Soren came back to me and asked if I would be up for writing something new that was an epic sounding African vocal track with drums. And it was right up my alley.

I spent a month writing the main theme for Civilization IV, which is actually a long time in composer terms. I then recorded it with Talisman a capella back at Stanford. I got it into the game and that was it.

What is it that appealed to you about the series when you played it in your youth?

I’ve always been the type of person that likes to build, cultivate and tinker with things. I get fixated and obsessed on little projects. A game like Civ, where you’re growing a Civilization, expanding your borders and expanding new territories, that all fits into that pleasure center in my brain.

Your music for Civilization IV has been a fixture of the Video Games Live concert series program. What has been your experience working with the event organizers?

Well, Tommy and Jack are great. To me, they’re living the life right now. Having gotten to know them over the years, they have cultivated a great sense of community among game composers.

For example, Tommy has an annual summer barbecue where he invites everyone in the Game Audio Network Guild to his house. I can’t think of another industry where one of the top composers says, “Hey guys, everyone come over and hang out at my place!” It doesn’t matter if you’re an A-list composer, an assistant or an intern, you can come over, play videogames and hang out.

Has participating in the Video Games Live concert series directly contributed to the design or realization of your concept for Calling All Dawns?

I think that any time you're able to take a piece of music out of the context of a game and still have it stand on its own it's a validation that you've written a good piece of music. In a sense, the success I've had with my music being featured in Video Games Live (and the hundreds of other live performances of my music) gave me the motivation to create an entire album of music that would stand on its own, apart from any visuals.

On your blog you mentioned an audio/video experiment that took place at a recent performance of your Civilization IV medley at Video Games Live in Kalamazoo, Michigan. You had attended the concert virtually from your home in California and participated in a Q&A session by being projected on a monitor at the venue. How did the experiment turn out?

It was a great experience! And kudos to the VGL guys for trying to integrate this technology into the concert experience. In this day and age, why can't we do more of this stuff?

I'm relatively young, but I still remember a day when the idea of a 'video phone' was some sort of distant, newfangled technology. Nowadays we can beam anyone's voice and image anywhere in the world (and for FREE, on top of it), so why not have more remote participation events where composers 'virtually' attend concerts of their music? If any orchestra or choir out there wants me to do such a similar broadcast, even if it's just to say 'hi' during a rehearsal or do a Q&A, I'd be ready and willing.

Do you find it rewarding as a musician to interact directly with listeners and hear their feedback, for instance during the Video Games Live series' post-concert meet-and-greets?

Absolutely! I love meeting game music fans in person, and especially getting emails from people who are fans of my music (I usually write back). I'm very 'public' in my composition process. When I have the time, I love to workshop works-in-progress with a trusted circle of friends for feedback. The act of playing your works for people is a very revealing part of the creative process; you can no longer avoid those weak points that maybe you've been turning a blind eye to, but instead, are forced to confront them.

How would you say your academic training, both in terms of your literary background and training as a musician, contributed to your career as a composer?

Well, one can be inspired in the head, and one can be inspired in the heart. My cerebral inspiration, of course, was my study of the musical canon, which in one form or another gets subconsciously translated into the music that I write. But as for what moves me? What inspires the heart? It comes from far and wide.

I suppose that looking at the music I grew up listening to, there's a common thread of good old-fashioned tunefulness, that seems to work its way into what I write. I don't talk about it much, but when I was a tween I was absolutely obsessed with the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Schonberg and Boublil. (In fact, I originally wanted to be a musical theatre composer!)

There's a certain sweeping drama in their works that I loved growing up, AND you can't get their melodies out of your head. Once I entered high school I traded that love for the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and the rest of the 'classic rock canon'. And again, the sort of repetitive riffs and hooks that you find in their music work their way into the stuff that I write. I write very riffy, hooky orchestral music. Maybe I'm a rock musician trapped in a classical musician's body.

Is "Calling All Dawns" a reflection of your academic training or experiences traveling?

A little of both, perhaps. The two aren't mutually exclusive. Book knowledge and life experience are often spoken of as competing ideas, but really they're two sides of the same coin. In fact, what you learn in school and what you learn in the real world should teach you the exact same thing: that it's important to look at the big picture, to think big, to take it all in, and to be unafraid to make a statement in the world.

Anyone who has traveled has been humbled by the enormity of the world's cultures and landscapes. Likewise the more schooling you have, the more awestruck you are by the depth, breadth and history of human knowledge. So whether you went through years of academia or years on the street, you should graduate with one important lesson learned: respect. Respect for the world, for the people around you, and for the people who came before you.

So what is Calling All Dawns? It's a vehicle of respect.


Christopher Tin conducting 'Baba Yetu' with the Golden State Pops Orchestra

What has been your experience meeting Afrika composer Wataru Hokoyama? You’ve both received GANG Awards for Rookie of the Year.

Wataru and I did a concert together with the Golden State Pops Orchestra at Game Music in Concert (four of the six composers there were GANG Rookies of the Year). He’s a great guy and a great composer. We did joke that when the game community wants something African, they turn to the Asian composers.

One of the songs on your forthcoming album, "Mado Kara Mieru," was recorded in Japan. Did you receive any advice from videogame musicians in the creation of this Japanese-language music track?

Absolutely! Hitoshi Sakimoto (of Final Fantasy XII fame) was instrumental in helping me get the vocals recorded. The song itself was conceived and written several years ago with the help of various Japanese-American friends, but when it came time to record, I didn't have the resources to find the right vocalists on my own.

As it turns out I was passing through Tokyo earlier this year, and decided to see if I could find some leads through the Game Audio Network Guild. One member referred me to Sakimoto-san, who referred me to the excellent singer Lia.

Through Lia's management I met two other excellent singers (Aoi Tada and Kaori Omura), and the three of them are the featured vocalists on my song (entitled 'Mado Kara Mieru'--translated as 'Through The Window I See'). It really speaks to the closeness and camaraderie in the game industry, I think; Sakimoto and his company were amazingly helpful in contacting the vocalists, arranging the recording session, and even helping out with the paperwork. I hope I can repay them in some way, someday.



How did you go about finding lyrics for "Mado Kara Mieru"?

With a lot of these songs, I tried to capture a cultural understanding of the language that the song is based on. There is a tendency to rely on cliches in striving for ethnic legitimacy. Whenever possible, I try to go a step beyond and find a deeper cultural raison d’etre.

This is where the understanding of literature and poetry comes into play. As it is, each of these songs draws from texts about life, death and rebirth. You have the requiem mass in Latin, you have excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, an excerpt from the Torah, a Catholic hymn, a Japanese haiku, Māori proverbs, Persian poetry by Omar Khayyam. It’s not just sacred material, but also secular. 2009 has been spent recording soloists like the Soweto Gospel Choir performing "Baba Yetu," various singers in Japan, and Anonymous 4 in New York. The Portuguese Fado singer Dulce Pontes also sings a song for me, as does Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim and the legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade.

The dominant poetic form in Japanese is the haiku. In doing research into haiku, I got to understand that basically every classical haiku has a kigo, a seasonal word. They will say something like, “I look up in the sky and I see the moon.” The moon in that case is the seasonal word, because in autumn the moon is its roundest. That grounds the haiku in a particular season. If you see the word “sakura,” --meaning 'cherry blossoms'--it refers to spring, when the cherry trees blossom. Many of these haiku are grounded in particular seasons.

At the time I was writing this, I knew that my overall theme for Calling All Dawns was the cycle of life. Life, death and rebirth are a never-ending cycle. Even our distant ancestors observed this cycle in the turning of the seasons and the crops rejuvenating themselves in the spring.

What I did was take five haiku with corresponding words for spring, summer, autumn, winter and spring. Then I put them in order and treated them as a rondo. The goal was also to have singers at different stages of their lives singing these solos. The spring haiku would be sung by a young girl, for example. The summer haiku, by a young woman.



In the end is this how you went about recording the song?

Not quite. Ultimately, while all this artistic vision is important, the emotional impact of the vocalist is the most important thing. While you can theorize that it would be ideal to get a young girl to sing this, if an adult woman who can sound like a young girl is more capable, you should side with her. In other words, you should always choose quality over strict authenticity.

Looking back at your own experience, is there any personal advice you might offer someone who plans on going to school for musical training and is interested in working in videogames?

I wouldn't encourage prospective students to look *specifically* to get into video games, nor anything else for that matter. Just focus your energies on becoming the best possible composer you can be, and don't worry about what you're going to compose for--that will sort itself out later, and frankly you have no control over what's going to fall your way.

The truth is, though, that if you're a good musician, you'll be able to apply those skills towards any field you wind up working in. One thing in particular is that I've always believed that if you can write a good melody, you'll never go hungry. Why? Look back on history: every single piece that's established in our collective memory has always had a good melody. Even the great composers have pieces that stand out from the rest of their canon, and most often those are the ones with the great melodies.

Beethoven wrote nine symphones. How many people can hum the Fourth? The Eighth? Yet everyone knows the Ninth, the Fifth, the Third, and to a lesser extent the Sixth and Seventh. Why? Because they're great melodies. Even canonical dissonant works like the Rite Of Spring have great melodies. Want to write a piece that everyone connects with, that will stand the test of time? Write a good melody.

[Find more about Christopher Tin, along with ordering information on the album, at the composer's official website. Images courtesy of Christopher Tin. Hear samples of "Calling All Dawns" on Soundcloud.com.]


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