Article: Composer Interview: Christopher Tin
Armed with arguably the richest scholarly background among game composers, Christopher Tin has quickly built a name for himself in the world of professional music, having worked across advertising, film, television and games. Yet a look through Tin's favorite album covers clearly reveals tastes that transcend traditional music education. Chris currently puts his wealth of knowledge and experience to use heading up his boutique music house, Tin Works.
Having first met OC ReMix at the Kennedy Center's performance of Video Games Live, Tin later called upon OCR's own Jillian Goldin to provide vocals in the formative stages of his ambitious debut album. Chris also spoke candidly with us on a number of topics including the emotional growth of game scores alongside games, academia's general view on game music, and tapping into the world's cultures for his spiritual successor to Civilization IV's "Baba Yetu," the soon-to-be-completed debut album Calling All Dawns.
- Conducted August 8, 2008 by David "djpretzel" Lloyd, Larry "Liontamer" Oji & Jillian "pixietricks" Goldin:
djpretzel: With "Baba Yetu", you achieved something very rare in the world of VGM - a standout original piece that could genuinely be called a "hit". While many composers become famous for complete soundtracks, it's not too often that a single track gets this much attention. Why do you think this piece resonated so much with fans? Do you feel pressure to match it with a standout piece on future soundtracks you compose for?
It's actually quite a relief to get your first 'hit' out of the way, so to speak. But I do feel pressure to build on it, and I don't just mean by expanding my video game resume. I tend to pressure myself artistically more than anything else, and so since the song came out, I've been looking for the next step in my personal growth as a composer. I'm really not so concerned with what my next score will be, or where my next paycheck is coming from. Really, I'm more concerned with questions like how to push myself as an artist; how to develop my voice; how to start challenging the tastes of my audience; etc. How can I contribute to 'the canon'? What can I say that hasn't been said yet? Will people still be listening to "Baba Yetu" 5 years from now? 50 years from now? Will I fade into oblivion just like countless other composers, or can I somehow put together a body of work that will survive long after I die? These are the things I think about.
As for why it resonated so well with fans, I think it's because I spent a tremendous amount of time crafting the song around what I believe are the two most important elements of music: melody and form. The melody of "Baba Yetu" is catchy, rhythmic and repetitive; the form is based on a familiar AABA song structure, but is constantly modulating upwards. There are moments of unexpected key changes, moments of tremendous harmonic buildup, big moments that drop off to small moments...and at the end of the day I bring it back to the original key and tag on a coda with an extended plagal (IV-I) cadence, AKA the 'Amen' cadence...in fact, literally on the Swahili word for Amen: 'Amina'.
But the thing about "Baba Yetu" is, compositionally I didn't do anything out-of-the-ordinary on that song; I just focused on the principals that I believe make good music, and was true to my own voice. And because it wasn't something that I had to stretch myself to do, I feel pretty confident that if another game company wanted to give me the opportunity, space, AND setting to write a hit theme for their game, I could do it.
But therein lies the problem: very rarely are you given genuinely amazing 'scoring moments,' so to speak. Civ IV gave me an endless menu screen with a beautiful shot of the earth as seen from space—I was basically handed a visual that was so cosmically beautiful that the opening notes practically sang themselves in my head. There were no sound effects to get in the way of the music; nothing but the earth, the sun, and my music. It was as idyllic a moment as you'll ever get in video games. You don't often get settings like that to write music to.
Firaxis gave me time and space to write the song, and gave me a beautiful scene to write to. I'm a very reactive composer; if you put something beautiful in front of me, I will write beautiful music. And that's what the Civ guys did; they created a thing of beauty. I simply responded to it.
djpretzel: It seems like many recent games - Halo, God of War, and Civilization IV come to mind - are popularizing the use of choral elements in their soundtracks. Do you think this trend is due simply to larger budgets being available, or does it signal some other, deeper maturation/change in the way games are scored?
It definitely has to do with greater access to resources, both financial and technical. But more than that, adding vocals to a score adds a level of emotional depth that was previously only justified in films; and so the fact that you're seeing more vocals popping up also speaks to the fact that video games are catching up in terms of emotion, drama and humanity—all things that are so well communicated through the human voice.
djpretzel: Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerard are often credited with popularizing the use of solo vocalizing in film scores with their soundtrack to the film Gladiator in 2000. Do you think this score also influenced game composers as well?
I can't speak for the rest of the game industry, but the Gladiator score certainly resonated very well with me; likewise with Ennio Morricone's The Mission and Hans' The Power of One, both of which are exceptional 'world choral' scores. Choral music in film scores goes back a loooooong ways, though. Just listen to what Prokofiev did on scores like Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky. Both amazing choral scores.
djpretzel: Between Stanford, Oxford, a Fulbright scholarship, and studying at the Royal College of Music in London, you've got what has to be one of the most impressive academic pedigrees in the world of game composition. In this environment, have you encountered any academic bias against games and/or game scores, where friends or colleagues who otherwise respect your work have a dismissive attitude towards scoring for video games? Is there such a thing as being "overqualified" to compose for games?
To be honest, video game composition never even came up when I was back in conservatory, which speaks to how invisible it is to the academic world. There was certainly tons of bias towards film music, though—especially at Oxford and the Royal College of Music. And even amongst all the aspiring composers I meet, very few of them think of video game music as a path that they want to pursue. They all want to be film composers (and most of them want to be The Next John Williams, and write like it). As for being overqualified for games, the answer is an emphatic no. Game composition deserves as much respect as any other form of composition, and presents conceptual dilemmas that no other medium does. It's up to us composers to maintain the highest degree of integrity and craftsmanship, if we want to be taken seriously by the academic world.
Liontamer: Several of us at OCR have had the privilege of seeing "Baba Yetu" performed at Video Games Live (myself in Washington, DC). How did you first become involved with VGL, and what were your initial thoughts about the opportunity?
And I had the pleasure of meeting some of you at that VGL show! The simple rundown of Video Games Live, is that Tommy and Jack heard "Baba Yetu" and said “We have to get that in our show.” That's all there is to it. Many months of wrangling later, they finally got the permission to perform it from 2K Games, and it's been a fixture of the show ever since. As for my thoughts on the opportunity, well, there's no greater thrill than having your music premiered at the Hollywood Bowl, and then played everywhere from the Kennedy Center to Royal Festival Hall, right?
Liontamer: You've actually been to Video Games Live performances at both the Hollywood Bowl in LA and The Kennedy Center in DC. How often have you able to attend shows within the tour? As part of the regular composer meet-and-greets there, do you have any memorable stories of meeting with fans or fellow composers?
I try to attend the California ones; the only exception is the Kennedy Center show, which I thought was too good of an opportunity to pass up. On the whole, though, I don't have a lot of time to be going to a lot of the concerts. As for stories from the Meet And Greets, my favorite is when I was sitting between my friend Soren Johnson (designer for Civ IV, currently on Spore) and Will Littlejohn (Guitar Hero). Will turned to us and said, “Hey guys, we just wanted you to know that while we were working on Guitar Hero, during all our lunch breaks we would play Civ IV.” To which Soren replied: “That's funny, because during all our breaks on Civ, we would all play Guitar Hero!” That was a great little moment, and I think it speaks well to our close-knit community.
Liontamer: Watching VGL as an audience member (as opposed to a composer), what are some of your favorite moments? Do you think concert series like VGL and PLAY! are changing public perception of game music, or are they essentially preaching to the choir, with mostly gamers in attendance?
I think for now, they're preaching to the choir; however, I DO think that they're beginning to open the eyes of people in the classical establishment, and making them aware of the draw of programming game music into classical concerts. The true litmus test is whether you'll ever see something like the suite from Halo sharing a bill with a Beethoven concerto and Dvorák symphony—but for now, as long as these concerts are pure video game music concerts, the draw will be primarily gamers.
As for my favorite pieces in the show, I have to say that I particularly like Kingdom Hearts (which is just shamelessly good songwriting) and Sonic (which has a great 70s vibe). But a surprise segment for me was when Richard Jacques came out during the GDC VGL show back in March, and did his jazz piano OutRun jam. That absolutely sizzled.
Jillian Goldin: Your debut original album, Calling All Dawns, is greatly anticipated by fans and professionals in both the video game and film industries. Tell us about your vision behind the album, and where it got its name!
This is what I was referring to earlier, with regards to where I go artistically post-"Baba Yetu". I essentially asked myself “If "Baba Yetu" were an overture to a greater work, what would that work sound like?” My answer was this album. It's a collection of 12 songs in 12 languages, all thematically unified through the themes of life, death and rebirth. Lyrically there is reference to all sorts of natural representations of this universal cycle: the changing of the seasons, rising and setting of the sun...it's a way of encapsulating all of human experience, as shared by every man, woman and child who has ever walked the planet. Despite our differences in race, language and culture, we all are all tied together through these commonalities; we all dream, we all fear--we all love, we all hate. We are each and every one of us not so different from one another.
Jillian Goldin: From "Baba Yetu" to the new tracks on Calling All Dawns, it seems that you have always been drawn to World music - not only to the sounds and scales of foreign cultures, but to their literature and faith. Many fans are aware that the text you chose for "Baba Yetu" was a translation of The Lord's Prayer in Swahili. What new sources have you drawn upon for the album, and how do you go about exploring their significance?
In addition to music, I was an English major as an undergrad, so I've always been drawn to 'The Canon' so to speak. Most of the sources for the texts of Calling All Dawns come from various sacred and secular texts: the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dao De Jing, the Requiem Mass, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam...18th-century Irish epic poetry, Polish Catholic hymns, Maori proverbs...it runs the gamut, really. I tried to choose passages from these various sources that made sense in the greater context of the album; e.g., using recurring motifs and keywords, such as 'light' and 'return'. I also tried to stitch together the songs with recurring musical themes across the album; for example, there's the 'resurrection theme' and the 'hope' theme. I think I was reasonably successful in creating something unified in meaning; but at the same time, I know I can take it a step further. In fact, I already have a concrete idea of the literary approach I want to try next; I don't want to give away too much, but all I can say is that it would be a pretty revolutionary way to combine folklore from different cultures into a unified work.
Jillian Goldin: Working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for Calling All Dawns at Abbey Road Studios, you've had the opportunity to work closely with many talented instrumentalists. But you've also had extensive experience working with vocalists in the past, including your direction of the Stanford choir. Do you ever rewrite pieces based on feedback from musicians, or the way they interpret your music? How much interaction is there, and how much of that affects the actual composition?
Yes, I rework things all the time! You often imagine things that work brilliantly in your head, but when you go to work with the musicians, the reality of what you've written often surprises you. Unfortunately there's not much opportunity to test things out until you get to the recording stage; and once there, all you can do is make minor changes to parts here and there. But in an ideal world I'd workshop with orchestras and choirs well before the final recording session, and adapt accordingly. I'm very open to feedback; in fact, I held three focus groups for the synthesized versions of the songs while I was still composing, just to gauge audience reaction. Entire songs were thrown out because of that process.
Liontamer: Given your deep resume and your successes in the world of music, it seems like you're at a point in your career where you have the creative freedom to pick and choose your projects. What things would provide the right scenario for you to score your next game soundtrack?
It all goes back to what I said before, about a game providing you with the right situation to create something amazing. The schedule, the setting, the overall game itself—if a composer is given the time, support, and budget to go out and do something daring, innovative and beautiful, any one of my colleagues would be able to deliver something outstanding. It takes a rare project, however, that will give you the opportunity to go out and take that chance—to really do something groundbreaking—as the entertainment industry is so risk-averse. I look forward to doing more games, for sure; just as I look forward to more films and commercials. But I'm the type of composer who gets particularly excited when he's given the chance to reinvent the wheel; and I hope to work with those directors and designers out there who are willing to take a few chances.
Jillian Goldin: From my own experience singing demos for your album, I discovered firsthand that you have a very keen understanding of the human voice - something that truly sets your work apart. Thanks so much for taking the time to share with us; we wish you the best of luck on Calling All Dawns and all projects to come!
Well, from my experience with you singing demos on my album, I discovered firsthand that you have an amazing voice! So thanks again!
- The following are standard questions asked of all interviewed composers:
What was the first video game you remember playing?
Did you have any formal musical training or education prior to becoming a video game music composer?
Quite a bit. I studied composition and conducting at Stanford, Oxford, and the Royal College of Music (in London). I guess you could say that I'm pretty old school. I also have a fair bit of familiarity with world music, though, having music directed a world-music choir and played in a taiko ensemble in college.
How did you become a video game music composer?
Was it more by chance, or was it something you knew you wanted and had to fight for?
Was there a specific inspiration that lead you towards the profession?
Was breaking into the industry easy or difficult?
My story is one of those stroke-of-luck tales. I was at my five-year college reunion, and I ran into my old roommate from Oxford, Soren Johnson. He told me that he was now a video game designer, and that his next project was Civilization IV. I told him I was a film and commercial composer; he asked me if I'd ever been interested in writing music for games. I told him to keep me in mind. Months later I got a call, and a request to write some music for Civ IV. I then wrote "Baba Yetu," and I suppose at that point I officially added 'video game composer' to my resume.
What was the first week on the job like?
I spent an entire week just coming up with the melody and rhythm of "Baba Yetu." I don't think you can spend too much time perfecting your core ideas. Looking back on it, that was probably the most successful week of my entire life.
What was the most difficult thing to learn?
What was your first official video game soundtrack?
Were you happy with it at the time? Now?
What lessons did you take away from it that helped you on future projects?
My first soundtrack was Civ IV--but I should mention that I only actually wrote about 6 minutes of music on that score (Firaxis uses all in-house composers--I was the first time they ever outsourced). My two pieces were "Baba Yetu" (the opening menu music) and "Coronation" (the intro movie music). And yes, I was quite happy with the way they turned out! Matter of fact, as I was putting the finishing touches on "Baba Yetu," I realized that I was sitting on something quite special.
Have you collaborated with other composers on soundtracks, and if so, what was it like?
Do you prefer working alone?
How does collaborating change your creative process?
I ghosted for a couple big film composers early on in my career, but that's it. I've never collaborated on pieces with other composers; I tend to think that I'm too much of a control freak to do that. However, I do work with lyricists from time to time. I think in order for me to collaborate with others, it would require a complete paradigm shift; for example, just dropping all this 'composer business,' forming a band or something, and learning to write songs with other band members. Or perhaps picking up that little fantasy of mine to be a pop music producer.
What was the last project you worked on? Are you working on anything currently?
I'm repped for video games by Soundelux DMG, so there's always something popping up with them that I'm contributing to. Outside of that, though, I still maintain my film work (did a film for Mel Gibson earlier this year Another Day in Paradise), and for a the past year and a half, I've been working on my album.
Based on your experience as a video game composer, what advice would you give those aspiring to succeed in the field?
The same advice I'd give to anyone trying to break into any aspect of the music biz: focus on your craft. You can network to your heart's content, but that big break is likely to fall out of the sky when you least expect it; and when it happens, you'd better be ready to write the best music you've ever written in your life. Just taking my own life as an example, all the networking I ever did was frankly useless. Every composing job I've ever gotten has been because someone heard my music and liked it--and that's because every time I write music, I make sure that what I write is good enough to make people stand up and take notice.
Who/what are your inspirations in terms of composing video game music?
My inspiration for film/commercial/video game music doesn't necessarily come from other composers, but really more from songwriters, pop artists, classical composers, and others who write 'music for music's sake'. This is because my philosophy is always to write the best music possible--that is, music that stands on its own away from the visuals, because it's imbued with the fundamental qualities of good music (and in my opinion, this boils down to two main principals: melody and form). And so the music that inspires me tends to be that which has been created with the sole purpose of being good music. And with that, the inspiration comes from far and wide. The two symphonic works that have informed my own orchestral writing the most have been Mahler's 5th Symphony - Movement V (Rondo-Finale), and Copland's Third Symphony - Movement IV. Those two movements taught me everything I know about structure (and how to modulate like a fiend!) As far as melody goes, Brahms, Prokofiev, John Williams and my own mentor, Joel McNeely, have all had an affect on me. As far as learning about the power of fundamental simplicity, I can credit The Beatles as a lifelong inspiration. As far as being daring and innovative, Thomas Newman, British composer Thomas Adès and Japanese guitarist/producer Cornelius are constantly giving me a complex. There's something to be inspired by everywhere you go. I'm not into industrial music at all, but lately I've been very impressed by Nine Inch Nails--their songs just seem to have a surplus of good ideas. Another composer whose work I share nothing in common with is Eric Whitacre; I heard his musical Paradise Lost, and liked the way he created small moments that made you sit up and take notice. A Parisian/Israeli singer songwriter named Keren Ann wrote a song called "I'm Not Going Anywhere," which to me is the essence of simplicity and beauty. If you want to hear the human voice at its most raw, listen to flamenco singer Estrella Morente; if you want to hear it at its most hypnotic, listen to Sussan Deyhim's "Botachine". The list goes on and on and on.
Of the video game soundtracks that you have worked on, which is your favorite? Why?
Seeing as I'm still new to the industry, I can count the number of soundtracks I've written for on one hand. So, Civ IV for the easy win.
Which game composers and soundtracks do you admire the most?
I have a tremendous amount of personal admiration for Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, for being tireless champions of us game composers with their Video Games Live tour--I've benefitted so much by having my music played all over the world by those two guys. Likewise, Tommy's work in founding the Game Audio Network Guild was a huge step in fostering a community of camaraderie and mutual respect among us composers. Everyone I've met through GANG has just been great, and that starts right at the very top. As for my favorite individual soundtrack, however, it is unquestionably Katamari Damacy. I think it's a work of genius, top to bottom.
What's one of your best or most enjoyable memories from working on a game soundtrack? Worst?
What's the most difficult thing about being a video game music composer?
Signing those damn 'Work For Hire' contracts.
Over the years, video game music has evolved from chiptunes to full orchestral scores. Some still prefer music from the 8-bit and 16-bit era due to its simplicity and melodic emphasis, while others appreciate newer, more cinematic scores.
How do you view this evolution?
Are there pros and cons to both types, or have things clearly gotten better as technology has progressed?
How has your work been received by fans? Is fan appreciation a rewarding aspect of the job?
Very well, I would say! Bear in mind that up until a year ago, I had only ever written six minutes of music for video games ever, and it was entirely due to fan response that I got put on the map.
What are your opinions of fan-created video game music arrangements or "ReMixes" (www.ocremix.org)?
I love it! I've had a couple arrangements of "Baba Yetu" sent to me over the past couple years, and I think they're fantastic. I love the idea of people doing arrangements and remixes of my work; I'm perfectly happy to help out by making raw stems and such available, too. I'll be releasing my album soon, and would be honored if anyone out there wanted to do a fan-mix of any part of it.