Bits and Bleeps: An Interview with composer Christopher Tin

talks to composer Christopher Tin after his recent Grammy award for “Baba Yetu” featured in popular strategy gaming franchise Civilisation

Last month “Baba Yetu” became the first song created for a video game to win a Grammy. Composer Christopher Tin believes that “writing good music is the same no matter what you’re writing or what you’re writing for,” but this win has been a long time coming for the games industry.

It’s often been ignored, but now with some universities offering courses in game music composition, the industry seems a long way from 8-bit chiptunes and the bleep-bloop of Pong. “Writing music for video games wasn’t even a blip on the radar when I was in school – the focus was on writing music for film. No one even acknowledged it.” Now game producers are moving away from in-house composers; they’re enlisting the likes of Harry Gregson-Williams – big names in Hollywood.

“The sound that the composers bring to their game is as important an element of the brand identity as the look of the characters, and the music has the possibility of travelling to areas that the games themselves wouldn’t reach. For example, with Baba Yetu I’ve brought the Civilization franchise to markets where they have no interest in video games.” The classical music market is just one example. Baba Yetu is also featured in the Dubai Fountain, a giant interactive display that gets millions of visitors every year. “It’s created a lot of exposure for the game.”

Christopher Tin’s album, Calling All Dawns, features the work of over 200 musicians from around the world, singing in 12 languages, and he has grand plans for the future. “It all ties into this philosophy that writing music is the same no matter what you’re writing for – I would love to write a ballet and work with a dance company, for example. I would love to write another musical. I would love to write some country music. The skills that you have as a composer can be transplanted to any market – if you can just make good decisions about music, it doesn’t matter whether it’s being sung or played on a fiddle.”

He’s currently working on an electronica project that draws on his study of literature. “We’ve taken a bunch of Romantic era and Renaissance era poems by people like Christina Rosetti, John Donne, Thomas Carew, and we turn these into sort of dark electronic songs with a trip-hop, Gothic influence to them. I’m a big fan of delving into the literary classics of the past and resurrecting them in some way musically. I think that’s a lot of fun.”

I wonder if he finds it more fun than making music for films and games. Though technology has progressed to allow game composers a lot of freedom, there are limitations to both mediums. “You have to set aside your ego in a lot of cases. Of course you want to write music that is the most dramatic or beautiful or florid, but the most important thing that music can do in the context of the film or video game is to compliment the film or video game itself. So if that means the music that you’re writing is just a low drone on cellos and basses then that’s what you’ve got to do.”

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