'A compositional nomad' | December 18, 2009 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - December 18, 2009

'A compositional nomad'

Composer traverses the landscapes of video-game, classical and film music

by Be'eri Moalem

Composer Christopher Tin's biggest hit (so far) has been "Baba Yetu," a setting of the Lord's Prayer in Swahili.

On Tin's new album, "Calling All Dawns," "Baba Yetu" combines the energetic African rhythm of the South African-based Soweto Gospel Choir with the powerful shimmering sound of London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Conga drums thump and French horns crescendo while the warm voices blend with the strings, singing the Swahili words: "Baba yetu, yetu uliye Mbinguni yetu, yetu, amina!" The song is a joyous celebration.

"Baba Yetu" was originally featured in the computer game Civilization IV, and has since gained a remarkable popularity. It won Tin the Game Audio Network Guild's Best Original Vocal Song (Choral) award in 2007, and has also been featured as accompanying music for the choreographed fountains at the foot of the world's tallest skyscraper, in Dubai.

Tin started composing music during his junior year at Palo Alto High School, but has been transcribing and arranging songs since he was 10. He started taking private piano and music-theory lessons at age 5.

"My early childhood education consisted of transcribing Beatles songs — that's how I developed my ear, and my sense of melody," he says. He also lists influences ranging from Prokofiev to Radiohead and Bjork as inspiration, though he says that his favorites often sound nothing like his own music.

Tin attended Stanford University, where he was a member of the Japanese Taiko drum ensemble and also conducted the a cappella choral group Talisman. He also studied at Oxford and the Royal College of Music in the United Kingdom.

"I started out wanting to be a musical-theater composer, actually — still do want to be one, in fact. I've been a bit of a compositional nomad, ranging from scoring films to commercials, to video games, to live installations and giant fountains, to operating-system sounds for Microsoft, to software music for Apple," he says.

Tin's independently produced CD, "Calling All Dawns," features choral pieces in 12 languages: Swahili, Japanese, Mandarin, Portuguese, French, Latin, Irish, Polish, Hebrew, Farsi, Sanskrit and Maori. The music blends world flavors with western film-scoring technique. Despite the wide variety of tongues employed, the emotional message of each song is made clear by the universal language of music.

"I needed a device and a 'raison d'etre' for connecting them all in one song cycle," Tin says, "and gradually an idea emerged. The message would be that the human experience is universal; that we all are born, love, hate, cry, pray, age and die, and then watch the cycle carry on. I decided to chart the life cycle as it pertained to every human on the planet, regardless of color or religion."

Tin composed most of the music in 2007, and in December of that year, he traveled to London to record the Royal Philharmonic in the legendary Abbey Road Studios. The ensuing couple of years were spent "reaching out to singers, then producing, polishing and mixing the album to be as perfect as I could make it," Tin says. "The level of obsessive detail I put in bordered on the ridiculous. I would listen to songs over and over again, trying to decide whether to raise a vocal part a tenth of a decibel or not. That's how deeply I got into it."

Working with artists from so many different backgrounds was a cultural journey. Tin traveled to places such as Johannesburg, Montreal and Tokyo to work with a variety of musicians: professional exacting classical musicians; singers who learn by ear and are used to improvisatory freedom; and renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who shattered all stereotypes of the opera diva by acting gracefully and accommodatingly in recording sessions. Tin also had to learn the business side of the production process, handling contracts and agents.

Bill Hare, a Milpitas recording engineer who has worked with Tin for the past 15 years, has also recorded hundreds of other musicians. In an e-mail interview, he said of "Calling All Dawns": "I was very impressed with the overall scope of the project, and that ANYONE was able to pull such a feat off independently. That it's musically excellent is pretty much a given — I wouldn't expect less from Chris — but from a project-management point of view, it's nothing short of miraculous!"

The experience was also sometimes amusing, in part because the album was in so many languages, Hare said. "Much of the time when a singer (or group of singers) would come in, there wouldn't be anyone in the room who actually spoke the language being sung. It was fun watching the process of figuring out how to pronounce words, via phone calls to native speakers and pronunciation charts."

Tin currently lives in Santa Monica where he keeps busy orchestrating and composing a variety of projects. He recently wrapped up the music for a racy video starring Lindsay Lohan with his new band, Stereo Alchemy, and is also working on the audio-side of user interface (those whooshes, clicks and beeps that accompany electronic commands) for a major cell-phone company. 

Music is a notoriously difficult area to succeed at, especially composition. But Tin has been successful as a full-time composer due, he says, to "hard work, determination, never wanting to be told the odds, and never believing them when I was told.

"On top of that, though, I have to think that I'm doing something right on the musical side of things. ... Almost every gig I've gotten was because either someone heard something that I wrote and fell in love with it, or someone whom I worked for referred me for a job. If you write good music, your name will get out there, and the jobs will come on their own. Do good work, be a nice person, and people will want to work with you," he says.

"I've always emphasized melody. I believe that if you can write a great melody, you'll never have a shortage of work," Tin adds.

Info: To hear samples of the music from "Calling All Dawns" and to learn more about Christopher Tin, go to christophertin.com.


Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 27, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Christopher Tin is a Paly grad, Stanford grad, Fulbright Scholar and contributor to the soundtrack of a phenomenally popular video game soundtrack. His music "Baba Yetu" is also part of a soundtrack to the Dubai Fountain (in Dubai): maybe we could ask or commission him to create a score for the renovated Lytton Plaza, which features both a fountain and a piece of public art, "Digital DNA" by Varella and Maltz. As it stands, the dudes from the pizza parlor are in charge of the piped-in-music which is a cross between Muzak and "psy ops". I would probably prefer live music or silence / ambient noise to piped-in-music, but maybe we can split the difference and at least have the thing programmed by an actual artist and composer (and not, say, real estate developers and pizza parlor managers).

There is probably a better venue for celebrating our local-bred artists and composers than what I have suggested above, but I bring up the topic of Lytton Plaza here because it has been a popular topic recently. Other Palo Alto composers I would ideally bring back include Alex Wong, The Donnas, Tommy Jordan, Steve Jenkins, Dan Adams, Stanley Jordan, Caroline Campbell, Karen and Heather Bentley, and Carolyn Arnold.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 5, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Congrats to Christopher for his 2011 Grammy nomination for "Baba Yetu"!!!