Flash of Steel header image 2

Christopher Tin on Composition for Civilization

June 5th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Music

When you write a long form feature story, you get a lot of stuff you never use. Good stuff, too. Things that are interesting but don’t work in the way you want the article to go, or that you don’t have room for or that are taking the questions well beyond the point where you can actually use this information.

When I asked Christopher Tin for a brief comment on how he came to compose the opening for Civilization 4, I caught him on his way to Europe. I needed a quote (I was really near the desperation stage with this story) and didn’t expect much. I don’t know Mr. Tin except by reputation (though we both know Soren Johnson), and I’ve recommended Calling All Dawns to just about anyone who would listen to me.

Tin was good enough to send a very long answer since, he explained, it was a long flight. There is no way that I will find another article to use this material soon, but I wanted to publish it (with his consent) before I forgot about it. It is about music, games and, importantly, the creative process.

This may be overkill, but here you go!

I got involved with Civ IV after Soren Johnson, an old Stanford roommate of mine, contacted me about doing the music for the opening. They were looking for something that was cinematic, with an African feel, and Soren knew of my work back at Stanford with the multi-cultural singing group Talisman A Cappella.

Civ IV was in fact the first game I ever worked on, but the process was pretty typical of any scoring project–Soren described to me the visuals of the opening menu and opening cinematic, sent along some rough images, and gave me an idea of what they were looking for musically.

Oftentimes you’ll see something–an image, a film clip–and the notes will just immediately start flowing. Right away when they showed me the opening shot of earth from outer space, I knew that I wanted to start with a low female vocal–something serene and motherly. That opening theme, sung by the alto ‘oohs’ came almost immediately.

The rest of the music took considerably longer, however. After seeing the visuals, I locked myself away in my studio for a full week. At the end of that, I emerged with the opening four bars of Baba Yetu. By any measure of productivity, that’s a snail’s pace. When working on film scores, I’m used to writing two to three minutes of music a day. To lock myself away for a week and only emerge with four bars of music is almost embarrassing, but at the same time, it’s a testament to how badly I wanted to get it right. I knew that the stakes were pretty high, and that this would be my only chance to make a first impression to the game industry. I wrote and rewrote day and night, trashed a lot of sketches, and finally came up with the sequence of notes that was the theme of Baba Yetu. (Although maybe someone out there would find it interesting that when I originally came up with those notes, it was in a flowing 12/8 meter. Then one evening, while walking around, trying to clear my head, I hit upon the idea to set ‘Baba’ to a pair of strongly accentuated 8th-notes in 4/4. Sorry if that got a little too musicological.)

After that initial breakthrough, the rest of it was an academic exercise in songwriting. I tried to keep the listener from never getting bored, by putting in modulation after modulation–giving the sense that the song is always rising. Because the song was meant to play over footage of the earth as seen from outer space–with the occasional sunrise bursting over the horizon–I knew that I wanted to give it a cyclical structure, and go through all these modulations only to come back to its root key at the end, fading out on the same notes it faded in on (this was a technique I revisited in my album Calling All Dawns). Likewise, I made all the sections an equal 8 bars, and had a cymbal swell every 16 bars, that was intended to coincide with the sunrise.

I sent Soren a rough draft of the song, and being a musician himself, he had some very good notes; notably the fact that I needed a good, solid bridge. Out of that note, the C#-minor ‘ufalme wako’ section was born. The song still wasn’t complete, though–when I went to go record the singers (my old Stanford singing group, Talisman A Cappella) I hadn’t intended to have the male solo sing more than the intro. However, when I heard Ron Ragin (the original soloist) sing, I though to myself, I have to write more for this guy. So I went home that afternoon and wrote the ‘utupe leo chakula chetu’ section, called him up and told him I needed him to learn an additional part.

Which brings me to another point; the lyrics, as is widely reported, is a Swahili translation of The Lord’s Prayer. Many people over the years have asked me why I chose to do this, and the truth is actually rather mundane. Talisman already sang a version of the text Baba Yetu, and so they already knew how to pronounce the Swahili words. So it really just became a matter of convenience; I needed an easy text to set to music, and they already knew that one. However, it seemed to work well the game (seeing as this was the first iteration of Civ to feature religion) so there were no complaints by anyone at Firaxis.

I think the most important thing to getting a great score for your game project, is frankly, to make a great game. I was hugely invested in Civ IV from the outset. I was a huge fan of the franchise since it first came out in the early 90s, and to get to write music for it was a dream come true. I poured a lot of energy into the piece because I loved the game. At the heart of every composer is an artist who deeply, deeply longs to write quality music that changes the world. Unfortunately the majority of times, a lot of things conspire against making that happen; but every once in awhile the stars align: a composer gets to write in a style he’s fluent in, for a game that he’s loved all his life, made by a developer that gave him a lot of creative freedom, and guided by an old friend whose opinion he trusts. When those things come together, good music happens.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • Otagan

    I still remember loading up Civ 4 for the first time. I’d intended to dive right into the game and get started seeing what was different, but I was stunned by how good the main menu song was and how well it blended with the visuals. I ended up sitting there and watching the sun rise and set over and over again until the song was done, and I think that’s the first time I have ever been so captivated by a main menu. Mr. Tin has held my respect ever since then, so thanks, Troy, for posting this. It was a fun and enlightening read.

  • Nate Homier

    I enjoyed reading this. Nice to get a look into the musical aspect of gaming straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s very nice that Christopher Tin was able to do something that meant a lot to him on an emotional level and then to have other people share in that is quite wonderful.

  • Warren

    Glad you posted that, Troy. Good stuff.

  • Jenn

    As one of the people who listened to his recommendation, Calling All Dawns is incredibly, ridiculously, and terrifically amazing. Go get it.

  • Krupo

    Fantastic, thank you for sharing. I recall seeing/hearing the song performed elsewhere – which was a treat too when I realized where itw as coming from.

  • Chris

    Baba Yetu is probably my favorite piece of videogame music of all time. Thank you very much for posting the history of it, it is wonderful to see behind the scenes of such a great song.

  • Steve

    Wow that was great! Baby Yetu is the greatest piece of video game music in any genre of all time. Just a perfect compliment to the game.

  • Dominic

    I first heard Baba Yetu in college choir…where, coincidentally, we sang it…being a baritone, I love the driving undercurrents of the lower octaves…there were times, during rehearsals, that I would find myself so caught up in the music that I would get choked up and find it hard to sing…powerful stuff..

  • Suggested reading, immemorial edition | Nick's Café Canadien

    […] is on its way, but there’s still plenty to say about Civilization IV. Troy Goodfellow shares a letter from Christopher Tin about composing music for the game. Kotaku asks lead designer Soren Johnson about the mathematization of […]