The composer Christopher Tin doesn’t so much dip his toe into musical genres as splash uninhibitedly through them. A quick-change artist, the classically-trained Tin has marshaled his curiosity into a career with a discography that includes a song cycle with texts in proto-Indo-European, Xhosa and Old Norse and an orchestral remix of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” He’s particularly beloved for ”Baba Yetu,” a choir work written for the video game Civilization IV, which in 2011 became the first piece of video game music to receive a Grammy – an award that speaks to the genre’s rising popularity beyond the gaming community over the last few decades.

Christopher Tin in action © Wendy Tigerman
Christopher Tin in action
© Wendy Tigerman

Tin spoke with me about the future of video game music, working in a cornucopia of genres and the annoyance of being labeled.

What do you think accounts for the recent uptick in video game music’s popularity? Has any of this new interest influenced the way game developers approach their craft?

Video game composers are definitely seeing more of a cult following than they did ten years ago. That’s the result of a few things: first, video games have penetrated culture much more deeply, and second, you’re seeing a healthy class of small business game development. Games are no longer the sole realm of major multimillion-dollar development studios. Now anyone who can create an app can create a video game.

I see [the field] growing in two ways: first, in terms of the music’s sophistication. As more and more composers get into the business, we’ll hear a lot of new styles and approaches. Film music is enjoying a renaissance – take the Oscar-nominated score written by Mica Levi for Jackie. I think that video game music will continue along this trend and start incorporating more avant-garde influences.

Second, I hope we reach a point where game music can be partially pre-composed by technology that adapts musical phrases very closely to the action on screen. I’ve never been threatened by that sort of stuff – I love the idea of generative tools. Especially since, in the future, your visibility as a composer will be tied into who you are as a person. I’m not terrified because nobody is terribly interested in what a computer has to say about social issues.

A number of your compositions, like “Baba Yetu” and The Drop That Contained The Sea, have an international outlook. How did you become interested in so many different types of music?

I’ve always loved any sort of music – pop, gospel, jazz, rock. I’ve never turned my nose up at anything. I was doing jazz combos in college and also going to raves and underground dance parties. I was really into music consumption and learning how to make a beat. When world music came along for me, it was eye-opening – there are whole concepts like the 12-tone scale that aren’t used in other cultures. I made [world music] a main focus of my output because I had success merging my classical background with my world music background. I’m quite interested in traveling, and I wanted to combine my scholarly classical side with my globetrotting.

The opportunity to do video game music accidentally landed in my lap. My former Stanford roommate became a video game designer on Civilization IV. We reconnected at our five-year anniversary, and a few months later he said that he saw some of the music that I had recorded in college – an African music choir – and played it alongside the game’s opening menu screen for the company. Everyone liked it, and they hired me to write a new theme for the game.

I never subscribed to a particular school or way of writing, and I never had a teacher who pushed me to write in one particular voice, so what I eventually started writing was a confluence of different approaches to music. There was never a time I sat down and said, “This is the style I want to write in.” I never had anyone telling me, this is the way classical should be. I was free to go out and do my own thing and decide for myself what I liked.

How do the various types of music you work in inform each other? Do you apply the lessons you learn from one type to the others?

It’s really a challenge to synthesize all the lessons you learn from different approaches to music and emerge with your own strong voice. The problem is that a lot of the time, you are in a situation where the baggage you bring to a project hinders your ability to do effectively what’s being asked of you because you’re hung up with the idea of originality, or how the piece you’re writing is going to fit in with your catalogue of works. I think that what you find is that perhaps classical composers are rightly fixated on the idea of having a particular style or sound or approach. I think that’s very important. But I think what it also means is that it’s difficult to to let go of the things that you think make your music unique instead of completing the task at hand. For example, it’s hard to do a dance collaboration and not want to infuse your own sense of tonality into a music genre which is very much about triads and simple chord progressions. You’re often pushing and pulling and making recalibrations. There’s a lot of creative haggling.

The more entrenched I get in the music business and the more I firm up my creative voice, the more difficult it gets. Early in my career I wrote a lot of music for commercials – 90s hip-hop, bossa nova, impressionistic Debussy-like orchestral pieces – where I was fully devoted to being a media composer, and as such I had no hang-ups because no one is expecting your pieces to continue in your creative voice. But when you have a hybrid career – half-artist, half-media composer – you become more conflicted.

You seem to have a great relationship with your fans on social media. Do you see that communicativeness as integral to working as a composer today?

It’s not unheard of that game composers develop cult followings. The video game audience is incredibly passionate and dedicated to the idea of video game music, but only in recent years has video game music emerged as a form of music that merits artistic consideration. I think what we’re in now is an era when composers of film music or any kind of music also benefit strongly from being the face of their music and having a public persona. I think you see this with composers who have huge maintstrain penetration, like Eric Whitacre. He writes choral music, but when things really took off for him was with his Virtual Choir; it also helps that he can express his thoughts well on video. I think you also see this with people like Nico Muhly. He ran a blog for a number of years about as his life as a composer, which really helped him stand out from contemporaries. Nowadays, in order to really step forward, especially when consumption of music is less about music than the personalities behind music, I think it’s important for composers to maintain Twitter accounts and connect with their audiences. A lot is expected of you. It’s not like the old days, where you’re commissioned to write a symphony and at the end you come out and wave. We’re in a different era now. People want to learn about the composers writing to the music that they love.

“Contemporary classical”, “classical crossover”, “video game music” – these are a handful of labels frequently attached to your work. With regard to how audiences find and regard your music, do you ever find these labels constraining?

Yeah, I find almost every label constraining. I think labels are insufficient in a lot of ways. If I actually wrote more video game music, I’d be more comfortable with being called a video game composer, but I’ve written maybe 15 minutes for Civilization games in total, and yet I’m tied into this franchise in a very public way. So I would not call myself a video game composer – what I like to be referred to is simply a composer. And as we get further and further into the 21st century, composing is going to encompass doing a lot more than just composing for the concert hall. Already you see Mason Bates and Anna Clyne curating music, Gabriel Prokofiev DJing, and Nico Muhly arranging for Björk and fun.

What are you working on now? What do you hope to work on in the future?

I’m working on my next big song cycle. There’s no title, but it’s related to the concept of flight in some way. I’m also preparing for a big concert I’m conducting in Wales – the 70th anniversary of the Llangollen Eisteddfod – and jazz arranging for a feature film with a major studio. I also have a little experimental project with an EDM DJ, where I’m trying out this worlds-collide concept of orchestra-meets-dance music.

I would like to write a musical, work with orchestras a little more and just experiment. I like to have a bucket list and have one slot open to something wild and unexpected. I don’t know what it will be, but when the opportunity presents itself, I’ll leap for it.