Arts, Culture & Media

A classical music album about climate challenges is a surprise atop the charts

Christopher Tin.jpg

Christopher Tin conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road for his new album, 'The Drop That Contained The Sea.' December, 2013.

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Christopher Tin

When I first heard about an unusual classical album — devoted to a droplet of water moving from snow to a mountain stream to the ocean and back to the clouds — performed in 10 languages, I thought it might be a bit much.

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Then I heard the music. I was hooked. 

So, I called Los Angeles-based composer Christopher Tin. His new album, "The Drop That Contained the Sea" is his second, and it debuted as number one on Billboard Music's traditional classical albums. I asked Tin, who won two Grammy Awards for his first album, how he comes up with his ideas.

“It takes a number of different forms,” Tin says. “Sometimes I’m sitting at the keyboard playing piano just seeing what ideas pop out of my fingers. Sometimes I’m sitting in front of a computer. And, actually, a very large proportion of it is just me going on very long walks with my dog muttering to myself, just kind of singing silently to myself. If you happen to bump into me on the streets of Santa Monica and I look like I’m schizophrenic, actually I’m deep in thought and I’m composing.”

One of those dog walks produced the 12-minute finale on Tin's new album. It's called Waloyo Yamoni, which means "we overcome the wind" in Lango, an East African dialect.

“Most of the lyrics of my pieces are actually taken from old texts," Tin says. "So in the case of Waloyo Yamoni, this was actually an old Lango rainmaking prayer."

The song features South Africa's Soweto Gospel Choir and, like the rest of the album, was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

“The message [of the album] is that, essentially, in the coming century water, and water management, is going to be the most important global issue to all people and across all countries," Tin says, "Between melting Antarctic ice sheets and rising ocean levels and droughts and increased devastation from hurricanes and so forth, water is literally going to shape the way we draw our maps.”

Besides his two albums, Tin also scores films and video games. In fact, he won one of his Grammies for a song, "Baba Yetu," that he wrote for a video game. He’s the only person ever to claim that distinction.

Listening to Tin’s music, I conjured up images of grand Disney scenes, cartoon lions bounding across the open savannah — and not in a bad way. That's actually not too surprising — Tin counts Disney scores as one of his influences, and he interned for Hans Zimmer, the man who composed the music for The Lion King.  

Tin says he writes dramatic music, because, well, he’s dramatic. And so is classical music. 

“It takes you on a journey like no other form of music can,” Tin says. “I don’t personally believe in being coy with my emotions. I would rather just lay it all out there and just go for it. Maybe I do have a flair for a bit of the dramatic."

Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. Many music reviwers don't simply praise Tin’s work, they gush over it. "What can I honestly say to properly convey the absolute brilliance of this CD?" asked Audun Sorelie when he reviewed Tin's first album for Original Sound Version.

Tin’s path to classical music began in Northern California, where he grew up in the 80’s and 90’s listening to rock.  “My three desert island cassette tapes?" he wonders. "Little Christopher Tin would have picked Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Beatle’s Abby Road, and The Who’s Tommy." Spot a theme? (They’re albums, not just collections of songs.)

Tin says he later gravitated toward classical, drawn in by the mathematics, complexity and architecture of the genre.  

For his new water album, Tin recruited musicians from across the globe. “In recording this album, I went everywhere," he says. "I went to Johannesburg, Dubai, Istanbul, Beijing, Sofia, London three times. I went everywhere."

The album includes a song in Turkish with words from an ancient Sufi poem about how we’re all connected through water. There’s also Mongolian, Bulgarian and a Viking tale about a hurricane sung in Old Norse.

“Much in the way that a hurricane starts as a small swirl of winds and moisture and darkening clouds, I just wanted something that started off ominously and sort of built with just this feverish powerful presence until it exploded just the way a hurricane does," Tin explains.

I asked Tin if he thinks his audience would get this message and other themes running throughout the album, assuming we don’t speak Old Norse or ancient Greek.

Tin says it doesn’t matter if people don’t understand Old Norse, or Lango or Bulgarian. He wants people, first and foremost, to enjoy his music. And if they also get the message behind it, even better.