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

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: This next item is going to sound so very Public Radio but it seems a work of music about climate change debuted at number one on the Billboard classic album chart. It's serious business though when a classical composition gets its world premiere at Carnegie Hall. The CD is called "The Drop That Contained The Sea." It's the second album for composer Christopher Tin, whose first effort snagged two Grammys. Here's The World's Jason Margolis.

Jason Margolis: 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 "interesting, but that's a bit much." Then I heard the music.

Christopher Tin: The big epic finale of the album is a 12-minute piece called "Waloyo Yamoni," which means "we overcome the wind" in Lango, and Lango is an East African dialect.

Margolis: That's Los Angeles-based composer Christopher Tin. I asked him how he came up with the idea for a water-themed classical album and how he composes. He said sometimes he does it at a keyboard, sometimes at a computer -

Tin: 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, it's actually I'm deep in thought and I'm composing.

Margolis: Those dog walks didn't just produce two albums. Tin also scores films and he won one of his Grammys for a song he wrote originally for a video game, the first and only person to claim that distinction. So why now turn to water?

Tin: Well, essentially, in the coming century, water and water management is going to be the most important global issue to all people across all countries. 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 that we draw our maps.

Margolis: Still, listening to the music, I wasn't thinking of a cataclysm. I was imagining Disney cartoon lions bounding across the open savannah, not in a bad way. It's not too surprising. Tin counts Disney soundtracks among his influences and he interned for the guy who composed the music for "The Lion King." He says he writes dramatic because, well, he's dramatic, and so is classical music.

Tin: It takes you on a journey like no other form of music can. 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 bit of a flare for the dramatic but...

Margolis: Tin's path to classical began in northern California in the 80's and 90's listening to rock.

Tin: So my three desert island cassette tapes: little Christopher Tin would have picked Pink Floyd's "The Wall," The Beatles' "Abbey Road," and The Who's "Tommy."

Margolis: Tin says he gravitated toward classical, drawn in by the mathematics, complexity and architecture of the music. For his new water album, Tin recruited musicians from across the globe.

Tin: Boy, in recording this album, I went everywhere. I went to Johannesburg, Dubai, Istanbul, Beijing, Sofia, London 3 times - I went everywhere.

Margolis: The songs are sung in Turkish, ancient Greek, Mongolian and here's a Viking tale about a hurricane sung in old Norse.

Tin: 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.

Margolis: Tin says it doesn't matter if people don't understand old Norse or Lango or Bulgarian. He says he wants people to enjoy his music and if they get the message behind it, that's even better. For The World, I'm Jason Margolis.

Werman: "The Drop That Contained The Sea," from composer Christopher Tin there. From our studios at WGBH in Boston, I'm Marco Werman. We'll be back with you tomorrow.