Video Games’ First-Ever Grammy Winner Talks About ‘Civilization’ and Music

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Tommy Tallarico and the Video Games Live crew have made “Baba Yetu” a staple of their set list. And you conducted it live for the first time at this year’s E3. What does it mean for you to have a piece of music live such a long extended life outside of the original framework?

I’m thrilled, and I certainly owe a great deal to Tommy Tallarico and Video Games Live for helping popularize the song outside of the game itself.  Tommy was also the one who introduced me to Alfred Publishing, who has sold tens of thousands of copies of the sheet music to amateur and school choirs, which led to hundreds of more performances of the song. I’m obviously thrilled with the success that it’s had, and it really opened up new doors for me—for example, as a recording artist. Because I had millions of people already exposed to ‘Baba Yetu’, it was a no-brainer to re-record it as the overture to my album ‘Calling All Dawns’. And that process of re-recording the song and releasing the album is what eventually led to the two Grammys, which have literally been a defining moment in my career.

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You’ve also created sounds and written music for Microsoft’s Surface touchscreen operating system and Apple’s GarageBand software. What kind of mindset do you have to be in to create audio that invites users to experiment with technology?

I think that music should help to make technology products invisible. By that, I mean that the ideal technology product is one that isn’t reminding you that you’re interfacing with a computer—it’s one that integrates more seamlessly into your user experience. So by that token, when I was working with Microsoft, I was constantly pushing for sounds that were more acoustic (some might say ‘organic’), as opposed to synthetic sounding. I think the ideal goal for a technology product is not to be seen as a technology product, but rather, a lifestyle product.  That’s what I try to facilitate with my music.

What does video game music have to do differently from film or TV scores?

At its basic level, game music has the technical matter of conforming to the non-linear nature of games… being adaptive to gameplay, being able to loop, and so forth. But beyond that, I like to think of writing good game music as no different than writing good film music, concert music, or pop songs. All music has to tell a story, suit the circumstance, and be engaging to the listener. And the tricks that we employ that work in one medium will often work in the others. So rather than emphasize the differences between media, I personally choose to look at the commonalities of these various types of music, and emphasize those in my work. That, in my mind, is the path towards making video game music that can successfully make the jump into the mainstream.

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