My brother and I are great fans of the Civilization series of computer games. In these games one essentially manages a nation through the ages, from prehistoric times through to the modern era. A fairly simple concept, but one that isn’t always very easy to implement (though the developers have done it very well for every iteration that I’ve seen). We also both appreciate soundtracks, especially for games, and often my appreciation of a game is strongly coupled to its music.
In Civilization II, the first game we played, the in-game music was varied, where each three-minute track had its own theme – typically something like “Acropolis” – and generally stuck to it. It was interesting, and though we had a favourite track or two on it, this game was really stronger in other areas.
When the third game came out, so did improvements in graphics and in the soundtrack. Here, there was a shift in the music philosophy; now, the music would correspond roughly with the era you were in. You could generally tell whether you were in ancient times, the middle ages, the renaissance, or the modern age. As it is, though, the music was not particularly characteristic of the eras they portrayed – one couldn’t listen to its “Middle Ages” music and immediately think, “Ah! This is what I think I would hear if I [did something mediaeval]” – the only place where that worked was in the modern age, for obvious reasons. All well and good, but not particularly inspiring.
Then we got Civilization IV. Things were different here. The in-game soundtrack now consisted of already existing music, and applied these known works to the eras throughout the game. Now, Allegri’s Miserere and Palestrina play in the mediaeval period (though it’s a bit early for them), the baroque composers during the Renaissance, and romantics during the industrial revolution. I like this because I felt much closer to the nation I was controlling, I felt culturally a part of it, because I could feel the time the people were living through. It was good.
Civilization V went a different route, and kept the music region-specific, rather than era-specific. Thus, East Asian nations got the same sort of music, the European nations theirs, and so on. Also very immersive, for much the same reason, as you can imagine.
But I’m particularly interested in the theme to Civilization IV, which is a song composed by Christopher Tin, called Baba Yetu (“Our Father”), which is beautiful on its own, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn a while ago that it’s actually the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili.
So a few weeks ago I wondered if Christopher Tin wrote any other music, and it turns out that yes, he did – he compiled it all into an album called Calling All Dawns (the first piece of which is Baba Yetu), which is an uninterrupted album (that is, each song leads into the other) consisting of three major parts – a Day, a Night, and a Dawn movement. Each song is sung in a different language, with a different theme. It is, simply put, an amazing album. I would strongly recommend you have a look at it here, for a sample of the music.
What reaches me most about this music is that it’s in some ways very human. That sounds a bit vague, but it’s the best I can come up with. It’s cheerful and sad, but never pessimistic, and there’s always the sense that these people enjoy singing. A lot of it is in the performance, as well as in the musical structure, so that the laughter and the sighs appear all over, crying here and resting there. If the music were a story – which it isn’t, though its theme is quite clear – it could be an epic of a nation, telling the tale of a vibrant people, nearly defeated by a great task, and rising once again to a new victory.
I get this sense from many sources, and I think that there’s a lot of it out there, we just need to look for it. We all know that music and poetry and stories can do this to us, but we can underestimate the value of the more active entertainments in this – as long as we don’t project meaning where there is none. Even in comics can this turn up, Calvin and Hobbes being a great example (even, indirectly, by the author Bill Watterson’s admission). Yes, Calling All Dawns is good, but look everywhere. You’ll never know where you can see it.