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“The Drop That Contained The Sea” Also Contains My Heart (Review)

December 22, 2014 | | 8 Comments Share thison Facebook “The Drop That Contained The Sea” Also Contains My Heart (Review)on Twitter

Christopher Tin first captured the hearts of gamers with his much-loved opening theme for Civilization IV: “Baba Yetu.” Originally recorded for the game in 2004, it was re-recorded with the Soweto Gospel Choir in 2009 as the opening track to Christopher Tin’s song cycle and debut choral/orchestral album Calling All Dawns. With this release, Tin received not one but two Grammy awards, including one specifically for Baba Yetu. This was the first time that music written for a video game received a Grammy.

In other words, Christopher Tin is free to join fictional anchorman Ron Burgundy in saying, “I’m kind of a big deal.” But I suspect he’s too humble for that.

After doing some fun projects in the following years, Mr. Tin returned to the choral-orchestral work that made Calling All Dawns so great. No, sadly, none of the music in 2014’s The Drop That Contained The Sea is featured in a video game (yet). And seriously, why is this music not in Civilization V? But I digress.

This new album features ten tracks, following the tradition of CAD by having each song sung in a different language. We’ll explore this album’s in-depth themes and look deep into each track after the jump.

OH! And to tease you into reading this whole article: if you love Yasunori Mitsuda (Xenogears, Chrono Trigger/Cross) you’re going to love at least one of the songs on this album. We all owe more than we can say to the wonderful nation of Bulgaria.

Originally debuted at Carnegie Hall in April of this year, The Drop That Contained The Sea was released to the public on the 8th of May. Each of the ten songs on this album worked around the theme of water: not just lyrically, but also in the nature of the music. Christopher Tin worked with London’s prestigious Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for all of the instrumental work (which, for the record, is fantastic). For the vocalists? Tin partnered with a variety of soloists and group choirs, some new, some old. Obviously, Mr. Tin continued his partnership with Soweto Gospel Choir (the performers of “Baba Yetu”) for not one, but two songs. Other groups returned from Calling All Dawns, such as Dulce Pontes and Anonymous 4. But there are new groups as well! We’ll get to them soon…

First, though, I’d like to reproduce Christopher Tin’s introductory liner notes to this album, which I’ve received permission from the composer to do:

I’m fascinated by the human voice. I love the different ways that people sing — from the early-morning call of the muezzin, to the melancholy lament of the fadista, to the lonely Mongolian long song echoing across the mountains. When I write new pieces, I try to share a bit of that love.

The Drop That Contained the Sea is a collection of commissioned works, reimagined and arranged for chorus and orchestra. Each of the 10 pieces is sung in a different language, exploring a different vocal tradition. Each piece also deals with water in a different form, arranged in the order that water flows through the world: melting snow, mountain streams, rivers, the ocean, and so forth. And like my last album Calling All Dawns, the end of the album flows back into the beginning, reflecting the endless nature of the water cycle.

Finally, the title The Drop That Contained the Sea comes from a Sufi concept: in the same way that every drop of water contains the essence of the sea, inside every human is the essence of all of humanity. In keeping with this idea I’ve introduced a water theme in the Prelude, and woven subtle variations throughout the album. It contains all seven notes of a major scale — four descending and three ascending — mirroring the flow of water through our world, and representing the vast ocean of melodic possibility contained within a single scale.

Sound scholarly? It should come as no surprise. Along with being something of a romantic when it comes to world cultures, Mr. Tin is well-studied not just in ethnomusicology, but in the important cultural texts of many cultural traditions, both ancient and modern, be they poetry, song, or even prosaic essays. He selected lyrics for all of the songs in Calling All Dawns, as well as the Stereo Alchemy album “God of Love,” based on his knowledge of these works. The lyrics selected to accompany the commissioned music of The Drop That Contained The Sea are all fantastic, and they all fit the theme.

Before I get ahead of myself, though, I want to get to into the nitty-gritty of each and every track. So, here we go:

01 – Water Prelude

This short opening (about 90 seconds) offers up the central themes all at once. This is the only song without a selected text: instead, the words sung are variations of the word “water” (i.e. “of the water,” “from the water”) sung in a dead language: Proto-Indo-European (or PIE). This language is the ancestor of the entire Indo-European language family, which includes Latin and Greek (and from there, most of the modern languages of Europe) as well as Sanskrit and Hindi. This ancient language connects so many people, and Tin made it work in this intro that starts soft and ends on a climactic build to take us into the next tune.

02 – Haktan Gelen Şerbeti / “The Drink from God”

The first full song of the album is stated as simply being “inspired by water.” The language used is Turkish, and the group singing the song is Kardeş Türküler. Given the entire album was inspired by the Sufi concept that gives us the album title, how fitting that we kick off with a song form of a Sufi mystic’s poem. This poem is by 13th century writer Yunus Emre. The lyrics are downright awesome, totally fitting the power of the music. Every time the refrain “elhamdülillah!” (“glory be to God!”) is repeated, it is louder than the one before it. And I find myself especially attracted to the thoughtfulness and wisdom of some of the lyrics. Consider for yourselves:

We became a trickle that grew into a river. We took flight and dove into the sea, and then we overflowed / Come here, let’s make peace, let’s not be strangers to one another: We have saddled the horse and trained it, glory be to God!

I love that. But even better things await us…

03 – Temen Oblak / “Dark Clouds”

OH YES!! We’re in business now. Bulgarian folk choir is the joyous sound of world music in its most eccentric and interesting. I, like most of you, first heard this lovely music thanks to VGM composer Yasunori Mitsuda, who used it lavishly throughout Xenogears and especially for the game’s arranged album CREID. For this Bulgarian song, Christopher Tin wisely sought out the best group in the business: Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. The name translates to “The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voice(s).” It is also the official “State Radio and Television Choir” in Bulgaria. As is tradition with these groups, it is an all-woman choir. These choirs are incredible at working as a group with dense harmonies, inflections, and complex rhythms. In fact, most “Temen Oblak” runs in an extremely fast 7/8 time signature, and this group knocks the song out of the park. It’s a long song too, one of the longest on the album at over seven minutes.

Lyrically, the song is about the gathering clouds for a storm. Will it be a gentle shower or a more powerful entity? The song is sung from the perspective a child asking his grandpa whether he can foretell what kind of storm it will be. It sounds simple in English, but the Bulgarian language makes it so strange and beautiful. Here’s a small taste:

“Temen Oblak” – The Drop That Contained The Sea
BOOM-a-dig-a-dig-a-dig-BOOM-a-dig-a-dig-a-dig-a-dig … yeah, that’s awesome. I dare you to keep up with it, internally, mentally. Without practicing it alongside the music many times, you stand no chance. The clouds come, and they come too quickly and unpredictably for you to follow along.

04 – Iza Ngomso / “Come Tomorrow”

Ah, the first of Soweto Gospel Choir’s two major appearances on the album. This song, inspired by the theme of “mist,” is sung in the Xhosa language. Xhosa is one of many official languages in South Africa, with over seven million native speakers. It is one of the languages that features “clicks” (in fact, the “X” in Xhosa is a click). In this song, you can hear the tell-tale tongue click every time they sing the word “Ngomso.” I didn’t think these sounds would work so well in the context of a group vocal (choir) performance. I was wrong!

Lyrically, the song is very simple. Musically, the song is wildly epic and uplifting. The vocal solo with the accompanying *frantic* violin part is more than a breath of fresh air: it’s a blast of cold air to the face, awakening the senses. I could take a 15-second snippet of this song and make it my new alarm clock. It knocks you awake for sure. “Come tomorrow, the rain will clear — may it be tomorrow!”

05 – Tsas Narand Uyarna / “The Heart of Snow”

Based on the song title, you shouldn’t be surprised to know that this song is inspired by snow. What might surprise you is the sheer beauty of this performance. The Royal Philharmonic is absolutely on-point with this one. Christopher Tin wrote a perfect part for them to accompany the stunning Mongolian female singer Nominjin. You really have to hear this to believe this, so … here:

“Tsas Narand Uyarna” – The Drop That Contained The Sea
The orchestra and the drums don’t stop moving, even as Nominjin holds one single syllabic high note. It is like Nominjin’s voice is the cold that turns rain into snow, and the instrumentation is the wind that blows the snow down upon us. Motion is heat, and yet this is a motion of an extremely frigid kind. The lyrics, from ancient Mongolian texts, include this mystifying line: “A snow storm is the will of Time, the conqueror of all.” I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

06 – Passou o Verão / “Summer Has Gone”

This slow, almost dirge-like piece is inspired by “mountain streams.” Sung in Portuguese by Fado songstress Dulce Pontes, the orchestra brings down the volume and sustains on measure-long chords while the harp explores the harmonic soundscape. Dulce Pontes goes back and forth from delivering simple, pure tones, and more complex and embellished vocalizations, depending on the nature of the lyric being sung and the movement of the melody.

The lyrics are actually a sonnet (Sonnet CXCV, or “195” for the novice Roman numeral interpreter) by Luis de Camões. This author lived in the 16th century, but his lyrics suggest an anticipation of enlightenment thoughts. The sonnet ends with these words:

Time, of course, has order, and it never breaks its rules, but not this world, whose chaotic strife seems almost forgotten by God. / The uncertainty of customs, events, opinions, and nature makes it always seem as though this life is nothing more than what it seems to be.

Philosophers would eat that up. But it’s a sad thought, and that sadness is best expressed by a Portuguese Fado superstar. Nice pick, Mr. Tin, thanks for having Dulce return to us!

07 – Devipravaha / “Goddess River”

Ah yes, the river Ganges. The source of life for the Indian subcontinent, and the object of much religious devotion. This piece, obviously inspired by the concept of the river, is sung in the ancient Hindu liturgical language Sanskrit. After the sorrowful song from Ms. Pontes, Indian singer Roopa Mahadevan gives us something simple and uplifting.

The short text comes from the Gangashtakam, by the famous Hindu philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara, written in the early 9th century. Here is the entire English text:

Drinking only water on your bank, O Goddess,
Free from my worldly desires, I worship Krishna.
Destroyer of all our sins, who have become the staircase of heaven,
With waves ever wavering, O Divine Ganga: be kind!

I love that concept, that Krishna is the “destroyer of sins.” There is a solemnity and depth to the text, yet the perpetually calm and major-key music allows Ms. Mahadevan to bring a levity to it all.

08 – Seirenes / “Sirens”

The mythological “Siren” goes back ancient Greece, so what better language than ancient Greek (a la Homer and Plato, as opposed to modern Greek) to sing this one? The source text actually comes straight out of Homer’s Odyssey, and the theme for this song is “the ocean.” That makes sense!

The vocal performers here are The Anonymous 4 (ironically, if you click on that link, the first thing you’ll see is a picture with a caption specifically naming all four women in the group). These four singers are sticklers for hitting those harmonies, written by Christopher Tin, just right. While not as fast as the Bulgarian choir work, the harmonies here are similarly dense, difficult for the ear to tease out what all is in there (7ths and 9ths a-plenty, methinks … and at least one major-minor chord, which means there’s an augmentation in the middle).

I don’t know who all in the past has written music directly from the Odyssey, or particularly from the scene in the book with the sirens, but I’m well pleased with what Chris Tin did here. He uses the orchestra sparingly, but effectively, and the dynamics surprise me in all the best ways … suddenly loud, quick drop back to soft! Love that!

09 – Haf Gengr Hriðum / “The Storm-Driven Sea”

And here is where things go absolutely bonkers-mad-crazy:

“Haf Gengr Hriðum” – The Drop That Contained The Sea
Okay, so first of all, that is awesome. This is the most epic part of the album. The swirling storm has hit land and we’re in the thick of it. However … take a close listen to the sample provided here. Sound familiar? Yeah, I think so too. It’s almost *too* similar to the Final Fantasy VIII introduction music “Liberi Fatali” (which happens to be one of my all-time favorite pieces of music). Granted, this is a particular style of choir plus orchestra that we hear in such pieces as Carl Orff’s famous Carmina Burana, so it wouldn’t be fair to peg Tin as some kind of plagiarist. Far from it, he is borrowing on a school of musical thought that may be described as the neo-romantic 20th century, fusing together the bombast of Rachmaninoff with the operatic power of Wagner.

Speaking of Wagner, this song is sung in the Old Norse language, the language that was spoken in Scandinavia before modern Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic all grew apart from their ancestral language. The song’s theme is that of the hurricane, and the source material is the Poetic Edda (aside: RPG and lore fans, get a translation of this book and enjoy! This is a near-exhaustive collection of Norse mythology, and quite good!). Here are the full lyrics (in English):

The sea, storm driven / Seeks heaven itself,
O’er the earth it flows / the air grows sterile;
Then follows the snows / and the furious winds
For the gods are doomed / and the end is death.

The gods are doomed. Norse mythology is the source of all the best death metal. And apparently, some of the best, most epic choral work my ears have ever heard. Cheers to that!

10 – Waloyo Yamoni / “We Overcome the Wind”

And now, finally, in so many ways, we come full circle. Inspired by the theme of rain, “We Overcome the Wind” may be a rainmaking litany from Northeastern Uganda, but the mood and feeling of the song if a celebration of having survived and overcome the storm. The Soweto Gospel Choir takes the lead on this mega-song (12 minutes in total), but everyone else comes along for the ride: Angel City Chorale, Schola Cantorum, Anonymous 4, Dulce Pontes, Nominjin, Roopa Mahadevan, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Kardeş Türküler, Shoji Kameda, and of course, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s the whole crew, getting together for an unforgettable and unmissable finale.

Here’s a small taste, 90 seconds of the 12 minute song, early in the piece:

“Waloyo Yamoni” – The Drop That Contained The Sea
Do you hear that? Let me tell you what I hear. I hear the sound of the stone being rolled away and an empty tomb behind it. I hear the cheers of all people at the end of the film Independence Day, when victory was accomplished against an impossible foe. I hear Martin Luther King Jr chanting the words from the song “We Shall Overcome.” I hear sparklers and firecrackers as our boys return home from World War II, and the happy soldier kisses that beautiful girl at the New York City parade. This is a song of victory and celebration, acknowledging that we preserve our selves, our family, our nation, our way of life.

This song is sung in a fairly distinct and remote language: Lango, a dialect spoken by the Langi people of Uganda. It is a beautiful language, similar to many of the central and east African languages, but one especially good for this corporate celebration piece with so many artists participating. Here is a selection of the lyrics (English first, then the Lango):

If our women rejoice (it is well)
If the children rejoice (it is well)
If the young men sing (it is well)
If the aged rejoice (it is well)

Ka monwa olelo (ber)
Ka atino oleo (ber)
Ka awobi owero (ber)
Ka adwong olelo (ber)

The first section of the audio sample above are matched up with these lyrics. So, if you have the vocal range, you too can sing in celebration!

Okay, so that’s the album. From beginning to end it is simply incredible. I cannot sing its praises enough. I wish to high heaven I could hear it performed live someday. In the exceedingly large glut of music released every day in this world, it’s both understandable and terribly frustrating that this one actually slipped under my radar as long as it did. As a fan of Tin’s previous works, I should have had this album pre-ordered, and yet I’m six months late to the game.

This album was recorded in seven different cities including New York, LA, Bangor (Maine), London, Istanbul, Sofia (Bulgaria), and Johannesburg (South Africa). The travel budget alone must have been crazy. Thank goodness the work was commissioned, but I don’t know all about how the finances play out. What I do know is that, whatever Christopher Tin was given to work with, he worked it to the fullest. We, the lucky recipients of his fine work, should be prepared to say to him and the hundreds of performers on this album: WELL DONE!

This is my favorite non-VGM release of 2014, and if there are any publishers out there with any sense, they will license something from this album (likely track 9) for their next big game. The Banner Saga 2 will be great with Austin Wintory, but they could benefit from an Old Norse song about storms. Furthermore, I just checked the Grammy nominations, and this album isn’t on any lists in Classical or World categories. Perhaps it transcends both so well, the poor folks over at the Recording Academy didn’t know what to do with The Drop That Contained The Sea. It’s their loss…

If this block of text wasn’t enough of a review for you, may I point you to Simon Smith’s review of the album at Higher Plain Music for a second opinion? Spoiler alert: I think he and I pretty much agree that this album is amazing. He even heard the Uematsu-isms in track 9, so I know I’m not crazy. Unless we’re both crazy. Or maybe it’s you, dear reader, that is crazy, because you didn’t pick up this album yet. Get to it! Amazon keeps the CD in stock, and you digital-only folks are free to nab it on iTunes.

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