Viva Piñata Soundtrack, Grant Kirkhope, 2006
There was a time when Viva Piñata was touted as one of the fledgling Xbox 360’s most important franchises, even accompanied by a tie-in television show. Ultimately, Viva Piñata didn’t go down in game history as anything close to a gamechanger or a classic like some of developer Rare’s previous titles. Still, the game’s colourful graphics and fairly novel gameplay – essentially it’s a first-person life and gardening simulation – left a positive enough impression with reviewers and gamers. In fact, the feedback was strong enough for Rare to release a sequel titled Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise, giving the developers the opportunity to implement features they had to leave out of the first game due to time pressures.
The story of who ended up writing the music for Viva Piñata is somewhat typical for Rare games, in that composers ended up working on several projects at once, swapping scoring responsibilities in the process. Initially, Steve Burke was tasked with creating the Viva Piñata soundtrack, with veteran Grant Kirkhope doing sound design. Once Burke got busier with Kameo: Elements of Power though, Kirkhope was asked to take over the music for Viva Piñata as well. In the process, Kirkhope used material he had previously composed for the aborted Dream project on the Nintendo 64 (which later morphed into Banjo-Kazooie).
For Kirkhope, the assignment was a dream come true, so much so that he named the Viva Piñata soundtracks as his favourite works. Firstly, Kirkhope was given the opportunity to have his score performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the world’s foremost film and game music orchestras. The experience left a deep impression on Kirkhope, who was moved to tears when he heard the orchestra play his music for the first time. What’s more, the project was the perfect match for Kirkhope’s musical sensibilities: “It was one of those rare occasions where the music I most like to write suited the game perfectly.” That music were “that kind of Elgar/Vaughan Williams sound that I really love – that sort of English 20th century composer thing.” Above all, Viva Piñata was a chance for Kirkhope to fully indulge in his fondness for melody-driven compositions.
And indeed, what’s immediately striking about Viva Piñata and its sequel score is just how beautiful Kirkhope’s melodies are (by the way, given that Trouble in Paradise was more of an extension than a sequel, both soundtracks will be treated as one work for the purpose of this review). In fact, there are few game soundtracks that have such a single-minded focus on melodies – and sport such a wealth of exquisite tunes. True, the lack of any pronounced thematic connections between tracks means there’s little cohesion to the music outside of its all-pervasive pastoral mood. At the same time, this also guarantees that each piece delivers new enchanting melodies. Kirkhope clearly has a precise idea of the mood he wants his music to convey – the entire Viva Piñata soundtrack feels like an exercise in writing the most idyllic, serene orchestral music one could imagine.
A great deal of Viva Piñata’s charm stems from its beguiling orchestrations. Kirkhope gives most of his melodies to solo woodwinds, showing himself an expert at writing for this too often-neglected family of instruments. All soloists acquit themselves marvellously, with flawless, sensitive playing that gracefully brings out the quiet, yet deeply felt emotions within each piece. Significant credit needs to go to orchestrator Nic Raine – just listen more closely to “All in a Day’s Work”, which essentially reworks the same melody line over and over. However, by passing it around the woodwind section, the composition’s tune never gets old and entices through its array of carefully chosen timbres.
Interestingly, despite the opportunity to work with a full orchestra, Kirkhope keeps the orchestral backdrop fairly simple, usually providing a warm background that suitably accompanies the melodies’ loveliness. There isn’t much counterpoint heard on the Viva Piñata soundtrack – only on a few tracks do the solo instruments intertwine, creating an intimate, chamber music-like effect. In terms of its material then, this is somewhat sparse music, presented in lush, swooning instrumental colours. As such, Kirkhope’s music refers its classical inspirations more through its general mood than its structure. This is also evidenced by the fact that his pieces don’t necessary develop towards anything in particular – it’s blissful stasis, as the compositions meander from one melodic highlight to the next. It’s the slightly longer pieces like “Warm Heart, Cold Nose” and “Tomorrow’s Wonders” that turn into standouts, as they have more space to create some emotional complexity through their more varied development.
If you think there’s little conflict and tension to be found on the Viva Piñata soundtrack, you would be correct – while the game has its baddies, they don’t seem to receive any musical underscoring (the brief appearance of minor key harmonies on “Night 1” almost counts as a major change of mood). In the hands of a lesser composer, this lack of variety could have easily resulted in 90 minutes of monotonous material, but Kirkhope’s melodic gifts always keep the music afloat. It also helps that many of the melodies, despite their calm nature, have a gentle forward drive. Sometimes they almost bounce along with a spring in their step when the music underscores the piñata creatures’ mischievous charm. Gently accented string figures occasionally give the music a hint of folk dance-like movement.
And while the general mood on the Viva Piñata soundtrack never really changes, Kirkhope and Raine do introduce a few changes to the instrumentations to help vary the music’s expression a bit. As it turns out, the desert tracks don’t sound particularly different from the rest of the album, apart from a few chromatic scales. It’s the cues written for icy locations and night time scenarios that feel like they bring something (reasonably) new to the table. As expected, the music turns wispy and ethereal on these compositions, moving away from the warm earthiness of most other pieces. Orchestrations turn thinner and focus even more on solo instruments, adding new colours through the addition of cello and female choir.
The resulting music is a bit more elusive than what’s usually heard on the score, with a tinge of mystery and otherworldliness that contrasts nicely with the emotional directness of most other compositions. Most importantly, these lingering pieces voice a sense of yearning and hushed awe at nature’s beauty that turns them into the Viva Piñata soundtrack’s most moving cues. Kirkhope nominated “Bedtime Story” as his favourite composition written during his time at Rare and it’s easy to see why. Very, very few soundtracks sport a melody as drop-dead gorgeous, dreamy and peaceful as “Bedtime Story”, while still hinting at the wonders of the nightly world outside your window. If there is a game soundtrack that both young children and aficionados of classical music will take into their hearts, it’s Viva Piñata.
- 01 - Island Welcome Kirkhope, Grant 0:28
- 02 - All in a Day's Work Kirkhope, Grant 2:58
- 03 - Oven-Fresh Day Kirkhope, Grant 2:29
- 04 - Tranquil Hours Kirkhope, Grant 2:35
- 05 - Frosty Morning Kirkhope, Grant 2:34
- 06 - Sunrise Whisper Kirkhope, Grant 2:28
- 07 - Snowy Blankets Kirkhope, Grant 2:58
- 08 - Time Flies Kirkhope, Grant 2:29
- 09 - Winter Shines Kirkhope, Grant 2:21
- 10 - Slow Baked Kirkhope, Grant 2:14
- 11 - Daily Dance Kirkhope, Grant 2:18
- 12 - Icicle Chorus Kirkhope, Grant 2:17
- 13 - Bedtime Story Kirkhope, Grant 2:37
- 14 - Flower Greetings Kirkhope, Grant 2:26
- 15 - Growing Under Moonlight Kirkhope, Grant 3:04
- 16 - Sowing Seeds Kirkhope, Grant 2:06
- 17 - Midnights Feasts Kirkhope, Grant 2:10
- 18 - Desert Breezes Kirkhope, Grant 2:21
- 19 - Warm Hearts, Cold Nose Kirkhope, Grant 2:35
- 20 - Chilly Promise Kirkhope, Grant 2:22
- 21 - Ripen and Bloom Kirkhope, Grant 2:18
- 22 - Secrets in the Sand Kirkhope, Grant 2:22
- 23 - Stardust Falls Kirkhope, Grant 2:01
- 24 - Soil Song Kirkhope, Grant 2:11
- 25 - Tomorrow's Wonders Kirkhope, Grant 2:39
- 26 - Desert 1 Kirkhope, Grant 2:39
- 27 - Day 1 Kirkhope, Grant 2:19
- 28 - Night 1 Kirkhope, Grant 2:35
- 29 - Day 2 Kirkhope, Grant 2:13
- 30 - Night 2 Kirkhope, Grant 2:33
- 31 - Day 3 Kirkhope, Grant 2:18
- 32 - Night 3 Kirkhope, Grant 2:20
- 33 - Day 4 Kirkhope, Grant 2:20
- 34 - Night 4 Kirkhope, Grant 2:20
- 35 - Day 5 Kirkhope, Grant 2:07
- 36 - Day 6 Kirkhope, Grant 2:15
- 37 - Day 7 Kirkhope, Grant 2:15