Video game composer Jim Andron isn’t the easiest person in the world to contact. Unlike his contemporaries, he doesn’t have a strong social media presence, an easily accessible contact email, or even many pictures of himself online. But ask most video game music enthusiasts and they’ll speak highly of his phenomenal soundtrack for Tetris on the Phillips CD-i, which over the years collectively has racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and been shared widely across both Reddit and Twitter for its esoteric auditory take on the familiar puzzle game.
Ever since stumbling across a tweet about the game earlier this year, I’ve been eager to learn more about Tetris CD-i and its soundtrack. But information about the game has not exactly been forthcoming. So, in the off chance of getting a response, I tweeted at a non-descript Twitter account claiming to be composer Jim Andron. To my surprise, I received a response later the same day.
Everything Falling Into Place
Andron began his career in video game music working on the soundtrack for the Silent Software-developed video game Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, based on the film of the same name. His career in music actually predates this by many years, however. In the early 1970s, he was briefly a member of The New Christy Minstrels, an ensemble folk group that had several hits in the 1960s, including “Green, Green,” “Today,” and “This Land is Your Land.” Andron was also a songwriter for many years for other musicians, with one of his most notable compositions being a duet between Johnny Mathis and Dionne Warwick called “Got You Where I Want You.”
“Even when I was in school, I would go off for hours at a time and write pop songs,” Andron tells me over the phone. “So that was really what I always wanted to do. I’d hoped I would become the next Elton John or whatever. We all harboured those dreams. I was born in 1950, so I sort of came of age with The Beatles and all of that. And I would say on the whole that was really where I wanted to be as a writer.”
Following his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Andron received his biggest break in video game music, getting to work as a composer on a number of CD-i games. This included such eclectic titles as Zombie Dinos from the Planet Zeltoid, Lords of the Rising Sun, and Girl’s Club, to name just a few, but it was the first of these projects that would become his favourite: the soundtrack for Tetris CD-i.
At the time, Andron was working at a jingles company in Wayne, Pennsylvania, creating, among other things, Station IDs for regional radio stations across the United States. It was while working for this company that he managed to get in touch with Tetris CD-i creative director David Reardon and the Funhouse senior producer Cliff Johnson to discuss the prospect of writing music for Phillips’ new machine. Though the Phillips CD-i today often features on lists of the “Worst video game consoles of all time”, at the time, it was an exciting prospect for Andron as a songwriter, who had been annoyed at the limitations of composing for other machines.
“I’d just finished working on the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? game,” Andron recalls, “And I had really been chafing at the limitations of that format where I actually had to write down to one single voice. So being able to write basically with a full palette of sounds and kind of anything I wanted in CD quality was very freeing and I tried to take advantage of that.”
A New Approach
Andron took advantage of the setup he had at his day job, reaching an agreement with his employers to let him use his workspace on weekends and evenings to crack on with the score. The CD-i team would send him the visuals for the game without any of the gameplay, and ask him to score music to go along with the FMV backgrounds. He’d take a seat at his rackmount comprised of a JV-1080, a JD-990, and a TG77 Yamaha and let his fingers do the walking.
“I didn’t listen to anything else that was being done on Tetris on other formats,” Andron says. “As [David Reardon] told me at the time, ‘Look, we’re taking a different approach here.’ Listening back, I hear a lot of David Foster’s influence. I think he was a big influence for me at the time. He had actually played on a song of mine, the duet recorded with Johnny Mathis and Dionne Warwick a few years before.”
The resulting new age style made the soundtrack stand out from prior Tetris titles. Most Tetris releases had leaned hard on the game’s Russian origins, with the main theme of the 1989 Game Boy Tetris famously drawing its melody from the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki.” Andron’s approach was remarkably different, condensing his own dense electronic soundscapes into catchy two-minute pop songs that could be looped along to the gameplay. When combined with the FMV visuals, this made for a surprisingly relaxing result.
“The visuals for Tetris, they’re very static,” Andron explains. “It was a waterfall or a babbling brook. You really had to get kind of esoteric when figuring out what your emotional connection to the visuals were… I’d sit there in the studio and I’d just start playing and pretty soon something would come along and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I like this. You know, I don’t know how well it connects necessarily with what I’m watching, but I really like it and there may be some kind of emotional connection between the two.’”
A Second Life
Andron went on to compose a number of video game scores following his work on Tetris CD-i — most of which were orchestral — before eventually leaving the games industry to focus on his day job. Remarkably, though, the audience for his music has only seemed to grow, something which he attributes mostly to YouTube.
“I’ve been very appreciative of the fact that this music continues to resonate with people,” Andron tells me. “It’s kind of amazing to me. Look, I know there’s a bit of hipster irony to all of this and you know there’s kind of a ‘So bad, it’s good’ kind of context to it. But I also think with a lot of people there seems to be a genuine connection and probably my guess is it is something from people’s childhoods that they remember fondly.”
Perhaps the most surprising evidence of this demand was the recent reissue of the soundtrack on vinyl. Logging onto Twitter recently, Andron saw that his Tetris soundtrack had been rereleased without his knowledge by a record company called UNFORTUNATEFACE — a label dealing primarily in video game soundtracks. Initially protesting the release, Andron eventually managed to get in contact with the people responsible, and in doing so discovered that they had not only been trying to contact him, but had set aside royalties to pay him.
Now retired, Andron spends much of his time simply recording music for himself (you can check some of his songs out here). He’s not really thought much about making a return to video game music, but it’s something that he would definitely be interested in.
“I really kind of feel a little out of it,” he explains. “I don’t know what to do with it is the long and short of what I’m doing now. I’m just doing it on my own… it’s kind of nice, I mean, I’m pretty much retired from anything, where I’m not making any money from this. And you know, life’s been good to me, where I don’t have to, so I’m just enjoying the process now. Everything I’m doing, I’m doing all the vocals, everything I’m doing myself. And I’m just kind of trying to write that I have some kind of emotional connection with.”