The songs that soundtracked the game’s Build Mode introduced millions of unknowing kids to new age jazz. The musicians behind it were just trying to make something that wouldn’t interfere with your landscaping.
In a home studio in a garage in a suburb east of San Francisco, some time in 1999, Jerry Martin set about making the most inconspicuous music that he could. As the Audio Director at the video game developer Maxis, he’d already soundtracked detail-oriented simulation games like SimCity 3000 andSimCopter. But The Sims, the latest project handed down to him by the visionary game director Will Wright, would be different. The game would include all the endlessness of city-building, but none of the grandeur; it would demand the same patience as a life spent hovering over a city in a helicopter, but little of the action. Much of the playing time would be spent simply putting up walls, finding the right wallpaper, and arranging furniture. It wasn’t really about anything in particular, and the music had to reflect that.
“It was supposed to be very relaxing and very contemplative,” Martin says over the phone from his new home in the mountains of central California. “You’re sitting there and you’re just kind of building and you’re fiddling around with your house—that can just go on and on and on for hours. It’s not like a big build-up to something.”
Eighteen years on from its initial release, The Sims series is an institution. The four installments of the game (and the countless expansion packs that have followed) have been translated into 22 languages, selling around 200 million copies worldwide. And as the game has grown, the music has become slicker. My Chemical Romance, Flo Rida, and Kelly Rowland were among the artists who re-recorded songs in the game’s unique Simlish language for The Sims 3; the soundtrack to The Sims 4, released in 2014, was scored by the highly regarded British neoclassical composer Ilan Eshkeri.
But one section of the soundtrack to the original Sims has retained a unique power. The music for the game’s Build Mode—composed by Martin alongside Doobie Brothers saxophonist Marc Russo and jazz pianist John R Burr—was made up of instrumental, new age, lone-piano pieces. The six songs eased into your headphones as soon as you paused time to do some ambitious landscaping or find the perfect roof. For a time in the early-2000s, millions of kids were listening to impressionistic, semi-improvised mood jazz without even knowing it.
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