A Q&A with Composer Ching-Shan Chang

  1. What has your musical journey been like? What inspired you to pursue film music?

    I started playing the piano at age 5 and composing at age 7. I’ve always been in the classical and academic world until I obtained my bachelor’s degree at Eastman School of Music. At the end of my junior year, I started to seriously think about what I want to bring and offer to my audience through my music, and the moment when I began working with filmmakers, animators, and game designers from Rochester Institute of Technology sparked a fire within me that encouraged me to try composing for multimedia. However, even though the seed of passion for film music might have been planted much earlier on in my life, it was not until my education at New York University which created a solid foundation for my knowledge about film music did I decide to pursue this career professionally.

    In addition to the journey of self-discovery at school, I have also loved performing improvisation in various styles. I always encourage the audience at my piano recitals to either hum me a melody, show me a painting, a poem, or any form of art for me to take as an idea and develop it into a complete piece of music at the end of the program. The spontaneous imagination and fast response to visual elements have not only been serving as the main fuel and guidance in my film music career, but also become the foundation for early concepts in my concert music works.

    Outside of music, I’m also a social person and love working with other talented individuals/professionals. I love the fact that I often find myself learning how to look at things from a different angle with a different mindset, growing as a more well-rounded person and artist. With everything considered, I thought I could really take advantage of my personality and skills when pursuing film music.

  2. You have lived and worked all over the world- how did each of these chapters influence your musical style and work?

    Even though growing up in Taiwan where the cultural environment, multimedia information, and social circles are all drastically different from the West, I had a wide range of interests and curiosity over content consumption in general as a kid; for example, as a fan of Miyazaki’s anime, Joe Hisaishi’s music certainly had a big influence on my early musical career; as well as John Williams’ music with his masterful orchestration and memorable themes that I’m still studying to this day. Therefore, moving to America didn’t really make a noticeable shift in my musical language as I’ve been trying to expose myself to information and content from all over the world since a young age.

    Aside from exterior influences, life has also been a self-discovery and reflection journey for me as each project allows me to travel deeper in my subconsciousness and memories. As a composition student in school, I’ve been cultivated in contemporary music where composers often combine other subjects with music such as physics, math, and other theories. My music became unnecessarily complicated and required verbal assistance for the audience to fully understand it. Later I realized that music does not always need the coat of complexity to showcase one’s ideas, so I began stripping down my music to its bare bone and only adding necessary layers of accompaniment underneath. The simplicity has been benefiting me greatly in film, trailers, other forms of multimedia, and even my concert music.

  3. You’ve had the opportunity to work alongside composers such as Tom Holkenborg and Carter Burwell. Can you share more about what that’s been like and the projects you’ve contributed to?

    I was fortunate to be selected among the two mentees in Tom Holkenborg’s SCORE Academy in 2019 as I graduated from NYU. The internship not only gave me the opportunity to have an in-depth look into a professional’s setup, but also real-life experience scoring a complete reel, attending recording sessions at renowned studios, meeting industry professionals and more. It opened a door to more connections in the industry and eventually led to opportunities to work with other composers such as Mychael Danna, Andrew Lockington, and Dino Meneghen. Working with different composers has always been inspiring and educational, and I always find myself growing as a musician and a human being. Contributing additional music for Tom on various projects has been a crazy ride for the knowledge and expertise in a wide range of musical styles that are required. Carter was the first Hollywood composer I’ve worked with before moving to LA, and he gave me plenty of room to develop variations on his theme yet with some guidance. Working with Mychael on My Father’s Dragon was extremely smooth as he trusts my orchestration skills and instincts enough to leave it almost as a blank canvas for me to paint. It took some time for me to get used to sounding like him, but I’ve learned a great deal in organizing ideas, orchestration, and observing nuances in how the music might help or distract the audience from picture.

  4. In addition to composing for film, you’re also an accomplished composer of concert works and musical theater. When approaching these projects, do you find there are any similarities (or differences!) in your compositional process?

    Thank you for the kind words. “Music must tell a story” is the principle I’ve always followed for all of my musical works; it is especially important for musicals as the audience doesn’t have the visual element to grab onto. Tom has once given me advice on simplifying my music and it has been one of the most rewarding applications I’ve done across all genres and instrumentations for all purposes of music. However, you might find my concert music to be slightly more complicated as I like bridging typical orchestral film music and contemporary concert music. As the setting of concerts only features players on stage, I would usually try my best to showcase each individual talent/group within the ensemble with a more flourished and intricate yet effective orchestration.

  5. I absolutely love the collection of music you’ve shared on your website! What was the process like in curating that playlist and how would you describe your artistic voice?

    Thank you for listening to my music –  my goal is to make it easier for the listeners to navigate and explore my sonic world with one click. Since most browsers don’t stay on one page for too long, I try to showcase a variety of musical styles that I feel the most confident within the first five tracks. What comes after is a selection of tracks created for a specific project that requires a more unique identity and sonic palette. I come from the classical world so I would say that my early artistic voice usually featured heavy orchestral sounds and fuller orchestration. However, after having the opportunity to experiment with sound design, hard and software synth, drums, and unusual orchestration through working with Tom, my artistic voice has shifted towards a more aggressive, rough, and dark hybrid sound. Unlike artists, I think multimedia composers need to know how to wear different hats and wear them tastefully. There are numerous styles that I was not initially familiar with but have learned to produce such music through working on a specific project, and that results in a wide range of styles and knowledge that I consider it all as my artistic voice.

  6. Who (or what) influences your music most?

    That’s a hard question because in this era of information explosion, we have access to almost everything at our fingertips, and our brain is constantly absorbing sounds, images, moving pictures, and pieces of information. Although there are countless composers I admire, I can try to pinpoint some composers who influence me in a certain aspect in their unique way. I would like to start with John Williams’ and Ennio Morricone’s music for a more traditional orchestration sound; Michael Abels for his bold and contemporary approach; Hans Zimmer for his ingenious sound design, synth and unique sound palette. Lastly, Hildur Guðnadóttir for taking the listeners on an extraordinary musical journey in Joker andChernobyl with her eerie cello solo interwoven with innovative sound design and string arrangements.

  7. What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

    I have learned over time that persistence and patience are definitely some desirable virtues that will take you far in the career. Furthermore, while we have forums focusing on how to write and produce good music, having a good understanding of legal documents, learning how to negotiate and other technical aspects of the industry, I would just like to point out that one of the underrated secret keys to success is perhaps simply being a nice, understanding, helpful and grateful human being. I couldn’t stress enough how important of a role it plays when giving first impressions to people before they take any interest in your music!

    Check out the AWFC profile for Ching-Shan

    Interview by Rebecca Nisco

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