When you moved to LA, you worked for a commercial music house as a composer and producer. Your music can be heard around the world, and your clients include BMW, Disney, Asus, Intel, Chase, Toyota and Kellogg’s, to name a few. What have you learned from working there?
Commercials usually have tight turnarounds. I’ve learned how to write and make changes fast. By wearing the producer’s hat, I’ve learned how to communicate with agencies and composers.
We often say music is a universal language. It’s surprising how different people hear and describe music. When we get directions or feedback from the agencies, it could be something from “more upbeat,” “it needs to be organic,” to something abstract like “make it greener.” It’s my job to “decipher” and then translate those into musical terms so other composers would understand. After a while, I got to predict more and more accurately which track clients would pick. These experiences have helped me later on in my career.
Back then, I never thought gender or ethnicity would affect the chance of landing a job. We’d send out an abundance of custom music for each job. It’s highly competitive. Whenever there were female composers included, their tracks got selected or ended up in the final round all the time. We sent out tracks anonymously, so it’s like a blind audition every time. It certainly minimized unconscious bias.
What was it like to participate in the Berlinale Talents, and did it result in collaborations with filmmakers from all around the world? What were the best takeaways from this experience?
Two years ago, I scored a documentary that was scheduled to premiere at Berlinale, even though I wanted to be there, I wasn’t planning to attend due to a schedule conflict. But then, just a few days before Berlinale started, I was shocked to hear Jóhann Jóhannsson passed away in Berlin. I was fortunate to meet him in LA around “The Theory of Everything” came out. Most people don’t know before his career took off in Hollywood, he has scored Chinese independent films and won the “Golden Horse Award” from Taiwan, that’s the Chinese-language equivalent of the Oscars. When we met, he had just finished scoring “Blind Massage” (directed by Ye Lou), and I was working on “Another Woman,” starring the same leading actor Hao Qin. He was so genuine and kind. We had a wonderful conversation about music and how he started working with director Lou. He mentioned he just resided in Berlin.
It was a devastating loss. He was only 48! It hit me. “Life is too short to miss out on anything important!” I said to myself. I started to search and magically found one affordable airfare that happened to layover in Iceland. I took it as a sign. I cleared my schedule and went to Berlin. During the film festival, I attended an inspirational open talk with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, which was a part of BT’s program. I then learned more about Berlinale Talents and applied to it the next year. I am truly thankful that they chose me.
Coincidentally, after they selected the talents of 2019, they announced that Danish sound designer and re-recording mixer Peter Albrechtsen would be leading the Sound Studio. Peter collaborated closely with Jóhann, including on “Last and First Men,” the last film Jóhann directed. It was precious to have Peter sharing his valuable experiences.
Berlinale Talents includes not only directors and producers but also DPs, editors, sound designers, composers, etc. It provides a great platform for connecting talents from around the world. Having talents from different departments in the same conversation helps us shape a better process for future collaboration.
Working with people with diverse cultures always inspires me. It’s great to meet and learn about each other before we get to collaborate. I’ve met many talented filmmakers there. Some of them are currently developing their projects. I look forward to working with them.
- How do you approach a film score? Can you explain your creative process?
At the spotting session, I’d get the idea of what kind of tone or emotion the director wants to achieve. I love to listen to directors talk about anything related to the film, whether those are on screen or not. The more information I get, the more it would help me relate to the story and the characters.
My creative process could be different based on the project. Usually, I start working with pictures. I think if you give the same script to different directors, they will create completely different films. The score should be part of the storytelling that matches the visual. If I need to create an ambience tone throughout the film, I will begin with tweaking the synth or making my own sound. I’d create a sonic palette that fits the film and the overall world. For melodies or themes, I will sit in front of my piano and try to come up with different musical ideas while watching the film.
Even though I’m more used to scoring to pictures, I keep an open mind if directors ask me to start creating music from the script. If they include my music to be a part of their inspiration, that would be an interesting
- You were selected as a winning composer at the Los Angeles Live Score Film Festival, where your score was performed live to picture! What challenges did the competition present, and how did you
I was assigned to re-score a short film about a psychologist who sunk into a triangle love relationship. It’s entirely made up of black & white still images, like the film “La Jetée.” It has an uninterrupted and dramatic monologue that requires wall-to-wall music. Besides the monologue, some whisperings happen here and there. Since still images don’t have continuous movements, audiences rely more on auditory clues to solve the mystery of the love triangle.
Normally, when scoring heavy dialogue scenes, I’d make sure music won’t get in the way. It’s still different when it comes to live performance. We won’t be able to turn down the music by simply lowering the volume fader. The whisperings make it even more challenging because the score has to build up the suspense. I used pauses in between melody and paid extra attention to the dynamics to avoid music stepping over the clues.
It was a fun experience! Not long after the concert, I was thrilled to be contacted by one of the directors who also participated in the festival. We ended up collaborating on her feature film “Beneath the Banyan Tree.”
- What are your next projects?
I have a feature film coming up and been tapped to score an animated series. I’m really excited! Hopefully, I can share more details soon.
Interview conducted by Nami Melumad.
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