Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Mulan does a brilliant job of balancing her femininity with her obviously masculine badassery of, you know, defeating the Huns. It’s a tricky thing to do and a very interesting concept, so I wanted to try my hand at it, though through a different genre because, I mean, who among us mortals can even compare with Goldsmith?
Writing this piece has been one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in a while. I can’t tell you why, but I do know that everything from finding the basic tune all the way to producing an arrangement out of it was no walk in the park. Sometimes, I suppose, you’re struck by inspiration and all the elements of the process just gel. Other times, all you can do is muck about and hope everything you’ve done and learned up to this point can get you through it.
And funny enough, despite all the troubles involved with composing this piece, I really like it - especially the tune. I would definitely put it up there among the better melodies I’ve written, all of which came much more easily than this one - which just goes to show that sometimes the tenacity to see a troubled piece through is just as valuable as that elusive divine inspiration.
This post comes a little late, since this article published a week ago, and an earlier version of it many months ago. But anyways, here is the final version of China Daily’s profile on me. It’s fitting for this to appear on Tumblr since that’s how the reporter Amanda and I first “met,” and over the topic of chicken fried steak no less.
Dear Amanda, thanks for all that work and interest! You’re awesome, and I’m truly grateful for it!
Here’s a cool side project I got to work on over the weekend - it’s a fake trailer for a fake remake of Bruce Lee’s Return of the Dragon, done as a submission for the Fake Film Festival in Vancouver.
Friends/actors/directors Osric Chau and Stanley Tsang did some amazing martial arts choreography and even trekked to the Great Wall for what I can only imagine must’ve been a freezing shoot.
I was lucky enough to be asked to do the music, but late in the game I also ended up having to do the sound design and final mix, something I try to avoid since my experience in it is so limited. All in all though, I think the sound effects turned out fairly decently.
Instead of being meticulously planned and written out over a period of days, I wrote this in half a day (hurray for looming deadlines) at the computer and actually went in not having a single clue how I wanted the piece to turn out.
The idea for the piece really just spawned from the fact that I really wanted to write for gamelan - and that was the only thing I had planned. Everything else - the ambient erhu, the new age-y atmospheres, and the light infusion of electronic rhythms is really just all happenstance.
As a technical work of composition, I’m pretty comfortable saying it’s not as good as the fanfare I wrote by hand - it has all the glaring deficiencies of what computer composing sounds like. But, I’m still happy with how it turned out - especially the interesting soundscape it has going for it.
Well folks, barring any additional revisions to the story or choreography, my involvement with the Beijing Dance Drama and Opera’s production of Nuwa ought to be considered complete and over. Still no news on the premiere date, but it should be soon.
Some thoughts and notes on the new pieces I got to compose during the last round of story revisions:
The Gods Duel
I definitely had a blast working on this one, what with taiko-ing away to my heart’s satisfaction and writing some soloistic (and pretty difficult!) parts for the pipa and dizi. Whoever knew the pipa could be played so…violently. By virtue of essentially being a duet, I had an opportunity to play with how the dizi and pipa could interact melodically, using variations on Nuwa’s main theme.
Forbidden Love II
Other than the theme song, Knowing You, this piece contains the clearest presentation of Nuwa’s theme. It’s a duet between violin and cello on top of a minimal accompaniment (does a drone even count for accompaniment?), and as such, I had a challenging but worthwhile time working out interweaving lines that weren’t going to have the help of much harmonic support. Probably the most practical use of counterpoint I’ve yet had to deal with. If you make it to the end, you’ll be treated to a pretty neat statement of Fuxi’s theme.
This big variation of Nuwa’s theme was, without a doubt, the most harmonically challenging of all the music I’ve written for the ballet. I got to write a very delicate and contemporary string accompaniment to the voice solo at the beginning - I’m so proud of the harmonies here, I definitely intend to expand on this type of sound in the future. In the second part of the piece, I tried to write a downward cascade of accompanying chords to represent the snowfall, and while I eventually got them to all work, it took a really long time. This is why I should have paid more attention in theory class.
Knock on Stone
New age ambient drones and nature-y sound effects aren’t really my style, but it was a very scene specific request. This piece also uses variations on Nuwa’s theme once the strings come in. I enjoyed playing with the rhythms in this piece and, again, exploring a more colorful harmonic palette - the piece almost sounds classical at points because of the more complex harmonies that have fallen out of favor in most film music today.
It’s a march, but instead of just snare drums, why not add a full army of taikos behind them? This march is a variation of Fuxi’s theme (Nuwa’s counterpart and lover) and a prime example of why french horns are so damn epic. An interesting note about the first statement of his theme: the first half of the full theme serves as the main melody, while the second half is performed simultaneously as the counter melody.
Crazy Woman Dance
I think the name says it all. It’s a short taiko heavy pipa-centric variation of Nuwa’s theme. A rather like the rhythms I wrote for the pipa in this one, and I think this piece also contains my best taiko writing and layering. Too bad it’s just one minute long.
Fuxi Main Theme
Another self-explanatory title. On the one hand, I feel like this is a pretty routine piece - I was burning out at the end of the month-long writing process and mustering everything I had to deliver this piece. On the other hand, listening back months later, I’m pretty impressed with some of the counterpoint I managed to fit in despite not feeling terribly inspired.
It’s just a short transition piece, but I like the way the cellos are featured as well as the huge sound we got out of the orchestra.
I’m not sure why it came out sounding like an Irish jig, but it did. I’m pretty pleased with how the variation of Nuwa’s theme here turned out, and I wish the piece were longer, but alas, all the director needed was one minute.
These song arrangements for a benefit concert in Yunnan were the very first project I ever worked on for the Beijing Dance Drama and Opera, all the way back in February, during a brief 2.5 week trip, and I’ve finally received the DVD and CD!
This solo concert features “national first-class vocalist” 吴春燕 (Wu Chun Yan) singing a variety of old and well-known Chinese pieces but to the backing of a full orchestra, the Kunming Philharmonic. As with most projects I’ve done here, I stepped in near the end when they were running out of time and had gaps they needed to fill, so I was assigned what became these three arrangements.
What the Pipa Says (琵琶语)
This song, originally an instrumental piece by 林海 (Lin Hai), is perhaps my favorite out of the set, partly because the tune itself is just so beautiful to start off with, and partly because I received my favorite instruction for any project, “Make it sound cinematic.” The CD recording is alright - the Beijing session musicians played just fine, though I question how hot the vocals are mixed in. And why does she sound like she’s in outer space?
Unfortunately, the live orchestra in Kunming needs some work. Music 101 - learn how to read notes.
Sources of Happiness (幸福源)
I wrote some kickass string parts for this arrangement. They couldn’t play it. The end. Epilogue: not all percussionists have rhythm. There’s a lesson here, kids.
Being a Good Person (做个好人)
Truthfully, this was less of an arrangement and more a dictation. The original was already written for full orchestra and pretty decent I felt, but somehow, all the music and parts were lost (I should have recognized this as a warning sign of all the shenanigans to come)! But damn, doing a full orchestral dictation from a lo-res barely audible internet clip…sometimes you just had to guess what was going on. And that’s why I claim an arrangement credit. Oh, and the intro is all me. Writing that was so hard, I nearly gave up on it.
Bumping into other expats in this city, there are always eccentricities about China we can immediately bond over - the pollution (which recently maxed out all the air quality meters), crazy Beijing drivers, etc. I’ve discovered another quirk to add to this list is the Chinese way of getting things done. Most everyone I’ve met is astounded that things get done at all in China, but nonetheless, the country remains up and running.
My latest dive into this experience came during, of all things, recording session day. All of last week, I had been reminding my boss that we should prepare and book for a recording session this Monday. In fact, he called me Saturday evening to check on my work progress and I’d said, “Just book for Monday and we’ll be fine. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Come Monday morning, I send my boss a text - something along the lines of “When is downbeat?” He calls back, “How much music is there to record?”
"How big do you want the orchestra? What else are we recording?" he asks.
"18.104.22.168.2 for the strings. Pipa, voice, and dizi for solos."
"I’ll call you back later."
I was fairly dumbfounded we were having this conversation the morning of the session. One hour later, he calls back, “The session is booked for 5pm. We can’t get the last viola player, but that’s okay. By the way, I’ve got something urgent this evening, so you run the session by yourself. I’ll send someone over with the money.”
My last recording session in Beijing went alright, but not without a blitz of culture and professional shocks - it felt a bit like a warzone the last time around. This time, knowing I was completely on my own, I was honestly kind of nervous. And so what can you do but make some mental preparations and pray that you’re prepared to handle whatever gets thrown your way?
With the all-important scores, parts, and Pro Tools session in tow, I find myself back at the National Military Arts Academy.
In fact, the recording session went incredibly smoothly and exceedingly well. Not a single hiccup whatsoever. I’m not sure if I got lucky that day, or if I indeed did make the proper mental preparations, or if, knowing what to expect and having gained some experience, the session didn’t start off on the wrong foot, but some magic definitely happened in the studio on Monday.
And here I am now, after a long struggle/disaster of a flight on Tuesday, finally in LA, reading to unpack and get mixing!
I was finally able to get my hands on a program for the Nuwa Dance Drama I worked on from Mr. Liao, and wow! My old boss, Jeff Rona, had mentioned to me before, “If you want decoration and packaging done right, do it in China,” and I completely agree.
This is also the first time I’ve seen anything as it relates to how the production will look. Composing for film, I’m used to seeing the images first then writing music to fit them, but this project has been just the opposite, so it’s an unusual partial payoff finally getting to see what I’ve been writing for. I kind of wish they’d shown me some production photos earlier - who knows how that would’ve affected my composing.
I’ve also learned that this project is still not complete. My last trip to Beijing, I was helping out finishing about 20 minutes of music that was left unwritten - this time, it appears that after a test performance, further revisions to the script need to be made, which means I’ve got more pieces ahead of me that I’ll be doing for the show. Premiere date still not set yet.
Oh boy, I’ve been wanting write about this score for a while, and now I finally can! I’d been itching to score something thematic, big, and percussive that could incorporate some ethnic and electronic elements. Lee is a film written and directed by Roland Wiryawan about a gay kung fu student who prefers to cross dress and dance when no one is looking. When he is discovered by one of his less tolerant peers, he has to muster the inner strength to deal with his predicament.
The film had a very low budget for music, yet Roland and I knew it needed to have a big organic sound. We didn’t want to go in the direction of synth orchestras since we felt they lacked the emotion to really carry this particular score, and I personally didn’t want to go the way of the string quartet cliche (the two overused genres of low budget live scores - piano and/or string quartets).
(Kelsey Guo from UCLA on Dizi)
(Roland, me, and to the right, engineer Ken Huffman. In the back, Tu Nguyen from UCLA on erhu)
So instead, we agreed to derive the bigness of the score from the percussion while leaving the rest of the work for a small ensemble: erhu (Chinese violin) and dizi (Chinese flute) for oriental flavor and yes…a string quartet. But, just to get away from that string ensemble-y sound, I decided to pull a page out of the Bear McCreary Terminator Sarah Chronicles book and make it an electric string quartet. Of course, none of the string musicians I normally work with had electric instruments, so transforming them into an electric ensemble came afterwards in mixing. Thank goodness for guitar amp emulators.
(With good friends: Audrey Harmonica Partner Kwong and Jackie Tringoff on violin, fellow Texan Alejandro Duque on viola, and Ryan Patty (!) on cello)
Because dance was such a heavy component of the film, the score needed a melody to convey the oriental setting as well as the elegant beauty of Lee’s choreography. This simple 6/4 melody, most often heard on flute, became the main theme of Lee, and as main themes are prone to do, mutates around to fit the needs of various scenes.
The martial arts and action sequences are obviously handled by the large percussion battery (hello taiko samples!), but I also wrote a little cello riff that recurs throughout to add even more urgency and tension to the onslaught of drums.
Later on this riff gets condensed and compressed in various ways to build the pace even more, and the Bb A Bb G in the middle of this riff is in fact the accompanying motive of the main theme (it’s also Dies Irae, I know…)
In the end, after another layer-fested recording session, I think Roland and I were quite happy with the richly textured and propulsive sound we got for Lee. For me it was certainly quite an experience going crazy on taikos, finding musicians from UCLA’s ethnomusicology department, and experimenting with different electric string quartet sounds.
The final bit of music that I helped complete for the Nuwa ballet was a song. Based off an earlier melody that I had to arrange and orchestrate for throughout the ballet, it functions like end credits music in a movie. The final scene, if you can even call it that, is a bit like an epilogue and bows combined.
The dancers are not only bowing for the audience, but they’re kneeling and praying to the goddess Nuwa, so my instructions were to inject elements of religiosity into the music. What better excuse to use crotales and Tibetan singing bowls?
Unlike a pure dance piece, a song needs supporting melodic elements. In pop music it’s usually the hook or a riff, but in classical music it’s a…secondary motif? I don’t know what it’s called - I just know it needed one, so I worked out a downward cascading effect for the introduction and interlude, which turned out to come in handy for the conclusion too.
I was really happy with how two other elements turned out: the piano and the strings. I can’t say there was much rhyme or reason to what I did with the piano other than I wanted it to delicately noodle around, but it surprised me a little how nicely it gelled with everything. The strings were also a mini-triumph; the challenge here was to have them function as chordal support to the voice but at the same time not end up too static and stale in the chorus.
This next piece almost didn’t make it. It’d been axed due to story changes, but then resurrected 24 hours before the recording session after the director heard the mockup and changed her mind.