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.