Cinephiles know their composers, from Morricone to Delerue to the incomparable Hans Zimmer. But for the average moviegoer, it can be all too easy to take a movie’s score music (i.e. any music that’s composed specifically for the movie, as opposed to licensed music) for granted.
And to be fair, that’s partly by design. The main goal of a film score is to complement and amplify whatever’s happening on screen, and masters of the craft have found ways to do exactly that while also giving audiences highly memorable melodies and musical moments.
It’s my opinion that we’re currently living through one of the most exciting times in the history of film music, which, looking back, has only existed as a medium for roughly one hundred years, making it one of the youngest film composition categories.
Directly tied to the massive number of new film and television projects being produced today, a number spurred on by the demands of numerous streaming services, composers are creating some fascinating work. That work also includes an impressive variety of styles. And that’s without even getting into the ongoing development and incorporation of purely digital instruments.
It’s time to take a closer look at what it’s like to actually work as a professional composer for film and television, and to do that, I sat down with Shiyu Chen, an endlessly talented composer who has worked on mega-budget projects like ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘Love Death + Robots’.
We got together to have a cup of tea and chat about how she got to where she is today and what music means to her. And along the way, I learned a lot of interesting things about the day-to-day work of a professional composer.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. First, we need to talk about where it all started for Chen.
“I wouldn’t say that I always knew I would become a composer, but I definitely always wanted to make music my career, and that drive led to me attending the Idyllwild Arts Academy and later Berklee College of Music, where I studied film scoring.”
So Chen had been on track to become a professional musician for years, and those years of hard work have definitely paid off.
Chen has become an expert-level composer with numerous credits in film and television. I already mentioned ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘Love Death + Robots’, but while she was still in college, Chen got called up to the big leagues to work on major Chinese television shows and features.
“I actually started to compose music for television when I was still at Berklee. One of my composer friends from China who works for the biggest music composing company for television asked me to join his team, so that’s really when I got my start.”
Chen went right to work, working on feature films like ‘My People, My Country’ and ‘Mao Zedong 1949’. Just a year later, Chen joined the teams for the shows ‘Hao Shou Jiu Wei’ (‘The Glory of Youth’) and ‘Qie Ting Feng Ming’ (‘Dance of the Phoenix’), both of which are beloved Chinese dramas.
From there, Chen took her career to the next level by joining Rob Cairns Music, named after the award-winning composer and multi-instrumentalist.
But what was Chen listening to long before the launch of her career? What were some of her most significant musical discoveries that set her on the path to musical success?
Chen told me that, in terms of film scores, she felt naturally drawn to the work of industry legends like John Williams, Georges Delerue, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Maurice Ravel, all of whom left their indelible mark on this unique category of musical composition.
But above all the others, there was one composer who impressed Chen with his complex scores.
“The first time I heard the score for ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ by Alexandre Desplat, I was shocked and amazed by the gorgeous sound and wonderful texture of his music.”
Desplat has of course gone on to become one of the most prolific contemporary score composers and one of the most celebrated as well. And in fact, Chen and I went on to talk about Desplat’s work for quite a while. His score for the Jonathan Glazer film ‘Birth’ remains one of my personal favorites.
While I wouldn’t say that Chen’s composition work resembles any of these influences very closely, I would agree that her work points to a similar level of dedication, a dedication to creating unique and original atmospheres through music, setting each project apart from the competition.
And when Chen is working on a television show in particular, achieving that lofty goal depends on consistent and intricate collaboration with other members of whatever team she happens to be working with, and that includes working alongside other talented composers.
Collaboration = Adaptation
One of the most enlightening things I learned while I was talking with Chen is that the deadlines for composers and music departments working on shows and movies can be incredibly tight, and just how tight depends on a myriad of different factors, including budget, scheduling, format, air date, and the priorities of the project itself.
So just looking at the two major projects I mentioned earlier, ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘Love Death + Robots’, the composition processes are wildly different, and that applies not only to the deadlines but the creative priorities also.
“For work that needs to be finished in a very short time, such as ‘The Bachelor’, we usually listen closely to the reference music provided by the director and music editors. But for projects like ‘Love Death + Robots’, we want to compose music as original as possible because it is all about new sounds and new textures. We always do research and experiments before we start to compose in order to find the best and the most suitable sounds for different projects.”
Staying creative on a tight schedule is no easy task. I can attest to that myself. But Chen and her teammates have found a way to discover just the right sounds for each and every project, and this wouldn’t be possible without some high-level collaboration skills.
Chen explained to me that working with various composers also means adjusting her approach and her process.
“Working for different composers, I have to adjust things such as my template, the texture of the music, my way of orchestrating, and the workflow for different teams. Working for composers like Liu Ye, we composed the music when the picture was almost locked. In other words, they weren’t going to make many more changes to the film. But when I compose music for Rob, sometimes we compose prescore music based on the music editor’s notes before we even see the footage.”
Personally, making all those adjustments sounds like it would be a juggling act, but for Chen, it’s just part of the job, and she’s clearly very comfortable doing whatever it takes to create music that fits.
Chen isn’t composing within a vacuum, rather she is always seeking ways to open herself up to other ideas and techniques, all of which feed back into the originality of her own compositions, and this philosophy even applies to the way she listens to score music today.
Are you the kind of person who takes their work home with them? Especially for creative professionals, I actually think it can be helpful.
Staying in that creative mindset, even when you’re off the clock, can make it that much easier to chase your own ideas.
I bring this up because, toward the end of our conversation, Chen talked about the ways that her career has altered how she experiences shows and movies. Naturally, her attention strays in the direction of the music.
“When I’m watching a film, I always listen to the music first. Sometimes I focus on the music so much that it’s all I remember when the movie’s over, not the story or the images. I see it as an opportunity. When I listen to other people’s compositions, I want to learn from their work, to see how they deal with different situations. I think it’s beautiful that there are so many different ways to create a mood or solve a problem.”
Only a composer can fully understand all the nuances of score music, but for the rest of us, it’s still possible to catch some of those nuances by listening more carefully, by taking the time to focus on what we might otherwise miss.
And I hope that I’ve inspired some of you to take a deeper interest in film scores and the people who make them. I had a lovely time chatting with Chen about her work, and I’m excited to hear some of her future scores.