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Interview with Tay Chee Wei

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Tay Chee Wei is one of the heavyweights in the local indie cinema scoring scene. Having wrote for the likes of Chen Kaige, Royston Tan, Anthony Chen, Sun Koh and Boi Kwong for THE DAYS (now showing in local cinemas), you’ve probably heard his works on local TV programmes over numerous ubiquitous commercials.

cheewei.jpgIn 2006, his achievements were recognised when he was a runner up at the Asian Television Awards for best score on ‘Emperor of the Seas: The Voyages of Zheng He’. He has been composing tunes for Discovery Asia and Animal Planet of late. I caught up with him whilst he was in the midst of composing for THE DAYS for a quick chat.

Benjamin Tan (BT): We all know that apart from composing that you are also a professional pianist, and that you also perform in bands. Tell us a bit more about that.

Tay Chee Wei (CW): I was a classical pianist by training. However, I never really got round to pursuing a career as a concert pianist as it was never really my goal. I’ve worked as an accompanying pianist for several choirs and also as a pianist for several local and overseas theatre productions.

Incidentally, I was a keyboardist in a local canto band for a while too. For me, I joined the band just out of good fun.

BT: How did you venture into composing then, and why?

CW: When I was young, I was always fascinated by people who were able to write music. So one fine day, I brought my dad’s laser disc player up into my room without his permission, popped in the disc of the movie “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, and watched the last 10 minutes over and over again. Finally, I played it again without the audio by muting the television set and started playing on the piano while watching the movie.

From that point onwards, I decided that I WANTED to be a composer… somehow!

BT: Having established yourself as a composer both for the film and television broadcast industry, I’m sure the question on everyone’s minds now is how did you end up scoring for film and television – a very specific niche in composing?

CW: Prior to working in the film and television industry, while I was working as a music arranger and webmaster for a local production company, I mentioned to my now deceased ex-boss that I was really interested to work on film and TV. He told me that Film Scoring was almost non-existent in Singapore at that time, and of course, it was not viable for his company to head towards that direction. However, he encouraged me to go ahead and venture out on my own, and perhaps I could be the one to introduce film scoring to this part of the world…

That’s exactly what I did – the venturing out part – and true enough, it was really very tough. I initially scored for independent short films, and then that led on to some scoring projects for the local Free-to-air stations, which slowly led into projects for feature films and other international television stations such as Discovery, Animal Planet, PBS and such.

BT: How would you describe the film and scoring industry as of now and where do you see it in the years to come?

CW: Well, the film scoring industry in Singapore is really still at its infancy stage compared to other countries like Taiwan and Hong Kong! And so is the film industry in Singapore! It will take time for it to nurture.

My personal opinion for the film industry is that if Singapore really wants to aim really high, such as Hollywood, we should be aiming to produce ‘asian’ stories for the Hollywood market.

Singapore actually has several advantages to leverage on. Singapore has influence on both western and asian cultures. We are multicultural. We have no language problems when communicating with both the asian and western counterparts; Singapore also has an international reputation of having good business practice. I also recently read from some reports that Singapore actually has one of the highest literacy rates in the world!

BT: Coming back down to your works, who are some of your influences? Who are some of your favourite composers?

CW: To be honest, I do not have a favourite. I listen to anything and everything, from Shostakovich, to Four Play, to Metallica, to Jacky Cheung and even rare ethnic works

BT: Something for our readers now – can you tell us what your latest addiction is at the moment?

CW: Right now I am only listening to one song, and that is ‘Blackforest’s My Freedom’.

This song is featured in a movie that I am scoring for and I’m listening to it a lot…hahaha.

BT: You’ve created varying themes through the projects you’ve worked on so far. In Royston Tan’s Sons, you went with an oriental sound, and later on in ‘The Days’, you adopted a more contemporary, rock/techno feel to your score. How do you arrive at a specific sound for each project you work on and how do you find the music for a project you write for? Does your research usually entail listening to a lot of other people’s works?

CW: By listening to the ‘temp’ music which the director used during the editing session, I can get a pretty good idea of the director’s direction. Based on that, I’ll normally try other styles which will work on the same film and see if the director likes it.

The overall genre of music, really depends on many aspects of the film, including the pace of the edits, the way it is edited, the look for the film, the colour and of course the story itself.

BT: Perhaps you could give us some insights as to how the scoring process is like for film? What is the workflow like for film scoring? How do you work with a director?

CW: It normally depends on the director, but most of the time, the editor will hand me a version of the film once he has a rough edit and I will watch it to get an idea of the direction of the film. And then there will normally be discussions (or is it just one discussion?) with the director either in person or over the phone if the director is overseas about the music spots. And then I’ll start writing while the editor updates me frequently about any major edit changes.

BT: How different a process is this compared to scoring for TV broadcast? And what are some of the other marked differences between scoring for film and television?

CW: There’s not that much difference really. The only difference is that, in a way, a TV program normally has a much quicker pace when compared to a film. Therefore, when writing for TV, I do not really get much time to establish a main theme, and I do not always have the opportunity to write lengthy phrases, because before you know it, you’re already at the next scene!

Film projects will normally allow me to develop these themes more. I can write lengthy phrases and it’s perfectly ok.

BT: Do you have a preference as to which you’d prefer to score for – film or tv – and why? Does one allow for more creativity than the other or is that just a misconception?

CW: I enjoy working on both formats as they have their own challenges.

Film projects gives me the chance to write lengthy lengthy phrases which can be fun and challenging, whereas for TV projects, I have to be able to write short and simple stuff BUT still be effectively memorable, that’s also a good challenge.

BT: In the scoring industry, your works are usually inspired off the visuals created by the director. Have you had any experience working on a project where the story or visuals are inspired by songs you’ve written?

CW: Interestingly enough, I have had emails and phone calls from quite a few individuals and directors who heard my CD, Rise of a New Dragon, and they were inspired by my writings and music and they want to work on a short film based on my music!

BT: Moving on, let’s talk about some of the projects that you are currently working on. Tell us a bit about Boi Kwong’s upcoming film ‘The Days’. What was it like working on that film? And what can we expect from its music?

CW: I am still in the early stages of writing for this project, but one thing I know, musically speaking it’s going to be ‘bigger’ and ‘edgier’ than my previous feature film projects.

BT: What inspired you on this project?

CW: The Fights! Oh man.. I’m gonna have a swell time composing for the fight scenes and designing the sounds for it.

I have known the director for over 8 years now and he has been wanting to work on this feature film for the longest time and seeing that his perseverance is finally paying off through the ‘birth’ of this movie was really great for me.

BT: Finally before we wrap, is there anything else that you’re working on at the moment you’d like to share?

CW: I’ve also recently completed scoring for a ‘comedic-documentary’ called Mad About English. It’s a really fun and hilarious film which I enjoyed scoring.

I’m also in the early stages of developing musical ideas for an amazing feature documentary film called “BEARTREK” (based in the US), and also several Television scoring projects for NOVA/PBS, Discovery and National Geographic Channels.

Tay Chee Wei’s CD, Rise of the New Dragon is available at Sinema Old School.

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