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Interview with award-winning local film score composer

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Singapore born film score composer Tay Chee Wei, 34, received 2 top awards at the 15th COMPASS (Composers and Authors Society of Singapore) awards ceremony.

He was presented with the Young Composer of the Year and Top Soundtrack awards for his work on American channel PBS’ documentary, NOVA: Ocean Animal Emergency.

This is the first time in Singapore that a composer of music of a non-pop variety has been named Young Composer of the Year.

Chee Wei’s compositions have aired widely in films and documentaries on PBS, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Channel News Asia and various other international channels.

He has earned nominations and secured wins at international festivals including Cannes Film Festival, Seoul International Short Film Festival and Lyon Asian Film Festival.

The COMPASS awards ceremony is held annually to provide recognition for individuals who excel in various music genres and continually advance the growth of the local music industry.

NOVA: Ocean Animal Emergency features the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, the largest facility in the world to provide treatment for injured sea creatures.

The documentary takes viewers inside a special Emergency Room to witness the efforts of a renowned team of wildlife veterinarians in preserving the lives of the marine creatures and also uncover the cause of a mysterious neurological illness plaguing Californian sea lions and seal pups.

This film was nominated Best Environmental Program at the Banff World Television Awards.

We were fortunate enough to have chat with Chee Wei about his work.

What serves as inspiration for your music?

There are 3 main elements from which I derive my musical ideas – the video, the script and discussions with the director about his film and his vision.

Most of the time as I’m watching the rough cuts of the film without music, I already hear the finished score playing in my head, and all I have to do is to remember it, and then write it down or record it right away! Now, that sounds really simple, but in reality, it’s seldom that straightforward because the worst thing that can happen at that point (and it usually happens!) is that I get interrupted by a phone call or the door bell… And after that I cannot recall what I ‘heard’ in my mind, and that really drives me up the wall!

Strangely, that always seems to happen when that ‘idea’ that was floating around in my head is one that I consider “a great one”!

Are there shows for which you have composed music that have been particularly memorable?

There are a few! The most recent fun project I was scoring for is this series called “Kungfu Kitchen”. I had a swell time combining various musical styles together and also combining various types of indigenous instruments that normally wouldn’t sound right when played in an ensemble!

Kungfu Kitchen was a refreshing change for me! This is because most of my previous works had a more serious tone, such asNatural History and Warfare. When Kungfu Kitchen came about, I actually told the producer, “Finally! I can get a chance to make some funny and teasing music!” I hope there will be a second season!

Another project that’s really memorable is an Animal Planet documentary called “Kingdom of the Elephants”. It’s directed and filmed by a director based in Seattle. This is an intimate story about the unique bond between a young mahout and her elephant living in the remote forests along the Thai / Burmese border.

What’s really unique about it is that instead of the usual “third person perspective” narration, this story is narrated with a father-to-daughter perspective, as if it comes straight out of a diary. It makes the whole film look and feel much more intimate, and that gave me the freedom to add more emotional elements to the score.

I also had a wonderful time scoring for PBS/Nova’s Last Extinction: Megabeasts’ Sudden Death. You can guess from the title that the score had to be of epic proportions, and needless to say, composing epic scores are great fun! It’s a real pity that this program is currently available only in the United States. Hopefully it’ll be available to the rest of the world soon.

How does your compositional work compare with that of pop musicians? Is the industry for film score compositions quite different from the pop music industry?

When writing a pop song, there are a couple of things one has to focus on, such as how good the song is and how well it’s produced. Scoring for a film may require more than that. Other than having to ensure that your song/composition has good production values, you also have to consider whether the music works well in coordination with the editing of the film, the subject of the film, the cause/motivation of the film, and it should not undermine or overly dramatize the ongoing action of the film. To compose music that matches with a film on the same standard is an art that takes a lifetime to master.

A bad or ineffective score can easily jeopardize an entire movie! Without naming any specific productions, I have had a few encounters whereby directors have shared with me that they fear their production is doomed and they wished for me to try and ‘resurrect’ their films. After re-scoring, some of those films have gone on to win awards at film festivals, and that makes me extremely glad. I can vouch that I’m not the only film composer who has come across such cases!

How do you foresee the local music industry and film industry can boost each other’s development and growth at this point in time?

At the moment, without much government or organizational support, it is very difficult for the local music industry to grow with the film industry.

There is government funding for local films and television programs but the amount that is granted is barely enough to cover the cost of the visual aspects of the production. This makes it almost impossible for the producers to set aside any portion of the funds for the production’s music.

Producers working in the film and TV sectors usually have no choice but to access music libraries, where licensed music can be obtained for a fraction of the cost of getting composers to produce original works for the show. This is definitely not a healthy sign relating to the growth of the local music industry.

If a composer is willing to produce music for the entire film series for less than the cost of the music license, he might get the job, but that’s as good as shooting his own foot. Don’t forget, Singapore is becoming an increasingly expensive place to live in!

Just for the record, I’m not against the use of music libraries. I do feel that they are useful in many ways. But, in order for the music industry to grow at all, a scheme should be initiated to encourage producers to use locally composed music, and of course, local composers should also try not to put too much financial burden on the producers.

Perhaps a workable scheme would be to ‘reimburse’ the production company a percentage of the difference between the cost of already licensed music and that of hiring a local composer.

In this way, local musicians can get more involvement within the local film and television industry.

Any advice for aspiring composers how they can gain wider recognition locally and internationally?

Please pardon me for not sugar-coating my answers… but… If you really want to be recognized as a music talent… Aim for an overseas venture sometime! And build up your repertoire to make yourself a much stronger talent on your return.

I assume you’re speaking from personal experience?

That’s right. It’s because I didn’t take the jump / couldn’t find the support and resources to go on an overseas venture 10 years ago, that I’ve been struggling very hard… Even till this day, survival can still be quite a challenge.

I am getting work on a fair number of international productions now. However, considering the amount of effort, heartbreak, struggle, sweat and tears that I’ve put myself through for the past 10 years, the returns that I’m getting today are still far less than what I’ve put in.

Every single one of my ‘non-local’ clients tells me that if I had ventured overseas 10 years ago and put in the same amount of effort, the returns would be somewhat more balanced. Or, at least I’d be less hard-pressed for work.

I’m saying this because I really don’t wish to see any other budding composers go through what I’ve gone through for the past decade! It’s definitely not for the weak hearted! Wait.. it’s not even for the strong hearted! Ha ha.

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