Category Archives: Composer

Min He communicates through her extraordinary compositions

William Shakespeare once said, “when words fail, music speaks.” It is a universal language with the power to change lives, to evoke emotion, and to allow human beings to connect with each other on the deepest level. For renowned composer, Min He, it is a language she speaks fluently. She is one with her music and her compositions are profound. When audiences listen to He’s work, they hear far more than an arrangement of notes and chords. They hear her passion, her expertise, and her extraordinary ability to connect the world through her music.

“I love composing because I like being creative. I have so many things to say to this world, whether it’s my feelings, my thoughts, or my imaginations. For me, being a composer is an opportunity to capture my emotions, to write them down, and then to share them with my audiences. It is a bridge that connects me with the world and it is the most wonderful form of communication that I can think of,” tells He.

Through He’s unwavering desire to compose, she has built a career unlike most. The award-winning composer has acquired experience from a variety of different projects and she is well versed in studying a script and determining how best to bring it to life with her music. Whether she’s scoring or orchestrating, she has an unprecedented affinity for creating unique sound arrangements and she is an invaluable member of any team she works with. She has a vast amount of experience, composing for films like Princess Eun Hwa, Sanjiang Dream, and Jin Zhi Xi Yan (No Smoking).

 One of the many things that sets He above her competition is her diverse understanding of the art of music and her willingness to experiment composing for different genres and mediums wherever possible. For instance, in 2014, He was approached by game designer Zi Li about composing for the video game, Dissonance, and due to her love for video games and her passion to expand her knowledge in the arts and entertainment industry, He eagerly accepted. The success she earned from Dissonance, however, was the reason she was later approached by designer Jack Cai about lending her talents to his game Pursuit of Light 2 in 2015. Cai had heard of He’s reputation, sampled her work in Dissonance, and knew that he needed He to take his game to the next level.

When He composes for a video game, she begins by speaking with the game designer about the type of feel that he or she hopes to communicate in the game. She then requests a cue sheet with the designer’s vision for each piece. This is where He’s magic begins. She carefully and considerately reads through the designer’s ideas and determines how best to translate these ideas into scored scenes. Once she has developed her composition, she vigorously edits through it to ensure that presents the designer with nothing but the highest quality composition. She then allows the designer to review and make any changes necessary.

Due to the fact that He has such a vast understanding of her profession and an unparalleled creative edge, she is often trusted with taking full creative authority over the process. In rare cases, where designers are skeptical about stepping outside of their comfort zones, He uses her professionalism and work ethic to communicate their options and to make sure that they are getting the best result for their project. For instance, when He worked with Li on Dissonance, she was asked to write dark and depressing music to keep with the mood of the game’s storyline. He, knowing Li’s vision for the game, was certain that there was some leeway to dive deeper into the player’s emotions and create a more dynamic score. When she suggested adding elements of hope and brightness to the composition, Li was hesitant. He proactively decided to craft two separate pieces, one keeping with Li’s vision and one demonstrating He’s ideas. Upon reviewing the two compositions, Li realized that He was right and loved the result.

“Working with Min was a wonderful journey. She has phenomenal ideas when it comes to making music and more importantly, her sound is unique and she is innovative beyond measure. On top of that, she is so gifted and hard working. Her love for video games also helps to make her music fit with the game. She just knows what will work best for the project at hand and I am glad I was able to work with her,” states Li.

He becomes instrumental to any project she works on and is often showered with praise and recognition for her efforts. She has received a number of awards for her work. Dissonance, for instance, won the Indie Prize for Best Innovative Game 2015 and The Experimental Game Showcase at the Out of Index Festival. Pursuit of Light 2, on the other hand, won the CGWR SINA Award for Best Indie Mobile Game of the Year. For He, receiving recognition for her work is fulfilling, but the true joy of her job comes when she hears what her audience or the players of her video games have to say about her work.

“One of the greatest joys about my career lies in the way that people receive my music. They truly love it and they actively look to hear more. After Pursuit of Light 2 was released, I saw reviews from players left on the Apple Store and they were all talking about my music, saying how beautiful and enjoyable it was. In that moment, when I was reading those reviews from absolute strangers, I felt truly loved and it was the highlight of my career,” He recalls.

In future, He hopes to continue creating beautiful compositions to share with the world. Professionally, she aims to work with more talented and prestigious movie and television directors, as well as game designers. Personally, she is bursting at the seams with inspiration to compose even greater works than she has already created. For He, composing is more than a job. It is her creative outlet and she is always ready to try something new.

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MADDURY CREATES AN EPIC SCORE ALONG THE STORMFRONT

One of the most important things that Steve Jobs proved in his illustrious career is that vision is equally as important, some might say even more so, than the ability to manifest. There’s a bit of a chicken/egg quandary there but, what Jobs made clear was that genius exists in the birth of an idea just as much as creating something. Of course, the symbiosis of these two factors are essential. Technology has created an ease that never existed before. It allows individuals to do what took legions previously. Consider entertainment. The ability to create full length animated productions that are vivid and amazingly realistic require a fraction of the man power previously needed. The same can be said for music. Modern purveyors are able to use technology to make single droning notes or the sonic onslaught of a major symphony orchestra…all at the fingertips of one person. Of course they may not sound exactly like an orchestra with the subtle perfect imperfections that are the human trait but, the end result is so moving and virtually undistinguishable that only the most discerning experts might even notice the minute difference. The animated film “Along the Stormfront” is epic in both its action and its music. Sai Sriram Maddury is the composer who was contacted by Griffin Giersch (Director & Screenwriter of the film) to match the tone of this larger than life story.

“Along the Stormfront” is an animated tale with epic fights and a huge visual landscape. A powerful score was needed to match the striking visuals. The idea was to balance the humor of the tiny characters while also rising to acknowledge the epic battle scenes. The music in the film was the ingredient which empowered the characters to become something akin to superheroes during the battle scenes. In a distant futuristic world, Finn (a fox) and Dallas (an armadillo) take a bus to get to town. They are later attacked by deadly Monster who jump onto the bus. The personalities of these characters are representative of the characteristics the animals are noted for; however, the events of the story call them to achieve inner strength and greatness in a classic story of self-discovery. It’s no coincidence that Maddury’s score recalls visions of superhero films and their grandeur. When Finn stands his ground for himself and his friend against a seemingly unconquerable oppressor, his bravery is announced by a huge brass section.

Griffin Giersch (Director, Screenwriter, & Animator of “Along the Stormfront”) declares,

“Sai was an incredibly important part of making Along the Stormfront what it was. His music brought the project to a higher level that it could not have reached otherwise. The goal with the story was to make an epic action/adventure with elements of suspense, tension, excitement, and some humor thrown into the mix as well. Sai brought all of this to the forefront with his music, letting all the moments of this story shine through. Working collaboratively on projects like this that have so many different aspects and pieces can often be a huge challenge, especially when it comes to communicating and sharing ideas to get everyone on the same page creating a cohesive work. Sai was always right there with us, listening and understanding our thoughts and ideas. He did more than just listen; he brought his own ideas to the table as well. Ultimately, his creative voice came through in a strong way that we hadn’t even expected. His contributions to the project made it even better than we’d hoped.”

Maddury concedes that modern technology has made composers capable of spending more time experimenting with their ideas and sonics with a much more budget friendly approach. Instead of having studio musicians wait “on the clock” while varying approaches are taken, a composer is allowed to hear each of their ideas on a schedule that is conducive to inspiration. This characteristic however does not preclude the use of real instruments and musicians. Sai communicates, “Technology plays a vital role in the process of film scoring. Due to the advancement of technology most of the job is done at the studio with Computers installed with DAW applications (Digital Audio Workstation) and connected to MIDI Keyboards and speakers. The major advantage in today’s music programming technology is to have amazing sample libraries for film scoring, allowing composers to create an orchestral score and make it sound exactly or very close to a live performance. This helps directors and producers to listen to them before going to the scoring stage. Basically now we can have the mock ups for the entire score sound close to the live recording. But for a film that demands an electronic score, it can pretty much be written and produced in your DAW at the studio.  That being said, I love the qualities that come from a more traditional approach in film scores. I’m a musician and have a soft spot for traditional or organic instrumentation. I think it’s the life of a modern composer to use the proper tool for each film they work on.”

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It’s a testament to this composer’s talent and creativity that he conceived of and created the score for “Along the Stormfront” based on storyboards and sketches rather than the final film. The common practice in the industry is for a composer to view either dailyies or the completed production and then compose based on this. Against normal convention, Sai discussed the characters and the story with Griffin, composing during the animation process in order to meet deadlines. Proof of the success of the film and its composers work lies in its being recognized as an official selection to the Full Bloom Film Festival 2015 and Carrborro Film Festival 2015 as well as receiving the Gold Remi Award at the 49TH WorldFest­Houston International Film and Video Festival. Discussing these accolades, Maddury remarks, “I personally consider awards as a token of encouragement requesting the recipient to contribute more to the respective field of art with which we are involved. Even though I did get more projects to work on as a result of my score for Along the Stormfront, having the experience of working on an award-winning film will always keep one motivated and inspired to work hard and contribute more to the art of film scoring/storytelling.”

Peter Lam’s musical genius wins Best Score Award for film ‘Lovebites’

When Peter Lam was a child, he, like most other children, loved movies. He would sneak into his parents’ movie collection, eager at any opportunity to experience a new film. However, unlike most children, who would be enthralled by what they saw on the screen, Lam was captivated by what he heard through the speakers.

Now, Lam is an internationally sought-after film composer. He has worked on countless successful projects, including the award-winning films The Ballerina, The Shoemaker, & His Apprentice, and (le) Rebound. He recently worked on the score for the TV movie Menendez: Blood Brothers, which premiered on Lifetime earlier this month, with over a million people tuning in to hear what he is capable of. However, what is perhaps the most celebrated film of his career is Lovebites, a 2015 animated film that catapulted Lam to the top of his field, being recognized as one of the best film composers to come out of Hong Kong in recent memory.

“I am always excited to work on animations. It’s a very imaginative genre and music often plays a big part in shaping the ‘sound world’ of the animated world. A composer often doesn’t come on board on a live-action film until the film has been shot. But in animation, I often start composing while the animation is still being developed or rendered alongside. The whole creative process feels very organic, hence it’s always fun to work on animations,” Lam described.

Lovebites is about the praying mantis Cecil, and tells the story of his first date. Lam’s music is vital for Lovebites, as the story is essentially told through music. It is an animated film with no dialogue and minimal sound effects, and the score runs continuously through the film from start to finish. Lam’s ability to capture the emotions of the two mantises is what makes the film so engaging.

“We bounced back and forth about musical ideas and the storyline, and when I started working on the project, I was presented with the initial character sketches and concept art. I scored the entire film based on the animatics (pre-rendered animation). In a way, the material I was working with then was not as detailed or delicate as the final product, but on the other hand, it offered me a bit more freedom for imagination, and encouraged me to be creative,” he described.

Stuck Truck Studios, the production company of Lovebites, had total trust in Lam’s creative decisions. Knowing they needed the best for a film that relies so heavily on the score, the team quickly invited Lam to be a part of the project after hearing samples of his work. Lam decided to create a score that only featured percussion and plucked instruments to create the quirky world of insects.

“Stuck Truck Studio encouraged me to think outside the box in order to create a colorful and quirky palette for this cute animation. It’s always fun to break away from conventions and experiment with new sounds,” said Lam. “I think the approach I used for the music gave the film a unique character, and I had a lot of fun experimenting with wild percussion sounds that, if not for this film, I would never have thought of using.”

This musical approach proved fruitful. After its premiere at the Original Narrative Festival in Dubai in February 2015, the film went on to see enormous success at film festivals around the world. That same year, it was an Official Selection at BFI Future Film Festival, Chile Monos International Animation Festival 2015, Athens Animfest, Tiltshift Festvial, 9th River Film Festival, Original Narrative Dubai, Reel Teal Film Festival, MICE Valencia, and the Vancouver International Film Festival. It went on to win the Audience Choice Award at the Melbourne International Animation Festival, and the Character Animation Award at the ANIMEX International Festival of Animation and Computer Games. Lam was personally recognized at the Short Sharp Film Festival Australia that year, winning the award for Best Score.

“Given that this was one of my first experiences in working with animations, I was very delighted to know that the film did so well in so many film festivals. Lovebites has been screened around the world and has set foot on almost every continent. I guess winning the Audience Choice Award at the Melbourne International Animation Festival and Best Score in Short Sharp Film Festival in Australia shows how effective my music can be,” said Lam.

After its success at so many film festivals, the film was later featured in the acclaimed animation website and channel CG Bros. It has amassed more than 4.2 million views (on YouTube since that time), making it a viral animation. None of this success would have been possible without Lam’s creative ear for the score, knowing its importance in telling the story. Agaki Bautista, the Art Director for Lovebites, believes Lam is one of the best film composers he has ever worked with.

Peter was always punctual in responding and we always felt comfortable having a dialogue with him. Communication was clear across all fronts. Peter is super receptive towards creative collaboration. We started off by sharing references and bouncing off ideas with each other and he was open throughout the process. It is rare to have the level of creative cooperation that we had with Peter,” said Bautista.

Lam’s talent is evident in everything he does. His work on Lovebites shows the world that his creative instincts are spot on, and he is exceptionally versatile. Be sure to check out his work in the upcoming animation film Slippages – Grace in IMAX later this year.

In the meantime, watch Lovebites here and let your eyes, and ears, capture the essence of the story with Lam’s work.

SONGWRITER DARCY CALLUS PROFESSES THAT LA IS STILL THE MELTING POT OF THE ARTS

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Sometimes the most valuable things are right in front of you and go unnoticed, or at the very least underappreciated. America constantly produces musical artists who are lauded and respected all over the world. Yet these artists often go through many years of struggle as they mature into the icons they aspire to become. The US public doesn’t often stop to consider the fact that this training ground in which we live is a shining star to artists of the world. This has always been obvious to Australian Darcy Callus. This artist has long dreamed of being a part of the musical community which he believes to be the home of the elite, Los Angeles. While there are numerous locations in the world with talented artists, Callus readily admits that the concentration of world class artists per capita in LA is unlike any other place on the planet. As an award-winning jazz pianist turned pop artist (he was one of the finalists on Australia’s X Factor), Darcy has a deep understanding of the difference between being a “one hit wonder” who got lucky and being an artist who cultivates a long career with depth. He is also not afraid to, as he puts it, “Follow his nose where it leads” him. When the opportunity to work with LA based singer/songwriter Rotana Tarabzouni presented itself to him, Darcy was eager to work with such a talented artist and spend some time in the city he considers to be the center of the industry.

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While Darcy has been associated with such music industry luminaries as Dave Stroud (known for his work with Prince, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Kelly Clarkson, and Michael Jackson), multi-platinum producer Bryan Todd, and others; writing with Rotana gave him the opportunity to work with a brand new artist in the States who shares an international view of the US as he does. Tarabzouni grew up in Dhahran, on the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia. To state that her experience as an artist in her homeland was not encouraged is a drastic understatement. Women are not exactly groomed to seek out fame as a popstar in her homeland. On a family vacation in Boston, she spontaneously went to an audition and received massive encouragement. That was enough to convince Rotana that she needed to pursue her dream in America. Callus received no persecution in his native home of Australia and was even a sensation on Australia’s X Factor. Still, he also understood the potential of the US music community and opportunities which the industry’s infrastructure afforded the talented and hard working. The two met at an artists get together and recognized the musical counterpoint in each other’s talent. Darcy states, “We definitely clicked immediately in terms of wanting to create music that was original and personal, not derivative and following what was popular at the moment. Even more importantly, I understood where she was coming from as a songwriter and what she was trying to express.” Describing the process, he continues, “Rotana is truly gifted when it comes to melodies. She comes up with them quite quickly and they are very strong. All of my training in music allowed me to quickly understand what she was looking for and find the harmony to her melodies on piano. There was a specific color tone that propelled the emotion she wanted to communicate. If you can understand an artist both musically and professionally, you can help them as well as excite them about their own music.”

The US is a country which prides itself on so many aspects that are prominent in the working relationship between Darcy and Rotana. A country which accepts those from other lands, in pursuit of their dreams, with the ability to express themselves freely…it’s as representative of the American Dream as the Westward Expansion. Callus comments, “There’s no doubt that both of us feel fortunate to be here in LA among the greats. You literally can walk into a club, restaurant, coffee shop, whatever, and run into an artist you have listened to your whole life. Of course what we’re really here to do is work. It’s amazing that I can meet an artist like Rotana and immediately begin creating music with an almost unspoken approach. I’m sure that this is all because of the group of artists who are known everywhere in the world…in places like Australia, Saudi Arabia, and almost every other place on the planet. As an artist and musician, you feel like you are in the center of the universe when you are here…and that inspires you even more.”

Success in never guaranteed but is already evident in the work that Callus and Tarabzouni have done. Rotana’s debut single “Daddy” was co-written and arranged by Darcy. The single was playlisted on Apple’s “Hot Pop Tracks” for weeks as well as Spotify’s US VIRAL 50. Some of the music Callus wrote with Rotana was debuted at The 2017 Sundance Film Festival “A Celebration of Music and Film Concert”. At this concert, Rotana shared the stage with Common, Andra Day, Jim James, Hunter Hayes, Peter Dinklage, Ava DuVernay, and more. Early indicators like these give presumptions that the music which Callus and Rotana created together is going to have every bit of the impact that had hoped to achieve. Darcy smiles as he communicates, “I have quite a history of working with extremely talented female vocalists. It’s interesting that in this situation the vocalist is a woman and her femininity is celebrated while she is in control. As a man, I’m in the supportive role (playing piano). They are exhibiting strength as well as a softer side. I love that about music. It allows these situations that you won’t find in all walks of life. Artists are celebrated and encouraged to express what is unique about themselves.”

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When questioned about his experience thus far in LA, Darcy confirms, “I am Australian and I love Australia but I feel that the US audience is much more willing to have an open mind. American audiences want to give you a chance. Many artists have said that you have to become famous and accepted somewhere else and then come back home to be recognized. There’s a little truth in that. If you go anywhere else and say you are an LA musician, you are instantly seen in a different light. People assume that you are great and…to be honest, to be a successful LA artist…you have to be great!”

THE STAR BEHIND THE ROCKSTAR

The throngs of adoring fans at concerts are almost always unaware of the professional workings of their favorite artist; the organizational and musical preparations necessary to create the inspiring events that they desire. Movies often show a romanticized and unrealistic scenario in which the artist calls some friends to play with them when, magically and immediately, everything falls into place. The musicians who live this amazing life will tell you it is magical for them but far from immediate. Any great performance takes talent, but it also requires preparation, professionalism, social skills, and a strong work ethic. The greats have earned this moniker through dedication as well as artistry. While many people have heard the title Musical Director, the specific duties required of an MD are vague at best in most individual’s understanding. Kieran Kiely is the respected musician who served as MD for Sinead O’ Connor from 2007 to 2012. As MD, he performed many roles to enable Sinead to focus on the expression of her music without being weighed down by the numerous other variables which might encumber an artist of her renown. At a certain level of fame, an artist’s career becomes similar to any other large and global pursuit. This means that artists such as Ms. O’ Connor and her peers require a musician whom they can trust to safeguard the integrity of the music and its presentation. A Musical Director is perhaps the most trusted advisor for any artist, meaning that the responsibility placed on them is reserved for the most valued and respected musicians.

In the mid 90’s, Kieran was playing in the Irish Celtic Punk group Shane MacGowan and The Popes. Kieran recalls, “One night while hanging at the Popes usual haunt, Filthy McNasty’s Pub in Angel, London, Shane asked me to go to a club with him, without knowing where we were going or whom we were meeting. When we got to the Club(The Atlantic Bar, SoHo) there was Sinead with Shane’s girlfriend, Victoria. I ended up chatting with Sinead. The next time I saw her was a year or two later when I was asked to play on a record. Somebody from the production recommended me for the session. It turned out to be a duet with Sinead and Terry Hall from The Specials, with Dave Stewart producing. This was the first time I met Dave. It took place at The Eurhythmics Church recording Studio in Crouch End, London. I played Low Whistles (Irish Flutes). Sinead loved the sound of those at that time. I continued to meet Sinead from time to time at gigs and festivals and she then asked me to play on her record Faith and Courage, and subsequently some of her following records.” Conflicting schedules prohibited a closer and more permanent working situation between O’ Connor and Kiely until 2007 when she asked him to assume the role of Musical Director for her. Largely known as a pop/rock artist, O’ Connor was intent on making use of Kieran’s mastery of Celtic instruments and their approach to her music. While he would add authenticity to the music that supported Sinead’s intrinsic Celtic vocal stying, Kiely would also be required to assume various roles as MD.

One of the most vital roles of an MD is to find the proper band members for an artist. It is not as simple as finding great players, although that is a requirement. Band members must be well versed in the style of music they will be performing but not void of other influences as they may be called upon to “stretch” or “flex” their approach. With touring artists, there is an understanding of the lifestyle which can mean long periods of time away from familiar people and surroundings. Touring musicians are the nomads of the music world. This requires someone whose personality meshes well with the sentiments of the artist they work with. It is similar in many ways to dating. There has to be a certain spark to the interaction. In his role as MD for O’ Connor, Kiely assembled a group of elite musicians respected throughout the world; an outstanding achievement for any MD. The band consisted of: British Session Drummer Ash Soan, Guitarist Dave Randall (recognized for his atmospheric sound), Yolanda Charles (renowned Bassist, praised as one of the best in the world), and legendary guitarist Robbie McIntosh. Sinead’s music is quite eclectic and emotional, requiring musicians who play at the highest level as well as those who listened intently to match the dynamic level and energy. Because these band members were so sought out, Kieran took an especially benevolent, yet professional approach. He states, “I like to try and create an environment where everyone feels very comfortable so they can be creative. In regards to parts, I was pretty specific. I knew Sinead’s material really well and created new arrangements of her songs that were sensitive to Sinead’s performance style. To achieve this, I had parts worked out for the players in advance. We also had a new album to promote and so had to be true to those songs. I wouldn’t say it was difficult though; when you have that caliber of musician to work with, it’s a pure joy.”

Rehearsals are always a good barometer for the mixing of skill and personalities but the real evidence surfaces when the artist and band tour. The incredible ecstasy of performing in front of thousands…even hundreds of thousands can be offset by the disconnect from familiar faces and places. Many musicians are defeated by the road. While Kieran is a veteran of the road and the studio, each new group introduces a number of variables. Early communication proved positive as he tells, “After I had taken on the role of MD and we did our first few shows, she sent me an exuberant text message, saying “who knew we were both so F**king amazing. She was very happy, which of course meant that I was happy.” Kiely continues stating, “You don’t just phone it in with Sinead, you have to be present, in the moment, and extremely sensitive to dynamics and tempo. She gives you everything you need in her voice; you just have to listen. On the intimate songs, I learnt to be comfortable with my playing being super exposed, where every expression and articulation could be heard. That sort of experience in front of 10’s of thousands of people over a period of time really hones your performance skills. Putting together a band that understood this in the same way that I did was a major achievement for me.”

While performing the role of MD was essential to Sinead’s live performances, Kieran was also a valued recording musician for O’ Connor. Selling in excess of millions of copies, Kieran recorded five albums with Sinead: Faith & Courage, Sean Nos Nua, Collaborations, She Who Dwells, and How About I Be Me. These recording are proof to Kieran’s masterful musical talent as well as O’ Connor desire for him to be a part of creating her sound. This desire was shared by others as Kiely relates, “She [Sinead] called me late one night to come play on a track. When I got there, she introduced me to Wyclef Jean, who was producing the song and said, ‘This is Kieran, he is the soul of my album. (Faith and Courage album).’
I later worked on Wyclef’s own record, Masquerade, at his NYC studio, and with his sister and brother.”

Kieran now resides in Los Angeles where he has taken to composing and orchestrating for film. His work creating the music for Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman proves that he is still using the sounds for which he is recognized to contribute to the success of artists. He still fondly recalls his time with Sinead O’ Connor and notes one obvious memory, “Nothing Compares to you was a highlight. It’s such a famous song. The audience are always waiting to hear it, so it’s a great moment for them. It wasn’t unusual to see people crying in the audience. ‘3 Babies also’. Sinead can conjure up such emotion when performing. What’s important to Sinead is that she connects with the song.” Kieran Kiely also connects to the song…and the art, in a very leading way.

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JAPAN’S KENJI USUI IS PUSHING THE MUSIC SCENE FORWARD, ONE BAND AT A TIME

The music industry and the music scene in America are completely different from what it was even just ten years ago, and it is continually changing. Napster of course led to the upheaval of the music business. There is still conjecture about the result of this occurrence and whether it’s effects were beneficial or detrimental to the music world. One side insists that it was blatant piracy, a crime that deserves severe punishment. Others state that this “anarchy” leveled the playing field which led to a resurgence in the artists taking control from music industry executives and the birth of the DIY movement in the US. For quite some time now, the Japanese have been attracted to American bands and artists, taking careful note of it. One person who has done this is Japanese artist Kenji Usui. Usui is a prevalent part of the Japanese music scene who has also pioneered much of the ever growing Japanese independent music terrain. As an established Japanese artist, Kenji has made it his mission to increase visibility for the less established Japanese musicians as well as visiting foreign artists and bands.

With a long list of band credits and recordings that include; Blackjack, SPOON, Allies and Aces, Pororocks, and An Atomic Whirl, Usui has become weaved into the Japanese musical tapestry. He is highly recognized for his talent on multiple instruments (Vocals, Bass, Drums). As someone who climbed up from obscurity to become one of the most recognizable faces in the Japanese music world, Kenji understands how difficult a job it can be to simply gain a platform from which to express one’s own artistry. With that in mind, he set about to establish the opportunities for other artists to accomplish this.

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One of the most direct and successful means of Kenji helping to expose artists to the scene was as cofounder of Noise Union Japan Records. This label has been a way to connect bands from Japan and surrounding countries. Noise Union Japan Records is a way to promote bands and develop a network that will allow artists to grow and expand. Founded by Kenji Usui and Chikashi Gushiken, this label seeks to showcase the best artists from not only Japan, but also Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Korea, and other countries in the region. Gushiken (Noise Union Japan Records co-founder) gives credit to Usui’s affable nature as well as his love of music for enabling the success of this record label, commenting, “Kenji has a knack for meeting people and finding a way to incorporate them into Noise Union Japan. Every time he goes to a show in Tokyo or travels to a different country, he comes back with multiple new contacts and new ideas for booking events or festivals. He is highly motivated and productive, driven by a genuine passion for growing the music scene.”

As a member of Anit-Clockwise Productions, Kenji helps to organize events around Tokyo. Whether it is a local band or an international artist touring Japan, Usui understands the necessity of having an experienced hand on deck. As a member of many different bands over the years (Anti-Clockwise Productions recently produced and shot the music video for “Sanlitun” by Kenji’s band An Atomic Whirl) Usui is particularly empowered to make the process much less cumbersome for bands from any location in the world. It has afforded him the chance to gain knowledge and insight, as he reveals, “The best thing about working with bands from other countries is the inspiration and new perspective it gives. For me, working and touring with bands from other countries has been the most rewarding part of playing music over the past several years and I look forward to doing more of this in the future. It seems that US musicians are very interested in Japanese music and culture. I am always impressed by the level of creativity and experimentation coming from US bands, and I think that there is very fertile ground for cooperation and collaboration between these cultures in the future.

The Tsuruginomai Festival in the mountains of Japan, showcases the deep underground of Tokyo’s music scene. Kenji has aided founder Kohei Noda with this festival every year since 2010, assisting with the production and booking, as well as performing with various acts each year. As an artist who has toured playing international festivals, Usui has been an essential part of helping to coordinate this festival and others to increasing success and attendance since its inception. Kenji confirms, “I regularly perform at the Tsuruginomai Festival with Pororocks, An Atomic Whirl, and Kissaco, as well as playing onstage with various friends’ bands. Being a performer gives me an immediate understanding of what the artists on the bill are experiencing. It’s important that I keep in touch with this to give both the bands and the audience a better concert experience. It is often difficult, but it’s also rewarding. Some of the best bands are the bands you never hear about; being a part of an event like this, you are exposed to these bands. There is always someone knew who is bringing a new idea or style to the music community. It’s exciting when you witness that.”

 

 

 

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MCWILLIAM EXHIBITS A MYRIAD OF TALENTS IN MODERN FILM SCORES

There are many avenues to pursue in the modern day music industry. While the opportunities for bands and artists may have decreased in the last decade or two, other vocations in the music world have gained new venues within which to be employed. James McWilliam is a prime example of this. He may have had adolescent dreams of pop/rock stardom as a drummer but after veering towards jazz and classical music in his studies, he has become a noteworthy composer, conductor, and orchestrator in his native UK. Although working primarily in the UK, McWilliam has worked with and led ensembles in Paris and Macedonia as well. As a professional whose credits include the films; The Book of Life, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Masterminds, Standing Tall, and many others, James is widely sought after by filmmakers looking for music to enhance the emotional impact of their creations. Whether working on big budget feature films, Independent movies, or even video games, McWilliam is known for creating and/or implementing the audio accompaniment to perfectly present the goal of its creator. An overview of James’ work on his many projects gives proof to the idea that this musician/composer is challenged to be creative in a wide array of media presentations.

Don’t Look Down is a documentary which follows urban free climber James Kingston as he travels the world scaling 100m cranes, 200m radio towers, tall buildings and bridges…all without the use of any safety equipment. Composing the music for Don’t Look Down was attractive to James for a number of reasons. He states, “The production company wanted a score that followed and heightened the tension of the subject matter, whilst appealing to an age group of between 18-30 years of age; the show therefore needed a contemporary score. I turned to a more electronic based sound with lots of percussion and heavy synths.  This show worked a little differently than other things I’ve worked on previously. Rather than writing to picture, the production company asked me to write longer pieces of music that they could then edit alongside the show.  This is quite liberating for a composer but perhaps not as much fun; personally, I’m inspired by what’s happening on screen and prefer to write music specifically to picture.”

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Standing Tall is a French feature film directed by Emmanuelle Bercot which deals with France’s treatment of disadvantaged youths.  In addition to seven nominations, the film was selected to open the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, won two Cesar Awards, and a Lumiere Award. Eric Neveux sought out McWilliam to serve as Orchestrator & Conductor in Paris. Neveux confirms, “James has been a valuable member of my team for over 4 years now and as an orchestrator has played an integral role in the scores of many of my films.  Standing Tall opened the Cannes 2015 film festival and was a very important composing project for me. I knew I could rely on James’ orchestration skills to help me deliver the score for this superb film. As an orchestrator, James brings a great depth of sound to my work, utilizing his extensive skill and knowledge of an orchestra.  No matter how complex the project might appear to be, he always works tirelessly to achieve the best result possible.” The score was recorded at the famous Studio Ferber, known for the recording of many iconic pop musicians and film scores since the 1970’s. Concerning his role in Standing Tall’s score, James stipulates, “I think that the real skill in orchestration is being able to interpret a composer’s demo in such a way that what you do is clearly a huge improvement on the demo and yet it still sounds identical to the music signed off by the director.  This balance (which is quite a fine art to master) is always changing from score to score and cue to cue; how you decide on this is through a lot of discussion with the composer.  I truly enjoyed working with someone else’s music, especially on projects where I feel like I’ve had a significant impact on the end result. Of course, the balance I refer to above can be difficult to find especially when working with a new composer and sometimes a greater period of time is needed at the beginning of the process to understand where each other is coming from.”

Legendary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is highly stylized in his approach to movie making. For the animated film The Book of Life (which garnered 27 nominations including a Golden Globe, 3 wins, and a Worldwide gross of $94MM) the highly respected and successful del Toro trusted Gustavo Santaolalla to compose the music the he wanted to capture the feel of a past and modern Mexico. Hired by the score’s arranger and conductor Tim Davies, James set to work orchestrating the music of  Santaolalla. The rich, colorful themes and rhythms were as entertaining as the animation and action on the screen. The process of bringing the music of The Book of Life to manifestation truly depicts the modern and global means by which artists cooperate. James notes, “It’s not often that I’m hired by another orchestrator/arranger to work on a film but when I do it’s always a pleasure to be part of the team.  It’s more common on larger US projects to have multiple orchestrators so when I do find myself in this position it’s often on a big budget production.  I love the work of Guillermo del Toro so this was a particularly exciting project and something I was very pleased to do. It’s interesting when you work for another orchestrator because it makes you evaluate your own approach to things and working with US based orchestrators in particular really keeps you on your toes. This was such an enjoyable score to work on; the music Gustavo Santaolalla created for the film is brilliant.”

Projecting a completely different tone and subject matter are two feature films which saw McWilliam seated at the composer’s helm; The Patrol (nominated for a British Independent Film Festival Award and winner of a Raindance Film Festival Award) and Born of War. James defines the difference of these two stipulating, “Born of War isn’t really a war film although, like The Patrol it is set in Afghanistan.  The two filmmakers work couldn’t be more different and the scores reflect this.  Whist the score for The Patrol deliberately avoided emotive strings and Middle Eastern sounding instruments, Born of War fully embraced these sounds and they became an integral part of the character of the film.  The film begins in 1980’s Afghanistan, moves to present day Oxford/London and then back to Afghanistan but in the present day.  All these changes had to be reflected in the score and we did this through balancing the use of real orchestra and synths/percussion with influences from the Middle East.  The score wasn’t about reinventing the wheel, this was more about fitting into a specific genre of films and playing it for everything it’s worth. The orchestral score was recorded in Macedonia. It was a lot of fun!” Rupert Whitaker (Born of War’s Producer) comments about the film’s score, “Vicky Jewson, our director, had a very specific sound in mind for Born of War; a sound that was going to cost a lot of money, which our budget couldn’t stretch to. As soon as we spoke to James about our vision for the score, we knew we were in safe hands. The size of the task ahead of him meant that James decided to assemble an eclectic team of highly skilled people, all of whom added a huge amount of value to the project.  Not only did he strive to make Vicky’s ambition a reality but he supplied us with numerous creative possibilities that enhanced the picture, aiding the drama and bringing a whole new life to the film. James is not simply a powerful creative force; he is also a highly skilled technician in his field. I was very fortunate to have him contribute to the success of the picture.”

Rather than touring the world in a van or a bus as a drummer who plays to crowds at clubs or theaters, James has become a respected and valued member of a global music and filmmaking tapestry performing to peers who are among the most talented artists in the world. From a young boy thrashing about on the drumkit to leading the world’s most gifted orchestras, James McWilliam seems incredibly grounded…so much so that one wonders if he actually realizes that he has exceeded his own youthful goals.