Jenny Li - Pianist & Animator

Jenny Li is a double major student, attending both the Mannes School of Music for piano performance, and the Parsons School of Design for animation. She recently released her latest animated short film, The Blossoming Wish which boasts an abundance of lush, gorgeous nature scenery, and a Ghibli inspired score that she created herself.

My first encounter with Jenny was at a TwoSetViolin concert in Chicago. I was blown away by her performance of Debussy’s Pour le Piano and contacted her for an interview, where I promptly learned that music was only the surface level of her artistic skills.

Photo courtesy of  @musiclee.fotos

Photo courtesy of @musiclee.fotos

Jenny was four years old when she first studied piano in China, progressing quickly through three grades before quitting due to having her wrists rapped with a meter stick. After moving to Canada, she began studying again, this time with Darrel Loewen who made music enjoyable; making funny analogies and dancing in lessons. She moved to New York upon reaching grade seven to take lessons from Vladimir Valjarević with whom she continues to study under. At age thirteen, Jenny performed with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra; an opportunity she credits with making her take practicing seriously. She explained “[Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K414] was the piece that made me connect with the instrument. I felt my playing change. That was the wow moment”.

Jenny enjoys performing with other musicians opposed to soloing, explaining that “music is interacting with other musicians”. She continues to experiment with different ensemble combinations to figure out what sound she likes best— necessary knowledge for the scores she composes for her films.

Since I first followed her on social media, she has always had a new project to post about and she shows snippets of what goes into each. The amount of work that went into The Blossoming Wish is unbelievable but made the end result extra enjoyable. I highly recommend following her on instagram @sdewpearls for your weekly dose of art, whether it be in music or in animation.

Arturo Cardelús - Composer & Pianist

Arturo Cardelús is a composer and pianist originally from Madrid, Spain, who now resides in Los Angeles, California. He focused on piano performance at The Royal Academy of Music in London, Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, Conservatorio Superior de Música in Salamanca, and Conservatorio Profesional in Guadalajara before studying composition and film scoring at the Berklee College of Music, graduating summa cum laude and receiving the composition department’s highest award.

V: I listened to your score for “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” (which will be available to watch internationally in 2019, but is available to listen to now on Spotify by clicking on the underlined title) and I was wondering if you listened to other scores for inspiration or was that strictly you?

A: I try not to… I try to listen to classical composers and the people that made music a hundred years ago. I try not to listen to other soundtracks because then we end up sounding the same. It’s easy to end up copying what others are doing. Even if you don’t want to, it starts getting in your ears.

V: Absolutely, and that stuff isn’t public domain yet like classical. Your other animation, “In a Heartbeat” went viral a while ago… Do you do a lot of animations?

A: Yes, so it’s a genre I didn’t care much for because of how close the music [matches] the scene, changing the tempo every ten seconds and changing instrumentation… key changes every five seconds and sometimes it’s exhausting! In In a Heartbeat, I think we had ten different cues in four minutes… But now, I enjoy it a lot and it’s become my favorite genre.

V: Is animation your main genre that you’ve become known for now?

A: Yes! Now, I get approached to do animations more often and I’m happy to do it.

V: Oh, good! “In a Heartbeat” sounded level with Pixar— it was very lush and textural, it had a lot happening and it was just so good, I loved it. 

A: Thank you! We did sooo many versions of that… It was the longest four minutes of my life (laughter)! When I first accepted the job, I figured “Oh, it’s four minutes. I can do this in a week” but no… We did so many versions.

V: Do you usually work with orchestras on projects or are you some kind of midi-wizard?

A: On 99% of the projects I’ve done, I aim to have live musicians. When the budget is small, we might use only four or five instruments but I just… I hate midi. Unless you want to do something electronic, then I love it, but I don’t like when you’re trying to emulate the sound of an orchestra… It just never works. I know people that are genius virtuosos of the computer and it still sounds like midi. I can always hear it. One thing that I do a lot is have a real orchestra in the foreground. We had an orchestra in Abbey Road with really great musicians but it was a very small orchestra of 21 players. And in the background is the midi, but you can’t hear that it is. It adds a lot.

V: For “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles”, is the choir made up of real singers? I was thinking they either had to be real or some crazy samples were being used.

A: Yes, they’re real! It was a forty-five piece choir from The Royal Academy of Music. Before I went to Berklee, I studied at The Royal Academy so I have a friend who’s a professor there and he has a choir, which was great, because our budget wasn’t that big but I wanted to have a big choir. We were able to make the score a part of his class so they were practicing our score for a while. When they came to the studio, they were ready to record so we didn’t use up much time and it was good for cost.

V: I’ve always wondered about that. When working with live musicians, does rehearsal time happen before you go to record? Do they receive the music before? How does that usually work?

A: Usually you try to work with insanely genius people that will sight-read because generally you don’t have time to rehearse. So for Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, they all were sight-reading. Our harpist played on the score for The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and our pianist— I did some of it— but the other pianist played on the score for The Shape of Water (2017), and the cello soloist played on the score for Atonement (2007) and Interstellar (2014). So the musicians were amazing, which made it easy.

Recording “Sherwin and Johnathan” for  In a Heartbeat . Photo courtesy of  Arturo’s Facebook Page .

Recording “Sherwin and Johnathan” for In a Heartbeat. Photo courtesy of Arturo’s Facebook Page.

V: What are the upcoming projects that you have that you’re allowed to talk about?

A: There’s an animation by the same writer who wrote The Princess and the Frog (2009)— he’s done a lot of things for Pixar. It’s a really cute project. I also have a Spanish documentary, Yo Galgo (2018) and a project that I’m particularly excited about— It’s a movie, a thriller, so a genre that I’ve never done before. My plan is to not listen to any thriller soundtracks so that I can come up with something different. I plan to ask the director to not use temp tracks. That’s another problem. When they edit, they have a temp track. Once you see a sequence with music, especially for the editor, when the music works with the picture, it’s really hard to ignore and forget it. It gets into your DNA and you’re done.

V: Yes 100%, how do you deal with temp tracks? Do you get to speak with the editor and make requests on that?

A: I can, I always ask, they never listen to me (laughs), but I ask! One of my projects now is temping with my music which makes things easier, but then I’ll repeat myself because it’s things I’ve already done and they want me to do them again. Temp tracks are a very difficult subject for every composer.

V: What are ways to get around temp tracks when the director and/or editor have already set into it? Or what do you do in the beginning before that can happen?

A: Lately, I’ve been doing one thing and it works: the editor uses a temp track because it helps the editing process and makes everything faster. I tell them to edit with a temp track, but then send me a copy without it. Then, I try what I feel in every scene. If we get stuck on a scene, and they really hate what I’m sending, and sometimes it happens… Week one and two go by and they just don’t like it, then I will ask to hear the temp track. Sometimes it works great because I end up sending something they didn’t expect, something they weren’t thinking of for the scene, and they love it. Other times, it’s just impossible and then I have to listen to the temp track and I do something close to it.

V: Since we shouldn’t expect anyone to be music-oriented, what way of communicating have you found that works to figure out what it is that they like?

A: First of all, we should stay away from music terms. No talking about instruments, no talking about key signature… Just talk about the storytelling and drama. You also have to adapt really fast and try to understand their words. For instance, I had a project where cellos kept being brought up and I was very confused because I already had cellos. One day I realized that pizzicato is what was meant. I didn’t correct him, but from that point on I only wrote with pizzicato and everyone was happy.

V: How did you figure out what was meant in that scenario?

A: When I send a cue, and they’re telling you what they like and don’t like, you try to get as specific as you can. Like “In this second, in this moment, do you like this, do you not?” And you go through it to the smallest detail. By doing that, you’ll understand what they’re talking about.

V: Going back through your career, were your classical compositions your first introduction to composing?

A: I started as a classical pianist, and then I switched to composition and my first pieces were classical. I still do a lot of classical, and I’m actually working on a classical piece right now.

V: Is that being composed to be performed at a concert?

A: Yes, this one is for the Berlin Philharmonic. They have a soloist ensemble with a solo violin and a string quintet, and they’ll be playing this piece in Japan in December.

V: Are composing for concerts not as common anymore?

A: Not for film composers, no, but I do it. I want to do both, film and classical, but if I had to choose one… I’d say classical.

V: They’re very different styles, but I understand that. When you first started composing for films, what were some obstacles that you ran into that you have advice for now if you could pass that on to your past self?

A: You don’t have to come to LA, but when you start looking for work, the main problem is finding projects and credits. When you’re in that stage of your career, you have to try to get into anything, any project. Because you never know. I’ve done projects where I thought the whole thing was a disaster and then it ended up becoming a big thing. So you have to stay very open and try to get as much work as possible. Another thing… Composers like to hang out with each other because we talk about music and we have a good time and we understand each other, but, one common mistake is to have so many composer friends, and no director or editor friends or people-on-the-other-side friends because composers aren’t going to hire you. They can, but what you really want is to be hired by a director. So focus more on directors, producers, editors…

V: Are you very hands-on with your projects in terms of being in the same place as the people you’re working with?

A: My amazing orchestrator lives in Boston, Amparo Edo Biol. She’s the Assistant Chair of Contemporary Writing and Production at Berklee. The people who help me are all over the world.

V: That’s cool, so you don’t need to be right there with them. You can get it all done just by communicating online. My last and final question: I know that you’re a pianist, do you have a favorite piano that you’ve played?

A: Yes! One of my pieces, Grace, I had a Shigeru Kawai that I used for the recording and it was amazing.

V: I can imagine, and you prefer that over the European brands?

A: Yeah, I liked that piano a lot. I’m about to premiere a new piece and I’ll have the same piano, they brought me the same one.

Arturo is on Instagram @arturo_cardelus, Facebook, and Spotify. I thank him for his time and his wisdom, and I look forward to what beautiful music he composes next!

Shirley Song - Composer

Shirley Song is an LA-based composer originally from Sydney, Australia. Shirley was presented with the Alf Clausen Award in 2016, and was the resident composer for numerous theatre productions. Her concert music has been performed in venues across Sydney, including the Sydney Opera House, Seymour Center, and Sydney Conservatorium of Music. At the time of writing, she works closely with award-winning composer Jeff Danna (The Good Dinosaur, Storks, The Boondock Saints), and her current project is composing additional music for Oscar-Winning Director Guillermo Del Toro’s Tales of Arcadia: 3 Below— a new animation series by Dreamworks and Netflix.

V: What was your first composing gig?

S: My first "legit" composing gig didn't really happen till I graduated from my composition degree back in Australia. I started out writing music for theatre productions. That was sort of my first taste of writing music to drama.

V: Can you describe your current project with Guillermo Del Toro?

S: I'm currently writing music for the Netflix series, 3 Below, the sequel to Trollhunters. The animation is absolutely stunning! We work with a real orchestra for this as well so it's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. They're twenty minutes per episode and like many animations, have back-to-back, wall-to-wall music. There's a lot of space for writing creatively and Jeff Danna's been an incredible mentor.

V: What is it like to work on big budget projects? What is typically the order of tasks for projects like this?

S: I have yet to work on a reeaaaalllyyyy big budgeted project with the Dannas (like The Good Dinosaur or Storks), but we have a couple of big exciting projects lined up for next year. I only started with Jeff last year in March of 2017. So far, the projects I've been a part of include Netflix mini-series Alias Grace, and the Oscar-nominated animated film The Breadwinner. A lot of work goes into these feature films and Mychael and Jeff Danna start writing the themes before picture is even locked. Then comes spotting and the writing continues! Once cues are written, they're sent to the director for approval. Then comes recording time, so prior to recording, we'll need to make sure all cues are prepped and sent out to the orchestrator, session stems are bounced for the engineer and then all stems are bounced out dry for the mix stage.

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V: Are there scores you've composed that hold a certain special place in your heart?

S: There are a few scores that hold a certain special place in my heart, and it may not necessarily be the best piece of musical work I've ever written, but [I value] the experience I gained and the significance behind the project. I'm super proud of a score I did for a Project Soar Morocco campaign about empowering young girls in Morocco to "become leaders of today and tomorrow".  I had an incredibly low budget, yet I think the director and I came up with something really uplifting and hopefully inspiring.

There's also a score I co-wrote with a very good friend of mine, Jina An, for a comedy feature that I'm really proud of. It was our first feature film and I wouldn't have wanted to write it with anybody else. Lastly, I'm having an absolute blast working on 3 Below. It's my first score that I've had the opportunity to have a real orchestra play on.

V: Although we don't like to be thought of as female composers, and rather just composers, it just so happens that that's what we represent. Have you noticed any particular obstacles due to this fact? What would you say to a young Shirley Song embarking on composing to advise her on these obstacles?

S: This is such an interesting question. I ask myself this a lot too! And yes, as you said, most days I don't even think or classify myself as an "Asian female composer," and I indeed just view myself as a composer. I just want my music to speak for itself. However, I think we have the luxury to think like this because of all the women and men who have been pushing and are still raising awareness for women equality in Hollywood, closing the gender gap in the film music industry. I think I've been lucky enough so far to have not really experienced obstacles due to how I look or the fact that I'm a woman.  However, subconsciously, I do think I have felt the need to perhaps work harder.

What I would say to the young Shirley Song is to not doubt yourself. Keep doing what you're doing and work hard. Work your butt off so that no one can say "you were just lucky and riding the ‘female empowerment’ wave”. 

Always treat people the way you want to be treated. There's a tendency for a lot of Asians to be a bit more "reserved or shy" (I'm generalising here, but I find that to be the case with me and a few friends of mine), so I want to tell the younger self to speak out more, be bold and confident (not cocky, obviously) and don't be shy when asking for help, advice or getting the next gig/job opportunity. Go get it. Be a go-getter.

Oh, and get yourself educated on sound libraries and how to work a DAW! The younger/earlier the better, Shirley!  

V: Now that we're channeling the younger self, tell me about your path to becoming a composer. Specifically, when you realized it was what you wanted to do, and how your family reacted to your decision.

S: I've been one of those lucky Asians who have had incredibly supportive parents. I would not be here without them. I first started composing back in high school. I went to a musical high school that had an awesome composition department. That was the first time I sort of dabbled with writing music for small chamber ensembles. When it came to university applications, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I was your typical, clueless, happy-go-lucky 16/17 year old. It was my composition teacher at the time who suggested I audition for the composition program at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Long story short, I was accepted and awarded a scholarship. Fast forward four years, I graduated and had a composition degree but had no idea what in the world I was going to do with it. 

As a young kid, I acted a lot in theatre because my grandparents were theatre directors, actors and playwrights, so I've always had a penchant for drama.  So after graduating, I started writing music for theatre and realised that, really, despite how I enjoyed concert music, what I really wanted to do was write music for visuals.  So after freelancing for two years writing on theatre productions and a few short films and promotional videos, I decided that I wanted to learn more about this world and that's when I applied to Berklee.

Berklee played an incredibly important and pivotal role. I worked super hard during my time there and tried to learn as much as I could from all the professors. I remember treating every single film scoring homework and assignment like it was a "real project" and that I would never leave it half-finished. It had to sound as good as it could. I would not be working for Jeff if it wasn't for the recommendation of the head of film scoring, Alison Plante. 

V: Please tell me about your company, Soundesque. What was the mission that it was started on, what are particular proud moments, and do you have a secret future in mind for it?

S: Soundesque was something I started because I wanted to work with friends who have expertise in different fields, not just film scoring. It has always been a long-term sort of goal for me. Right now, I've made it clear that I think it's important that we all work on ourselves: try to build our own individual credits and reputation. So right now, we've taken a bit of a backseat on Soundesque. But give us a few more years (inserts winky emoji.) 

V: I really enjoyed the Battle of Cable Street video which begs me to ask the question: do you have a favorite part of the composing process? I haven't gotten the opportunity to have musicians bring my compositions to life (only digital samples) but it looks magical.

S: Ah, shucks! Thank you! That was for Professor Richard Davis' advanced orchestration class. Live musicians can really bring your music to life! So I guess... the favourite part of the composition process is the recording session? The mixing session? (When the actual composing/writing is all done!)

Shirley’s final words of wisdom: As you may hear from everyone, this industry is hard. LA is really not the place for everyone. You have to be passionate and willing to go that extra mile, put in the extra time and effort.  Good work ethic, a positive attitude and a likeable personality are "hella" important. Learn from your mistakes, grow from [them], and enjoy the ride (or try to anyways)!

Footnotes: Shirley is on instagram @the_song and I highly recommend following her for quality content of composing and canine antics!

Aiko Fukushima - Orchestrator and Composer

I had the pleasure of asking Ms. Aiko Fukushima, Hollywood blockbuster orchestrator and composer some questions about her work. She studied at the Berklee College of Music, attended the Henry Mancini Institute, and was selected for Sundance Institute Composer’s Lab— a distinguishable honor. 

V: Your imdb is super impressive, and I see that Changeland is in post! Are you allowed to share any details on that project?

A: I can’t [say anything yet], but it was super fun to work with Patrick Stump, the lead singer of Fall Out Boy, at the recording studio!

V: What is it like to work as an orchestrator on big projects like The Mummy (2017), and Ragnarok (2013)? I've always thought that orchestrating was the puzzle work of composing-- the difficult part that ultimately makes everything sound good.

A: Orchestration is like working as an architect. We take the vision of the artist/composer and put it to paper to be played at the recording session. It is amazing to get to work with a real orchestra, especially if I can be there! 

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V: What was the Sundance lab like? Was it like an ultra-intensive music boot camp?

A: It didn’t feel like a boot camp— [it was more of] an artist’s retreat. Working with talented Sundance Institute filmmakers and picking the brain of creative advisors such as Thomas Newman, Ed Shearmur and Jeff Beal was a treat. I learned a lot from the experience. When I think back, it was crazy to meet and have conversations with those legends like John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov and Thomas Newman. What I learned from them was “Be an artist.” John told me that he was so inspired by nature and the scenery while he was traveling across the country, that it gave him inspiration to compose. He was so excited to tell the story like a child— being passionate about life and music. One of the assignments was to re-score a scene from Road to Perdition (2002). We tried our best… but Thomas Newman’s approach was entirely different from anybody’s, and much more fun and playful that it added more life to the scene. 

V: Let’s backtrack to before the lab— when did you realize that you wanted to be in film scoring and what steps did you take to get to where you are now in your career? How did your family react in the beginning?

A: Originally I came to Berklee College of Music to study jazz composition, then found out that there was a film scoring program that sounded interesting because film music always had a huge impact on me growing up. Toward the end of my college period, I had great opportunities like working with artist-in-residence Jay Chattaway (Star Trek Voyager), and Mike Post (Law & Order) through the BMI Pete Carpenter Fellowship, and attending the Henry Mancini Institute. That led me to Los Angeles to pursue my career as a film composer. Fortunately, my family has been very supportive of what I do.

V: Although we do not like to acknowledge that we are Asian women in the industry, it's something we end up representing anyway. Have you ever felt that this fact has caused any obstacles for you in the industry? Is there anything that you would have liked to tell younger Aiko before she embarked on her path?

A: I would say “Just be yourself.” You can’t be anybody else anyway. You can write the music to sound like somebody else, but that’s not really you. 

When I came to Los Angeles, my mentor Jay Chattaway introduced me to Sharon Farber (The Young and The Restless). She told me “There is a place for everybody”. It is a great time to be a female film composer now, finally! There are so many opportunities if your music is good. In the end, you are the person you need to be competing with. Nobody else. If you can present your music with 100% confidence, it will speak for itself. All of the experience will make you grow. I worked at JoAnn Kane Music Service for a while as a proofreader/transcriptionist. I worked on projects for some of the busiest Hollywood composers like John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, and James Newton Howard, and producers like David Foster. It was a surreal experience to be transcribing music together with David at the rehearsal. I am grateful for all opportunities that were given to me! 

V: That sounds both intimidating and inspiring! Lastly, I have to ask what kind of music you enjoy listening to for leisure?

A: I listen to all kinds of music but I am more drawn to good melodies that [strike me]. I have to admit that I still love to listen to the classical and jazz music that [I got into during] my Berklee period. I appreciate depth in music. In pop, the Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones duo still blows my mind! And of course, The Beatles and Joni Mitchell. My latest obsession is the album “Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau”. I have listened to it hundreds of times, and I am still not bored. 

I would love to speak more with her in person about orchestrating, but until then, I’ll be tracking down her latest projects and checking out the album she recommended. You can listen here too!