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!