Interview: Composer Shiyu Chen Talks Chinese vs. US Movie Scores and More

If you've ever watched deleted scenes from a television show or a movie, then you already know just how empty they can feel without score music. 

The same goes for video games and even commercials. Scores represent a unique musical category that aims to amplify and emphasize many other elements of a work of entertainment, and pulling that off is no small feat. 

Composers working in film and television, in particular, often have to tackle this very tricky work under tight deadlines, and relatively few composers can handle the pressure. 

But composer Shiyu Chen has excelled in this specialization, composing for television shows, short films, and features. Some of her past credits include the feature 'My People, My Country,' the long-running reality show 'The Bachelor,' and the beloved Netflix sci-fi series Love Death + Robots. 

Chen keeps her schedule packed tight with various projects, and her international background gives her a unique insight when it comes to instrumentation, chord progressions, and norms of Eastern composition. 

The Art Bay recently had the chance to interview Chen, and we talked about some of the major differences she's noticed between film scores in China and the US, as well as project timelines, composition trends, and upcoming projects.  

During your formative years, were you exposed to music from many different cultures/countries, etc.?

Yes, I was born and raised in China. I started playing Dizi, which is a traditional Chinese instrument, when I was about five years old. When I was about seven, I started playing piano and learning classical music. 

In 2013, I moved to the US, where I studied classical piano, and later I started playing more jazz and pop, especially when I was at Berklee College of Music.  

Do you think it's useful for young composers to absorb work from many different artists and cultures? 

Absolutely, I believe that the more music you listen to, the larger diversity of music you can express. The different sounds from different artists and cultures definitely help you build a complex library of sounds and composing tools.

Working in the US, have you noticed any distinctive composition trends, such as in terms of chord progressions or instrumentation?

Film music in the US is more diverse and contemporary. In the US, composers focus more on creating unique sounds, such as electronic synth sounds or ethnic percussions or instruments. The chord progressions tend to be more complex and longer than film music in China. And for some projects, the orchestration is also more electronic and analog.

What does your schedule tend to look like? What's the turnaround on the average project?

I work in Rob Cairns's studio for three days a week. Otherwise, I work at my own studio to focus on writing for other projects. For a project like Love Death + Robots, we usually spend about six months or even a year on the music-making process. But for trailers or short films, it is usually a couple of months or weeks, depending on the deadline. And for The Bachelor, we usually only have one week to do music for each episode. 

What are some of the ways that you bring Chinese musical elements to your current composition work?

Chinese music is known for its special instruments and the common use of the pentatonic scale. I have used a lot of Chinese instruments including Dizi, Erhu, Yangqin, Zheng Harp, and many others in my composition work when doing cues for video games or films set in Ancient China. 

I have also written a lot of music that has Chinese musical elements, such as for the Bachelor when they need a mysterious or ethnic flavor.

In your opinion, are audiences ready to experience more variety in scores for movies and television? 

Yes, I think audiences are always looking for new sounds and new scores since we have been listening to similar scores for a long time. Film music is actually very important if you want to bring some new experiences to the audience. Even a different chord or a weird melody can definitely get the audience in another mindset and get them excited for the movie. I think it's very important for composers to expand the variety of scores for film and TV. 

Can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects? 

I am currently working on the Netflix show Love Death + Robots Season 4 with composer Rob Cairns, which will be out later this year. We are still in the early stages of the music-making process, and some of the footage still isn't locked, so we still have a lot to do before it's ready to air. 

The other projects I am working on include a short film called Goodnight Tom, produced by Hong Kong's Ke Mo Production, The Bachelor season 27, a new musical, In River, based on the play Anatomy of Gray by Jim Leonard, a new Warframe trailer, an Elder Scrolls trailer, an international film from Dayyan Eng, and an upcoming animation anthology series from Amazon Studios. 

It's a lot of work but it's important to stay busy as a composer. 

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