Settling the Score
by Anusha Abishegam
‘Ola Bola’ was the name ingrained into everyone’s consciousness long before the film even hit the cinema screens; when it did, it certainly lived up to the hype. One vivid aspect about this local production was the soundtrack- “Inilah Barisan Kita” echoed through the heads of viewers long after the roll of the ending credits.
What exactly does it take for a composer to be so successful in getting through to their listeners?
Meet Onn San, Film Composer & Music Producer. We wanted to know what it was like composing epic film scores, and he did not disappoint.
When did you start composing music? Did you receive formal training beforehand?
I grew up in a very musical family; my dad’s a bass guitarist, my uncle plays the guitar, and they used to play in a band during their younger days. It was called ‘Strangers’, and they used to play music from Cliff Richard. They even went on tours and had fans. My late grandma was a Chinese opera singer, and my late grandfather was a conductor in a marching (school) band. So I kinda grew up surrounded by this interest and appreciation for music.
When I was seven, it was the first time I wrote a piece of music on my own and it was for Mother’s Day. That was probably when I got this interest in composing, or even realized I could write music. At eleven, I started piano lessons- my aunt was my piano teacher! Even in high school, I knew I wanted to go into music; I was very determined. My mom thought otherwise- she still wants me to be a doctor- but I knew really early on, I wanted to do music.
Do you listen to other composers or do you prefer to keep your ears fresh?
I’m not shy in terms of listening to other music. You can’t run away from it, it’s just what you listen to that’s very important. I tend to listen to all sorts of music, except for country music- I can only take about sixteen bars of country music.
I tend to listen to a lot more film score music; I just love how film composers paint a picture for you, and a lot of things are not necessarily driven by words alone. I grew up listening to John Williams, Joe Hisaishi, composers like them. I grew up among different influences, not one specifically.
I love classical music too, I did my degree in classical music at UCSI, before I went to New York. That’s where I got into theatre, I wrote my first musical with a group of friends for fun. It was very satisfying because there was no limit to what you could write, and being young, we were just enjoying ourselves. It was called Green Tea the Musical, and the college staged it twice- once as a college production, and later they brought it to Dewan Bandaraya KL in 2002.
Do the music you listen to and the music you create complement each other?
More or less, yeah… it gives me a basis, a platform, for what I love to write. One thing I dislike doing is limiting myself. A lot of people ask me “what’s your sound, what’s your genre?” but I tend not to classify myself. I let people tell me what they hear, because I have stages in my life- now I might be writing funk, during the next two years I might write rock n’ roll, and I try not to limit myself so much. But I do have a favourite.
What’s your favourite?
[laughs] Should’ve known.
Yeah, I’ve been told- not sure if it’s true, but I’ve been told that I have a sound that can be recognized in my compositions. I think my focus is more on melodies, because I feel like they’re akin to dialogue in a script. My songs are usually a bit more sing-able, not too obscure or too complex musically. The other thing people tend to say is that there’s a lot of emotion behind it- and yeah, whenever I write, there’s always a lot of emotion behind it.
You released an album entitled ‘Epomania’ in 2012; all the tracks are like movie scores. What’s the story behind that?
“Epomania” means a craze for writing epics, and the story behind it is that I was in New York when I started writing all these really epic musical pieces. I could only dream of working on soundtracks for films like Lord of the Rings, or Gladiator; since I wasn’t there yet, I decided to just write tracks anyway, because what’s the harm in that? I came up with a lot of these lush, strings-based- they call it trailer music, it’s a genre- and my housemate pointed out that I should put together an album with all these songs I wrote. I was like, “Would people even listen to it?”
But I went for it and to my surprise, there’s actually a market for it, even in Malaysia. I think it’s from these generations that listen to soundtracks and instrumental music, and the younger generations who play video games and love sound scores. My album wasn’t written for any particular medium, but it gives them that sense of nostalgia, like they’re playing a video game or watching a movie.
Where did you draw your inspiration from for ‘Epomania’?
My first album was inspired by planets; at one point I was so intrigued with the universe, the cosmos… and it was the time when Space Odyssey was an influence for me. I started doing a lot of research on it and I found out that there’s a group of planets called rogue planets, they don’t exist in our solar system, and there was very little mention of them. The tracks aren’t directly related to the planets, but their attributes are a theme in the tracks; for example, if a certain planet is cold, then the music is slightly colder.
It was a time when I was exploring and writing whatever I felt like. I was trying out new things. My second album is a lot more planned out.
Tell me about your second album.
My second album is also inspired by space, it’s called “Time and Space”, but it’s a bit more futuristic. I named it after people this time, instead of planets- people who contributed to science, like Einstein, Newton, Ptolemy. It’s a bit more sci-fi and while the first album is rock orchestra- a fusion between rock and orchestra- the second one is orchestral and electronic. It’s set to release in July.
It’s been four years since the first album and it took me about two years to produce this album. The time taken was slow but necessary, and the exciting part was I got to work with an 18-piece string section.
Do you produce your own music?
With the first album, I did everything on my own and it was very tiring. For the second album, I told myself “no, I’m not gonna do that anymore”, which is why it’s more collaborative. I think there were seven artists I worked with- Nick Davis, Ida Mariana, Stephanie van Driesen- all local singers. Then there’s Az Samad- he plays the acoustic guitar for MPO- and the studio I worked with was Maveriq, obviously, because I worked there, and they helped with putting the album together.
How long does composing a song take? Is it a cut and dry process, or do you tend to leave projects and come back to them later?
It depends; there are moments when I just have to churn out material like- (he snaps his fingers)- that. Five minutes to write a song, and I gotta when I’m writing for commercials and jingles. Music is always the last stage in a production, so that’s when rush time happens.
If I had the luxury of time, I would explore and do some research before I start. It depends on the project, too, sometimes some of the most amazing things you write comes from a high-pressure situation. Sometimes, too much time leads to complacency and then it’s the opposite problem. Two years was a pretty comfortable time frame to produce an album.
What is the difference between composing for musical theatre as opposed to, say, a live film?
The medium is different, but I’d say the approach is the same because you’re telling a story in both. However, with theatre you’re more involved, because it’s words, music- the book, or script. So you have more power but also more responsibility, and you’re forefront in a way.
In film, it’s like you’re serving the director, for the vision that the director has. You still have a say but it’s the director calling the shots, so the process is a bit different. When I’m writing, the approach is the same with both; only one is with words, the other is with visuals.
What are your common chord progressions and rhythms?
I seldom think about what progressions to use when I write; at the end of the day, it’s what sounds and feels right to me. You have to follow your heart, or instincts. I’m not much of a (musical) theory person, I’m more of a play-by-ear person.
So you view music in a more passionate manner, as opposed to a dry, calculated manner?
Well, I used to be very technical when I was studying in uni, then I realized that the technical stuff are merely tools. At the end of the day, it’s how the audience perceives it; you could be writing something technically brilliant, but if the audience can’t receive what you’re trying to convey, then there’s something wrong there.
I learnt the value of reaching out, but I’m not saying you have to solely please the audience, either. The technical parts are really just the tools, like your computer or keyboard, but what you do with them is what’s most important.
“I’ve heard some of the most beautiful melodies, and technically speaking they’re extremely simple. Yet, you can’t help but feel what the composer wants you to feel, and that’s the magic of it.”
Can the technical directions- quick, staccato beats or legato quavers, for instance- portray emotion sufficiently?
They do help to create the feel, but you can’t just rely on those. The common mistakes composers tend to make is we tend to undermine the audience a little by spoon-feeding them. Sure, you need the technical stuff but you also need the extra something behind it. That’s when people go, “hey, this is something unique”.
Can you pinpoint what it is that makes a piece of music so touching and emotionally accessible to people?
I tend not to think too much about that. Although the end result is important, when I approach a song I never think of making people cry or laugh. Of course these are things I’d like to achieve, but I don’t set out thinking of that. I think I look at the story and the characters that I have, and I draw from experience. People can tell whether a piece is genuine or not, whether you’re invested or just trying to make them feel something without putting anything into it.
It’s a balance, you have to be smart but reach out to the audience at the same time. I wouldn’t say I’m there yet, I haven’t figured out what it is; it’s still a challenge and that’s good because the moment I know how to do it, that’s the moment I kinda lose it. I want it to be a mystery all the time, I want to keep discovering things, and I tell a lot of younger composers- don’t be afraid to make mistakes, don’t be afraid to fail. Some of the most beautiful pieces come from failures.
I never want to lose that sense of wonderment. The minute you know how to do things, that’s when you stop learning and growing. For me, writing a bad song is better than being stale and soulless.
Composing for film, do you purposely use more low frequencies or other specifics for cinema audio systems?
Well, yeah, we’re writing for cinema audio systems… but I wouldn’t say they’re the best in Malaysia? So even producers tend to overlook that aspect, but what I do is I always like to test it in a cinema before I send it in as a final product. For ‘Ola Bola’, we did the test in Taiwan while they were doing the final mix. I did the music in 5.1, the most basic cinema-level sound, and we brought it to Taiwan for Atmos.
Chiu Keng Guan, the director of ‘Ola Bola’, really put a lot of emphasis on music and sound, so that was good.
What was your experience as Music Director for ‘Ola Bola’?
Ola Bola took two weeks to write, I was given three weeks but I spent the first week doing research. It took a lot of prep work. I was brought into the project really late, and they had a deadline because they had to send it to Taiwan to do the final mixing.
When I got the footages, they were already locked so I couldn’t change the visual edit, only work with it. I tend not to compose while watching the scenes, I try to write as much as I can before looking at the footages; so with ‘Ola Bola’ I spent one week writing without the visuals first. Once the visuals come in, you’re sort of limited to composing to them. Yeah, it was basically a lot of sleepless nights, a do-or-die situation.
The Ola Bola soundtrack is said to be one of the highlights of the film. What was your inspiration for the sound of the film?
I had a tight schedule, so I didn’t have a lot of time to really sink into the movie, although Chiu did his best to brief me about the story- and he did a great job. I knew it had to be inspirational and uplifting music, so I watched a lot of uplifting movies- from ‘Chariots of Fire’ to ‘The Last Stand’. I even did a lot of research on Asian sports films, to get myself into the mood of it.
The story itself was an inspiration to me; I drew a lot of it from the script. There’s a little secret I’ve told people before, so you can make it public- in the main theme, you could actually hear something that’s very familiar to all Malaysians. You won’t actually pick up on it, until it’s pointed out to you. Chiu wanted the music to have some sort of Malaysian identity to it, and I was wondering how to do that with our rojak influences without turning it into a tourism ad!
So I was working on it and I stumbled across this video about the history of our national anthem- how ‘Negaraku’ came about. I thought, “Hey! What if I put the DNA of ‘Negaraku’ into the theme?” I shared that with Chiu and he loved it, so that’s what I did. I won’t tell you where it is, but if you pay attention to the main theme, a portion of the national anthem is in the score itself.
“That song immediately gets the listener to go, “this sounds familiar but I don’t know where it’s from,” and it feels like home.”
One of the soundtracks incorporated the old anthem “Inilah Barisan Kita/Perajurit Tanah Air”; it was a clever move. How did that idea come about?
Chiu chose the “Inilah Barisan Kita” song to be incorporated into the soundtrack, because it’s almost like they’re going to war. During the helicopter scene, when they were singing the song, you could hear the theme underneath their singing “Inilah Barisan Kita”, so the national anthem was simultaneous with it. You can’t help but feel patriotic because subtly you’re hearing something that evokes that in you.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently on the ‘Ola Bola’ soundtrack?
Apart from having more time? (laughs) Not really, actually. I wish I could’ve recorded more live instruments, but that also depended on the budget and the timing- we didn’t have much time. I’m surprised we got to record live strings, it’s really important I get strings recorded live if I can. We also got two horns and a trumpet section, so that was good. If I could’ve, though, I would’ve gotten the whole thing recorded live.
You’ve come up with Score Box, a company dedicated to providing high quality film scores to film productions. Could you tell me more about it?
Score Box is a post-audio company that provides quality scoring tailored to fit visual media such as film, television, documentaries, animations, and more. I started Score Box earlier this year mainly because I realized there’s a lack of real focus on film scoring. A lot of times, people tend to focus on production- recording, technical things- but not really on composition, which is mostly where the magic comes from. If you have bad writing, no matter how good your sound quality is, you still get a pretty bad film.
I ventured into film about two or three years ago, but I did score a film back in 2008. That was the first film I did, ‘Jarum Halus’, and I’ve done bits and pieces for film, but when I started theatre I realized how important the emphasis on writing is- it all starts with a pen and paper. You need to give that time and focus to the process, but I find productions here lacking in that. I wanna change that.
Proper music composition is so overlooked in our local films, that it’s a rare miracle if we get a film with good scoring. If we want to up our standing in the industry, we need to up our standards.
Where do you plan to go from here?
I have all these visions and ambitions, but I want to be open to anything at the same time. As for Score Box, I would of course love to see Score Box get into the market locally and internationally. We will probably spend a year or two establishing ourselves here, and eventually we’d like to branch out to the rest of the region, maybe further- music is a universal language.
This year alone, I have two projects that I’m working on- one’s a pretty big Malay action film that they’re shooting right now, and the second one’s a Chinese film by a talented young director. It’s really exciting.
There’s also my second album coming out later this year. Things are already pretty tight with all these projects plus some smaller ones.
Any wise words for aspiring composers?
Not to sound overly cliché, but I would say don’t give up, and follow your heart. These are two things that I think are important. A lot of people may say a lot of things to you but at the end of the day, it’s you- how you deal with challenges, criticism and so on. So don’t give up, and follow your heart!
Onn San holds a MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at the New York University, TISCH School of The Arts. He received the Dean’s Fellowship Award, the first Malaysian composer to be awarded with the prestigious honour. He also holds a Bachelor Degree in classical music from UCSI. Nominated 7 times for the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards and won 4, including “Best Original Music”, “Best Musical Director” and “Audience Choice Award.”
In 2014, his musical MARRYING ME was showcased in New York City as part of the New York Theatre Barn Concert Series. He was also one of the guest speakers of TEDx Petaling Street, where he spoke about “The Power of Music”. Recently, Onn scored the music to the highly-acclaimed Malaysian film, OLA BOLA, directed by Chiu Keng Guan.