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Phoenix Orchestra: Meet Wan Pin Chu

Meet Wan Pin Chu. Wan is an accomplished erhu player and talented film composer based in Hong Kong. He has written film scores that have made waves from his homeland all the way to Hollywood. We caught up with Wan to learn more about his progression into film composition, the challenges he has faced writing for both eastern and western audiences, and the difficulties of sampling Chinese instruments.

Wan took his first steps into film scoring after studying musicology and western composition at King’s College London. After being refused a backing track for one of his erhu concerts, he decided to create one himself, taking a dive into the world of music production. This opened up new prospects for the young composer as he went on to earn a full scholarship from BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Arts) to study film composition, forming a close bond with revered music supervisor and coordinator Maggie Rodford along the way.

He took this knowledge and quickly had to put it into practice as his film music career took off. He began by playing as a soloist and musician. His playing can be heard in movies such as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Attrition, and Chasing the Dragon. His first chance to become a professional composer came quickly too—much quicker than Wan expected.

"I didn’t think my first feature film would be that early—I was 26 or 27 years old at the time. I am 29 now. I definitely didn’t expect my first film to be that big either."

“My first movie was Wu Kong; it’s a film about the famous Chinese myth figure. I didn’t think my first feature film would be that early—I was 26 or 27 years old at the time. I am 29 now. I definitely didn’t expect my first film to be that big either.”

His work on Wu Kong was a perfect introduction. It was the movie Ne Zha that really made Wan’s presence heard within the industry.

“I was so lucky to be given the opportunity to score Ne Zha. Ne Zha is the second biggest movie, in terms of the box office, in Chinese history, grossing $725 million worldwide.”

Ne Zha not only broke records in China, but it also became the worldwide highest-grossing non-U.S. animated movie and the second worldwide highest-grossing non-English-language movie of all time.

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Could Wan’s use of western and eastern instrumentation and techniques have been a factor in Ne Zha’s global success? It’s hard to tell. Chinese cinema has been blending these worlds together for decades.

“In Chinese-language cinema, we often use a western orchestra to provide the foundations of the score. We then add the Chinese instruments to add certain articulations. This is the same method I used for Ne Zha. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Chinese movies only used native instruments within the scores. Only using Chinese instruments now gives a modern, younger Chinese audience the impression that the score is old-fashioned or old school.”

"From a western point of view, Chinese orchestras are seen as having an ancient musical tradition, which, in fact, is not entirely true"

From a western point of view, Chinese orchestras are seen as having an ancient musical tradition, which, in fact, is not entirely true, as Wan explains: “There is actually not a lot of history behind Chinese orchestras. The Chinese instruments and orchestras only have about 100 years worth of history, because, during the times of the dynasty and the palaces, these instruments were only played and heard in these settings. If you weren’t noble or imperial, you wouldn’t hear this music. It wasn’t until the Qing dynasty opened the country that western culture began to flood in. That was when the western musical ideology flooded in too.”

This outside influence began to give Chinese musicians a new perspective on their native instruments.

“We began to see that we could not only use our instruments as solo instruments but also together as an orchestra. The thing about Chinese orchestras is that they’re not completely harmonic, a lot of the instruments don’t actually blend well together. Because of this, western instruments can be much better to convey certain emotions. Chinese instruments are mostly used on top of a western orchestra to emphasise that the story is based on Chinese culture or Chinese myth.”

Wan’s curious and rebellious nature drives him to try and break these musical traditions.

"The Chinese orchestra and instruments have a lot of unique characteristics not found in western music. When you write music for a Chinese orchestra, it’s about a lot more than just harmonies. It’s about the individual characteristics that a particular instrument gives you."

“I want to use Chinese instruments without it representing the area it is from geographically. That’s the challenge. It’s just a sound; it’s not Chinese, or Oriental, it’s just a unique sound that no western instruments have. The Chinese orchestra and instruments have a lot of unique characteristics not found in western music. When you write music for a Chinese orchestra, it’s about a lot more than just harmonies. It’s about the individual characteristics that a particular instrument gives you.” These distinctive qualities prove extremely useful when it comes to inspiring Wan’s music.

“When I was writing for Ne Zha, the director wanted a 4-5 second theme that would represent his heroic moments. It was so hard. Ne Zha is a character filled with contradictions—I needed to show his heroic side along with his evil side. For the heroic element, I used a french horn; but for the darker side, it didn’t make sense. In the end, I blended three instruments together to make it work. I used the French horn for the heroic side because of its full sound; I used the suona to represent his naughty characteristics, as its sound kind of stomps and thumps around. But the heavy, darker side was still missing. For this, I recorded the electric guitar. It worked out really well.”

Merging instruments and techniques from eastern and western music is one thing, but how does Wan take on the challenge of writing for two different audiences, oceans apart?

“I don’t approach a score differently depending on whether it’s a western or eastern audience. I only need a different approach when I’m dealing with directors from different countries. I don’t just mean Chinese and western directors. A director from Hong Kong is very different from a director in Mainland China. Their personalities are completely different.”

"As a composer working on a new project, you don’t have a movie budget on-hand right away, you need to show your ideas without a full orchestra at your disposal."

As a composer working on a new project, you don’t have a movie budget on-hand right away, you need to show your ideas without a full orchestra at your disposal. This has been a struggle for Wan in the past, as he explains:

“I need to present my ideas to a director before I record anything, due to the budget. So previously it’s been hard for me to show the Chinese orchestra elements. The western orchestra is a lot easier as there are so many more virtual instruments and great-sounding samples. But this is where you hit a hurdle with Chinese instruments. There aren’t many good Chinese sample libraries out there. The libraries that are available usually focus on individual instruments, rather than on an orchestra or ensembles. But now you have instruments like Phoenix Orchestra. I no longer need to describe my tracks with words. I don’t need to challenge the trust between myself and the director, they can hear exactly what I want to do. It’s perfect.”

“There are several instruments in Phoenix Orchestra that are so hard to sample—like the suona. If you hear someone play the suona, every note is different. It’s not exactly an articulation, it’s just the way that the player blows. If you play the virtual erhu with a different velocity, it almost bends the sound of the note, it’s very intuitive. You can’t get a more accurate sound with other libraries. What I’m most impressed with are the ensembles. If I’m honest, there are articulations that I had never even thought of. You really need to understand these instruments to create good demos, and I think that is where previous sound libraries have fallen flat. The good thing about Phoenix Orchestra is that by using this instrument, composers will get an education in how a Chinese orchestra really works.”

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