While most fresh university graduates are trying to start their careers, Elliot Ho Yat-leung is already a seasoned composer, who creates epic scores for the big screen. Young Post caught up with Leung in between rehearsals to find out more about how he became a professional composer, as well as his unconventional methods of composing music to enhance the magic of cinema.
Carrying his bulky electric cello with him wherever he goes, Leung remembers the day he decided to take up the instrument. “In primary school, I was given the choice between cello and violin. I picked the cello because I could sit down,” he laughs.
Cello is actually Leung’s second instrument; he started learning piano at the tender age of two. And while playing more than one instrument is helpful when it comes to writing music, Leung believes that there is a lot more to composing than just having an understanding of different instruments. “What truly sets composers apart,” he explains, “is their ability to organise the different sounds of the instruments into one focused and specific message.”
This makes composing sound like something best left to the masters, but Leung says basic composing is a fairly simple and straightforward process, one that doesn’t require a formal (or expensive) education.
“It’s definitely not a requirement to go to a music conservatory,” says Leung. “Composing is a train of musical thoughts, and music theory is merely one of many methods of organising them.”
One of the ways Leung likes to compose is by using a child’s building blocks.
“As a visual person, I like to use 12 blocks – each representing a note on the keyboard – to come up with a basic melody,” says Leung. He prefers this technique, because similar to writing a novel, and not being able to develop the story because you’re bogged down by the grammar, this allows him to unleash his creativity and develop ideas without being bound by music theory.
“When I use a computer to compose, I see technical things such as the C major chord or 4/4 time. But these things limit my creativity, whereas with blocks, I can stack them up in different ways and explore endless possibilities.”
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That being said, “when composing for TV shows or films, we have to be creative within limitations.” says Leung. The music has to not only fit into a specific time frame, but also establish the mood of a scene. When asked if there’s a secret recipe for it, he confesses that there is indeed a “Hollywood way” of evoking strong emotions in an audience.
“In the US, a lot of percussion or brass instruments are used, and a faster time signature will also help to build up the tension,” says Leung. “However, there isn’t a fixed formula as it varies from culture to culture. For instance, in Japan ‘epic music’ would consist mostly of woodwinds and string instruments.”
But not all films require this epic music, and sometimes it can be especially challenging to find the right emotion. Leung spoke of the time he had to compose the score for a horror film. Having never watched scary movies, he had no inspiration to draw from, so he had to put himself into the mindset of the character.
This ability to imagine the experiences of others has helped Leung create some very original pieces, but he admits that “stealing” has often been a part of his creative process. Russian composer Igor Stravinsky once famously said “good composers borrow, great composers steal”, and Leung says he agrees. “I take elements from my favourite pieces and put things around them to create a new piece,” he says. “My tastes change a lot, so my pieces are influenced by whoever I’m listening to at the moment.”
Currently, Leung is working on a musical called Field of Dreams, as well as some pieces for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It’s an exciting taste of success in what is clearly just the very beginning of an influential and long-lasting career in the film industry.