Welcome back to the Podium! This blog entry is in honour of the world premiere of The Suitcase, a short drama/fantasy film directed by Philip Leung, at the 20th annual Reel Asian International Film Festival last month in Toronto. As we go Inside the Federmusik in this episode, I put a long-standing love of East Asian music into practice as the heart of the soundtrack for this beautiful story.
The Suitcase is about a young girl, Jier (portrayed by Lori Phun), who is smuggled into Canada from a small town in rural China inside a suitcase. While on her journey, her mother (Tabitha Tao) remains in contact by phone to help her imagine what is happening outside, which plays out as a series of animated sequences on the inside of the suitcase, as if the movie in her mind is projected on a screen.
My connection to Philip indirectly stems from having scored John Lives Again in 2015. I chose to follow the careers of some of the JLA alums I had the pleasure of meeting at the cast and crew screening, one of whom was actor-comedian Gavin Crawford (This Hour Has 22 Minutes). I found out that Gavin was slated to host a comedy news quiz called Because News on CBC radio (Canada’s national broadcaster) starting in the fall of 2015, and decided to join the live studio audience for the taping of their first episode. They put on such a good show that I came back for more… and then kept on attending on an almost-weekly basis (I’m told that I’m known among the show’s staff as “The Superfan,” though I can’t imagine why… 😉 ).
Philip joined the Because News team as an associate producer in early 2016, bringing his experience from other shows on CBC, as well as that of a filmmaker; he’s the one behind the camera of the show’s hilarious web-extra videos. As I noticed that he and I had mutual contacts in the film and television industry beyond solely Gavin, I felt comfortable reaching out to him and connecting.
The Suitcase began its life as the winner of Reel Asian’s annual So You Think You Can Pitch competition in 2015. When I learned about the project the following spring, I was treated to a set of promotional videos, interviews with key creatives, rough animatics, and storyboards on the film’s website. It looked like such a beautiful project, and that Philip had assembled a solid team to put together a great film. However, one of the videos mentioned that the film was slated to screen at the Reel Asian International Film Festival, and I indeed noticed the Reel Asian logo on its preliminary poster (after all, one doesn’t usually announce a screening unless they have a finished film). I had every reason to believe that this suitcase had already closed…
…until I saw that he issued a casting call for additional actors over the summer. “Wait a minute,” I excitedly thought to myself. “That means it hasn’t been filmed yet!”
Without hesitation, I sent a message to the director, asking to have a conversation with him about his potential musical needs. Thanks to the available materials on the film’s website, I was already equipped with a good sense of the scope and depth of the story and the overall aesthetics of the project. I knew that he was on to something incredibly special.
Meanwhile, Philip took the initiative to listen to some of my music. He was taken by my use of melody (particularly my handling of the pentatonic variety, as in Forester’s Theme), my treatment of tone colour, and my willingness to use an instrumental palette that included elements from outside of a strictly Western ensemble.
How far outside?
One thing that many directors may not readily assume about me is that in my academic background as an ethnomusicologist, I deeply studied various musical traditions of East Asia, both traditional and contemporary, particularly those of Japan and China. On the practical side, I started experimenting with writing in those musical idioms over 15 years ago, and in the intervening years supplemented my interest with practical experience on Japanese taiko drums, the koto and shamisen, and the Chinese erhu.
As part of my studies (adventures?) in East Asian musicology, I participated in a Chinese ensemble, which served to consolidate and expand upon my knowledge of how to write idiomatically for these instruments. My interest in and experience with traditional Chinese music — and specifically the music from the region where the film just so happens to be set — came to the fore.
How is this applicable in film scoring?
One of the many functions that music can perform in film is to establish the setting. Alexandre Desplat’s Oscar-winning score to The Grand Budapest Hotel and Bear McCreary’s Outlander soundtrack spring to mind as two recent exemplars of this idea, evoking the spirit of Eastern Europe and Jacobean Scotland, respectively, through the use of instrumentation, musical texture, and the crafting or quotation of melodies and rhythms that are appropriate to the chosen idiom and musical traditions. Often, composers will consult musicologists to enable them to make musical decisions that will serve the narrative in an informed and sensitive way; my research background allows me to perform that step for myself.
However, not every director desires the score to perform this function, for fear of it being too on-the-nose for the audience, too literal a representation of what is already on the screen, or otherwise risk venturing into the realm of cliché. I respect this viewpoint as being as valid as any other, and regard each position as ripe with the potential for great creative opportunities. Knowing this, I cautiously asked Philip how he felt about using Chinese instruments in the score.
His eyes positively lit up.
Calling on my reserve of knowledge on Jiangnan sizhu (“south-of-the-Yangtze-River silk-and-bamboo”) repertoire, Chinese opera, work songs, and even the bombast of Chinese 20th-century orchestral works and the lyricism of film score, I immediately began to compile a list of ideas as long as my arm for the sound of The Suitcase. Phil subsequently forwarded me a copy of the script and storyboards, the materials used in his winning pitch, and a few musical references — which sounded fairly close to what I was already considering! Being on the same artistic and aesthetic page as the director, even before the film was shot, was an incredibly rewarding feeling.
Filling the Suitcase with Music
As a musical-narrative starting point, I wanted to consider the score first from the perspective of Jier and what her internal soundtrack might be. I approached that decision based on what she might have heard in the home growing up. If the imaginative animated sequences are about how she perceives the world outside her suitcase, then it stood to reason that her mental movie must have a fitting soundtrack.
I decided to use a small Chinese ensemble as the core of my instrumentation, featuring erhu, dizi, guzheng, pipa, and xiaoruan. I hired Samuel Bisson, the cellist of the Odin Quartet, to come in and round out the group, and even featured him in a duet for cello and erhu later on in the film. I supported this live instrumentation with prerecorded piano, percussion, and orchestral strings.
In our preliminary meetings and correspondence about the score, I marvelled at how vividly Phil described the opening of the film: like an opera, with traditional-style Chinese music, complete with a thrilling conclusion as the curtain falls (or, rather, the suitcase closes), at the end of Act One. From this description, I knew exactly what he wanted, and I took the opportunity to write an original piece that fit within the sizhu idiom (more on that later).
I was formally announced as the composer for The Suitcase in late September, barely more than a month before delivery of the film was due. The press release written by the producer, Graham Folkema, held up two iconic scores of James Horner, Braveheart and Legends of the Fall, as ideal examples of film scoring. “Their triumphal yet eerie and emotional soundtracks still echo in my mind,” he wrote. “For The Suitcase we want to capture this magic.”
Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants!
What I inferred from Graham’s love of Horner scores (and, as I found out during my spotting session, Phil’s love of Miyazaki films) was that I had the green light to employ a set of recurring, recognizable melodies to emphasize the fantastic elements in this film, rather than furtively sneaking motifs into textures (so, no clever cryptograms this time).
The first melody that I composed for The Suitcase was a playful, rustic work tune that would be featured during an animated sequence at the start of Jier’s journey. In this scene, her mother tells her (and she imagines) that her suitcase is travelling on the backs of pigs, taking her from their family farm to a giant cannon that will shoot her across the ocean. This tune effectively becomes Jier’s theme.
The theme is constructed in essentially a verse-and-chorus structure. The melody is constructed primarily in a pentatonic (5-note) mode, though I use an auxiliary tone from the heptatonic (7-tone) scale in the chorus. Both of these scales are idiomatic of traditional-style Chinese music.
We hear a quotation of the first section of this theme again in the middle of the film, when the suitcase is being handled by baggage inspectors and sniffed at by guard dogs (which her mother assures her are friendly).
Her theme is also used as the basis of the end credits (and why not? It’s her story, after all), which I present in a rousing rendition for full orchestra plus Chinese ensemble, as if it were a theatrical curtain call.
The second theme that I wrote was a lyrical melody that characterizes the journey itself: bittersweet and full of longing, with the promise of things to come. While the melody is not strictly constructed on the pentatonic row, its modal gestures remain reminiscent of a Chinese melody. The Journey Theme sheds some of the rigidity and angular motion of Jier’s Theme and is more exploratory and fluid in the character of its melodic arc.
We first hear this theme in a duet for erhu and piano when Jier bids farewell to her mother, shortly before the plane departs. The theme then repeats over the course of her journey in a variety of instrumental combinations. I mirror the transition in the narrative from East to West with a similar shift in instrumentation, eventually ending with a full statement of the theme on lush orchestral strings and piano, with just a hint of dizi filigree.
The first theme that we hear in the film was actually the last one that I wrote. While I was relatively quick to write the themes that represent Jier and her journey, the Home Theme, which serves as a musical anchor for the entire film (and is the first sonic impression that the film makes!) needed more time and reflection.
The film opens with the sound of a small, traditional Chinese ensemble supported by orchestral strings as we soar above rural China, over a village nestled in the hills outside Shanghai. As we dissolve inside the home where Jier lives with her mother, we hear this tune (now sans strings) quietly emanating from the radio, and so begins the blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality. That we treat the music in this way is intended to almost subliminally condition the audience to accept that this film and its narrative will dance between the worlds of real life and imagination.
We could have chosen to license a piece of traditional folk music for the sake of having something semi-recognizable playing on the radio. Perhaps we could have placed a song from the vast repertoire of Chinese opera to represent the notion that Jier’s life is about to become a grand drama. However, the advantage of writing an original piece — especially for this purpose — was that it could be used elsewhere in the film as thematic material. Additionally, I was able to tailor the cue such that the end of the melody could weave seamlessly into the broader musical narrative and segue into the following segment.
As we progress through this scene, Jier’s mother assuages her fears by telling fanciful tales of this nigh-mythical land called Canada, much the same way that previous generations spun yarns of Gam Saan, the “Gold Mountain” of San Francisco (and later, British Columbia). Instead of gold, however, images of cartoon moose, squirrels, beavers, and “a building taller than the sky” dance in her head, set to a quotation of O, Canada (or, rather, 啊，加拿大), no less! Underneath this sequence, the melody from the radio ends and melds into a fuller, clearer dramatic underscore as the more fantastic elements of the story begin to take over with us catching a glimpse of Jier’s imagination.
One key element of traditional Chinese music that I wished to represent in this cue is the texture created by the interaction of the instruments within the ensemble. In a piece such as this, all of the musicians play the same basic tune together, but each one interprets it in a way that is characteristic of their instrument, ornamenting the melody with idiomatic embellishments: trills on dizi, tremolo on pipa, glissandi on guzheng, portamento on erhu, and so on. I included a simulation of how these improvised embellishments might sound in my demos for the director and producer, so they would get a sense of how real players might present my melody.
Only one problem with that: if I wrote them in, then they aren’t truly improvised. In reality, the embellishments are natural and unplanned. Further, musicians who are skilled at this kind of repertoire will develop a sense for not merely how a melodic line should be appropriately interpreted, but also when other musicians in the ensemble will spontaneously decide to ornament.
How can we reconcile this concept of scripted spontaneity?
On the sheet music (particularly for the more ornament-heavy dizi and guzheng parts), I opted to include both the plain melody line for reference, as well as a version decorated with suggested ornamentation and marked with articulation. I asked my performers to do their best to play the embellishments that I had written, but also granted them the freedom to to amend the part or add their own, as they saw fit. I trusted in my musicians, and they delivered.
Once the journey is underway, we do not hear this theme again until Jier reaches her new home, where the melody is subtly stated on solo piano to bookend the narrative.
I wish to extend my gratitude to the members of my music team: Dora Wang (dizi), Cynthia Qin (guzheng), Kate Tian (pipa & xiaoruan), Samuel Bisson (cello), Mateo Palmisano (engineer), and Matthew Van Driel (producer). I also owe the success of this score to Ron Korb for recommending such fantastically talented musicians to me, and to Gary Honess, owner of Kühl Muzik, for helping me arrange the recording session.
Finally, thank you, Phil and Graham, for letting this Superfan use his powers of superfandom for the good of your film.
The trailer for the film is below:
THE SUITCASE premiered at the Reel Asian International Film Festival in Toronto. In addition to the musical traditions of Japan and China, David also has a deep love for and great practical experience with Baroque, Renaissance, and Celtic repertoire. Hint, hint. 😉