The Flexibility of Film Scoring: An Interview with Joyce Oh

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Yong Yue “Joyce” Oh, who composes film music as Joyce Oh, is an international award-winning pianist and multi-instrumentalist. 

One of her composition trademarks is skillfully combining orchestral music with ethnic and traditional instruments where appropriate. 

Like the most successful score composers, Oh’s work evolves and adapts to each project, which she recognizes as one of her most important abilities as a composer. 

She has built a reputation on finding just the right sound and tone for each film she works on, and she relishes the challenge that this level of flexibility demands. 

Jam Addict had the chance to interview Oh last week, and we’re excited to share that interview with our readers. 

We talked about the roots of Oh’s love of film and music as well as her careful approach to the use of world instruments in her work.  

joyce oh composer

Jam Addict (JA): Do you feel that your piano playing served as a ground-bed for your interest in composition? 

Joyce Oh (JO): Absolutely. When I was 13, my piano teacher told me, ‘Imagine playing this melody like how a violinist would, in legato. Now use this sound to guide you on the piano.’ 

It was such a fun and interesting perspective that it set my imagination ablaze. Since then, whenever I’m noodling around on the piano, I would imagine all the different instruments and colors in my head, like ‘this instrument will take over the melody, and then the whole orchestra would play this loud chorus section.’ 

I started listening to more film music to imagine what they would sound like.

JA: What were some of your earliest movie-watching experiences? 

JO: As a child, I watched both Western movies and Hong Kong dramas in the living room, mostly with my mom and my younger brother. 

We had just gotten Astro cable back then, and I was amazed by the variety of shows on Nickelodeon, Disney, HBO, TVB, and more. My first memorable experience in the cinema was ‘The Incredibles.’ 

I was 7 and had joined my cousin and her family on a day out. It left me feeling exhilarated, I absolutely loved it. After that, every trip to the cinema was a magical experience for me.

JA: You’ve mentioned using traditional/world instruments in your work. Does ethnomusicology play a role as well? 

JO: Yes! Although not as formal research, I do my best to search and read about what instruments are involved in the culture I’m writing for. Watching YouTube videos of tribes, events, and dances teaches me how they are used in an orchestration context. 

I’ve always been fascinated with history and the traditions of different cultures. As a musician, getting to know what music sounded like in the old times, and then transforming these elements into a modern score, is a delight.

JA: What have some of your most compelling composition projects been so far? 

JO: The latest score I wrote for ‘Unlike Any Other,’ a 15-minute documentary film on Black Lives Matter. 

It experiments with footage of a black woman, portraying her character, as the film transitions from being objectified, to being abused and killed, and to being glorified for her resilience. 

Each scene is so different, and yet, there is an other-worldly ancientness to it. Since the scenes have no dialogue or narration and are more in the nature of a montage, the score had to elevate the viewer’s experience. 

I experimented with West African tribal chants, soul R&B singers, classical choirs, African percussion, hip-hop, and cinematic orchestral writing. 

It is my most innovative score to date and one that I’m really proud of. It also helps that it was a project that I felt very strongly about.

JA: Do you enjoy the process of working with production professionals? 

JO: My experience working with them has been invaluable to me. Back in Malaysia, when I was working side-by-side with Sharon Paul, an award-winning composer and producer, I learned how to be quick in writing and producing music, without sacrificing quality. 

I loved that every day was a creative marathon. There was always a musical project given to me, be it for a dance concert, a trailer for Malaysia’s Tourism Department, a corporate charity event, or a hit song written for an artist. 

I learned to tailor the styles of my writing to each function. With Yuval Ron, world-renowned Israeli composer working in LA, not only my production value is pushed to a more professional level, but I also learned how the business is run. 

Often, as composers, we are so engrossed in improving our composition, but we have to remind ourselves that music-making is also a business and a trade.

joyce oh composer

JA: Do you like to feel challenged when working on a composition project? 

JO: Yes! I think every project has its own challenges, but at the end of the day, what I’m making is music. And in music, anything is possible. 

When I discover these challenges, I know that I’m on the path to improving my craft. My hope is that while there are still challenges, I will learn to be quicker at adapting.

JA: Are you excited for the entertainment industry to return to ‘business as usual’ over the next year? 

JO: Very much so. I’ve been lucky to have work to sustain myself this year while being able to stay creative. 

While I have had offers to collaborate to make music in the near future, this time is still a weird phase where things are going back to normal, but not enough where films and videos are being produced. 

I’m excited to have film festivals held in-person again, with in-person networking events so I can build an even wider clientele as a composer.

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