Culture Vulture (Oct. 17 2012)
(VNS) Composer Dang Huu Phuc has won many prizes for his film scores at domestic and international film festivals. His profound knowledge of Vietnamese folk music and culture along with his established record of success has seen him become much sought-after by movie directors. He talks about his career.
What is reason for you to write scores?
Creating music is my job. I started writing film scores to earn money. I think many composers writing scores to earn a living, but it can be a hobby as well.
However, I do not love writing scores. I get more satisfaction from writing independent compositions. Scores today do not make a contribution to the development of music. Most are produced with electronic tools and have a lack of ideas. In Viet Nam, it is difficult to record ten musicians playing at the same time. Studios have been designed for three musicians only, so you have to work with that. Normally, movie producers will not invest in an orchestra because of the high cost.
Do you think writing a score takes as much time and effort now for professional writers as it used to?
It took me about five months to write the score for Thoi Xa Vang (A Distant Past), which won the award at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2005. That wouldn't happen these days. Writing scores has become an industrialised process. Most of scores now are created very quickly.
When I was among the jurors at a recent annual awards of the Viet Nam Cinematography Association, I could not give the best score award to a nominee as he told me that he had just downloaded the music from the internet and paid royalties.
Nowadays a score is a kind of commodity. It is not a creation. It can be thrown away after being used, it leaves no cultural impression.
A graduate from a musical academy is qualified to write a music piece. Like studying in a literature school, we learn how structure an essay or imagine a character. The problem is that everything taught at school has been tried many times before by many people. An artist always needs to create new things.
Nobody can teach truly how to compose a musical work. It requires experiment. A score writer must find his/her own way. It is quite different from writing a song.
Is it necessary to have a song in a movie ?
Movies in Viet Nam and other countries often have a main song as a way of adding publicity. Many classics have gone without though. For example, the Italian movie Life is Beautiful did not contain a song but it still won the hearts of audiences from all over the world.
Often films have a song as a centrepiece to keep up with the demands of popular entertainment. Take for example the song My Heart Will Go On from the movie Titanic. It is not special but it is very well-known and has been successful due to many things. It instantly brings back memories of the film. It cannot stand alone. If someone listens to the song without seeing Titanic I think they would be unimpressed.
The score on the other hand is vital in making a movie enjoyable and touching. Cinema is a comprehensive art which is supported a great deal by the music.
What problems do you see in writing score in Viet Nam?
The problem is often with the writers, whose work is not art. But it is also the case that directors don't care much about composers' ability. They just want to work with new composers who have released a few songs. Paying emerging writers is also cheaper than hiring established people. This situation is upsetting for professional writers.
I think a lot of composers want to work on films just for the money. Sometimes, I have said I don't want to use my name in the introductory credits as I do not want to be directly associated with the project as it is not something I feel passionate about. The director usually insists that I use my real name though as it is well-known. It is very difficult. At present I am not interested in writing scores anymore, I want to enjoy working on my own projects.
Is your score for the award-winning movie Thoi Xa Vang your best work?
The success of that came from blending different traditional Vietnamese music genres such as folk, chau van (spiritual singing accompanying mediumship ritual) and the northern style of cheo (traditional opera).
The score inspired a lot of people because all the music was quintessentialy Vietnamese. I always try to use traditional music when I am writing scores, but it depends on the movie's subject.
Thoi Xa Vang is about rural Vietnamese life, so I had the freedom to use influences from traditional music. — VNS