Alex Rhodes

Composer | Arranger | Editor

The Chinese Dynamo Project: Week 1

Foreword & Overview

This is the commencement of an 8-week long project where I familiarize myself with the instrumentations, harmonies, forms, and methods of classical Chinese music, then incorporate these techniques into my own work.

A quick note on why this project is called The Chinese Dynamo Project: the name is not entirely random. Part of it was based on my recent viewing of Darkest Hour (2017), but the name also speaks to what I am trying to accomplish in these 8 weeks. Fundamentally, I am trying to expand my unique style to encompass foreign techniques and harmonies that have become increasingly popular in many entertainment mediums in the last years. If I have learned anything from scoring student films, it is that I often run into difficulties deviating from my established style. The actual term “dynamo” refers to a generator that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy for a more efficient use of power. It may seem like a stretch, but I feel like this is what I’m going for in my work: a conversion (of sorts) from a traditional use of ethnic instrumentations and styles to a more modern base of an electroacoustic mode that makes up my style. This isn’t to say I want to change my style of writing at all. Rather, I want to gain the experiences of writing non-western music in order to be able to travel to those distant lands when I (hopefully) score for those epic video game titles we know so well. The specific study of Chinese music simply comes from the prolific use of the style in some of my favorite video game composers.

The final step in this challenging project is introduced in the implementation phase. I will be using Jack Wall’s score for the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (2015) as a study subject to contrast my work. He is one of the most prolific examples of my aforementioned experience listening to eastern styles of composition being implemented into American composers’ works. I will then apply what I have learned in the ensuing weeks into an original piece that melds the two hemispheres of musical variation.

If I haven’t been completely clear, here is the rough timeline of the process.

An Introduction to Chinese Compositions            

The first objective I have in familiarizing myself with this style is learning about the actual instruments that have been developed in Chinese music as staples in popular repertoire. Before, I only knew of one or two instruments, mostly due to their common incorporation with western film scores because of their similarities to modern orchestral instruments that we see every day. However, my research on traditional Chinese instrumentations proved futile when attempting to limit my searches to peer-reviewed scholarly articles or journals. I might just be a bad researcher, but finding out information at a basic level of just learning instrument names and techniques do not really exist within such confined search limitations. So, for the sake of ease of learning (and hopefully not at the expense of accuracy), I will also be incorporating non-scholarly citations as sources for my studies. I did find a lot of good sources for learning the absolute basics of Chinese instrumentation: one of them being a fellow classmate, who gave me a basic rundown of his experiences with a few of the techniques inherent in the repertoire. But more on that at a later date.

Surprisingly, the majority of my information came from a rather interesting documentary I found from a news source called China Central Television. The first chapter of the documentary will be embedded below, and I will return to this at a later date as well.

The History of Chinese Musical Instruments: Part 1. From New Frontiers, produced by CCTV International. Extract provided for embed by eagle3x8.

The Overwhelming Instrument Collection

I figured that this documentary, as well as a site I found laying out the absolute fundamental basics of the most prevalent instruments, would provide a good starting point to learning about this topic. However, as would happen with most projects during the first week of work, I became astounded with how much I would really have to learn in just four weeks of study. So, I decided on a workaround that would allow me to really apply the Chinese style to the idea of video game orchestration, without overwhelming my project with weeks of history and instruments. I decided to dedicate my time (at least in the next week or so) to learning four core instruments that are commonly seen implemented in modern video game and film scores. The list of four I came up with is based on my own knowledge of overall use, recommendations from musicians, and what instruments were the most prolific in searches. This way, I can really focus on what I think is the most imperative part of composing in a traditional Chinese style: the actual meaning and technique behind the music.           

So, based on these parameters, I will be studying the following:

Now in the midst of the education phase, I need to have studied the instrumentation, traditional forms, and harmonies by the time I begin my original work. While I have chosen the four instruments with which I will study and write my piece, I have begun learning and experimenting with how each instrument is commonly written. During the next project update, I will be summarizing my studies regarding each instrument, and begin delving into how each one is utilized in a complete piece (taking orchestration, form, and tonality into account). This will be a weekly look into my project process, updated every Tuesday to Wednesday (give or take). Of course, I spent a large portion this week introducing the process and generally collecting my thoughts. I am extremely excited to undergo this learning process, so make sure to return every week until I eventually create an original work unlike anything I have ever attempted before.

-Alex