Alex Rhodes

Composer | Arranger | Editor

The Chinese Dynamo Project: Week 5

A Melding of Hemispheres II

As I begin working on the final culmination of this project’s knowledge and culture, there is one last step I want to take to relate everything we have studied to a more modern context. Last week I introduced a small case study we would be undertaking surrounding a few video game cues composed by Jack Wall. Specifically, two cues entitled “In Darkness” and “The 54 Immortals” (with an extra at the end named “Into the Q Zone”). Although these video game scores are in no sense classical Chinese music like what we’ve been studying for the past weeks, there are some noteworthy key implementations of Asian styles that expertly bridge that gap between hemispheres of composition that might prove for an interesting study. Now this following exploration will not necessarily be incredibly in-depth, but it’s important to notice those elements that we’ve been discussing in order to understand how they’re able to work in my own music. Also, a considerable thank you to Jack Wall for providing me with the sheet music for these cues so I could really examine each piece. Every composition featured during this week’s project update is composed by Jack Wall; you can check his website out here:   

In Darkness

Let’s begin with what I think is the most established, and my favorite, of the three cues. “In Darkness” introduces the player to an entirely new palate of sound and color when they first enter the area it depicts, as a dark, stormy, post-apocalyptic representation of Southeast Asia. The most prevalent Asian instrument featured in this song, along with the other two we will be looking at, is the Erhu. In all three pieces, the Erhu serves as the melodic focus that carries the entirety of the tone of the surrounding scenes. Already, the listener can hear the mixture between a western string orchestra and recognizable blockbuster percussion with the tonal percussion and the solo strings of Asian music. However, the most interesting aspect of this piece is the melody itself. Although I can’t speak for Jack’s intentions with the theme, I was surprised to find that the melody specific to “In Darkness” followed the idea of the pentatonic scale rather well.

To begin, the piece is in the key of D minor with a sharp 7th scale degree, making it akin to a harmonic minor. The melody begins on a G natural, the 4th scale degree of D minor. If we were to follow that basis of the melody, the pentatonic scale starting on a G natural in D minor would include the notes G, A natural, B flat, D natural, and E natural. After transcribing the main theme (pictured below), it became evident that if there was a pentatonic scale to be attributed, the Zi scale (starting on the 4th scale degree), fits remarkably.

 A simple rendition of the main theme from "In Darkness", composed by Jack Wall.

A simple rendition of the main theme from "In Darkness", composed by Jack Wall.

Based on these five aforementioned notes, you can tell the melody centers around this idea almost exclusively. However, as with most western representations of the mixing of musical styles, there are exceptions. Notice in measure 2 of the melody there is an F natural (repeated again in measure 3 with a grace note), and in measures 8-9 a C sharp is present. Those are the remaining two notes in a regular diatonic scale, you might say (although this still exists with G as the tonic). You’re not wrong. However, even if it wasn’t entirely deliberate, there is still that audible focus on the Zi scale. Both the F naturals and C sharps present are considerably dissonant and sound to me as if they are passing tones- albeit, both held longer than the normal passing tone.  But look to where they lead: always (within one or two steps) to a scale degree in a G minor chord. I don’t think it’s simply a coincidence that there is such a focus on that G-B flat-D chord in the key of D minor with an emphasis on reaching each point in the pentatonic scale. Again, a lot of this is speculation, but it’s interesting just to see how certain stylistic techniques can not only inspire the creation of this piece, but also the analysis.

The 54 Immortals & Into the Q Zone

These pieces don’t exactly have a clear association to the pentatonic scale like the previous piece does. However, there are certain elements present here that also make “The 54 Immortals” and “Into the Q Zone” interesting to examine. Listen to both pieces together, and consider what you hear in terms of similarities between the two, and similarities to “In Darkness”.

Again, looking specifically at the melodies played in the Erhu, there are certain qualities that make each piece sound alike (besides merely the similar instrumentation). I was able to do a brief review of the sheet music for both of these pieces, and actually found it more difficult than “In Darkness” to find a correspondence to the use of a pentatonic scale. For the majority of the 54i theme (which is also noticeably present in “Into the Q Zone”), the 4th and 7th scale degree of any plausible scale is used too often to be purely passing tones. However, something else might lead me to believe a particular semblance of a pentatonic scale hidden in the depths of symphonic orchestration: both pieces here are written with a D as the tonic (in both its harmonic introduction and the pedal point heard), the main melody centers around an A natural, yet the accidentals seen throughout points towards a G minor key. Even though there might be something completely unrelated or more complicated at work here, this is strikingly similar to the use of the Zi scale, beginning on the 4th scale degree, within “In Darkness”. Though it seems to be much more hidden and complex in these two pieces, there’s that undeniable feel of the Asian style with the minor 3rd and perfect 4th intervals between notes of the scale utilized (not to mention the prolific work of that amazing sounding Erhu).


Now that we’ve gone through every simple and complex topic I wanted to explore in Chinese compositions, the following three weeks of updates will be exclusively focused on my own work implementing these concepts into an original piece. And now that I have access to an excellent sound Erhu, I’m really excited to see how I go about initiating the piece in the next week.