July 25, 2015
Music composer Ricky Ho at work
Acclaimed composer, Ricky Ho, has been creating music for films that include 12 Lotus, Dance of the Dragon, Zu Warriors and A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation among many others. Ho sealed his success by receiving the prestigious Golden Horse Awards Hall of Fame in 2011 when he won the Best Original Film Score for his work in Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale in Taiwan.
A graduate of the Grove School of Music in Los Angeles, Ho went on to write music for films and conduct orchestras in most parts of the Asia-Pacific. Aside from his two great passions, Ho also went on winning awards from all over the world for his work on Bank of China’s Girl by the River TV commercial and a nomination at the British Design and Art Direction (BDAD) Awards 2001 for his work on Nippon Paint’s Xinjiang. As a music producer, Ho has produced and arranged many of the contemporary album masterpieces in the Asian and international music scene.
This year, at the recent Apollo Awards held in Singapore in June, Ho won the award for Music Composition for HBO Asia’s four-part series Grace. The horror mini-series was the third original production and the first that was wholly conceived and developed by HBO Asia. The series centres on a family man with a dark secret that threatens his family to unspeakable horror. Directed by Tony Tilse, Ho and his team—composed of Rennie Gomes and Fred Emory Smith—breathe life to the series’ nerve rattling sound and music. Rechelle talks to Ricky Ho on how he got involved in the production for Grace and how it is like to create hair raising score for horror series.
Firstly, tell us more about the series Grace and how your music was used in the series. How did you get involved? Who are in your creative team?
My team was composed of my business partner, Rennie Gomes, and Fred Emory Smith from California. Rennie and I first met with director Tony Tilse. We discussed the style of music, spotting where the music should start, etc. But importantly, he gave us a free hand to create and compose. We had come to an agreement that the music should be sparse, not too melodic and with more drone sound effects.
Can you tell us more about the creative process involved and how music was conceptualised? How long did production take?
I had to work closely with Rennie as Grace’s audio is very sound effects driven. Sound design is very important for this movie. Music, in this case, is only a supporting element. We were careful not to get into each another’s way and most of the time, the music had to give way to Rennie’s sound design because it was more important and Tony wanted it that way. As for how much time I had to finish this project? Not very much. I had less than two months to finish the four series.
What were the inspirations in developing the musical style for Grace?
For me, the inspiration always comes from the picture or visual. A nicely shot film is always inspiring and in this case, Tony did an excellent job and I was inspired to work on it. And when inspiration comes, I usually work a lot faster. As the compositions are not melodic, there wasn’t much music theme development but I had put in more musical sound effects and drone effects to make it sound more eerie and haunting.
How different was it to compose music for Grace compared to your earlier projects in films, TV series or commercials?
I would say it’s a 180-degree turn. It’s totally different from what I had done before. I used orchestras in most of my past movie projects and for Grace, I used all electronics and computer music. It was a pleasant change. I have no complaints.
What’s the most challenging part of creating music for the series? The most fun?
The challenging part was (laughter) trying to finish as much as I could before the sky went dark. It is scary to do this kind of projects at night. The fun part was to work with Rennie to see how my music would merge with his sound design. We didn’t fight at all. I gave in most of the time knowing that his sound design was more important. Sometimes I have to take a back seat. We do what is best for the movies. Personal glory… later.
How difficult was it for you to find the right tone for each scenes?
Not difficult at all. Horror movies are not complicated to work on. You just need to decide whether you want it subtle or with a loud bang.
How did you differentiate the characters by music?
Sometimes by the tone of the musical sound and sometimes by the theme, a same few notes could be used each time a character appears.
Conversely, was it important for the score to have moments that were actually scary in a horror film or series?
Yes, of course. At certain points of Grace, music played an important role. It was also used to make the audience feel unsettled. Music can be very emotive but it can also be very disturbing — that’s the power of music.
Why do you think the violin is particularly effective in horror soundtracks?
If played correctly, it could sound very eerie. You can also create sound effects with the violins.
How do you view your importance as a music composer/designer at energising classic genre characters and horror series for a new generation?
Well, “audio” is becoming more and more important in film projects. Very often, we, the composers, were asked to save the pictures. If the movies did not turn out how it should be, music could actually make the film look better. And in this new era, music for movies are not always “MUSIC” anymore if you know what I mean. You need to be creative. You need to think out of the box. Be different. One very simple example, in a battle scene, soldiers went insane fighting, killing, everyone went mad. It was chaotic. In many cases, the music should be dark and yet strong and powerful—action kind of music etc. But how about “silence”—no music, no sound effects, just dead silence? That gives a totally different feel. That would also give the audience some space to think and reflect. Sometimes, I think film composers have to act as psychologists in order to use music to manipulate the viewers’ minds.
What do you think makes a good music and lyricist team?
Music is very subjective. One might love your music but the other guy next door might hate it. There is no right or wrong in music, just good taste or bad taste.