sotonDH Small Grants: Re-scoring Princess Iron fan – Post 1

sotonDH Small Grants: Re-scoring Princess Iron fan (1941) for PhD composition portfolio – Post 1 by Yu-Ching Cha

Introduction to the research

This portfolio of compositions centres around a complete re-scoring of the 73 minute long Chinese animated film Princess Iron Fan (1941), combining contemporary Western scoring methods and aesthetics with source material from the Tang Dynasty, when the story was set. The goal is to then present my new score in at least one art-house cinema or concert hall with live musicians alongside pre-recorded electronic instruments.

Princess Iron fan is very important for Asian culture because it was the first full length animated motion picture created in Asia and only the 12th worldwide, arriving in cinemas only two years after Disney’s Snow White and the 7 Dwarves which inspired its creation. The directors Wan Guchan and Wan Lai Ming combine a visual style from Chinese landscape painting with a line drawing character style that is influenced by early Disney films, especially with biped animal characters that are given moments of physical comedy informed by early Disney films such as Steamboat Willy. Moreover, it is a visually striking, unexpectedly funny film that is little known in the west.

My aim is to explore the relationships between ancient Chinese and contemporary mainstream Western musical cultures, techniques and aesthetics, creating a hybrid musical language which responds both to the demands of the film structure but also reflects the hybrid nature and visual and narrative content of the film itself. The wider dialogue between East and West, and the past and present has a strong resonance on a political and cultural level within Asia, and the film has a strong contemporary relevance. Not only could a new score bring out these themes in a different way than the original: such a project, if presented publicly could give this unusual and important film a new audience.

The research context here has been partly archival in nature: I have spent time examining material from the Tang period in library in the National Taipei University of the Arts from sources that have not yet been translated into English. Much of the material from this period comes from the Dunhuang Pu Qu, which is the name of a scroll written at the time and discovered in a cave in the Dunhuang region in 1900. It has received considerable academic attention from Chinese and Japanese Scholars. According to the Professor In-Shi Chen in ShangHai conservatory of music, there are different versions of Dunhuang manuscript because it was transcribed and edited by different scholars.

I particularly focused on Dunhuang Pu Qu, edited by Ye Dong; Wuxuan Pipapu and Jen Chih Yao Lu, edited by the Japanese scholar Tang Zhuan. I also used the melody type of Xingjiang music as well as the feature of Kugar music drawn from this period. For example, Xinjiang folk songs which is collected from Tangdai Yinyue Shi ( Music history in Tang Dynasty), edited by Guan Yeh Wei (2006). The transcriptions of the scholars were the most complete and understandable.

From these sources I selected certain modes. For example, Muqam melody types of Xinjiang music, the Chinese mode shang dau shi from Dunhuang music, which have some similarities to Greek modes (e.g. mixolydian). In terms of instrumentation, I used Pipa, Erhu and Zheng. These no longer exist or have anyone who can play the ancient instruments, so I have used the modern Pipa which sounds similar and the Erhu, which was I sound I preferred. In my research, I will invite the Taiwanese musicians who are professional at traditional instruments performance. In terms of the form from Dunhuang music, it tends to use short song forms often with AB or ABA repeating structures.

The methodology behind the score structure is largely leitmotiv in nature following the character-theme approach to scoring first developed by Wagner in opera and taken up by early film composers like Korngold in the 1930’s which came back into fashion on the 1970’s with Star Wars and the John Williams generation. There are also sections of material where I have abandoned using strict leitmotivc lead material and followed the mood/ ambience of the dramatic thrust of each scene for dramaturgical reasons. One of the reasons I am doing so is because the original score was not composed in this way, and yet the approach to Disney films of the time was largely leitmotivic.

In taking a largely western approach to an Asian film and it sets up some interesting questions about cultural identity, authenticity and appropriation. This film is an intriguing cultural artifact, where the distinctions between east and west are crossed and crossed again. I am an Asian composer using a western methodology with authentic Eastern materials for an old Asian film, which uses western media to tell, and Asian story. If one was to compare this to for example, Jerry Goldsmith’s score to the 1998 film Mulan (dong similar things except that it is a Western composer depicting the East) also a western depiction of the east, one can see a surface level engagement with Chinese musical colours (Chinese flute, pentatonic melodies) but not the deeper engagement with actual materials written at the time for the story.

Progress Update

For the composition progress, the process is fairly consistent with my experience of composing music for films. The first step is to make the Cue sheet. I divided the 73 minutes of film into 9 sections each of which is around 8 minutes.    Second, I de-constructed every section to 4 to 5 cues and every cue is between 30 seconds and two minutes and covers a small dramatic incident – a decision, a discussion, a small journey. The second step is to write music for each character for central characters, composing around 30 to 50 bars on a piano staff. There will be 8 themes. In the following step, I did the spotting. After I decided the tempo and style, I wrote a description about action. I am likely to complete the composition of the score by November 2013, as well as set up the recording and any performance of the music, which I expecting to be ready in January 2014.

In addition I will have to manage recreating the sound design and dialogue and this is what the purpose of this award is for. I will assimilate a script for the entre film, and assemble and rehearse Chinese voice actors and actresses for the central characters of the film: the Monkey, the Pig, Princess Iron-Fan, the Sandy, the old monk, the Bull King, the Buddha Xuan Zang and the Princess Jade. I plan to pay for the seven voice actors/actresses and the script editor directly this funding award.

The result of the project

Besides the artistically exciting challenge of creating a new score for a little known masterpiece of early world cinema, and the dialogue between cultural identities and perceptions that the process would develop, any public performance that could ensue would be an eloquent reflection on the lively and dynamic research culture in Music and the School of Humanities. The research project could be quite high profile and public – if shown in a concert venue (as was done for John Garden’s re-scoring of The Lost World in the Turner Sims concert Hall in October 2010) or at an Arts House Cinema.