Tuesday, 23rd April 2024

Tuesday, 23rd April 2024

Making music again: Award-winning film composer on returning to her first love

25 Mar 2024

Doing anything with music always felt right for composer Emily Wong, who produced her debut album at age eight and joined the Music Elective Programme at school. How did she end up reading law? Or nab an award for film-scoring? Schoolbag tracks her journey towards a career in the arts.

Perched at the edge of her Casio keyboard, Ms Emily Wong fiddled with its many buttons, stopping only when she found a suitable backing track. With a drum beat thumping in the background, she got to writing her next song, fascinated by the way the keys would light up when she pressed them.

Song topic of the day? Life’s vicissitudes and the struggles that come with heartbreak.

Ms Wong was only eight years old then and inspired by pop tunes on the radio. While most children her age detailed their lives in diaries, she found her solace in songs. Ten catchy singalong tracks later and her debut album was ready: a record titled “100% A Superstar”.

“My dad filmed me and burned my songs into CDs, which I sold for $5 to friends and family,” the 30-year-old recalls fondly.

Little did she know that it would be a prelude of things to come. Fast forward to today and she is an internationally acclaimed composer, having written works for live performances, commercials and, most significantly, the big screen.

Music: 1, Sports: Nil

From age seven, Ms Wong’s parents signed her up for piano and violin lessons.

She enjoyed music in her life, but also felt that she should try out something a bit more active. At Nanyang Girls High School, when it was time to choose a co-curricular activity (CCA), she joined the badminton team with the hopes of trying something new. But her foray into sports was short-lived.

“I quit after two weeks. It was the universe saying, ‘Please, just don’t’,” she says, laughing. At least she discovered what didn’t work for her. In the end, she stuck to what she knew best and joined the symphonic band, where she picked up the clarinet.

Music continued to fill much of her student life when she joined the school’s Music Elective Programme.

Besides allowing her to delve deeper into music history, the programme was also where she met and was surrounded by like-minded music lovers for the first time. She no longer had to “force” her friends to skip recess to practise with her – these new friends all shared the same passion!

As a performer, she successfully auditioned at Secondary 3 to join the Singapore National Youth Orchestra as a violinist. But she yearned to do more than just perform on stage. “I enjoyed the repertoire, but it was not comparable to the joy of creating something I could call my own,” she reflects. She relished the personal aspect of composing, and revelled in the thought of seeing and hearing other musicians playing her works.

At this point, her compositions had evolved from her primary school days, thanks to both formal music training and the process of growing up. “Composing was where my heart was truly telling me to go,” she says.

Yet, she still did not follow her heart.

Ms Wong and her course convenor at New York University, remotely supervising a recording session of her composition Beyond performed by a full orchestra in Budapest. This was in 2019, when she was studying for her Masters in Film Scoring.

Detour to law and reprise

In fact, Ms Wong’s decision to study law at the National University of Singapore (NUS) was rather unexpected.

“Music was always a constant in my life, but I just wasn’t brave enough at that point in time to actually pursue it professionally,” she laments. With her sister reading medicine at the time, having a lawyer in the family seemed like “the missing puzzle piece to form a self-sufficient organisation” at home, she jokes.

And yet, she could not make a clean break with her first love. Even as she studied law, she dedicated whatever free time she had to music. In her final semester, she maxed out on her non-law electives to study World Music Ensemble at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in NUS and Creative Music Composition at the then Yale-NUS, among others.

It was only a year after passing the bar and working at a local law firm that she realised her longing for music, which she tried to set aside, was resurfacing. “At a certain point, I realised life is short and the only one denying myself the opportunity to put music front and centre was myself,” she admits. “I didn’t even try. What happened to the girl whose dream was to be ‘100% A Superstar’?”

She did the only thing that felt right: She decided to pursue music professionally. 

“At a certain point, I realised life is short and the only one denying myself the opportunity to put music front and centre was myself… What happened to the girl whose dream was to be ‘100% A Superstar’?”

Ms Emily Wong, citing the title of her album of 10 songs (above) which she wrote when she was eight.

“What took you so long?” her parents, both university professors, had asked her. It was like deja vu from the time she segued into badminton to try something different, before returning to what felt right for her, except the stakes were much higher this time. Head clear, heart set, she applied to New York University Steinhardt and embarked on a master’s programme in Music Composition, focusing on film scoring.

In film, “music is almost like an unseen narrator…It is one of the most important senses that we forget about,” she notes. Because composing could sometimes feel like a lonely endeavour, she especially loved the collaborative aspect of film scoring, which she sees as “the marriage of two art forms”.

Although she had her parents’ blessings, “are you taking a break from law?” was a common question she heard from her friends and colleagues back then. “It didn’t come from a bad place,” she clarifies. In any case, she knew the answer to that deep in her heart.

Success is…Moving others with your craft

Today, Ms Wong is a full-time composer for film and multimedia. 

Some notable works include original music that ended up being synced to a Nintendo Switch game launch entitled Mineko’s Night Market, and arranging medleys for the National Day Concert 2023. She has also written music for local theatre productions such as Never The Bride and The Beginning Of Anything, and collaborated with global entertainment company NEON, working alongside Disney to provide original music for Avatar: The Experience, a walkthrough event at Gardens by the Bay.

Ms Wong at the Burbank International Film Festival 2023. She scooped up the award for Best Film Score/Music Composition for a Short Film.

More recently, her original music for American-Korean director Megan Lee’s short film, En Pointe, won the award for Best Film Score/Music Composition for a Short Film at the Burbank International Film Festival 2023. It was the first time she heard her music being played in a cinema in Los Angeles.

The awards ceremony was also the first time she met Ms Lee, as all their prior meetings had been remote. “That’s the cool thing as a modern composer. You can work remotely at any time and for anyone,” she says. “The world can be very big and very small at the same time.”

She also finds inspiration for her music in all sorts of big and small spaces. Apart from research, she might “get really excited by the most ordinary of things like the way a clock ticks or even the hums of a washing machine”, she says. “We are constantly exposed to external stimuli which we can try to focus our awareness on and then recreate through the power of music and audio to evoke specific feelings, moods and then even to tell a story.”

Sometimes, creating music on a deadline can be a tall order. Her personal philosophy to avoid being stuck in a rut is to withhold all self-judgement and let her ideas flow – refining a piece of work can come later.

One day, she hopes to write an original musical for Broadway. But while she has always dreamed big, her true purpose as a musician is far more simple.

“Success is just waking up every day and making a living doing what you love,” she says. “As long as my music is able to touch just one person, that, to me, is enough.”