Ethereality News & Weblog

June 24, 2008

China’s underground music scene

Filed under: Audio & Music,Books,Film/TV/Animation,My Life/Musings — Rob Chang @ 4:34 am

Home studio construction is still killing all my brain cells. Simply trying to find places that sell the right glassfiber panels has been an uphill battle. I’ve been trying to put everything down in exact details so there would be zero mistakes–especially ones that will cost money to fix. Part of that process involves producing 3D mock-ups of what I’ve got in mind. Here are a couple of examples:

This one was done in Sketchup, a free 3D software that anyone can download and use (google purchased Sketchup a few years ago):
sketchup studio

For the Sketchup image, all the assets you see in the scene were downloaded from the huge archive that all Sketchup users can upload to and share their stuff. I wasn’t about to go and spend a lot of time I don’t have to model all those pieces from scratch, since this is just a mock-up to show the contractors what I’m after, not some 3D art piece. There are still a lot of details I need to put into that 3D mock-up, such as protuding support beams, soundproofing walls, where I’ll put all my guitars and basses and amps and bookshelves, and also the rest of the acoustic panels. Hopefully I’ll have it all done by the time I post the next blog entry.

This one was done in Wings3D, which is also a free 3D software:
iso box

iso box

iso box

For this one, I actually did the modeling (if you can call the simple crap I did “modeling”) because I don’t think there’s any ready-made isolation boxes in 3D out there to download and modify. I’ve been using Wings3D for years now and it’s the first thing I boot up whenever I need to do something fast in 3D. So what the hell is it anyway, you might ask? It’s basically a computer isolation box that you put your computers in to get rid of all the computer noise like spinning hard drives, fans, vibrating chasis…etc. If I’m going to spend the time and money to make my studio as quiet as possible, it wouldn’t make sense to then put a bunch of noisy computers in the studio, right? So, my solution is to put them in an isolation box. This design is already outdated as I now have newer ideas I need to model, but it gives you idea of the direction I’m taking.

I’ve been working on the score for Storm Shadow, the sci-fi film project I mentioned before. I have pretty much total freedom to do whatever I want, as that’s what the director told me, but being the kind of person I am, I still went ahead and sent the director detailed spotting notes (spotting for those of you who aren’t film scoring geeks, means going through the film and deciding where to use music, where to not use music, what style of music, how it enters the scene, how long it stays, and how it leaves…etc).

When I begin a project like this, the first thing I do is to spot the film, and this could be done by me alone, or with anyone that has a say about the film’s music (director, producer). Then I would import the video into the sequencer (in my case, Sonar Producer Edition) and proceed to insert a ton of markers that mark every possible start/stop of cues, or important moments that need emphasis (for example, a character gets thrown out a window in slow motion, and I need to change the pace of the cue to match that moment).

Before I even write a note, it’s essential that I communicate with the sound designer in order to make sure I won’t be composing against the sound effects, and that the music blends in nicely and neither will drown the other out during significant moments. A lot of this is decided during spotting, but many details need to be worked out. For example, let’s say a character betrays another character by shooting her in the back in a dark and empty warehouse. We see a shot of the smoking shell from a bullet being ejected from the gun, hits the hard concrete floor, and bounces a few times in slow motion. A shot like that would probably be ruined if you put loud music to it. It’ll work much better if you simply hear the clanging as the shell hits the floor, and that clanging is treated with emphasis by the sound effects guy so that it really resonates and connects the audience to this act of betrayal. If I was asked to write music for that moment, I’d probably do it in a subtle manner, something dark and dense, maybe with the string section. So the detail to be worked out would be, at roughly what frequency range should I stay out of as to not compete with the shell clanging effect? If the clanging effect has a lot of reverb (it’s in an empty warehouse), and I’m mixing the cue to sound fairly dry (lets say it’s orchestrated for a smaller chamber sound as opposed to huge Hollywood action orchestra), would the contrast of very wet sound effect and very dry underscore sound odd together? These are the kind of details I need to discuss with the sound designer and the director.

I often get told that I’m overly critical when I write about China, and I know I am, and it’s something I’m trying to change. I can write a whole book on why I feel the way I do, but what’s more important is that I try to see everything in a more positive light. If I feel that majority of what I see here are negative, then I need to try harder to notice the positive, and when I can’t see any, I’ll go out of my way to unearth them. I refuse to believe that I cannot find true kindred spirits here in the largest country in the world with the largest population, regardless of the cultural difference, the remaining effects of the Cultural Revolution, or the hypersonic speed of a capitalistic greed gone out of control. If I’m to live a fulfilling life here, I need to do better than I did the last time I lived here (from winter of 2001 to summer of 2006). I think one of the main problems is that I live in Fuzhou, and it is not nearly as interesting of a place as first tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shengzhen, or even another Fujian province city like Xiamen. I bet if I lived in a cooler city I can find like-minded folks to befriend and hang out with. I dunno, we’ll see. I know there are some local bands here in Fuzhou. I need to go search them out and befriend them.

Speaking of bands, I found this awesome website that is all about the underground music scene in China, and it’s all in English! Basically the people behind it are all western expats living in China and involved in the music industry. Check it out! They even have podcasts in English, so that’s a great way to learn about the underground music scene in China.

There aren’t many Chinese musical artists I like, and out of China, Dou Wei is by far my favorite. His unique sound marries the east and west, and you can hear western influences like Cocteau Twins and Bark Psychosis, while hearing influences of traditional Chinese melodies and instruments. He’s been on a jazz improv kick for the last few years, and I wish he’d return to writing more concrete songs as I think he’s a very strong songwriter. The jazz improv stuff is only occassionally interesting, and I like Dou Wei’s lyrical content a lot, so I prefer to hear more straightforward songs out of him. Most of his songs are either criticisms of human nature and society, or self-introspection with a surrreal and psychedelic angle. His first two albums (Black Dream and Sunny Day) are my favorites.

Oh yeah, some of you might know him as the Faye Wong’s first husband. You can clearly hear his influence in the music she recorded during that time, as he wrote some of it and performed on some of the songs. AFAIK he was the one who introduced the Cocteau Twins to her, and it changed her singing style forever (before that she was doing a kind of half-assed R&B thing). I think it was Dou Wei who pulled her into the more alternative side of music, because before his influence she was just another pop singer who sang the same canton pop that everyone else did.

I recently finished reading Waking the Dead by Scott Spencer. It’s basically a story about how the love between a couple endures after one of them dies can have a profound effect on one still living. The premise of the story involves an upcoming politician running for congress, and as the race heats up he starts seeing his dead girlfriend, who was killed years ago in a politically motivated car bombing (she was a hardcore left-wing that volunteered at churches and helped smuggle political prisoners out of Chile). The film version is one of my favorite films, and the book was quite good, although it contained a lot more negative details about the characters and I kind of prefer the more idealized versions of the characters in the film. I was moved to tears more than a few times in the film, but the book didn’t move me that much, except the last sentence, which managed to pull out some tears (it’s the same ending as the film). Overall, I think my main problem with the book was that I never got a sense of what Sarah saw in Fielding, whereas in the film, it was a lot more obvious that they loved each other equally. I preferred the ending of the book though, as it left no doubt if Sarah was real or a ghost. The film tries to mess with you and let you decide for youself, and that kind of drives me crazy.

Quickie film reviews:

3:10 to Youma – One of the best westerns I’ve seen, starring two of the best actors of their generation.

Elena felt the way Wade shot his own people in the end was too forced and unrealistic, and I disagree (and I think this is where we divert in the way we watch films–her being a very casual movie watcher, and me being a PITA film buff. She tends to not see the stuff between the lines that the writer and director hopes more discerning viewers would, and I tend to pick up on those things as soon as they’re introduced). I feel that Wade’s action was completely logical and the entire film was building up to that act. Throughout the film, Wade’s outlaw nature was constantly constrasted against Evans’s character’s upstanding sense of morals and values, and more than once we were hinted that Wade was not as bad as he wants the world to believe he is–he’s simply a man who learned to take what he wanted an be ruthless about it, but there is a line somewhere, just that we don’t see it until the end of the film. Having gotten to respect and sympathize with Evans, and also witnessing the courage of his son and their bond, along with seeing a good natured doctor die for his sake, something clicked in Wade’s mind when seeing Evans gunned down, and that something is simply this:

The people Wade surrounds himself with are a bunch of jackals–the worst that society has spawned. All of them together aren’t worth of the life of one decent and upstanding man who he’s come to respect and admire and empathize with. To see a good and courageous man like that die in front of him, killed by people he knows are nothing but scum of the earth made him snap, and his first and purest reaction was outrage and the desire to avenge the death of a noble man. That was the moment we see Wade’s good side surface and a line drawn, and the tragedy is that it was too little and too late. Wade could’ve called off his people before but didn’t–he was still riding high on his sense of superiority over the “common folks,” and it wasn’t until when it’s too late did he realize Evans is anything but a common folk. Evans was the kind of man that could’ve been Wade’s salvation–to steer Wade away from evil and bring him into the light, and in the end, Evans did, but at the cost of his life.

Dan In Real Life – Another charming indie flick for Steve Carell. It’s kind of hard not to like these types of indie films as they are for the most part harmless and tries to tell heart-warming stories without the typical Hollywood clichés. I was surprised to see Juliette Binoche in it, and even more surprised when she spoke, as her English has improved a lot. I dated a french girl that kind of looked like her many years ago, so whenever I see Binoche I’m reminded of that girl.

Dragon Wars – I had to see what the buzz was about–the whole “most expensive Korean funded film ever made” hype. Huge mistake. It was all special effects, and the writing was so bad that it actually made the typical Hollywood blockbuster crap look good. I simply cannot believe a grown man could write such horrible trash–it was like something a middle school boy wrote while being bored sitting in class. Man, I hate to end my quickie movie reviews on a crappy film, but I guess that’s just how it goes sometimes.

June 13, 2008

Beginning construction

I was contacted by someone from deviantART that someone who called himself “Richard Chang” had been stealing my artwork and posting them at deviantART as his. This person even took what I wrote in my “About Me” section on my site and pasted it over my photo. I had no idea why anyone would do that because he’s basically posing as me, but he was so confused that he mistakenly thought my name was Richard. Then I was told he was probably trying to sell prints of my work and it all made sense.

As someone who spends his life pursuing creative endeavors, I have strong feelings about artistic pride and personal integrity, and I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would do such a thing. Is it really worth it to steal the works of others and call it your own? Does it ever turn out to be a positive thing in one’s life? Where does one shove the feelings of shame and guilt when doing such a thing, and how long can you push those feelings aside? Maybe some people are just incapable of feeling shame and guilt, and they somehow manage to delude themselves into thinking they have done no wrong, and in fact pat themselves on the back for being so clever? I guess considering the world we live in have spawned war criminals, rapists, child molesters, murderers…etc, it really shouldn’t surprise me at all that lesser crimes exist.

Anyway, I have gone ahead and uploaded my stuff to DeviantART. They offer a printing service there, and if I start getting a lot of request, I’ll probably go ahead and do the print thing as well. Now with an actualy presence there, I hope there won’t be any more imposters.

My next music project is to score a sci-fi action short film. It’s kind of Matrix-y in style and should be a lot of fun to score. The director wants the music to really hit hard and be very dramatic, so I’m thinking a hybrid orchestral and electronic/industrial score should be just about right for this film. Can’t wait to get started on it.

The last score I worked on was also sci-fi action, so I have a feeling I’m going to be longing to do something more cerebral or emotional after this short film.

We are now in China staying at a temporary apartment, while trying to finish the construction on our new home. It’s an interesting experience to go and shop for construction material, picking out every little thing for your future home such as tiles to be used in the kitchen and bathroom, the most comfy toilet you can find, soundproof windows so you can sleep in as late as you want, to water filtration system for the whole house. My main concern is the recording studio which will be built into the second floor (our new home is technically a loft apartment, roughly 2,200 square feet), as professional quality recording studio construction is a very obscure thing in Fuzhou (it’s not a big city like Beijing or Shanghai afterall). In fact, after consulting numerous construction companies–even those that have done some kind of soundproofing or acoustic treatment jobs, I quickly realized that I actually know a lot more about the subject than they do, although my knowledge is not from experience but from books written by studio design and construction experts such as Rod Gervais, Jeff Cooper, and Mitch Gallagher. The biggest challenge is to find the appropriate construction materials here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up having to ship them from elsewhere to get the job done.

Here’s a photo of what I have in mind for the studio:
studio construction

Here’s what the apartment looks like from the outside:
apartment exterior

I just put together a new DAW (Q6600 Quadcore 2.4Ghz, 4GB RAM, WinXP Pro, separate SATA drives each for OS, audio/project files, and sample libraries), and I’m still in the middle of installing all the necessary softwares (it always takes forever to install and configure) before I can really put it through its paces on a serious project. I chose to not move up to a 64bit OS because some of the softwares I use aren’t compatible with 64bit yet, so I need to wait until 64bit becomes truly universal before upgrading. The main drawback is that I can’t use more than 3 GB of RAM in any given software in 32bit, and that’s the price I have to pay.

One of the worst things about living in China is the driving. I’m probably going to shoot a video one of these days while I’m in a taxi so you guys can see how absolutely insane they drive here in Fuzhou. Taxi drivers constantly pass cars in front of them by CROSSING THE DOUBLE YELLOW LINE, and you sit there and watch the cars from the other direction coming closer and closer and you just pray that your car makes it back to its side of the traffic before you die in a head on collision. I keep telling the taxi drivers to not do it and they just laugh in my face. If I don’t take taxi’s here then I’d never get anywhere because I’d then have to deal with the crappy public transportation.

The second worst thing would probably have to be the unsafe food. If you are not careful, you will end up eating food that was prepared in a manner that can only be described as shockingly disgusting, using material that can only be described as unholy. Some are so bad that the people who produced them used nothing but cheap chemicals to make something look like food and then cover up the strange taste with seasoning, but will probably kill you if you were unfortunate enough to have bought it and ate it unknowingly. I once had severe food poisoning a few years ago from a carton of milk that was basically all chemicals with artificial flavoring to make it taste like milk. For all I know, it could’ve been dilluted glue. Thank God I didn’t die from it (although I was very sick for several days). The only way to remain safe is to only shop from reputable large supermarkets, and never from small street corner grocery stores or stalls.

The third would have to be the people in general. Although like anywhere else in the world there are the good and the bad, in a country like China, the bad far outweighs the good. Lies, corruption, unprofessional conduct, backstabbing, greed, apathy, selfishness, appalling work ethic, low standard of quality, ignorance, hubris–the list goes on and on. When the Olympics roll around the corner with the whole world watching, we’ll see a lot of this stuff blown wide open for the world to see. People from around the world will be documenting what they see in China with videos, photos, and words, and although people have been doing it long before the Olympics, the media attention because of the Olympics will intensify the frequency and hopefully, most recorded materal will make it out of China without being confiscated. I think that being as full hubris as China is, it’ll need to be shamed into facing its problems before willing to take steps to make a serious effort to change things for the better.

My friend Patrick, who worked as a cook in Shanghai, visited me last week. He’s in the middle of backpacking through Southeast Asia, and after that he’ll try to get a job in New York, continuing his ascension in the culinary world. I actually met him years ago on some Xbox hacking group that was trying to extract all the 3D assets from the Dead or Alive games, and we’ve been in touch ever since, although neither of us has touched a Xbox for years now (he’s concentrating on food, and my Xbox was stolen). He’s currently trying to apply to Per Se, the sister restaurant of French Laundry (for those of you that are into fine dining, you’ll know what that means). It would be so awesome if he gets in.

Speaking of fine dining, my brother Dennis and his wife Liz treated us to Michael Minna’s in San Francisco before we left the States. We had the tasting menu and it was pretty good, but not mind-blowing as I had hoped. On the whole, Elena and I liked Manresa’s food more. One of these days we have to go try the French Laundry just to see if it’s really head above shoulders better than the rest.

I’m currently in the middle of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It’s a fun game just like the previous ones, but I always wished that the CoD series could be more emotionally involving, instead of focussing strictly on the visceral. The “Death From Above” part of the game had me laughing because it came directly from a real video that was uploaded not long ago and circulated around the internet, showing an American military plane on a mission. Even the dialogs in the game were almost exactly the same as that video.

Quickie movie reviews:

Gone Baby Gone – Excellent directorial debut by Ben Affleck. I was never a fan of his acting (particularly after that embarrassing monologue in Jersy Girl, but I suspect it was more Kevin Smith’s fault), and I hope he’ll stick to directing more from now on. This film was a bit of a relief for us because Elena and I had watched a few stinkers in a row and finally got out of the funk with this thought-provoking film.

We both agreed that we were on the side of the cops when the film ended. I know plenty of people who could’ve turned out much better had they been given a decent, loving home, but because of the horrible environment they grew up in, their fate was sealed before they even had a chance to walk away from all the misery and chaos. We do not believe that all human beings have the same rights, because some people are just so poisoned by their own demons and ineptitude that they end up poisoning everyone else around them–especially the helpless and the innocent. How many children are physically abused or have died accidentally because of their drunken or junkie parents? If you can’t get your act straight, you should not be allowed to raise children. Although I partly agree with the protagonist when he said that instead of taking the child, she should’ve simply been sent to a foster home of some sort, but I would venture to say that Morgan Freeman’s character displayed the kind of moral ground that I feel is much higher than the average foster home parents (I have heard plenty of horror stories about foster homes).

Diary of the Dead – What a disappointment. People who know me well know that I’m a huge fan of zombies in general, and I have never disliked any zombie films from Romero, but this latest one just blows. Horrible acting, horrible directing, and horrible writing. If I didn’t know it was directed by Romero, I’d have thought it was done by a skilled fanboy who’s trying his hand at directing for the first time using local community theater actors. Maybe it’s time for Romero to hand over the torch and retire (as much as it breaks my heart to say it).

The Kite Runner – A film about friendship, betrayal, and redemption. On the whole it worked, but I think the film lacked the kind of dramatic tension it needed to really shine.

Charlie Wilson’s War – When a film about politics and war is done with a sense of humor, I tend to feel it is an inappropriate approach unless it’s from a perspecitve of optimism and idealism (the TV series West Wing, for example), otherwise, I can’t help feel that the humor takes away from the gravity of the subject matter. Very few writers and directors can pull it off, and David O. Russel’s Three Kings is one of few examples I feel not only worked, but worked brilliantly. Charlie Wilson’s War didn’t pull it off in my opinion.

Bug – This was an interesting film, although Ashley Judd’s character’s descent into schizophrenia seemed a little too quick and too easy. I find films that use very limited number of sets fascinating because it requires the cinematography to be spot on to get away with it.

10,000 BC – I don’t know why I bothered with this one. I guess I punish myself with this kind of crap because in the back of my mind, I tell myself I’m involved with the entertainment industry as an artist and composer, and I should watch all the big blockbuster films because it keeps me up to date on what the mainstream style is currently like. But man, the writer/director part of me just wants to lay down and die when I watch crap like this.

Nation Treasure 2: Book of Secrets – I really have no excuse. Sometime I watch a movie just to relax, and as long as it’s not painfully bad, I’ll sit through it and switch off the inner critic.

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