Darren Fung was tasked with re-creating the iconic “Hockey Theme” in Canada, that alone should tell you how highly-regarded this talented composer is. Darren sat down to talk to FYIG about that, his award-winning score for “The Great Human Odyssey”, and so much more. Read on to find out what it’s like to create the music that we see and hear every day!
Tell the readers a bit about themselves for those who may not have heard of you.
Well, like all good Chinese boys I started playing piano when I was three. I wrote my first piece of music for orchestra when I was 15 through the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Young Composer Project, I did a composing degree at McGill and I’ve been scoring films since I graduated. Although I think my strengths are as an orchestral composer, I love being able to add unique elements (like loops, ethnic instruments, or something that just adds a twist) to that timeless orchestral sound. This year I won a Canadian Screen Award for my work on The Great Human Odyssey, which has also garnered me a few other nominations, including an International Film Music Critics Association Award.
What prompted the transition to composing?
I thought composing was less work than practicing! In all seriousness though, I applied for a double major in jazz performance and composition when I applied to McGill. At the time, I sort of liked to play jazz, but was doing everything by ear and was sort of clueless, so I didn’t get into the jazz performance major but I got accepted to the composition major, so that made up my mind for me.
You wrote your first orchestra at age 15! What was it like to have that experience at such a young age and how did it prepare you for your future in composing?
To this day, I don’t think there’s any greater thrill than hearing your music being played by an orchestra for the very first time. It’s nerve-racking to say the least, and especially as a fifteen year old high school student. And it was really that experience that was the catalyst for me to pursue a career in film composing. The program was run by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra through it’s Composer-In-Residence at the time, John Estacio, who to this day is a great friend and very much a colleague and mentor. But it also taught me how high the stakes are when you write for a big group, and how important is to have all the details worked out on the page, otherwise you just end up wasting both time and money.
You’ve done many different types of compositions including re-creating “The Hockey Theme” for CTV and TSN in Canada. What was it like to be able to put your own spin on such an iconic theme song?
It was absolutely terrifying! I remember telling my agent, Maria Machado, about the gig. Maria is based out of Los Angeles, and I’m not too sure she really got what a big deal this gig was, being American. But of course, for the benefit of those who don’t know, this theme is often referred to as Canada’s Second National Anthem, and the fact that the property was changing hands meant that the whole country was looking at it with a fine tooth comb. It was on the front page of national newspapers for three days! I was explaining to Maria that there was no way I could screw up this gig, because I couldn’t stand to have the entire country angry at me! That being said, we left the theme itself intact, but we got to play with a whole bunch of different variations on it, like a James Bond-ish version, an apocalyptic one, a cowboy western one. To be able to have that creative license is amazing, and the folks at TSN were just so great to work with.
You spoke about writing the score for “The Great Human Odyssey” on CBC (and set to air on PBS in the fall) which won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Music and was nominated for an International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) award. How did you feel about this score being so highly regarded?
The recognition is just incredible, and I’m so grateful for the nominations and the award, and it’s a true testament to the incredible team that I work with. I really feel that this score has some of my best work in it, and the fact that we were able to record and produce it in my hometown Edmonton, where there really is no infrastructure to do that sort of thing, was amazing. I’m proud that all of the Edmonton musicians who took part are being judged amongst the best in the world, and they are shining. So the short answer? I’m pretty proud, and also very humbled.
There are so many types of compositions out there. There are commercials, documentaries, movies, themes, TV shows, etc. How do you approach these different compositions? What are the similarities and differences?
In all honesty, I don’t think I really approach any of these things differently. I think the key is to write music that supports the drama, but also pays close attention to other competing elements, especially sonically. My goal is to always make sure that the music can stand alone, and one of the most important parts about that is coming up with good themes. With television I find that you have to lay back a lot more, that is not get in the way of dialogue, while film often gives you the time to really flex your musical muscle. Advertising is really just trying to nail an emotion down within 30 seconds. Despite all of that, I think the fundamentals are the same no matter what the medium is.
Speaking of commercials, the Bell Canada commercial for the 2010 Winter Olympics was voted best commercial of 2010 by the Globe and Mail. How did that opportunity come about?
At that time I was doing a lot of advertising work and a good friend and colleague of mine, Roger Harris brought me on board. The concept of the spot had always been to film an orchestra playing around some of the highlights of Vancouver, and Rog has always been a big champion of my work, especially for orchestra. Even though I had to go through the whole pitching process, ultimately Bell really loved the big cinematic track that I had pitched. It was great to then be involved a bit with the shooting and the editing process because the spot was so focused not only on the orchestra as score, but as a focus of the commercial as well.
Have you ever thought about doing video game scores?
Absolutely. I grew up loving to play games like Command And Conquer and Starcraft, but I admit I’m not the biggest gamer. I guess it’s just a question of finding the right opportunity at the right time.
Music sets the tone. What’s it like to be able to put your own personal stamp on all these different forms of entertainment?
I think it’s an enormous privilege to do what I do for a living. That being said, you are always working to the service of a film, and those wishes are usually represented by a director, so you’re almost always on a leash. The question of how much slack you’re given on the leash is usually answered by how your relationship is with your director, and how much they trust you. Some composers can’t stand being given so much direction, but usually those who thrive in film scoring tend to like it. I love the collaboration, as it helps focus me artistically.
What are some of the challenges you face as a composer?
Ha. So many. There’s the constant quest for gigs, the constant black hole of upgrading technology, life work balance. It’s endless. The biggest one I think is making sure that your work is valued, and that you get the resources to do your best work. So that includes time and money. My most successful projects are the one where’s respect for the process and a true desire to make music truly outstanding, so for me that involves bringing live players into the fold, being able to bring on my engineer to record and mix, and such.
You’re currently the Second Vice President of the Screen Composers Guild of Canada. What types of duties come along with that title and what does it mean to you to hold such a prestigious title in your profession?
How I see my role with the SCGC is really representing the interests of the next generation of composers. In many ways I still see myself as an emerging composer, and the challenges and the landscape we face today is infinitely different than what we faced 20 years ago. I used to be much more hands-on running seminars and workshops for the SCGC when I lived in Canada, but now living in LA, I’m trying to provide more thought leadership. I’m actively working on a bunch of different dossiers, like running our Apprentice Mentor Program, adding to the brain trust on a bunch of public policy initiatives as a member of both our strategic planning committee and executive committees. I try to do this and bring the perspective of not only my generation of composer, but those who were in my shoes 10 years ago.
What are your goals/dreams for the future? What are you looking to accomplish?
I think I’d love to be doing bigger and better projects. I’d love to do a studio feature, maybe get onto a 1 hour prime-time episodic. I personally love the sci-fi genre, and would just absolutely love to do a space opera type show. That being said, I think that out of my portfolio my orchestral its the strongest, so any time I get to work with an orchestra I feel really lucky.
Let the readers know where to find you on social media and the web.