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A Land Imagined’s jazzy neo-noir score, as explained by its composer

One viewing of A Land Imagined and you’ll enter a rabbit hole where things take a turn for the inexplicable — and it’s a ride worth taking.

The recent Singaporean neo-noir film, directed by Yeo Siew Hua, possesses a mystery at its core that leaves behind far more questions than answers — its story centers around the disappearance of a construction worker and the sleepless detective attempting to solve it.

But its dreamlike pace and atmosphere may not have been as compelling without its soundtrack by Teo Wei Yong, whose work here clinched him Best Original Film Score at the 59th Golden Horse Awards in 2019.

It’s truly no surprise that Wei Yong’s score emerged the winner over the category’s esteemed line-up of nominees — among them veterans Ryuichi Sakamoto and Lim Giong.

The score itself is an entrancing listen, with swirls of brooding and fatalistic synths underscored by a lingering tension that’s easy to be immersed in.

It’s not far from something as iconic as Angelo Badalamenti’s work on Twin Peaks — or even Lim Giong’s hypnotic excursions on Long Day’s Journey Into Night — and in this case, Wei Yong attempts to warp ordinary sensibilities of what Singapore feels like, as the movie itself unfolds into something much more menacing and impenetrable.

But it is surprising that, by trade, Wei Yong rarely takes an artistic license with his other projects as he does with this score — his work on A Land Imagined deviates remarkably from his standard corporate gigs.

The only thing that ties both together? His use of a ukulele, which adds to the startling tension on ‘The Body’. “I thought this was a perfect opportunity to turn that cultural perception on its head, and played it horribly and in a very ugly way, where a dead body is discovered in shiny, corporate Singapore,” he tells us.

The film is now streaming on Netflix, and in light of the score’s official release on January 19th — which also includes a behemoth percussive track by musician Cheryl Ong and a remix of .gif’s ‘good night, green light’ — we speak to Wei Yong about scoring the film, his influences, and what makes the jazzy sound of the soundtrack (it’s not a saxophone, even though it does sound like one).

Congrats on nabbing the Golden Horse award! How did it feel when your name was called?

It was a great moment — so great that I forgot to hug my mother, who was with me.

You are known to be highly versatile in your field, and your work pushes you to prioritize pragmatism out of necessity — you are transparent about the fact that working on corporate projects is important in your line of work. How did you first get involved in the movie?

Thank you for mentioning pragmatism out of necessity. It is indeed true in a market where many can only give you a token sum for your efforts. Siew Hua called me up and told me he wanted me to score this film he had just finished shooting and editing. That was it.

Did A Land Imagined present a new set of challenges for you outside of your comfort zone?

Yes. In a way, I already knew how subtle I had to approach this sort of film. But Siew Hua encouraged me to get outrageous with it, and that helped unlock all sorts of zones.

Composer Teo Wei Yong at work in his studio. Photo: Grey Note Productions

Movies in the film noir genre traditionally have music that are pivotal to atmosphere and mood. Did he provide you any reference points for what he wanted before you began work on the soundtrack? What research did you do on your own?

Yes, he gave me specific scenes he knew he wanted music for, as well as some temp tracks (temporary music placed in the film for reference only). He didn’t really say A Land Imagined was a noir film. I took that liberty and approach to the score myself on that one. Apologies, Siew Hua! But obviously, I had to do it in a way that he would find it unusual enough to be satisfied with it.

Were there other scores or albums that inspired you in any way?

Yes, obviously the main one is Howard Shore’s score to Naked Lunch. But I often try not to listen to other music at the time when I’m working on a project, otherwise they’ll just end up distracting me from reaching where I need to be in terms of headspace.

At times, did you find yourself practicing restraint? Pulling back and not drawing attention to the score where it wasn’t required?

Constantly. In fact, I had so much restraint that Siew Hua just said, “Go nuts with it in your own kind of way.” It was a film where it wasn’t simply about “pulling back” — it was abstract enough in a dimension that I could simply ignore conventional restraint. And it worked.

Could you tell us about some of the other instruments and techniques you applied for the recording?

Believe it or not, I used a ukulele to score the scene where the dead body was discovered. Most associate the ukulele with happy music on a tropical island beach. It is also very popular in corporate video music. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to turn that cultural perception on its head, and played it horribly and in a very ugly way, where a dead body is discovered in shiny, corporate Singapore.

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Since you regularly work on different projects, how do you avoid tonal whiplash?

It is always tough switching between different headspaces for every project, but I’ve been doing this for quite some time now, so I’m quite used to it. The trick is to realize what kind of project you’re doing and what kind of folks you are working with. That is the anchor that usually helps me get into the right respective space for each project.

Did you feel you had to convey a sense of familiarity that wouldn’t isolate local viewers?

In a way, there is some sense of familiarity. Regarding the xaphoon (the saxophon-ish instrument), on the more sombre parts of the score, I performed it such that you might feel you’re in Africa (not African American – actually Africa). On the crazier parts of the score, I played it with remnants of the Chinese style of playing the suona (a Chinese wind instrument).

Singapore’s nightlife also partly inspired the “clubby” synth sounds that were part of the score. This way, I both managed to create some familiarity to the Singapore landscape, while diverging away from a typical Los Angeles/New York film noir sound at the same time.

What does Singapore “sound” like to you?

To be honest, I do not claim to have a definitive answer. We’re only 50 years old as a nation. If you ask me, Singapore always “sounds” like a construction site without an identity. Haha.

Has winning the award given you a newer perspective on authorship?

Winning the award really helps with letting people know what I do, but as far as perspectives on authorship is concerned, I’ve always had to deal with these issues, whether award-winning or not. Each project will tell me what ‘signature’ intent and sounds it needs, which is already a self-connecting bridge on its own.

Will there be a vinyl release of the score?

Unfortunately, there isn’t going to be a physical release of the score. It will, however, be available as a digital download. The details will be in the official Singapore release version of the DVD. Man, how cool would it be if there could be a vinyl release!

The official soundtrack to A Land Imagined is now available to stream and purchase on digital formats via Bandcamp.

The DVD release is now available on Objectifs, and it comes with a free digital download code of the OST.