The music of Korean films from the mind of a German

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The music of Korean films from the mind of a German


The leading character in the Korean film “Blue Swallow,” a woman pilot, stepped into the cockpit of her prop plane, taxied off and shot up into the sky. The music was slow and calm, but powerful, lifting the mood. The score and the image of the airplane crossing the bare blue sky was reminiscent of another film, “Out of Africa.”
That’s not surprising ― the movie was a source of inspiration for Michael Staudacher, 41, the man who wrote the score for “Blue Swallow.”
“Twenty years ago, I watched ‘Out of Africa,’ and was impressed by the scenes and the music. The flight scenes were impressive,” the German composer said, speaking in English. “This kind of slow music gives the impression of large space. It fits very well with the scene.”
On July 21, Mr. Staudacher won an award for best original music score for “Blue Swallow,” known in Korean as “Cheungyeon,” at the 43rd Daejong Film Festival, a prestigious awards ceremony for Korean filmmakers. He was in competition with big names such as Lee Byung-woo, who did the score for “The Royal Jester,” Hisaishi Jo for “Welcome to Dongmakgol” and Shigeru Umebayashi for “Daisy.” It was the second time he won the award, having taken it for “Indian Summer” in 2002. He was also nominated in 2003 for his score for “Madeleine.”
Mr. Staudacher said his goal was to create the feelings of grandness and tension in the film “Blue Swallow,”about one of the pioneering Korean female pilots in early 1900s, and to express the freshness and tenderness of young romance in “Madeleine.”
“Actually, I’m most satisfied with ‘Madeleine,’ because I was able to show as many concepts as I wanted to,” he said.
The film “Madeleine” begins with a rainy scene, for which Mr. Staudacher used a piano to create music that harmonized with the drops of water. He said he used mainly a piano as well as jazzy underscores and orchestrated music. “My favorite instrument is the piano. I learned it first. Still, I try not to use it too much,” he said.
For the scene in which the actor Jo In-sung and actress Shin Min-ah are on their first date, he used harmonica to lighten the mood. “I wanted a wind instrument that wasn’t brass, because it’s too strong. The flute is too elegant for Shin Min-a’s character.
“I was impressed by the freshness of the dialogue. I thought music should be refreshing and have an innocent, young feeling to it,” he said.
In “Blue Swallow,” the sounds of the MIDI percussion and the orchestra served to heighten the tension for the scene in which the actresses Jang Jin-young and Yuko Fueki race each other in their planes.
Most of the scores by Mr. Staudacher rely on orchestra music. “That’s because my background is in classical music,” he said. “But I also played in a band in Germany.”
“An orchestra ensemble is still the best choice for film music. It has many colors and is adaptable to many different scenes,” he said.
Mr. Staudacher said, however, that he does not prefer classical music over other genres. “It’s important for film music composers to know different genres of music and to be able to switch to a different style,” he said. “I didn’t really think about jazz or classical. I think about character no matter what the genre of music is.”
In February, he finished the background music for the SBS television series “Superstar Survival,” a talent search program. In it, he employed a lot of hip-hop rhythms and soul ballads.
His versatility enabled him to land another project creating tunes for the musical, “Hwangjinee,” which is scheduled to start in November.
Asked about Mr. Staudacher’s scores, Kim Seong-ju, president of Standing Company, the musical’s producer, replied, “The music seems to breathe.
“The original score had a lot of openness,” Mr. Kim said. “I felt he was able to express a wide range of events.”
After listening to the scores, Mr. Kim selected Mr. Staudacher from among dozens of composers.
Born in 1965 in Germany, Mr. Staudacher studied piano, composition and conducting at the University of Hamburg and received his master’s in music education, education and French literature in 1994. In 1992, he married a student from Korea, and settled here immediately after recieving his degree. Initially, he had difficulty finding work, but a breakthrough came in 1996, when the director Kim Ho-seon commissioned him to produce the original score for “Henequen” after listening to a demo tape. The film, however, was in theaters just for one week, even though it won the awards for best film, best director and best supporting actress at the Daejong Film Festival.

Disheartened by the difficulty of finding work after the film’s failure, he went to the United States and studied film and television score composition at the University of Southern California. His stock rose significantly, however, when he won the Daejong award for original score for “Indian Summer,” a story about an affair between a lawyer and a woman on death row. Mr. Staudacher became the first non-Korean to win the Daejong award.
“Many people actually told me the music in ‘Indian Summer’ sounded like it was done by a foreign composer,” he said, smiling.
Though music does not have nationality, Mr. Staudacher seems to have benefited from being a foreigner in Korea’s movie industry.
Asked why Standing Company hired Mr. Staudacher, its art director, Pyo Eun-hyeong, said, “We intend to stage the musical on Broadway and wanted a composer who could make Hwangjinee more ‘cosmopolitan.’”
Mr. Staudacher said making music for musicals is very different from for films. “Original scores are connected to and integrated with the entire film. I cannot choose what I really want. I have to choose whatever is right for the film,” he said. “For a musical, however, I can realize all my concepts. I don’t have to synchronize any music to the scenes, because there are no scenes for the music yet.
“On the other hand, there’s something interesting about composing music for films. I can try different genres of music. It never gets boring,” he said.
Mr. Staudacher said he gets inspiration for his music after watching the filmed scenes. “For me, it’s important to see some pictures. I start composing after reading the scenario, but I wait [to do the bulk of the work] until I see the first footage,” he said. He said he often goes to film sets during shooting.
The composing must often be done on a tight schedule. For “Double Agent,” a film about a North Korean defector and secret agent, he said he only had nine days to compose 20 pieces of music, due to production delays. “I had to work around the clock. When I arrived in America, I had to refine the scores before recording. Before the recording started at Paramount Studio at 11 a.m., I went to Kinko’s to make copies for musical notes,” he said.
Mr. Staudacher said the role of film scores is to enhance drama and create emotion.
“It is interesting that much of the sensation and excitement felt by the audience is owed to music. The best example is the film ‘The Omen.’ Try to watch the film with the music turned off. It’s not scary. But the grand choir and base sounds with discordant tunes cast a chill over the audience,” he said.
He said he has seen huge progress in the quality of Korean film music since he first came here. “They used to insert music that was already made, such as a Korean pop song. They also recorded music with mostly MIDI sounds. There were no real musical instruments,” he said. “But since 2000, there have been a lot of changes. Most films now use orchestras and there are many film music composers.”

by Limb Jae-un
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