Lydia Li’s Musical Roots and More (Interview)

Lydia Li's Musical Roots and More (Interview)

LA-based composer and orchestrator Lydia Li continues to make an international impact with her work. Her music has been played and performed in numerous countries, with some of her most popular music being written for the Chinese show Bafan Shenyu (over 40 million views on Tencent Video).

Li also composed the soundtrack for the drama short film Stung, released in 2021, which had screenings around the world. The film won Best Drama Film at Biennial Art 2020 Film Festival and was selected for more than ten different film festivals, including New Era Film Festival, Toronto Multicultural Film Festival, and the International Filmschool Festival.

Li took the time to speak with us about her approach to composition and music as a whole, as well as the process of composing for Stung and how aspiring composers can find their confidence and start sharing their work with the world.

Join us for a whirlwind conversation with an undeniably creative and effective composer.

Thanks for joining us. First up, what would you say are your musical roots? Are those roots still present in your work today?

Li: My musical roots are tethered to the piano. Growing up, I took lessons on classical piano and as such was exposed to many different piano pieces. I remember when I was young I would listen to many of Beethoven and Bach’s pieces. Later my piano teacher introduced me to orchestral pieces, and my mom would buy me lots of orchestra CDs. So I think these two genres influenced me most when I was initially introduced to the world of music.

Later, as I developed my own preferences, I started listening to a lot of rock, alternative, and indie pop songs which I think also had an influence on me.

When it comes to film music specifically, Alexandre Desplat has influenced me a lot. The way he tells stories through his compositions amazed me when I first came across his music. To this day his work still inspires me in my approach to music writing and thinking.

This is a big question, but how would you describe your approach to composition?

Li: It always varies from project to project. But for most cases, I like to plan the instrumentation first. It doesn’t have to be specific early on, but having a general idea really helps with the overall process. It makes it easier for me to picture the music with the film.

Once a general palette is set, I then go into a brainstorming phase where I create a set of themes, which will be used a couple of times as variations in the project. Sometimes the themes are for characters, sometimes an object, or an event. It can be for anything. After that, I sketch a cue using piano and then expand upon it with orchestra or any instruments I chose before.

Stung has clearly been very successful since its release last year. What was it like composing for this film?

Li: I really enjoyed working on this film as well as working with the director Ziye Huang. Stung was our first collaboration. After we briefly talked about the film and the potential music style, we knew that we wanted to work on this together. Although it was our first time collaborating, it didn’t feel like it. It went very smoothly and she trusted me the whole way through.

For the score, we agreed on a minimal score because it best suited the main character, Qiqi’s, state of mind. I went with piano, violin, and a few synth elements for most of the scenes. Those three as a combination illustrated Qiqi’s growth throughout the film and helped show how she felt about the issues she faced.

You mentioned that Stung was your first collaboration with Ziye, did you work with her after that?

Li: Yes! After our first collaboration was such a wonderful process, it naturally led to another collaboration. At the beginning of this year, she reached out to me and asked if I was interested in working with her on her new short film, Taste of Blueberry. It’s a sad but romantic story between two girls. I was ecstatic to work with her again, and after viewing the film I was even more keen on this collaboration.

On the more technical side, how do you feel about live recordings vs virtual instruments?

Li: I love live recordings, especially for orchestral pieces. I think it’s great that virtual instruments are getting better each year to the point that they can trick you sometimes if you program them well enough.

That being said, there’s nothing that can really replace live performance. There are certain things that virtual instruments just can’t mimic yet. It’s not just the sound, there’s also a connection and communication between the players. They add more soul and sparkle to a piece. I try to record as much as possible. Sometimes even just a solo instrument can make the piece feel so much different and moving.

Do you ever engage with feedback on your music, whether from other creatives or from the audience?

Li: For sure! I think it’s so important to get feedback from your colleagues and your audience, especially for my job. It always serves as a way to motivate me and provides me with new perspectives. As musicians, we can be biased. Especially after hearing our own music on repeat for a while, it’s hard to find anything “wrong” with it.

What I like to do is to share it with two or three close friends or colleagues and see what they think. I don’t necessarily need to change anything, but they always surprise me and help me in some way. Feedback is invaluable information and a great source of inspiration.

That’s a great point. We’re down to the last question: do you have a message for aspiring composers?

Li: I think the most important thing is to hone your skills. Take the time to learn and practice, and most importantly, find your own voice and style.

When you’re ready, or not, put yourself out there, share your work with friends, colleagues, or anybody who’s willing to listen. Get as much feedback as possible. If you can, provide feedback to other artists, too. Over time you’ll see yourself mature with music.

It might be intimidating to share your music with others at first, but as you do it more, you’ll become more comfortable and even more confident with your work! You’ll also have more friends in the industry who you can always exchange ideas with!