Shaun Wesley gravitated toward the violin at an early age. While growing up in Singapore he found himself at an interesting crossroads of cultural and musical influences. And like any great musician, he sunk much of his time into practicing his craft and connecting with other creatives. This collaborative nature and his subsequent move to the U.S. led to his involvement with J2 Entertainment, with whom he has composed for major Hollywood trailers, including the Dwayne Johnson thriller ‘Skyscraper’ as well as ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ from action master Robert Rodriguez.
He’s a man of many talents and many names. Professionally, he goes by Shaun Wesley, he releases original music under his artist pseudonym Konexxxion, but when we talked to him he was just Gan Li Kiong, his given name. He was nice enough to talk to us about his wide-ranging career as well as his pervasive love of making music that carries an emotional impact.
When did you first start composing for the screen?
I first started to compose for the screen even before I went into Berklee [College of Music]. It was difficult then because I did not have access to musicians and equipment. I only had notation software then, the instruments on which didn’t sound realistic. I got a real taste of scoring for the screen when I started in on the Filmscoring and Contemporary Writing and Production majors. They gave me the skills, equipment, and technology to really score directly and precisely with the visual media at hand.
Who were some of your favorite score composers while growing up?
When I was a kid, I wasn’t really exposed to many movies in Singapore so, ironically, I spent a lot of my childhood wondering who made the music for advertisements. So rather than idolizing a particular artist, I actually had a collection of favorite ads and commercials rather than composers. In my teenage years though, when I got a chance to go to the cinemas and theatres, I took a liking to Alexandre Desplat and Yann Tiersen as film composers. Later on I turned to the scores for ad campaigns. I took a particular interest in an artist called Avia, who did contemporary scores for Chanel’s long-running ad campaign “Inside Chanel.” This shifted my focus from wanting to make films to wanting to compose music for advertising.
The violin has an illustrious history. How do you think the violin has been able to remain relevant in popular music?
I think the violin owes its everlasting popularity to the versatility of its tone as well as its modifications throughout the years. During its evolution, the violin’s look and sound has changed to adapt to the style of compositions in each musical era. The shape of the bow, the materials for the strings, and even the shape has helped it to remain relevant. Even now, with new technology, the violin has kept itself relevant by reinventing itself in electric options that further allow us as violinists to customize and tailor the timbre of the violin to match contemporary music.
Can you tell us about your composition process? What’s your first step when developing an idea?
Depending on the project that I am working on, I usually watch the visual multiple times to get an initial idea, and if the exact visual is not available, I use something similar to get a rough idea. That is usually how I start off my workflow. I think compositional success is based on a series of small eureka moments, where there is a click when the right idea fits the visual. In my opinion, what happens after that requires no guidelines except to follow where the ideas take you.
How many revisions do you tend to make to your compositions?
This honestly depends on client requirements. We all want what is best for our product, so I could have anything between one and 100 changes, although anything above 20 means there was something wrong in the first place! In regards to personal compositions, I start out by playing each instrument the ‘correct’ way, and then I push the limits of the instrument to try and achieve desired effects for the final piece. But it also depends on many other factors, such as the skill of the musicians, the number of players, and the setting in which the piece is performed, i.e. live versus in a studio, just to name a few.
What’s one project that you were incredibly excited to work on?
I’m excited to be part of my company, J2 Entertainment’s upcoming albums, which are a series of dark electronic orchestral fusion tracks. I’m also psyched about a new project called Indian Trap. I helped produce their new EP, to be released early in 2019. In terms of personal work, I am very excited to be working on my new EP, “Black Hearts,” slated for release this coming spring. It will feature tracks that I’ve composed and produced myself. The genre is a sort of electronic fusion, meaning it has many electronic elements mixed with acoustic stringed instruments.
How does composing for trailers differ from your other work?
The trailer industry works on a different timeline from the actual film. Films generally have customized music composed and recorded for them at a post-production stage. The trailer industry works somewhat like the advertising industry due to its quicker turnaround requirement, and so tracks are made into albums and placed on music licensing sites where music supervisors tend to act as middlemen, and they choose tracks suitable for trailer houses. So basically, the timelines work very differently for a film versus a trailer and so I have to know the nature of the project before working on a scheduled timeline.
Are there any trends in contemporary composition that frustrate you?
I believe that many new trends start with a single moment, a single action that shocks, challenges, and even destroys the very core of existing trends. One trend that I dislike is the continuation of abstract composition. John Cage’s “4’33” and Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise” were considered famous contemporary compositions because they were unique for their own time, and such a concept had never been attempted before. However, many contemporary composers now attempt to recreate the same success with similar abstract intentions, and it frustrates me because we no longer use our ears to judge what sounds good but rather how much can we invoke our audience to use their brains to reinterpret what the composer is trying to say. I think this drains music of its original purpose, and compositions like this tend to be hard to enjoy.
Do you enjoy the inherently collaborative nature of professional music?
Absolutely! The collaborative nature of music has been a driving force behind new innovations in music technology and artistic growth in many musicians who adapt their sounds to change with the times. I believe that every musician is unique in their own way, and yes, you can push your own style up to a certain point, but with collaboration, the combination of two or more different styles creates a brand new style.
At the height of classical music, stylistic changes could take many years to manifest. Today, these changes happen much more quickly, most likely due to the prevalence of musical collaboration. As for myself, I would much rather be composing, playing the violin, and jamming on the keyboard with other musicians than sitting alone and trying to force out an idea.