From Bernard Herrmann's legendary score for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to John Williams' chilling work on Steven Spielberg's Jaws, music has, for the longest time, been an essential ingredient in horror films.
More recently, The Sadness — an award-winning Taiwanese body horror film that made waves in the film festival circuit in 2021 — demonstrated how powerful a tool music can be when it comes to building a terrifying and immersive world that will linger in the minds of viewers long after they have left the theatre.
And it is in The Sadness' music where you will find its Singapore connection.
The brainchild of the enigmatic TZECHAR, the film's score is the result of a conscious effort by the local duo to go beyond pre-existing templates and leave their own mark on the horror genre.
"I think the point of making music is to not make music in any particular style other than your own and to keep pushing boundaries through your own lens," shares Ming of TZECHAR.
Fusing the sounds of synthesisers, guitars, and traditional Chinese instruments such as the suona and erhu, TZECHAR's unconventional score has become so synonymous with The Sadness' disturbing tale about a virus that transforms the inhabitants of Taiwan into vicious zombie-like creatures that it is truly difficult to imagine what the film would be like without it.
In an interview with Hear65, the Melbourne-based duo explain how the score for The Sadness (which is now streaming on Shudder) came together, recount what it was like working alongside the film's director, Rob Jabbaz, and talk about their quirky stage moniker.
You share the same name with something that most Singaporeans are familiar with. How did it come about?
MING: The art we make is fairly varied, whether in terms of genre or medium, and the thing that binds it together is what I believe to be our innate Singaporean-ness. We have the distinct global identity of growing up with culture and media from around the world without any particular need to align ourselves with any in an ideological or cultural sense, and thus have the advantage of taking influence from around the world and coming up with our own take on things.
This is fundamentally the concept of tze char as a form of cuisine, and also our work.
‘TIS I: I love tze char. tze char is horjiak (good to eat).
"The art we make is fairly varied, whether in terms of genre or medium, and the thing that binds it together is what I believe to be our innate Singaporean-ness."
Congratulations on the success of The Sadness! How did you end up scoring the film and what drew you to it?
MING: Thank you! Rob Jabbaz found us on Soundcloud when looking for people to score his film and we hit it off right away with a shared love of metal and a common understanding of each other's ways of articulating concepts.
I understood the underlying themes of what he wanted to convey beyond the superficial and we were both able to dig deep into providing the kind of immersive experiences we wanted for our art.
Did Rob Jabbaz already have an idea of how he wanted the film’s score to sound or did he give you full control over that decision?
MING: He provided some references from other films for a vague idea of what he imagined could work, but I kind of broke down what I thought he wanted from those examples and put my own take on it. Luckily, he enjoyed the direction I took and in the end, more or less left it up to me to interpret.
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"I specifically didn’t want a sound signature that’s used in a generic horror score, so the sonic palette I chose included traditional Chinese instruments like the suona and erhu..."
What makes this score different from what we have heard before in other zombie and horror films? Tell us about some of the instruments that you selected.
MING: I believe neither Rob nor us have any desire to make works that are too reminiscent of anything that [have come] before, so it’s a conscious effort to elevate what we think are common tropes. When given the script or film footage, there are infinite ways to direct how it can be perceived given the context of the soundtrack, and I generally chose to interpret character motivations and relationships in motifs that gave each scene its own flavour, rather than simply tracking the action.
I specifically didn’t want a sound signature that’s used in a generic horror score, so the sonic palette I chose included traditional Chinese instruments like the suona and erhu due to how they operate in the human vocal range and can sound like laughing or crying. I played them in a more expressionist way rather than [using] proper notes so they [would] sound more visceral and violent, while sitting on a bed of vintage synths and dark doom metal guitars to give it (the score) a distinctive character, unlike [that of] any other score I’m familiar with.
Credit: TZECHAR Bandcamp
What was the most challenging part about composing the score for The Sadness?
MING: Honestly it was a blast working with Rob. We pretty much understood and respected each other’s intentions fairly intuitively.
The hardest part was the tight time crunch at the end right after it (the film) was filmed. I had about a third of the score left and there was a sudden schedule change that allowed me just one week or so to finish it. I barely slept that week but honestly made some of the best work from it that formed an uninterrupted last 30 minutes of the movie.
‘TIS I: Ideas of time and space constraints.
Credit: Locarno Film Festival
Let’s talk about the film’s end credits song, ‘Tis Freedom 自由果’. How did the idea for it come about?
MING: A lot of mainstream Taiwanese and Chinese films tend to have a 主单曲 (lead single) used to promote the film that plays during the ending credits. They’re generally inoffensive pop ballads and we really wanted to flip that trope on its head by coming up with a challenging, avant-garde Chinese pop song with a non-linear three-part structure about the philosophical theme of the film — the existential implications of free will in determining how we lead our lives.
‘TIS I: Coping with living in a time when living can be painful — in a world with sickness — and trying to be happy. The trajectory of living matter is affected by the fix(es) determined necessary. Being flesh comes with its own set of confinements. I am free, to the extent that I (think I) am. Minds and intentions guide bodies. As humans, who will guide us? And as my own master, am I (not) guiding myself? I had these thoughts after reading the script for The Sadness. 'Tis Freedom’. I’ve birthed this fruit of a song with my freedom.
MV for Tis Freedom from our soundtrack for The Sadness is out now :)https://t.co/YXqmVohfMb— TZECHAR (@art_of_tzechar) August 11, 2022
sountrack also out now on all streaming platforms and bandcamp link in bio
Was there a reason behind your decision to make a “completely ridiculous” music video to accompany what you’ve described as a “serious song” for a “serious film”?
MING: [It] seemed pretty funny at the time, and I always enjoy re-contextualizing things, even our own works.
‘TIS I: The MV is a painting of my current typical everyday life: I wake up in a world with (a) sickness, I reflect on the situation, I have my coffee, I jack in, and on some level(s) observe decay.
"The MV is a painting of my current typical everyday life: I wake up in a world with (a) sickness, I reflect on the situation, I have my coffee, I jack in, and on some level(s) observe decay."
tomorrow, we'll be performing as part for our art show at @BackwoodsArt in Melbourne— TZECHAR (@art_of_tzechar) September 14, 2022
here's a teaser of the chaos from past iterations of 太虚 The Great Void
a recorded version of this show will be available soon after, along with the physical artworks from the show pic.twitter.com/SPJEhNoMLN
Finally, what’s next for you now that your work on The Sadness is done?
MING: Film score-wise, we will likely continue to work with whatever Rob comes up with next since we enjoyed the synergy we had too much. Music-wise, we have an EP of experimental pop tracks we will be filming music videos for that will be released early next year.
We also have an art show in Backwoods Gallery in Melbourne which will feature our physical works and a live audiovisual performance that will be filmed. We’ll be moving back to Singapore after living overseas for a long time as well and look forward to being inspired.
Stream The Sadness' soundtrack here: