An Interview With Composer George Shaw

By John “Johnny C” Chuidian

You’ve heard his music as your friend’s custom ringtone lovingly downloaded from his website (for free); you hear it across YouTube from Wong Fu to Michelle Phan, and now you’ve probably seen his new piece inspired by The Hunger Games. Yes: it’s George Shaw, the first name people recall when they think of Asian American composers.

For someone whose music has both depth and accessibility (you can hum just about any of his pieces or play his recent work with Michelle Phan on loop while driving around in your car for hours), one might get the impression he is difficult to reach out to as he lives large and in charge, composing day in and day out. In reality, walking into his apartment, you find a simple yet welcoming place; nothing jumps out to catch your attention any differently than anything you would find in any other person’s home. It’s a good place to sit in and relax, and a great place to find the Zen one needs to tap into that creative energy that gives us the music we adore.

Being the friendly, approachable guy he is, George invited us over to have Asian snack food from 99 Ranch at his place to give us a quick Q and A session about his work and his upcoming concept album, Spoiler Alert.

So tell us a little about Spoiler Alert.

It’s basically a collection of dramatic film music that I’ve composed that reflects the film music I loved growing up, as well as my adoration for the art of movie trailers.

People don’t typically see the “art” of movie trailers; can you elaborate a little on that please?

It’s the way trailers can sum up the essence of a movie and blow you away with an epic but condensed version of a story. Sometimes I just like the trailer more than the movie, or I feel like I’ve seen all the good parts in a trailer that almost ruins the movie for me. But I also enjoy how music drives so much of the intensity and build up in a trailer. So in addition to some of my more dramatic pieces, I will also be recording new symphonic suites from some of my most popular YouTube videos that I’ve composed for NigaHiga, Wong Fu Productions, and Michelle Phan.

So what’s the concept behind symphonic versions of your favorite songs?

Basically these are medleys of my favorite themes fleshed out with a full orchestra. In the original soundtrack recordings, I recorded either with a small orchestra, or almost no orchestra at all. I’m excited to finally hear my work performed by a fifty-piece orchestra in its full glory.

Why youth orchestra specifically?

Recording with a professional orchestra can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it’s also exciting to see how excited and enthusiastic kids get about playing new works that are associated with some of their favorite YouTube stars. I remember when I was a kid playing in a youth orchestra: as much as I loved playing classical music, I just wanted an opportunity to play some of my favorite film music like Star Wars or Indiana Jones. I think it’s great to give the kids an opportunity to play something fresh and new. Hopefully, this will inspire them to continue a life-long joy of music. I so often meet people who tell me they regret quitting music early on, and wish they had stuck with it. I know it’s difficult and frustrating when you’re just beginning to learn an instrument, but payoff of being able to enjoy playing music is so worth it.

So music education and the joy behind it are important you feel for the youth. What was your musical education like as a youth?

Well, I was lucky that I was not one of those kids who was forced to take piano lessons; in fact, my parents asked me when I was little if I wanted to take piano, but I was intimidated by all the keys on the piano; so I refused piano lessons. But when I was ten years-old, I heard my best friend play Beethoven’s Fur Elise; I wanted to take piano lessons just to learn that one piece. That’s when I began to love music; from there, I picked up the clarinet when I was twelve, and played in my middle school band. I particularly got interested in film music when we performed band arrangements of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. When I realized both those film scores were composed by John Williams, I started buying his CDs, and discovered my passion for film music.

Obligatory question: did you go to band camp?

[Laughs] I never actually went to band camp, but in high school, I was drum major of the marching band and did get to go to drum major camp, which was a lot of fun because I developed an interest in conducting after conducting the premier of my first orchestral piece with the Houston Youth Symphony at the age of fourteen. So at drum major camp, I was eagerly learning more about conducting, and enjoying my first time on my own away from home.

So you must have had some interesting stories from drum major camp.

Well, I met a girl who could peel a banana with her toes.

And did that talent inspire you in any way?

[Laughs] Nope. But I also played in percussion ensemble and jazz band in high school. Funny thing was, my band director forced me to try out for a region jazz band on piano–which I absolutely didn’t want to do because I couldn’t play jazz and was a lousy pianist anyway. When I got the audition music, I couldn’t understand why there were no notes: there were just a bunch of slashes and chord symbols instead of musical notation. I hadn’t yet figured out how to improvise in a jazz style. So I figured I would just bomb the audition and not have to worry about it. Unfortunately, I was the only one who tried out, so I ended up having to play with a jazz band without any clue how to play jazz.

Poor you. I guess that means we have to deal with how that influenced your musical style.

[Laughs] Well, I still wish I knew more about jazz, but I have composed jazzy style pieces which I do enjoy because I get the opportunity to do something different and fun. One thing I’ve learned throughout life is to expect the unexpected, because many times I have dabbled in musical genres and eclectic projects that I never imagined being able to do. It’s important to just welcome the opportunity to explore something new despite any fears you might have about doing something unfamiliar. For example, I am a terrible singer, and I wouldn’t want to wish the agony of anyone hearing me sing. But in college, I took a semester of choir because I thought it would be a good experience to see what it’s like to sing in the choir. That very semester, our college choir was invited to perform at the 2001 Emmys with Barbara Streisand. So there I was, performing on TV with Barbara Streissand, and I’m a completely horrible singer.

Sounds like this is the setup for your voice cracking like a kid going through puberty for people watching TV to see.

Fortunately, there were so many people singing in the choir, nobody could hear me.

Aha! So you actually did sing!

Actually, Michelle Phan heard me sing when we were working on “Underneath Your Love.” I was arranging the ‘N Sync song, “This I Promise You” for orchestra. I created a demo of it and sang the vocal part, and Michelle just laughed at me when she heard it. Fortunately, Rochelle Diamante, who sang the final song, was fantastic.

So how do you feel about how music education nowadays compares to your youth?

I get the sense schools are cutting funding for music and for the arts because they feel it’s not a necessity, which I think is sad because music absolutely enhanced my life. I mean, the nature of playing in a band or orchestra is a very collaborative thing because you’re playing with lots of other people and creating music together. That helped me learn to be social since I used to be an extremely quiet and shy kid. But it also teaches discipline and helps people focus on other things within their education program; I think music and art adds meaning to life.

Taking that into consideration, how has that played out in the work you’ve done and how it’s been received?

I’ll never forget a comment someone left on Wong Fu’s “These Four Walls.” Someone said their friend was considering suicide, until she saw that video and heard the music, which inspired her to continue living and experience her life. That made me realize what we do as artists does have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

That’s quite a comment to move and inspire you. You must’ve been really happy to find that instead of being buried amongst the trolls and racist comments. So it really is important to get people to have music education to not only appreciate art and inspire others, but so that their parents don’t force them to play instruments and get them to hate music, right?

[Laughs] Well, in fact I’m actually recording this very song with the youth orchestra for my album. But yes, there’s definitely something to say about inspiring people to learn music rather than forcing them into it.

That’s really great. So what do you see yourself doing beyond your work on YouTube with other artists? Video game music? Full-length feature films scores?

Well, I’ve always welcomed new challenges, and I’ve always dreamed of writing music for big blockbuster movies and video games [NOTE: he started playing The Legend of Zelda theme on the piano in the middle of answering this question before continuing his answer]. Of course my life’s goal is to win an EGOT: an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. So hopefully I will get to work in film, TV, and musicals in order to win all those awards. Fortunately for me, the best way to win an EGOT is to be a composer, since we tend to be able to work in all those genres. But at the moment, I am just focused on creating great music and enjoying the projects I’m working on, and the people I’m working with.

The feeling is mutual–between you and your collaborators and your fans. We love you and your music, man. Anything else you’d like to share?

[NOTE: He started playing the Super Mario Brothers theme on the piano briefly] Well, you said what would I like to share, not say! [laughs] But I will say that I recently became a YouTube partner, so I hope to post slightly more frequently on my YouTube channel. I also hope to raise the money to finish my album, and I look forward to the recording session with the orchestra. Hearing an orchestra play my music for the first time is always the biggest thrill for me, and is why I’m addicted to composing.

Thank you, George!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Johnny C is global nomad who grew up between California, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. He believes the one constant in travel is that good music makes any long flight across the pacific much more enjoyable–preferably with a glass of champagne and attractive company.

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About JohnnyC

Johnny C is a self-described Accidental Asian American: born in California and raised in Hong Kong and Manila, he spends his days traveling as a freelancer for various NGOs in development and human rights. An idealist and adventurer, his travels are both for work and fun, while sharing stories through his pictures, videos, and writing. When he's not dance-walking to indie rock songs on his iPod in cities around the world, he's usually got himself engrossed in a science fiction novel traversing the portals of reality.
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