Ying-Ting Luo is an award winning film and video game composer from Taiwan. She was musically precocious from a very early age, starting piano at four and then the flute at eight. This led to studying at the prestigious Taipei National University of the Arts which led to many awards.
She then went to the even more prestigious Berklee College of Music where she studied film and video game scoring. She graduated with honours and has since composed scores for documentaries, feature films and video games as well as working with Grammy award winner Susana Baca, Wang Leehom and Joyce Moreno.
This album, ‘Dark Journey’, is a suite of orchestral compositions with an underlying concept: imagine your lover is a criminal and you’re stuck on a long journey with them. This intriguing theme sets the tone and opening piece The Suitcase contains this sense of the mysterious and slightly ominous. From its first bars, it becomes apparent that Ying-Ting has a real gift for composition.
Swirling strings combine with arpeggiated harp to create a magical soundscape which is then augmented by glockenspiel, giving the music a Danny Elfman-vibe (Edward Scissorhands, Spiderman). Indeed, her music combines the dreamlike quality of Elfman with the more dramatic, rhythmic style of Hans Zimmer and the pieces tend to alternate between these two styles with consummate skill.
‘Let’s Dance’ begins with pizzicato strings, then jazzy piano and woodwinds weave an enchanting melodic web that keeps the listener gripped. The woodwinds are beautifully orchestrated, which shows both her talent and years of training. There’s a continuity between the tracks, as well as recurrence of key themes, and the ominous ending of this piece explodes into the tense drama of ‘The Train to Death’.
This piece shows her compositional range, with strident low strings and brooding brass combining with epic Hans Zimmer-style percussion. The low strings are doubled with piano in the same register giving the music a real power and the way she maintains the tension shows her gift for musical storytelling.
‘The Painful Abyss’ is a distinct contrast, a plaintive, mournful melody first heard on oboe then counter pointed by flute. Towards the end it returns to the pulse-quickening excitement of the previous piece. ‘The Killer In The Desert’ has a really exotic flavour both in its eastern melody and percussion which brought to mind the Arabian Dance from Tchaikovsky’s classic work The Nutcracker. It perfectly evokes the title of the piece and ratchets upon the musical drama toward the end.
‘Peaceful Date’ showcases her gifts as a pianist as well as a melodist. The beautiful melody is doubled by violin and conjures quite a mood in its brief duration. ‘Casino in 1928’ is again a perfect musical portrait of what the title suggests, based on the dance rhythms of that era. It features a playful, jazzy melody on bass clarinet and my only complaint is that this didn’t last longer.
The gorgeous, haunting main theme returns on ‘The Dangerous Sex’, used in a Wagnerian way (Richard Wagner formulated the idea of the leitmotif, a melodic theme associated with a character or emotion that recurs across a large scale work). This piece acts as the calm before the storm of the following ‘The Bloody Truth Behind The Sweetness’. It starts out by lulling you into a false sense of security, with a happy flute melody in 3/4 waltz time. Then a minute in, it explodes into a fiendishly dramatic section that has you on the edge of your seat.
‘The Lonely Body In The Ocean’ consists of just glockenspiel, like a haunting and sinister version of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The closing composition ‘The End of the Wrong Love’ returns to the theme of ‘Let’s Dance’ and it feels like a piece of musical irony; the lightness of the melody is interweaved with dark, moody strings and we know things have not ended well for the story’s protagonist.
Overall, this is a remarkable concept album by an immensely talented composer and musician. With a complete grasp of orchestration, she has learnt to blend her many compositional influences into a nuanced style of her own. ‘Dark Journey’ takes the listener to some magical and dramatic places, and like all the best albums leaves the listener wanting more. Ying-Ting Luo could well become one of the most prominent composers of our era.