After Yang premieres this Friday.
The film After Yang is not your standard sci-fi movie. It is minimalist in its depiction of technology, centered on family and memory as opposed to the flashy gadgets of its future. Written and directed by video essayist-turned-filmmaker Kogonada, it’s not only getting wide release this weekend, it’s also premiering as part of this year’s Seattle Asian American Film Festival.
Notably, the film has a wonderful score by composer Aska Matsumiya that perfectly complements its low-fi sci-fi world. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, you’d better fix that ASAP. You can hear his eclectic music in the underrated coming-of-age movie Selah and the spadesin a vibrant twist on crime drama I’m your wifein the master 37 secondsand in seasons one and two of HBO’s unfortunately short-lived series Betty.
With After Yang, the composer innovates by bringing to life a science fiction world that concerns its inhabitants as much as the technology they use. Before the movie was released, I spoke with Matsumiya about her process, why she didn’t want to rely solely on the synth, and what it was like to work with Kogonada.
We have edited this interview for length and clarity.
HUTCHINSON: What drew you to a sci-fi feature film like this?
ASKA: It was my first. I was just brought into the project after the director contacted me. I first joined it not because it was science fiction but because I really connected with Kogonada as a person. I really felt like I could translate the feeling he wanted to capture with music. I immediately felt very close to him.
Have you listened to the score of his previous film, Columbus? How was your collaboration process overall?
I didn’t listen Columbus. I think it’s one of those things with, I call it K, with KI I think it’s one of my skills, is being able to translate music when talking about themes. It’s like an instinct or a hunch. We didn’t talk much about what kind of music we wanted to make, except I think we both agreed that because it’s science fiction, we didn’t want to do an obvious sci-fi score. We actually wanted to do the opposite, which is to be more human. That was the concept we had. So I brought a lot of warm wooden instruments like piano, marimbas and cello. Something that sounded human, then I mixed it with some synth. Then we also ended up exploring a lot of scores in the AI plugin, but I wanted to make sure that the human part was something that translated with the score.
When you talk about wanting to get away from the obvious sci-fi score, I’m thinking of compositions that just hammer you with synth and call it a day. Can you explain how you worked to make the score more varied and larger?
The main theme is written on the piano; it’s like a processed piano, although the source comes from the piano. Then there were a lot of marimbas. I was going through this phase where I was obsessed with marimbas and xylophones. All the textural stuff that I created, like the atmospheric stuff, I created with these marimbas because I thought it would create this warm texture in this world with robots. Then I mixed with synth.
It’s quite remarkable.
Then there was the cello which is played by this Icelandic cellist Gyða Valtýsdóttir. It’s really hard to play the cello really quietly because the quieter you play, the more control you have to have. So it’s easier to play something loud, you know? But when you play really quietly, it all shows. Every touch, every texture, every thing, so you have to be in control. She is one of the cellists capable of doing so. I had her play really, really softly so that I could hear every key of her playing the cello and that was very important to me because the score needed to have a human touch.
Yeah, I remember KEXP posted a video of her performing a while back, and it was amazing. Have the two of you ever worked together?
Yes, I had worked with her on many different projects. She’s like my favorite cellist. In fact, I had first known her when she was on the cover of a Belle & Sebastian record where the girl looks at another girl because she has a twin. I grew up listening to this record, watching it every day and being obsessed with its image. Then she was in this Icelandic group Múm which I loved too. Then, later, she also ended up being friends with several of my collaborators. So I reconnected with her and everything fell into place.
It’s quite a bond to find someone so memorable from your childhood and then work on that score together.
In terms of how you compose, do you watch the film and try to make it connect with the cut? Or do you work independently?
It kind of depends on the movie, but for this movie, he already had a cut. I like to watch it and live in the atmosphere of the film. Create something from the trace of the feeling rather than watching and writing.
I hesitate to even say that sentence, but was there temporary music on the cut you saw or was it a blank canvas to get to work from?
They had no temporary music. I really hate working with temporary music because I feel like when you listen to temporary music, it already limits what could be created. Even if people put on temporary music, I never listen. I ignore them [laughs].
Yes, it can be constricting to have something married to the image when you’d rather just start fresh and get away from it all.
I also feel like if you’re working from something that’s already been created, you’ll never do anything new. I feel like it’s useless.
In terms of what you were talking about wanting to emphasize how very human the sci-fi aspect was, what did you take away from the central themes of the film and your overall score?
It was the concept we were talking about from the beginning. After Yang takes place in the future, but it’s not like typical science fiction where there’s a conflict between technology and humans. What is unique in this film is that they coexist in this harmony. Even inside of that, you develop emotions with the… I don’t know what… did you watch the movie?
Yes I have. I saw it at Sundance.
I don’t know what Yang is. It’s not a robot, but what do they call it?
Yes, android. I feel like in that regard, it’s a whole new perspective on how we’re going to coexist with technology. I also wanted to incorporate that into the music.
It sounds like the creative process for the movie was really fulfilling. Do you hope to work with Kogonada again on another film like this? With COVID, have you been able to meet him in person and work together often?
Yeah, we’ve worked together in person several times and I would really like to work on something. He was amazing, so pleasant to work with. The whole process with him felt really, purely creative in that way which was really beautiful. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had collaborating with someone. I would like to work with him again.
You can see After Yang beginning March 3 in theaters and on Showtime, as well as at the Northwest Film Forum screening of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival on March 6.