Master's Film Scoring Program in Spain Prepares Chinese Composer for Career

By 
Lesley Mahoney
February 11, 2014
Ma in the recording studio in Valencia.
Yiyi Ma at Berklee's campus in Valencia, Spain.
Photo by Histeria Producciones
Photo by Histeria Producciones

For Yiyi Ma, much of a good film’s beauty lies in its score, and when that’s working, she’s fully immersed. “I not only feel it in my heart, but my body, too," says Ma from her native Beijing, China. “There’s an amazing emotional connection. When I watch a beautiful picture, I cry.”

Ma is poised to open a Beijing-based international recording studio in the spring less than a year after completing the master’s program in scoring for film, television, and video games at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain.

Ma heard about the Valencia film scoring program from a friend at Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and majored in electric organ and minored in music engineering. Ma began studying music when she was 9 years old, first on keyboard and later on electric organ and piano. She began her formal music education at Shenyang Conservatory of Music, where she discovered her love of—and talent for—composition. Growing up, Ma appreciated TV series and film music, and she was particularly moved by August Rush. “It’s the most impressive movie for me,” she says. “The melody and the way of shooting so touched me.” She wanted to learn how to make that same kind of magic.

In Spain, she was among the Valencia campus’ inaugural class, studying alongside 19 others in the master's scoring program. In the program, Ma developed her scoring skills and her voice as a composer, marking an important step in her musical journey. She also learned how to make what she calls “the Hollywood sound.”

“I learned about full orchestration and about the 'American' sound of music, especially for films. I have now been trained to feel and understand the emotion of film,” she says. “I had some incredible experiences, from sharing knowledge and companionship with fellow musicians and film composers, to conducting and recording my own composition at the Warner Brothers recording stage (in Los Angeles).”

As part of the program, students visited the LA studio to meet with industry professionals and record a piece of music. While in Spain, Ma also made two cues for the movie The Ice Storm, which ultimately led to connecting with its composer, Mychael Danna, via email. Danna told Ma that her work had very strong Chinese influences and encouraged her to learn more about her home language and compose music for Chinese films.

Ma, who was one of 71 students from 27 countries, believes the cross-cultural experience at Berklee's Valencia campus could be beneficial to other Chinese musicians. "I think in the next 10 years, it will play a leading role for developing music in China." 

Classes were taught in English but Ma found that language was no barrier. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “All students learn from each other. It’s amazing. Language is not a problem because we have ears and hearts. We can feel the music.”

That sensibility has no doubt contributed to Ma’s preparation for a career in the industry. Since she graduated, and while still in Spain, she composed music for a short film, Kingdom by the Sea, with European director Yolanda Torres. Back home in her native Beijing, she composed and is preparing to record music for two Chinese films.

“For these two films, I think I made a very good balance between the Hollywood sound and Tibetan elements,” she says. “Berklee taught me how to make music in different styles and that was really helpful.”

With plans to open her own recording studio, Ma looks forward to continuing to synthesize Eastern and Western styles and, in doing so, provide audiences with the same kind of emotional connections that drew her to composing for film in the first place.