Interview: Evan H. Chen

Evan H. Chen interview
by Earl Green

All rights reserved; unauthorized duplication without the express permission of the writer is prohibited.

In 1998, as production got underway on the final Babylon 5 TV movie A Call To Arms, J. Michael Straczynski made the official announcement that the music of the new film – and possibly the Crusade spinoff series to follow – would be handled by a then-unknown, Chinese-born composer named Evan Chen.

When A Call to Arms aired just a few days after New Year’s Day, 1999, the internet was abuzz with opinions about the story, the special effects, and – perhaps more than anything else – the music. Some of the reviews were good, some were bad, and some fans took their opinions to extremes.

And Evan Chen was just beginning to get an idea what he had gotten himself into.

“I was aware,” he admits. “They had told me that Babylon 5 has a large international fan base. No one really warned me what kind of crowd they are – they left it for me to find out. They threw me into the wolf pack!”

Indeed, the story of how the musician carved out his own musical niche of the Babylon 5 universe is riddled with plot twists which are worthy of the SF epic.

The Long Road

Evan Chen spent several years as one of the in-house composers at What The Hale Music in Chicago. In that capacity, Evan created music for specific clients on a per-job basis, as well as contributing to music “libraries” leased to studios, television stations, and radio stations. But after eleven years in Chicago, he struck westward and moved to Los Angeles.

“I came to L.A. in late 1997, but never stayed long enough, always staying just long enough for meetings,” he says. But eventually he stayed on the west coast. “I felt it was time to nail my name to the door.”

Evan set about creating a demo of his work, a musical resumè that would be shopped around to clients to attract offers of work. But he was a little less than pleased with the results. “You have to have a demo that has a chase theme, a love scene, drama, suspense…it’s such a formula,” he says. “I followed suit, but I hated what I had. I felt I didn’t have anything to present myself.”

Evan H. Chen interview So he decided to take a chance on a demo that showcased his own distinct style – a risky move when Hollywood is often just looking for someone to inexpensively emulate John Williams without hitting close enough to the mark to get the studio sued. “Everything in commercials is derivative of pop music, and movies are usually derivative of classical music,” he commented. And while Chen was classically trained, he was eager to create his own sound.

“I stayed in the studio for three months, and wrote for myself,” Evan says. And though it paid off later, the frustrations of railing against an established formula were considerable. “I came into this town and felt i was not a composer. I thought, ‘I don’t compose enough to be a composer.’ I came to this new place, with a new language I wanted to express myself through…but all I had was this old work.”

He started generating new demo material of his own, without adhering to the formula, but, as he says, “A problem appeared – I didn’t know what I was writing for.” But his break would come soon enough…and he’d definitely have something to write for.

In July 1998, Evan had lunch with Steve Moore, a special effects editor at Netter Digital. Over the course of the lunchtime discussion, Moore revealed that production on Babylon 5 was winding down, a new show was being developed to take its place…and that new series needed a new composer. Always prepared for such a contingency, Evan promptly gave Moore a copy of his demo CD. That’s when things began to happen very quickly.

“About a week and a half later, I got a call from Babylonian Productions, and they said they wanted to meet with me.”

Objects In Motion

Not long after that, Evan Chen found himself in the producers’ offices, and discovered that he was on the top of a short list of about 30 composers.

“John Copeland and Joe Straczynski said, ‘We’re pleasantly surprised by the demo,'” Evan remembers. “Joe said, ‘Of all the demos we’ve heard, you’re the only one who sounds like you’re not trying to be John Williams.'” And when the creator of Babylon 5 revealed that the initial movie scoring assignment was practically an audition for the entire Crusade series to follow, it was almost too good to be true.

“They looked at me and said, ‘What do you think you’re going to bring to the table?’ I said, ‘Does this mean I have the job? When do I start?'”

And for those fans who have noticed how drastically different the music from A Call to Arms and Crusade are from Christopher Franke’s Babylon 5 scores, let there be no doubt that those differences were a joint effort between composer and producers. John Copeland told Evan up front: “Don’t listen to the Babylon 5 CDs…that’s not where we want you to go.”

Of Straczynski, Evan says, “Joe has his style of calling out the timings [for music cues], and he’s open to discuss it. But he never said one word about what kind of music he wanted. Joe said, ‘When I hire writers, I hire them for their perspectives. If I’m going to tell them what to write or how to write, what’s the point?'”

The point was that, after rebelling against assembly-line-style music, Evan Chen was free to create his own kind of music for Crusade. “Joe and I had a meeting, and afterward I said, ‘Am I just going to go compose now?’ And Joe said, ‘Yes.'”

The unique sound of Crusade emerged quickly in A Call To Arms. “I have a problem with how everytime you see a ship go by, you hear French horns,” Evan says. “But I had no clue what a science fiction movie should be…and I was letting myself get brainwashed into thinking that. I could’ve analyzed Jerry Goldsmith, or listened to Chris’s scores, but I was given the biggest task in my life – to do whatever I want, to help build this show.”

Evan H. Chen interview While Evan was determined to carve out an eclectic and experimental path with the score of A Call to Arms, he also knew that it would be a delicate balancing act. “To do whatever I wanted on television, and to be heard by many, many people…and get paid? The stakes were much higher,” he points out. “It’s one thing to play something for your friends, but now you’re going to cable, to the network, you’re throwing yourself to the wolf pack, facing corporate America, facing history, facing the future, the creative teams, and the fans.

“What do you do? Is it smarter to play it safe? In commercial TV, I’ve known a lot of people who said they were creative, but they followed the rules, second-guessed their clients, and it’s very safe to only try to push the envelope within the bounds. I do have limitations – it’s a TV show, not a modern art gallery. It’s a linear story, there are things you have to do. But within that, you have to free yourself.”

During the production of A Call to Arms, Evan was his own harshest critic, relentlessly rewriting his own music. “There were 32 cues. Some people say you should come up with a single theme and then repeat it over and over. But I said to myself, fuck it – I’d rather lose a job than not even try. If I play it safe, just to keep the job, I’m betraying this opportunity,” he says. “But the worst thing I could do would be to do something outrageous just to prove I’m a ‘different’ composer. If I abandon my own color, study other people’s things, I would just fall into the trap and be somebody else – psychologically, I was playing this game with myself. If I listened to [Chris Franke’s] score, I would subconsciously try to avoid it…and by avoiding it, would become someone I’m not. You almost have to be ignorant. The worst thing is to impersonate somebody.”

Making things even more difficult were the movie’s ever-changing mix of dream sequences and unfamiliar, fantastic environments. Of the scene where Galen draws Sheridan into a vivid, extended dream, Evan says, “I don’t even know what the hell that place in Sherdian’s dream is…how can I presume to tell what goes on there melodically?”

But when it came time for the sound mix, no one questioned the music Evan had created. “Joe said he didn’t know what kind of music he wanted until he listened to my demo. I turned in the first 17 cues to Joe and John, and they said ‘okay.’ I said, ‘Wow, is that it? Don’t I have to make any changes?'”

As it turned out, the only change required would be for the composer to adjust from the relatively leisurely timetable of scoring a two-hour movie to the weekly grind of a series. As Evan recalls, “Joe said, ‘This is very hip television music. In 30 years, they’ll still think it’s hip television music.’ And during the final mix of the film, they told me I had the entire series. I didn’t know what to say. I’m lucky.”

Messages From Earth

When A Call to Arms aired, the reactions – especially on the Usenet newsgroups – were widely varied, but almost always passionate. Evan says, “I think they fans are entitled to their opinion. In a way, I took their favorite food away and said ‘Here, have a plate of tofu!’ I’m grateful they’re passionate about it – the worst thing would be if no one noticed anything. But it was almost a riot.”

As some fans may remember, J. Michael Straczynski took to the newsgroups to defend the composer of his latest production from some unusually heated attacks. “It was pretty ferocious,” Evan admits. “If they criticize the music, I can handle that, but I was attacked from a personal and even an ethnic point of view. I began to think that maybe science fiction is a white man’s show.”

Evan H. Chen interview The composer even took these concerns to his boss. “I told Joe I had a concern. I had watched the other shows and movies, and I found them to be from an Anglo-Saxon point of view. Even the music is very western hemisphere. I could’ve gone with a conventional setup and an orchestra, and blasted the crap out of it. But it wouldn’t have been me.”

Not that Evan criticizes western music – far from it, considering his classical training. But he notes, “I had been in that culture so long, it’s like when you drink wine, you’re expected to eat cheese, and they feed off of each other. To me, all of our art was created 200 years ago, and now we’ve just industrialized it.”

But have the critics changed the course of Crusade’s music? Not really. Evan says, “When I started working on Crusade, I changed things, not because of the fans, but because I wanted to try different things. Crusade, with all of its changing settings and characters …what a fabulous opportunity. Each episode is an isolated story, so the music changes from episode to episode.”

More recently, Evan has begun to take part in the newsgroup discussions himself. “Because it is so risky, and because the concerns from the fans are legit, I felt a responsibility to communicate with the fans. In a theater program, you get to write program notes, but on television, you don’t. The problem with this business is it’s always fear-driven, you’re always afraid they’re not going to like something,” he says. And on a happier note, he adds, “I’ve gotten lots of e-mail lately. A lot of people apologized for posting messages asking Joe to fire me. If people can accept what I do, it will make headway for other composers and help them in the future.”

Into The Fire

Evan’s first Crusade scoring assignment was the episode initially slated to air first, Racing The Night. (The episode was later pushed back by several weeks to accomodate TNT’s demands for a new opening episode.) The new weekly grind compressed the timetable for composing and performing new material, but the music remains eclectic and unusual.

Christopher Franke was known for mixing synthesizers and samples with the Berlin Symphonic Film Orchestra’s purely acoustic sound, and I asked Evan about the ratio of acoustic to synthetic sounds in the scores for A Call To Arms and Crusade. “Overall, budget and time only allow for electronic scores,” he says. “I do use some very good orchestral samples. I don’t want to shy away from using orchestral sound – I love the orchestra. I also used some [samples of] voices and solo instruments. In one of the shows, I even used a little bit of saxophone.”

I took the opportunity to bring up my favorite cue from A Call To Arms, heard both during Dureena’s walk through Babylon 5’s impoverished Brown Sector and over the end credits. “Brown sector is a very poor section,” he explains, “so I mixed some ethnic and grungy things together.” Among these sounds were unusual percussion, which turned out to be a sample of metal scraping on metal. “A lot of times, music is organized sound. If modern technology offers us all these different options, why not use them?”

Although no actual acoustic instruments are heard in his scores, Evan says, “I feel that my studio is my orchestra, what I do here – the sampler, the synths – they are my orchestra.”

Of scoring Racing The Night, Evan says, “That was the most difficult, because I had just finished A Call To Arms…and it went from Sheridan to Gideon. I kept the same sound design and musical style [as the movie]. Then I did episode 107, The Long Road.”

Evan H. Chen interview The Long Road, which was the second episode to premiere on TNT, gave Evan a chance to draw from his heritage. “In The Long Road, instead of a western feel, I threw in more Chinese and ethnic elements than ever before,” he comments. In particular, he cites Alwyn’s illusionary dragon: “Who invented dragons? The Chinese did! And Alwyn is like a monk. When the holodemons fight the soldiers, it’s almost like a Chinese dragon dance.”

Evan’s primary motivation in creating the music for Crusade is clear. “I’m looking forward to entertaining the audience. The music changes drastically from one episode to another. When I was doing opera, I had to consider the material, the opera company, tradition, and so on. With this, anything goes.”

Another episode presented him with a unique challenge – and an opportunity to take part in a musical tradition in the Babylon 5 universe. “I had to provide source music [music which, unlike background music, can be heard by the characters in the scene, i.e. a jukebox or a band on-screen] in a bar in the year 2267…what will that be like? Probably not much different that what we hear today.”

But, as most everyone knows, disputes between J. Michael Straczynski and TNT resulted in the cancellation of the show – at least for now. While it’s possible that the Sci-Fi Channel may resurrect Crusade next year, the production hiatus has left producers, writers, cast, crew, and of course the show’s composer at a loose end.

Objects At Rest

While there is little doubt that the merits of Crusade’s music, storylines, actors and visual effects will be debated for years to come among Babylon 5 newsgroups and fan clubs, the musical legacy of Crusade will be preserved. Sonic Images, Christopher Franke’s label (which has released over thirty Babylon 5 CD titles to date), will release not one, but two discs of Evan’s music.

“A Crusade CD is coming out soon,” Evan reveals. “It is compiled in the fashion of the Babylon 5 suite CDs, with pieces and cues from various episodes juxtaposed.” And, as was announced by J. Michael Straczynski not long after the debate about the score from A Call To Arms erupted online, Sonic Images will also be releasing that movie’s music in its entirety.

Looking back at his experience on Crusade, Evan Chen says, “It was the best time of my life, to get paid to do whatever I wanted, for television. If the show goes on, I’ll be in heaven. I got to try many different types of music. I may never do another show. If I go to do another show, it’s not going to be like that. I’m willing to give it up – if I can’t compose music with a sincere voice or honesty, I will quit. I can always trade stocks online.”

This article ©1999
All rights reserved; unauthorized duplication without the express permission of the writer is prohibited.