Film scorer Diwa De Leon talks about his hegalong.



To the ear of film scorer Diwa de Leon, real life is “mundane,” lacking the brass solos and arpeggios found in his movies. A soundproof double door—complete with a sign plate warning visitors to “Observe silence”—leads to Mr. De Leon’s “geek room.” Inside sits an Apple Mac Pro loaded with orchestral sounds. Flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tubas, timpani, percussion, piano, harp—you name it, he’s got it, along with colossus drums, war ensembles, and monster attacks.

His work has won him accolades—a long list that includes the 2013 Gawad Urian award for Best Music for Baybayin, which was directed by Kanakan Balintagos (formerly known as Aureaus Solito), and the Cinemalaya 2012 award for Best Original Music Score for Raymond Red’s Kamera Obskura. Mr. De Leon is a prolific composer: six of the films he scored were shown at this year’s Cinemalaya Festival. Taklub, the most high-profile project among these six, is a Brillante Mendoza/Nora Aunor drama that was also screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.   

As the grandson of National Artist for Music Felipe de Leon, Mr. De Leon has a genetic advantage. His natural abilities were honed at the Philippine High School for the Arts, where he formed the Makiling Band and graduated valedictorian, and at the College of Music of the University of the Philippines, Diliman.

“Sounds—whether of rain, thunder, doors banging—are non-musical,” he said, differentiating his craft from sound design, another discipline altogether. “Music is emotional. Shock, fear, joy—the music leads you to what is happening. It adds tension.”   

How do you compose?

I play the music on an M Audio Midi keyboard connected to the computer. If I’m working on a film, I edit the music here and watch the video on the 40-inch TV  screen up there. The program I’m using is Logic Pro X, which is music software for Mac only. This is the Hollywood standard, actually. You input the notes through the piano, if a note sounds off, you can isolate the note and edit it. Most music composers—Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar), John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Jurassic Park)—write everything with software first. They, however, have big budgets so they can afford big orchestras to play their compositions, which the program automatically notates. Since I do everything myself, and I do everything straight from my head, I don’t need to make sheet music. 

Did you learn this method in music school?

The theories, practices and the basics, yes but for the style of music in film, I’m self taught. The composition department at UP leans more towards the avant-garde style, more on the serious style of the classical side of music, which is okay by me. It’s an academic process that’s very cerebral. For four to five years that’s what I did under respected teachers like National Artists for Music Ramon Santos and Jose Maceda. 

What other instruments do you use for film scores?

There are rare circumstances where I use the hegalong. I’ve had my own since 1995. It’s a two-string guitar from Southern Philippines, bought by my father. It’s also used by Joey Ayala, who introduced the instrument to the modern setting. I’ve altered my hegalong and turned it from acoustic to electric. I’ve done away with the carvings—just personal taste—and also removed the strands of horse hair that were part of the design. I added scales, so that the instrument sounds more like a guitar and can blend well with jazz or pop music.

Tell me about your family.

Music and arts in our family is a very, very normal thing. My grandmother, the wife of Felipe de Leon, was a concert pianist in her day. She enforced the rule that every grandchild had to study piano. We would line up, from youngest to oldest, to play—more than 30 grandchildren. My number one influence is my grandfather, though I learned from him indirectly. When I was born, he was already retired and bedridden, and wasn’t active in music. But I always heard inspiring stories about his work ethic. I was not so much influenced in style because he leaned more toward the classical, kundiman, operatic style. It’s not my style in composing, but I can appreciate it. What I got from him was more the discipline and dedication in the craft.

What’s it like to be a film scorer?

Film scoring is one of the most lucrative career paths as a composer, but it’s very “behind-the-scenes.” If you choose film scoring, you have to accept that you will always be behind the scenes, behind the actor, and under the supervision of a director. You are writing film music to serve the vision of the director; you are not writing music for your own accord. You will never be the lead. You are supporting the film, it’s not the film that supports you.

What’s the difference between a score and a song?

Songs have a fixed structure. There’s a verse, a chorus, and it’s usually based on the text. For a film score, you have to follow the scene. You also have to consult with the director first. Brillante Mendoza, who I worked with in Taklub, likes music that you don’t notice. Meaning, the music is an organic part of the scene. It’s not separate. You don’t notice the music because you’re not supposed to notice it. 

How do you decide what type of music goes with a specific scene?

You have to understand the script. There are no fixed rules. It’s always based on the artistic judgment of the scorer and, most of the time, of the director. While there are musically inclined directors who can express what they want clearly, you will, more often than not, have to rely on their descriptions—their intent—for the scene. The process usually takes one to two weeks. Or, depending on the situation, three days. If you have to follow deadlines, you have to compromise. 

What are the most difficult emotions to compose music for?

Fear is the easiest. The most difficult are the emotional, internal struggles—doubt, deceit. Vague emotions and trauma, which are hard to show physically, are always challenging.