“Making real connections, making real friends, those are the things that will last you in the long run, both in terms of your career and just your overall well-being.”

Geoff Li composer
photo: Tatiana Zagorac

interview by Vivian Poon

Since March, Edmontonians have been socially distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Doing so has made it difficult for people to meet up and do the social and recreational activities they used to do.

It’s especially difficult for musicians to perform their music and keep in touch with their colleagues and their community. Geoff Li, an Edmonton based Korean-Chinese composer, is no exception to this.

Geoff has loved music since he was a kid. He learned to play the guitar at ten years old, and he grew up playing rock and metal music. He eventually went to MacEwan University to study jazz guitar. There, he was exposed to different genres and eventually found an interest in composing classical scores.

Since his time at university, Geoff has become an accomplished composer in his mid-twenties. He mostly writes music for classical ensembles and short video games.

In terms of concert music, Geoff has mostly composed chamber music (small classical ensembles). He has also written work for solo performances, large ensembles, and electroacoustic music. His most notable works are Snowfall on Venus for Quintet and Divertimento for orchestra, which was premiered by the University of Alberta Symphony Orchestra.

In addition, he’s done a lot of composing for game jams. They are competitions where an individual or a team creates a video game in about twenty-four to seventy-two hours (The time limits vary with different events).

He’s most recently participated in Global Game Jam 2020, where he wrote a score for a game called “Kintsugi”. The name is based on the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with molten gold and silver. The game itself is about practicing self-care in times of broken relationships – whether with yourself or with other people.

The player’s objective is to do small everyday tasks (like drinking enough water or tidying up their space) until they can reach out to a friend. Geoff wrote the score, Depression Nest, for the game and I particularly like its slow pace and relaxing tone.

Aside from being a composer, Geoff is also a family friend of mine. I see him mostly at parties that my cousin throws every year.

We didn’t talk to each other that much at first. That was, until one day, Geoff approached me and admitted that he remembered my face, but not my name. He seemed very apologetic about this, but I assured him that I felt the exact same way.

We both laughed, re-introduced each other and started talking. That night, we exchanged Instagram handles. That’s when I realized that he was a composer.

Now, I can’t speak for everyone who reads this article, but I don’t know a whole lot of people in their mid-twenties who are composers. I’ve always wanted to speak to Geoff about his art and learn more about it but never had the chance to. However, when I joined Edmonton Scene as a contributor, I knew I had to interview him.

I finally sat down with Geoff on a cold and cloudy Thursday afternoon at Kinsmen Park. We laughed and talked with one another. Geoff is passionate about his job, and he’s a great conversationalist, so it was easy to forget about how cold it was. I couldn’t help but listen intently to what he had to say about what it was like to compose music on a daily basis.

According to Geoff, his creative process is a lot of trial and error. He always starts off with research.

“The cool and stressful thing about this job is that every piece I’ve been commissioned to write has been something completely new to me,” he said. “Whether that’s the ensemble I’m writing for or the styles I’m interested in writing in.”

Geoff usually researches until he has something tangible to work with. He then writes down sketches and sleeps on it. He tells me that the next day, after looking at his work with fresh eyes, he realizes that “90% of it is pretty garbage”. But there’s still 10% to work with.

The cycle repeats until the piece is done. He doesn’t stop there, though. It’s then rehearsed, and sometimes, it doesn’t always come out the way he intended it to be. If that’s the case, then Geoff makes a note of what didn’t work and revises the score if there’s time. It sounds like a frustrating process, but it’s well worth it in the end.

“Despite all of the ridiculous amounts of hard work that goes into it, all the ups and low lows, at the end of the day, you end up with a very cool piece of work that you came up with that people appreciate, and you make this thing that you’ve loved more than anything else in your life,” he explains.

While most people assume that having a job that you love is all rainbows and sunshine, there are still hardships that an individual can face. Like every artist, Geoff goes through a lot of different challenges when composing music.

Self-doubt is one of them. Geoff knows that composing music isn’t a lucrative profession. In fact, he cannot fully financially support himself with it, and he teaches guitar on the side. There are days where he worries about not having enough work to do and days where he feels stressed out by the number of projects he needs to complete.

Additionally, he gets worried about whether people will like the work that he puts out. To combat these emotions, Geoff practices consistent self-care. He makes sure that he sleeps well, eats healthy, and exercises.

“In terms of stresses about the future and whether or not people will like my work…well, that’s kind of out of my control. That’s just something I guess I kind of have to live with, choosing this career,” Geoff admits.

Regardless of its difficulties, it’s clear to see that Geoff loves what he does. I can’t help but be impressed with his work ethic and his ability to take each step of the creative process with determination and patience.

COVID hasn’t exactly made things easier for him, either. For example, his quintet entitled, A New Era of Immigrant Stories for Piano Quintet, was meant to premiere on March 29th. However, it was postponed due to Edmonton’s lockdown.

Despite the stall in his career, Geoff kept himself busy during COVID by doing smaller projects. One of them was the sound design for a video game called Element X.

Another project he’s been working on is an anime-inspired piece for the Windrose Trio. According to him, projects like these keep him motivated and productive through these difficult times, where he can’t perform as often or communicate face-to-face with the people around him.

As for larger projects, Geoff is working on a piece called Moons for various solo instruments and electronics for the Come On Festival in July 2021. This summer event showcases quirky and exotic music that blurs the lines between classical music and other genres.

Expanding from a previous project called Europa for euphonium and electronics, Moons is a four-movement piece. Each movement is inspired by four different moons in the solar system and is written for four different instruments. Visuals from Brian Raine will accompany Geoff’s music.

Even though Geoff tries to stay positive, I can tell that he’s somewhat unsure about his future. When asked about giving advice to aspiring composers, he felt hesitant about giving me an answer.

“I’m struggling with what to do next in my career, and it’s so unstable right now. That I think it would be disingenuous to say the cliche things like “shoot for your dreams” or “you can do anything if you put your mind into it”. There’s clearly a lot of external factors that are out of our control like the pandemic putting a halt to the industry.”

He didn’t leave me empty-handed, though. We ended the interview with a positive note.

“I think if I were to be optimistic, I would say, the typical advice: Network and make friends in the industry. Try not to constantly rub off on people for the sake of just getting a leg up in the industry cause people can smell that. But making real connections, making real friends, those are the things that will last you in the long run, both in terms of your career and just your overall well-being.”

I left the interview learning a lot about Geoff and what it’s like to compose music. A part of me felt happy that I finally got to talk to him about his career. Another part of me wondered about the future of composers like him, and of those who are aspiring to become one. With COVID looming over everyone’s heads, the future of any kind of performance arts seems unpredictable.

At the same time, I think Geoff is amazing for his ability to take things slowly and stay optimistic. The life lessons that he shared with me (like employing self-care and letting go of situations that you can’t control) are things that I think I’ll keep in mind. After all, days will go by regardless of how you feel. The best thing to do is to take care of yourself and take on each day at your own pace.

Geoff Li, compopser