If you asked Canadian composers to tell you about the first film they ever scored, few could start their story with, “it takes place in North Korea.” Andrew Yong Hoon Lee can. The Korean-Canadian composer has created the music for Closing the Gap: Hockey in North Korea, a new documentary offering a rare window into North Korean society, as it follows a team of hockey players competing in an international tournament in New Zealand.
“They play hockey in North Korea?” That was Lee’s reaction when he was first asked by the film’s director Nigel Edwards to score the project. “Like most Canadians, my concepts of North Korea are predicated on, essentially, propaganda,” he says, on the phone from New York State, where he’s completing his Master of Fine Arts at Bard College. “Before I committed to the project, I wanted to make sure that this film wasn’t going to be salacious or fear-mongering. But when I watched Nigel’s early footage, I got the sense that he was respectful of the North Korean people, and wanted to bring to the forefront their human stories.”
Lee grew up in Vancouver, where his father conducted a church choir, and played classical music and opera in the family home. He started his first (Nirvana-inspired) rock band in Grade Five, went on to study classical music and visual art, and had an epiphany when he first heard the experimental electronic music of Montreal’s Tim Hecker. “Growing up, I had a distrust of machines making music, as opposed to, you know, playing it live,” he says. “Tim Hecker was kind of my gateway. He made it OK for me to seriously consider musicians who were using computers as their primary instrument.”
The music in Closing the Gap is minimal and atmospheric. The quiet yet expressive score is not unlike the electronic music Lee has previously released under the name Holy Hum, or composed for various audio-visual and sound installation projects exhibited across North America and Europe. For his first score for a narrative feature, he was tasked with a new challenge: a cast of characters that lacked, shall we say, character. Like many raised under the North Korean regime, the hockey players featured in the documentary downplayed their individuality as they competed for the glory of their leader, Kim Jong Un. As a result, Lee and Edwards used music to try to draw out the personalities on screen.
“I had two objectives for the score,” says Lee. “I wanted the music to have a psychological register, you could say. To work on a subconscious level, revealing possibly psychological aspects of the characters. And I wanted it to sound how North Korea looks. When you see the architecture, it has aspirations of the future, but somehow still looks dated. So I wanted the score to sound futuristic, but having a patina of something retro.”
As if creating music for on a film shot in North Korea wasn’t a unique enough assignment, Lee also experienced a rather rare working relationship with the director. He and Edwards spent close to a year on the project, including 10 days together in Lee’s studio in New York. “A lot of the editing choices were actually dictated by this score, which I don’t think is that common,” Lee explains. “Nigel was actually sitting behind me editing the film and I was working on the score. I might suggest extending a certain shot so that it would allow a certain note to be extended, and he was able to make those edits. It’s not the most cost-effective way to work, but we allowed ourselves to experiment.”
Closing the Gap premiered at the Whistler Film Festival in December of 2019. Lee plans to release the full score this spring across digital platforms, and on vinyl through his independent label, Heavy Lark.