Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Titles Track

Titles Track

Music for New Media senior Aaron Gao’s internship led to his first television credit
by Bret McCabe

As a Peabody Conservatory Music for New Media student Aaron Gao realized that rhythm wasn’t his forté and practiced improving that skill by writing beat patterns. “I’m actually quite happy about this loop, texture wise,” Gao says as he plays a slippery, percolating rhythm through the program’s studio on the third floor of the Conservatory building. “I tried to write it so you can’t really tell what the time signature is—it makes sense, but you’re not quite sure.” 

Aaron Gao with a computer and large TV screen behind him showing audio editing software

The pattern was stored in a folder of musical sketches and working ideas that Gao keeps on his laptop, a personal sound library he turned to last year when he spent about five hours writing “Road to Redemption,” a 90-second work that became the title credits for Justice in the Dark, a Chinese crime drama based on the Chinese novel Silent Reading by Priest that debuted on the Youku network in February. Gao was initially hired by the production company as an Artist and Relations intern contacting established composers the company was considering for the show.

As Justice proceeded through post-production in spring 2022 without securing a title credits composer, Gao felt like he understood what the showrunners might want. Gao says. “I was in the group chat with the show’s music director, director, and all these people, and I said, ‘I understand I’m just an intern but I would like to volunteer myself as a composer to write the main theme.’

“Deep down,” he continues, “I had this confidence and gut feeling that I could do better—this is my major. I have all these skills that I learned, which I’m very grateful for, and they came in very handy.” 

Gao’s modesty and thoughtfulness come through when recounting his path to a paid commission and television credit, which started in summer 2021 when he began interning remotely at New Style Media Group in China. A music director at the time realized Gao had a responsive, sensitive ear and put him in with the artist relations team. “So whenever there were concerts or events or television shows or films or video games, what artists or composers should be featured,” Gao says. “Who should we seek out? How do we negotiate a deal within our budget?”

Justice had already finished shooting and was in post-production, and intern Gao joined the team working on all of the music: composers were already working on thematic music for the episodes, music editors were putting together the diegetic music choices (the music that takes place in the world of the show, such as a radio), and he was working with a group focusing on the show’s main title credits, the musical theme that would play at the beginning of each episode. And Gao, who was born in Silicon Valley and spent nine years in Shanghai before returning to the States for high school, is fluent in both Chinese and English, a capable point person handling all communications between potential composers and the production company.

With a healthy budget and the program already in post-production, Gao sent show packages to potential composers that outlined the show’s story—in a near future where crime rates and “zero-degree empathy” are increasing, a police officer’s murder investigation leads to a criminal organization of the empathy-depleted—and included written descriptions of the other music in the show and an assortment of visual and audio information about the program’s world. “I was really fascinated by the process,” Gao says. “Wow, we get to play around with this budget. We really get to hire someone good.”

And then, well, the challenges set in. Months-long negotiations with one composer with multiple HBO and film credits stalled and came to naught. Additional conversations and samples from composers in Europe and the States didn’t quite work out. Throughout, Gao is the middleman relaying messages between composers and production company. “I ended up talking to the music directors and relaying messages—we wanted more of this, we wanted more of that, those back and forths,” he says. “And I think the more that we did it, the more that we realized that it really was not working out, and I started to think we were getting close to last resort time, but what would that be? And I thought, what if I scored the main theme?”

Even when remembering that moment Gao downplays his chances. He’d spent months contacting composers who “are more experienced [and] established presences in the film and music industry in general,” he says. “But I maybe did have an edge over them in the fact that I know what we want.” 

So he took his shot. Toward the end of spring semester 2022, Gao went up to the MFNM studio with his laptop and its library of sound files and ideas—including the slippery beat he recalled making. He started editing and adding elements, a ticking clock in the background, recalling all the conversations he conveyed between potential composers and music directors. “A big part of the show is about solving murder cases that involve not just one but multiple serial killers,” Gao says. “And I think this idea of uncertainty, with the clock ticking in the background signifying time is running out, fits.”

Five hours later, Gao produced a demo he shared with the company. The showrunners watched it and others, all queued up without composer credits included, and ended up choosing Gao’s. “There were some minor edits to the first demo that I sent versus the actual final version,” Gao says. “Minor edits, so to me it was mind-blowing to have this sort of experience. I don’t think I necessarily deserve this opportunity per se. For me, it feels more of like I was blessed with it.”