Meet Danna Yun, Composition alum at the University of Melbourne

Danna Yun. By Reuben Gates.
Danna Yun. By Reuben Gates.

Multi-instrumentalist Danna Yun talks composition, collaboration, video-game music and life goals.

Hi Danna, can you tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing since finishing your your Bachelor of Music (PCME)?

I've been polishing up some of the compositions I've written for my folios along with recalibrating my career goals. My course has helped equip me with a wide array of skills, and I've come to realise that I have a lot more options to choose from when thinking about where I want to go next!

Can you tell us about the pathway you took to study at the University of Melbourne?

I wanted to become a game scorer, but I thought it would be wise to study compositional techniques and build up a versatile range of musical vocabulary before I focussed on the technological side of audio production and implementation. I enrolled to study Composition at the University of Melbourne, and was determined to get into the Honours program, where students are given the opportunity to write a symphonic work for the university orchestra to workshop.

Was there a lecturer or peer who had particularly positive influence on your study? 

I was lucky to have lots of people around me who inspired me to challenge myself. My cohort was very tight-knit, and I loved that they all worked with a diverse range of musical styles. One of my peers, Lilijana Matičevska, helped me realise that because the university houses the largest library collection in the southern hemisphere, knowledge is ultimately accessible with my own hands. That sense of self-agency was an incredible management skill to cultivate throughout my degree, especially as a young adult who was brought up in rigidly structured education systems (high school).

My composition teacher Elliott Gyger, who I studied with for a year and a half, was also a very inspirational mentor. You can imagine extravagant ideas and come up with the most marvellous concepts in your head, but often as a student composer you find yourself in a rut trying to execute them when it comes down to actually putting notes on paper. Elliott was able to help me identify a lot of these technical shortcomings and taught me methods and solutions that brought my music closer to my artistic vision. This also made me feel more confident, and braver, as an artist.

Was your experience at University as you expected it to be?

My experiences of university improved throughout the years. Outside of just attending classes, I had friends to hang out with and rehearsals to play in. The times I could concentrate and compose music on my laptop in The Ian Potter Southbank Centre study areas were the most therapeutic and productive days at university.

What did you enjoy most about your study?

I loved the support and positivity that the composition community gave to one another whenever composing became frustrating. I also loved the little bites of knowledge that fellow composition colleagues share with one another whenever ideas are exchanged in casual hallway conversations. The collaborative opportunities you get to have with other musicians are also the memories that have stayed with me through to the end of the course. I gained a lot of knowledge and experience throughout my study, but in terms of what I enjoyed most, I can say that it was the people who all carried the same sense of wonder for music – they were the ones who made my degree such an adventure.

Did you have many opportunities to collaborate? 

There were lots of opportunities for composers to collaborate with musicians. Every semester, composition students have to organise a concert together, and not only did this involve task-splitting amongst our cohort, we also often had to find Performance major students who would be happy to perform our works. In my Honours year, I was also able to participate in the University of Melbourne's First Commissions project, which supported students in creating cross-disciplinary, collaborative works.

What kind of opportunities were there to learn about your industry or field of research?

Our professors were very upfront and transparent in talking about expectations of the industry, and they always made the effort to notify us of any upcoming opportunities for us composers. The university was also a huge help in commissioning many students as part of First Commissions, as mentioned already – for me, that was my first taste of working professionally, which was very different from writing music for an assignment.

Tell us about what inspires you

Stylistically, a lot of my music is inspired by game music from video games that I vibe with. When I was ten, I played my first Pokémon game and not only did it teach me to become a better person, it also made me fall in love with its soundtrack. It was the first time I became interested in purely instrumental music. Actually, it was the first time I was even exposed to it. They were just two-minute loops, and yet for me, they served as a bridge into the classical music world, and helped me acquire firstly a tolerance, then a taste, for 50-minute long symphonies. To this day, my favourite game soundtrack, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, still influences the harmonic choices and musical characteristics I've adopted into my palette.

But if we're talking about purpose, then my purpose for making music is inspired by helping people feel hopeful and happy. People make music for different reasons, and for me, I want to be able to share optimism through music that can comfort and inspire others so that people can feel less alone. Sometimes it would be hard because as an artist, you feel like your self-worth is dependent on chunking out quality music, and if you have writer's block then you're not only out-of-order, but you're also not contributing to society. But that's not true! So it's important that we give ourselves time and to have other things in our lives that can inspire us when we feel like this. I've come to learn that everyone feels vulnerable during these times, but that's only because we're like crabs, haha, who have shed our previous shells and are currently very soft and in danger, waiting for a bigger, stronger shell to regrow.

What are your goals for the next few years?

Most opportunities for a composer are commission- or competition-based, and while we are seeing an increase in their demand, many music businesses still prefer sticking to traditional repertoire than supporting living composers. This may be because the concert music industry feels disconnected from a larger part of mainstream society, and a lot of industry practices take self-preservation approaches rather than adaptive approaches. Subsequently, opportunities available in the industry are extremely limited for composers, and ways of securing income are incredibly unpredictable. This is a problem I would like to help find solutions for, so that as an entire community, we can uplift each other, we can be more inclusive, and we can feel prouder about what we do.

I'm also going to be seeking out game scoring opportunities in the game development industry and building myself as a freelance composer. I will also be studying a Master of Marketing Communications at the University of Melbourne so that I can gain the skills needed to help promote and integrate instrumental music into mainstream society.

What might a career for someone with your skills looks like?

I view having a career as having some kind of self-sustainable lifestyle. Making a career out of composing would be someone who can live off composing alone, but given that work for a composer is usually received as a commission-by-commission basis, that would heavily rely on your networking abilities, personal agency skills, and mental fortitude. For me personally, I would enjoy working in a social environment alongside freelance composing to help me achieve a sense of financial stability and mental balance in my life.

Did you take any breadth subjects at university? 

There was one breadth subject I took in third year called "Video Games: Remaking Reality", which blew my mind. The lecturer, David Shea, talked about the psychology of perception, which changed the way I thought about humanity.

Do you have links to a website or any other platforms where people can experience your work?

I write concert music and game music – however, I'm still in the process of polishing up many of my existing works before I share them. What I have so far can be heard on my SoundCloud account. In my spare time, I also write songs under the pseudonym "Pekoe" – and you can listen to those songs on YouTube and Spotify.