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The Adventures of a Singaporean Composer in Hollywood

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Ong recounts how he broke into the industry and began writing music for major film and television productions.

By SGN | 12 Oct 2022

Photo: Brian Wertheim

Unlike most film composers, Jon’s musical background lies not in piano – but in guitar. 

“I went to Berklee College of Music as a guitarist on scholarship,” he says. “I didn’t have any intention of doing film composition, but then I took an introductory class, and I caught the bug.” He became fascinated by the magic of melding myriad instruments and thrilled at how his scores could be brought to life by real musicians or by programming a digital orchestra.

Though he was already booking gigs as a session guitarist on stage and in the studio for artists such as Michael McDonald and Ben E. King, Jon figured that film scoring might make for a stabler career in the long run. 

After mastering the piano, grasping the principles of classical composition, and learning scoring technology, he graduated summa cum laude and moved out to Los Angeles, in hopes of breaking into the film music industry.

Jon attended Berklee College of Music in Boston as a guitarist on the Berklee World Tour Scholarship.

Working his way up in Hollywood

As a newcomer in Tinseltown competing against scores of other aspiring composers, Jon sought to build connections and grab any opportunities that came his way. To maintain his work visa and draw a steady income, his best bet was to assist or work for other composers.

“My very first job in LA was being a runner and doing score notation and transcription for William Ross,” he shares. Soon after, he started writing music for Nick Urata, the composer who had scored such films as Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and Ruby Sparks (2012). Under his banner, projects Jon was involved in include Paddington (2014), Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) and the documentary Mr. Toilet (2019), which features Singapore’s very own sanitation advocate Jack Sim.

But the career trajectory of a composer is seldom linear or predictable, Jon points out. “Sometimes it’s a few steps forward, one step back – or a few steps forward, then a change of direction.” 

When COVID-19 delayed or shut down numerous productions across Hollywood, scoring work also evaporated. “The early stages of the pandemic were rough, and I had to pivot to livestreaming and teaching music for a time,” Jon recalls. Yet it was also this period that marked a critical transition into the next stage of his career.

During the pandemic, Jon had to pivot to livestreaming and teaching music for a time.

New, high-profile opportunities

In 2020, Jon auditioned and joined the roster of composers at 14th Street Music, a company helmed by Scottish composer Lorne Balfe, who’s known for his work on movies such as Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), Black Widow (2021) and Top Gun: Maverick (2022). 

“Lorne has taught me so much about every aspect of the business: working with clients, learning to mix and produce my own compositions from start to finish,” Jon says. “He’s very good at respecting your voice while pushing the quality of your music to become the best that it can be.”

The streaming entertainment boom during the pandemic has brought Jon several opportunities to work on high-profile television series. This year, he’s scored the latest season of Pennyworth – the DC origin story of Batman’s butler – on HBO Max, as well as the Rowan Atkinson vehicle Man vs. Bee on Netflix.

Jon has written music for film and television in a variety of genres.

Other notable works include The Wheel of Time on Prime Video, based on a series of high fantasy novels that has garnered a huge following over the years. Jon describes the music as “pushing the envelope”, layering dense vocals sung in the fictional language of Old Tongue over an epic, rousing score. 

“I got to go to the premiere here in LA,” he says. “And there were passionate fans dressed up as characters from the books, excited to see the series adapted for the screen for the first time. That was a special moment to witness.”

Jon also contributed to the suspenseful, electronic-tinged score of Hulu’s Dopesick, a miniseries that received 14 Emmy nominations this year. “It was about the opioid crisis in America. I’m so proud to be a part of a quality show with a lot of contemporary relevance.” 

Exciting as they may be to work on, Jon says such projects come with exacting standards. “At this level, there’s going to be a lot of revisions, and you’re going to be pulling long hours, because the product you deliver has to be top-quality stuff.”

Working for Lorne Balfe (left) has allowed Jon to work on major TV productions such as The Wheel of Time, which he attended the premiere of with his wife (right).

Stepping in and stepping up

Jon’s most unforgettable experience so far under Lorne has, surprisingly, no relation to film or scoring. 

At The Game Awards 2021, Jon was supposed to play the flute in an orchestra conducted by Lorne to honour the six nominees for Game of the Year. However, the show was falling behind schedule and, because Lorne had a flight to catch, he dropped out mere hours before the show went live and offered the baton to Jon. 

“I was gripped by my nerves, but I couldn’t say no,” Jon says. There was no time for a conducting rehearsal – all he could do was study the music, learn the cues, and get ready to conduct the orchestra in front of a live audience and hundreds of thousands watching online. 

“Once I got on stage, everything clicked, and it felt awesome. It was an incredibly nerve-racking yet fulfilling experience,” he reflects. “I think sometimes in life, you just gotta say ‘yes’ and go with it, you know?”

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A return to Southeast Asian roots

Beyond his work at 14th Street Music, Jon recently completed a project that is especially meaningful to him because of its Southeast Asian origins. Titled Rice Connections, it’s a documentary short film that peeks behind the scenes as Malaysian dancer and choreographer Aida Redza explores the spirit and significance of rice in Asian culture.

“I got to use Asian instruments like the gamelan, angklung, erhu, dizi and xiao, and mesh them with a Western orchestra and cinematic feel,” he shares. The film, which is making the rounds of the indie festival circuit, has been nominated for Best Original Score (Short) at the International Sound & Film Music Festival in Croatia.

Despite not being able to return to Singapore in the last few years, Jon regularly meets up with other Singaporeans and Southeast Asians in Los Angeles – for a game of badminton or over chicken rice and roti canai at restaurants like Ipoh Kopitiam and Simpang Asia.

In the long term, when he’s made a name for himself, Jon dreams of setting up his own studio and having the freedom to work in both Los Angeles and Singapore, scoring international projects remotely, as many composers have been doing since the onset of COVID.

But all that might be many years more down the road. “For now,” he says, “I’m really happy with where I am and the great opportunities that I’m getting. Can’t complain!”

About Jon

Jon is a Singaporean composer and multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles. His credits include Paddington, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Pennyworth, Dopesick, and The Wheel of Time.

Connect with him here.

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