Growing up in suburban Toronto in the 70s when the Canadian film industry hardly existed, Mychael Danna wouldn’t have dreamt of becoming an Oscar and a Golden Globe winning film composer.
Mychael Danna received both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his multi-cultural score for the Ang Lee masterpiece ‘Life of Pi.’ His cross-cultural sensibilities and talent for sonic storytelling has caught the fancy of directors like Ang Lee, Bennett Miller, Terry Gilliam, Joel Schumacher and James Mangold.
His Indian connection is not limited to his love for the culture and his wife. He has worked with directors Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta on movies like ‘Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,’ ‘Vanity Fair,’ ‘Monsoon Wedding’ and ‘Water.’
I caught up with Mychael Danna to know about his journey from Toronto to the awards’ stage, composing hybrid scores, working with global musicians and respecting their culture for our segment Behind the Recordings.
Mychael started off by leading the church choir, playing the organ, piano and as a teenager playing for pop bands. But a new genre of rock would catch his fancy and broaden his musical spectrum forever.
“Progressive rock was dominant at the time and I was attracted to it as I could blend my classical music learnings with folk and rock music. It unknowingly became a part of my training to be a film composer which of course I never thought I would become. While studying classical music, I learnt the techniques, rules and traditions but pop and progressive rock gave me the freedom to experiment. Also it appealed to a different audience who I had to please musically. So it was a great learning curve,” reminisced Mychael.
In the 70s, by a government mandate, Canada became a multi-cultural country which meant people from across the world who migrated here retained their culture. The migrants brought with them their art, food and music. This exposed Mychael to diverse music traditions.
“It was amazing to get exposed to such variety of music and meet people who played and composed it. My roommate was a Punjabi and I loved the music he played in the room. I got intrigued by all the new instruments I came across and this expanded my musical horizon,” said Mychael.
In college, Mychael studied Ethnomusicology which is approach inclusive of musical traditions from around the world. He learnt the methodology of listening to and studying global music. The study of ethnomusicology and experiences of recording local sounds while travelling helped Mychael in creating compositions which appealed to the audience visually and sonically. While on of his many travels across the world recording local music and sounds, he also connects with artists with whom he wants to record music.
“I like to record the original, traditional sound of the country. An immigrated musician will most probably have other influences than the traditional sound. I feel it’s my obligation to keep the traditional music alive and support the local folk and classical musicians financially. If the roots of music in any country die, the global diaspora will weaken too. So it is important to keep it alive,” stressed Mychael.
The Native American flute player
Mychael scored for the Ang Lee movie ‘The Ice Storm’ which is about people in suburban New York during the 70s who had lost their connection with nature. So he wanted to contrast that with people who lived in the same place maybe 300 years earlier.
Reflecting on the experience of composing the score, the Oscar winner said,
“I got a Native American flute player whose music plays throughout the movie. This was to remind the audience that there are other ways to live than what they are watching on the screen. When I met him, I asked if he understood notes or could read music sheets. He replied that he recreates the sounds of animals and birds like a frightened deer or a baby eagle. It was incredible.”
Respecting Cultures and Traditions
The beauty of music composition is that while western countries use music sheets to learn or play a composition, in many countries it is a mental exercise. To converse and compose with a foreign national who does not speak a common language nor reads music can be quite challenging.
Before working with them, Mychael makes it a point to learn about the musician’s culture, the instrument’s background and nuances. Respecting other music cultures and musicians is of great importance to Mychael since the other musician has thousands of years of the culture and music behind him.
“Knowing a raag is not enough. One has to know what it is about, when is it sung or what’s the emotional content? A western person on hearing a shenai might think it’s a melancholic instrument but it’s not. If you are not educated, you might use it for a funeral scene and South Asians in the audience would think you are an idiot!” asserted Mychael.
Ang Lee and Mychael Danna’s ‘Life of Pi’
A film music composer is a part of the film making team and a part of his job is to narrate the story through music. He has to create the right mood for the visuals and ensure a smooth flow is maintained. Mychael’s approach to composition drives a different path. He does not involve his musicians with the visuals but merely has a conversation to explain his needs. This might be a tough task when composing for a movie like ‘Life Of Pi’ the score of which contains a spectrum of global instruments and styles.
“In the movie, the character of Pi is like a global citizen who is lost between two continents. I wanted to include instruments from across the world. There is an English choir, a Western orchestra, Balinese, Persian, Indian and other instruments. Pi is a boy who sees beauty in all cultures and the music had to reflect that,” said Mychael.
Mychael Danna and his Monsoon ‘Wedding’
According to Mychael, the stars at times have aligned to create strange link ups between his personal and professional life. A few months before his marriage, his wife and he were supposed to travel to Mumbai to shop for their wedding attires. It was around this time, director Mira Nair called him to compose for her movie, Monsoon Wedding. Though short on time, Mychael managed to compose and record some of the music in Mumbai.
Recalling the incident, Mychael quipped,
“For the title track I had thought of hiring a local wedding band but settled for studio musicians. I booked the studio for 10 am and no one had turned up. An hour later the studio staff showed up but still no musicians. At 12 noon the musicians arrived and it took just a single take. We were done within an hour. This is the Indian style I guessed.”