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Convocation 2014: an interview with Academy Award-winning composer Mychael Danna

"With finding your voice you illuminate the human condition that we all share"

(photo courtesy Life of Pi movie Flickr site)

The creator of  the Oscar-winning score for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, film composer Mychael Danna is known for his evocative blending of non-western traditions with orchestral and electronic music.

His work with director and longtime collaborator, Atom Egoyan, produced many Genie Award-winning scores. Other celebrated collaborations include those with Bennett Miller, Terry Gilliam, Mira Nair, Billy Ray, Marc Webb and James Mangold. In 2006, he shared a Grammy Award nomination for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Little Miss Sunshine.

On June 13, at the Convocation ceremony for students of the Faculty of Music and OISE, the University of Toronto recognized the extraordinary accomplishments of this alumnus with a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Danna took time out before receiving his honorary degree to chat with Faculty of Music writer Aaron Wong.

Has the string of honours (Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe) for your work on Life of Pi affected your career?

Well… not really, although a lot of time has been taken up with awards and honours and interviews like this! I have always been exceedingly fortunate to have had the career I wanted, in the sense of working on interesting films with great directors who challenged me. It's not my strength or my interest to be involved in a mass entertainment film, like comic-book films for example, so that even if I get offered them now, I just wouldn't be interested anyway. So really the same sort of projects I have always been attracted to are the ones I am still pursuing.

What are some of the projects you have been working on since Life of Pi?
I did a couple of films with my long term collaborator Atom Egoyan — Captive and Devil's Knot  the Johnny Depp film Transcendence, Bennett Miller's new film Foxcatcher, and I am just starting a series called Tyrant.

How do you select which projects to take on, given that you must be inundated with commissions after Pi?

Nothing has changed in that regard, I always choose things where I feel that music has the opportunity to be able to say something interesting, and maybe something that takes me into a world i don't know about, which challenges me and takes me into uncomfortable territory. That's when the most interesting and often most fruitful work happens.

Do directors ask you to write in a particular style, or do they give you a free hand to bring on your musical vision for the film?

Definitely there is no such thing as a free hand for anyone in any facet of making a film! The story is the leader of all of us… we all follow what the story demands of us, through the director's eyes and ears of course, but the director is as much a slave to the story as anyone. We discover together how music can best help tell the story: by style, emotional  temperature, density, instrument choice…. all those parameters are vital choices to be made before a note is written. And often they are adjusted and re-calibrated well into the process through trial and error.

Are there any non-musical activities you do that contribute to the creative process of composing? Reading, traveling, food, for example.

Yes, I find a great many ways to procrastinate before writing… I do a lot of  study of the story itself and the director's vision of the story. Then follows research into the time/ place/ period, as well as research into the kinds of instruments I may be using (often different for each film). And, yes, I usually travel to go get those instruments, if they happen to be from another culture. For example, there is a large Armenian music community in Los Angeles, but I chose to go to Armenia itself to record the instruments and choir for Ararat. You learn a great deal from the culture where the instruments sprang from and thrived in, which ultimately can inform your understanding of and the way you use that instrument.

Who are some of your musical heroes? Both during your musical studies, and throughout your career.

That's a question I get asked a lot and one of the hardest to answer. I never had a mentor, I learned everything by doing it and figuring out how; I have mentored quite a few young composers now, which I really enjoy by the way, but they have a very different upbringing in that way than I did. I had many people that supported me and gave me opportunities, but no one who taught me my craft, except composers I never met, just through their work. Too many to mention really… ironically none of them were film composers, since I fell into film music somewhat by accident.

How does it feel to receive an honorary doctorate from your alma mater?

Well… I feel a bit guilty knowing how hard my sister and my friends have worked to get theirs! But it is an honour that is particularly meaningful, given the long history of this sort of thing, and the long distinguished list of people who have been honoured in this way. My career began within the halls of this University, through my study, the many kinds of music I was exposed to as an undergraduate, my work with theater groups, and thus my meeting with the director with whom I would write my first filmscore.

What would be the one piece of advice you would give to aspiring film composers, particularly those at U of T?

Be yourself. Ironically that's what touches people: your unique voice, not your insincere imitation of what someone else is doing. Even if you feel what you have to offer is so specific as to be not universal in the least, the paradox is that with finding your voice you illuminate the human condition that we all share. Find your own voice and be true to it.