Last week the nominees for the 2013 Academy Awards were announced, and among them was composer Mychael Danna, both for his score to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and for his song “Pi’s Lullaby” from the same film.
I was delighted to hear this news as he is a fellow Canadian and fellow graduate of the University of Toronto, where he studied composition. In fact, it seems Danna was always interested in setting music to images as one of his earliest jobs was as composer for the McLaughlin Planetarium, which is now defunct but still stands literally right beside the Faculty of Music at the university. (Ironically enough, the property has now been purchased by the university to be used by the Faculty of Music!). This gave Danna his first taste of setting music to images. And actually, you can still hear some of this music on YouTube. Here is a clip of his score from the last show ever produced at the planetarium:
But it was my experience at that university that once brought me into contact with Danna.
When I completed my Master’s degree in music at the University of Toronto, Mychael Danna was invited to speak at the convocation ceremony. He spoke with an eloquence and honesty that is rare for any public speaker and his speech has stuck with me ever since. He began by telling us (tongue-in-cheek) that when he completed his degree there, he had found, to his chagrin, that all the court composer jobs had dried up centuries ago, so he had to find another way to make a living as a composer. Instead, he chose to take his chances at film composition, but the ride was certainly not a smooth one. He remarked that you never know what a film is going to be like in the end, especially if the director has very few films to his or her credit. With this in mind, he told us that he once “turned down a little movie you might have heard of called The Sixth Sense.” Of course, that film went on to become a huge hit and Danna ended up kicking himself. But he pressed on nonetheless.
He then mentioned that at one point he became so disheartened with the process of tracking down film scoring jobs and the whole industry that he seriously considered dropping music altogether and going to law school. Though he didn’t exactly say what disheartened him, I’m sure one major factor was his score for Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), which was rejected only a few days before it was to be recorded. Danny Elfman was then hired as a replacement.
Fortunately, Danna did not go to law school and continued to score films. His message to us was therefore that one should expect formidable challenges along the roads of our chosen careers (especially those of us in music) but always to retain belief in oneself in order to overcome them. It was so refreshing to hear this kind of realistic yet still very positive speech at a time when we are filled with such uncertainty about our future. It was the best graduation speech I’ve ever heard.
So it would be great to see Danna win at least one Academy Award this year, and things are certainly looking up as just last night he won the Golden Globe for Best Original Score for Life of Pi. In case you’re wondering what his music for Life of Pi sounds like, here is the lullaby that’s been nominated for Best Original Song:
As you can hear, Danna’s sound is a unique blend of non-Western instruments and lyrics, electronic new-age-like sounds, and the traditional symphony orchestra. At other times, he also incorporates elements of minimalism, as in his score for Little Miss Sunshine, a clip of which I’ve posted here:
The minimalism sound is also a big part of his score for Moneyball, as you can hear in this clip:
Good luck to Danna on February 24 at the Oscars – I’ll be rooting for him!