Oscar Nominees 2013: Mychael Danna’s Score for Life of Pi

This is the second in a series of six posts on the 2013 Oscar nominees for Best Original Score. After discussing each of the five nominees in separate posts, the sixth post will give my prediction for the Oscar winner and my reasoning behind it.

Life of Pi

Mychael Danna is a Canadian composer who studied music at the University of Toronto, during which time he was composer-in-residence for the city’s planetarium. He began his career in film music by scoring Atom Egoyan’s Family Viewing in 1987, and has since scored many more of Egoyan’s films and an increasing number of Hollywood feature films including Being Julia, Little Miss Sunshine, and Moneyball.

Life of Pi is in part about an Indian family that decides to emigrate to Canada, an ideal story for Danna’s musical style, which is known for combining Western and non-Western sounds, as well as incorporating aspects of popular music. All of these elements come together in a unique synthesis in Life of Pi, as a brief film music analysis of four scenes will show.

“Pi’s Lullaby”

In addition to the nomination for his entire score, Danna has also earned a nomination for Best Original Song for “Pi’s Lullaby”. We hear this song over the main titles, which are shown with images of animals in naturalistic settings in the zoo owned by Pi’s parents. The music sets an idyllic tone for the first portion of the film, when Pi is filled with innocence and wonder while growing up in India.

One of the most striking features of this song is its instrumentation. Its blend of East and West begins right away as high strings in tremolo (rapid repetition of a note) are combined with an Indian-style vocal sung in Tamil by the Indian singer Bombay Jayashri. After the song’s thirty-second introduction, strings in the mid-range add a more prominent Western sound. Not long after, one can also hear the higher strings and a wordless choir brought in for a grand, sweeping effect. But several Eastern instruments are heard throughout as well: bansuri flute, santoor hammered dulcimer, mridangam drums, and various other drum and percussion sounds. Near the end of the song, the accordion and mandolin make an appearance to indicate the connection Pi’s father, and Pi himself, have to Paris (discussed below).

A pop music influence is evident in the harmony of the song. Once the bass enters after the song’s introduction, the chord progression is I-iii-vi-IV, a slight variation of I-V-vi-IV, what I call the “ballad progression” because it occurs in so many ballad-type pop songs. But unlike the pop use of this progression, Danna abandons it early on and keeps the harmony changing throughout most of the song. The fairly regular chord changes and use of mainly root-position chords are both reminiscent of pop as well, but even here Danna includes differences such as syncopation in the chord changes and inversions of some of the chords.

This cue is tightly constructed from start to finish and certainly deserves the Oscar nomination it has received. Hear it below:

“Piscine Molitor Patel”

This cue is heard as Pi is describing the origin of his name, which is from a swimming pool his father once swam in called the “Piscine Molitor” in Paris. As Pi tells this story, we hear music that is distinctly French: accordion music in the style of a waltz. When the scene transitions to Pi’s childhood in India, we hear the Indian instruments I mentioned with “Pi’s Lullaby”. The sitar then enters with a clear statement of what becomes Pi’s theme:

000016---Pi's-Theme

We often hear this theme performed on the breathy bansuri flute later in the film. Hear the French music from the start of this clip, and the Indian music from 1:35:

“The Whale”

In the second half of the film, Pi struggles to survive after being stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Pi’s first tactic is to construct a small raft that he ties to the lifeboat in order to avoid contact with the tiger. “The Whale” occurs in a nocturnal scene in which Pi is delighted by some luminescent algae that the lifeboat happens upon. Within moments, however, a giant whale rises out of the water, tipping Pi’s raft and spilling all the food and water he had taken from the lifeboat for safekeeping.

The music here is both mysterious and ominous. We hear an ostinato (repeating figure) on the semitone Ab-G played on a Balinese gamelan gong, which gives the ostinato an otherworldly character. The figure is set in C minor, a key traditionally associated with tragedy (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for instance). The ostinato could be called the “Perils of Night” theme because it is always heard in night scenes when Pi is in some sort of danger or when his situation seems particularly hopeless, as in this cue and two others:

  • “Tiger Vision” – Pi fails to catch the attention of a passing ship with several flares
  • “Back to the World” – Pi realizes that the island he has reached is carnivorous and that he would die if he stayed there

Hear “The Whale” below:

“First Night, First Day”

This scene depicts Pi’s first night on the lifeboat and the transition into the next day. The style of the music here is typical of many cues in the score. The harmony is composed of lush, slow-moving, consonant chords. The instrumentation begins with strings, then the bansuri flute and vocals are mixed in along with other electronically enhanced and highly reverberant sounds. It is not difficult to hear in this cue the influence of Danna’s early work for the planetarium (mentioned in a previous post), an appropriate connection given that the scene depicts a wordless transition from night to day, as one might experience in a planetarium show. As morning breaks, one can almost feel the sun’s rays in the music with the addition of higher electronic sounds, then a boy soprano singing a bright vocal line backed up by a low wordless choir and, again, reverberant electronic sounds.

Hear it below:

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3 thoughts on “Oscar Nominees 2013: Mychael Danna’s Score for Life of Pi”

  1. Christopher Kinsinger

    Hello, Mark,

    I’ve been spending a lot of time here, since you first posted this address at the Film Score Monthly message board, at the “Life of PI” thread.
    What a wonderful site you have created!
    I just wanted to express my appreciation. Thank you!

    Chris

    1. Thanks, Chris! I try to post about twice a week, and these next few weeks will be devoted mainly to the Oscar nominees. Next up: John Williams for Lincoln.

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