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The sound of blurred borders in 'Life of Pi'

November 23, 2012|By Todd Martens
  • Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" and composer Mychael Danna.
Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" and composer… (Sally Stevens / 20th Century…)

Composer Mychael Danna was in the middle of scoring the first pivotal scene of Ang Lee's "Life of Pi." The 11-or-so minutes being put to music that early September day were creating quite the challenge for Danna and Lee, who were watching the film, sans digital effects, in a control room adjacent to an 80-plus-member orchestra.

Shown again and again on the monitors surrounding Lee and Danna was the moment in which havoc was wreaked upon young Pi Patel as he was set loose on the ocean with a Bengal tiger, the latter of which would be added later via computer effects. And unlike the first 15 to 20 minutes of the film, where Danna roped in Indian and French flourishes, Pi's first test of faith on the ocean would be accompanied by a more straightforward sound.

That doesn't mean simpler. "I'm going to tell you opposing things," Danna said into a microphone that was being piped into the orchestra room. "I want it more tender, but I want to pull back some of the elements." 

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He tried to clarify: "We want a full, warm sound, but I'm not looking for less sound." To recap: Danna was asking for more tenderness, less instrumentation, yet he also wanted a fuller sound that didn't feel any smaller. Got that? 

Yet those kinds of negating thoughts are at work throughout "Life of Pi" and its music. The film follows one man through a series of spiritual and physical challenges, and does so while touching on elements of major religions and varying cultures. For much of the film, Pi is speaking only to God, and all that answers him is Danna's score. The task was to bring in pieces of all of the above without alienating anyone. 

"When you’re talking to the abstract of an idea of God, you can’t rely on anything," Lee said that fall afternoon. "That’s the hard part. To find that innocence and purity of music is really hard. You need very simple, almost childish simplicity without it looking like the other voice."

Danna's score emphasizes warmth. There's coziness in the music, especially in the film's opening lullaby, but the marriage of Eastern and Western influences feels purposefully restrained. Indian instruments such as santoors and tanpuras are used sparingly around more traditionally Western cinematic symphonies. It's a sound that's equally comfortable and nomadic. 

"Ang is able to make other cultures feel uniquely our own and familiar," Danna said. "I think musically that’s what we tried to do here."

Playful French horns make an appearance early on, and Danna used English and Tibetan choirs at various points. He said he had to resist the temptation to fully embrace the sounds of other cultures, instead wanting the score to evoke rather than mimic.

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Said Danna, "You hear it in scores a lot -- an instrument, a duduk or something -- and it’s like, ‘Hey, check this is out. Here’s world music!’ Our goal is to make this in no sense seem exotic.  These drums are fun to listen to, and they happen to be Indian. It has to feel seamless. It has to touch you emotionally and intellectually, but there should be no sense of other-ness."

That approach carried over into Danna's use of religious sounds. The Tibetan choir, for instance, sings in Latin, while an all-boy English church choir sings in Sanskrit. It's a relatively minor touch that few moviegoers will notice, but Danna wanted the music to constantly blur any culutral barriers. 

"We don't want it get too churchy or too exotic. And we want to keep it organically comfortable to listen to," Danna said. "We want to gray-out all the borders and move between one world and another." 

Without getting into spoiler territory, Lee's film and the Yann Martel book that inspired it leave viewers with a question. The works leave open the possibility of Pi's story having a different interpretation. While the music does get a tad more solemn near the end, Danna said he wanted the score to provide no audio clues as to which way Lee may or may not be leading viewers. 

"Musically, it was important to be in those moments for real and not put up a flag that one is fake," Danna said.  

One thing that isn't muddled is Danna's view of the role of the film composer. This is his third film with Lee, having earlier worked on "The Ice Storm" and "Ride With the Devil," and he wants the director to sit beside him while he scores. Danna never steps into the role of conductor when scoring a film, preferring to always have a view of the picture at his ready.

"I find it kind of misleading and distracting," Danna said when asked whether he ever conducts on a film. "The purpose is not to make beautiful music. It's to serve the picture and tell the story." 

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