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Phantasmagoric ‘Pi’ filling

Eye on the Oscars: Music

There were a plethora of good reasons for Ang Lee to select Mychael Danna to score his adaptation of “Life of Pi,” not least of which are the composer’s knack for nontraditional approaches and history with the director, having scored “The Ice Storm” and “Ride With the Devil” for him previously. Yet the actual decision-making process boiled down to an even simpler rationale.

As Danna recalls: “I essentially got a call from Ang saying, ‘So, it’s a Canadian book; you’re a Canadian. It’s about a boy from India; you’re obsessed with Indian music and you’re married to an Indian woman. This is you.'”

For the phantasmagorical pic, Danna smartly refused to confine himself to any particular approach, believing that, like the film’s titular character, the music should pass smoothly between cultures. Hence, English choirs sing in Sanskrit while Tibetan choirs sing in Latin; lively flurries from an Indonesian gamelan ensemble find woodwind counterpoint from a solitary Persian ney; and bounding scherzos from an 80-piece orchestra coexist easily with the Tamil chamber pop of opening song “Pi’s Lullaby,” which Danna co-wrote with Bombay Jayashri.

Yet the score never comes across as a goulash of influences, with Danna hyper-conscious to avoid cuteness or gimmicks when meshing South Asian and Western styles.

“You need to know where these (non-Western) instruments come from, and who plays them, and why, and in what setting,” Danna explains. “There have to be choices made that go beyond, ‘Oh, let’s put in some cool-sounding thing here.’ … Each culture has its expressive strengths and weaknesses, so if you’re familiar with them, you can draw those out; it’s almost like casting actors.”

Despite the sheer breadth of music in the film — it uses only one source song, and contains a full 78 minutes of Danna’s music in the final cut — the score never comes on too strong, and is at times uncannily well attuned to the delicate emotional seismology of the film. This is hardly a coincidence, as director Lee was an unusually present collaborator in the process, seated in the control booth during scoring sessions and at times even accompanying Danna while he was ostensibly alone composing.

“We’ve talked about pretty much every note — what it is and why it’s there and what it’s saying,” Danna says. “It’s very painstaking, but this is how I work with Ang, and I always have. Every note of the score he knows as well as I do.”

Eye on the Oscars: Music
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