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The sounds of cinema: ‘Life of Pi’

Eye on the Oscars 2013: Music

After years of scoring indie/arthouse fare including “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Girl, Interrupted” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” Canadian composer Mychael Danna’s profile has risen considerably with his first Oscar nominations for “Life of Pi.”

He is the only composer represented in both song and score categories for the same film — his fifth collaboration with director Ang Lee (previous films include “The Ice Storm” and “Ride With the Devil”). He remembers the day five years ago when Lee acquired the rights to the book and called Danna to say “you were born to do this.”

So, says Danna, “we have literally been talking about it for five years,” although actual composition began in November 2011 when he wrote the song that opens the film; most of the writing and recording was done last summer as “Pi” was being finished.

“The goal of the music was to carry the audience on that emotional journey with Pi,” says Danna. “That had to be accomplished in a way that was seamless and organic. It had to sound effortless.”

As a result, the integration of ethnic-music elements needed careful handling. “Given the fact that the plot is very unusual, and there’s a lot of challenging imagery that takes a lot of audience brainpower to process, we did not want the score to be difficult or challenging in an intellectual way.”

Danna — a veteran ethnomusicologist who has employed a variety of world-music sounds throughout his career — added an Indian flute, bansuri; percussion from kanjira and mridangam; stringed sitar, santoor, sarangi and tanpura; Persian ney flute; accordion and mandolin suggesting the French colonial town of Pi’s birth; and Indonesian gamelan music.

These exotic sounds were recorded by soloists around the world. Danna then added a lush 80-piece L.A. orchestra and London choirs. “We did consciously blur borders,” he says, “so we have an English boys choir singing in Sanskrit mantras and a Tibetan-style choir singing in Latin. That’s who Pi is. Those strands are all woven together in his mind.”

Says Danna: “It feels like everything I ever learned in music, all my experiences, got used in this film. My whole life was a preparation for ‘Pi.’ There was a real feeling of fate about this whole thing.”

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