LIFE OF PI – Mychael Danna
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Once in a while a film comes along which seems predestined to be scored by a certain composer; in 2012, that film is Life of Pi and that composer is Mychael Danna. Based on the successful novel by Yann Martel, and directed by Ang Lee, Life of Pi is a film which asks all the big questions – about life, death, religion, fate, identity, reality – and answers them through an incredible story told by Piscine Molitor Patel (Irfan Khan), commonly known as Pi, an Indian immigrant to Canada, who relates his life story to an enraptured journalist (Rafe Spall), who is researching a book. Born into a relatively wealthy family in Pondicherry, India, where his father owned a zoo, Pi’s life is thrown into chaos after the family decides to emigrate to Canada; the boat they are traveling on capsizes in a storm, leaving 16-year old Pi (Suraj Sharma) the only survivor – except for a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and an ill-tempered Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, who all are forced to share the same tiny lifeboat. What follows is an extraordinary story of friendship, trust, survival, faith and belief, as Pi must overcome his greatest fears and the overpowering forces of nature to reach safety.
The film is a masterpiece on multiple levels; it is visually astonishing, bursting with color and life, vivid and memorable imagery laced with symbolism, and containing some of the best 3-D filmmaking I have ever seen. Conceptually, the film is a fascinating examination of truth and perspective, and how the nature of reality can be manipulated by the person through whose perspective you experience it. It looks at religion through fresh eyes, offering the viewer questions about the concept of faith – Christian, Islamic and Hindu – and its relationship to the natural world. It explores the notion of blurring the lines between things; between cultures, between religions, between man and beast, between truth and lies. It talks about humanity in its basic forms, and the lengths – and depths – to which man will go in order to survive. Not only that, it’s an exciting and harrowing adventure story, which presents tremendous action sequences tempered by moments of poignant reflection.
And then there’s Mychael Danna’s music. In my opening paragraph I mentioned how certain films come along which seem predestined to be scored by a certain composer, and this is definitely the case with Life of Pi. Although Danna and director Ang Lee have worked together before, on films such as The Ice Storm and Ride With the Devil, it is surely Danna’s personal circumstances and interests that brought he and Lee back together here. A Canadian by birth, Danna is married to an Indian woman, and has spent much of his career researching and exploring the relationship between Western classical music and different Asian musical styles, from Middle Eastern and Indian to the Gamelan music of Indonesia. As such, the film’s recurring theme of cultural cross-pollination is one which clearly spoke to Danna directly, and led him to create one of the best scores of 2012 and one of the standout works of his career.
The score begins with “Pi’s Lullaby”, an original song written by Danna and the popular Indian vocalist Bombay Jayashri, soothingly sung by Jayashri in Tamil. A quiet, intimate piece with a reflective, almost hypnotic sound and a gently exotic instrumental accompaniment, the song perfectly encapsulates the idyll of Pi’s early life, his connection with nature, and his first hesitant explorations of spirituality. It’s absolutely beautiful, and sets up the score perfectly. The lovely instrumental interlude from the lullaby re-appears during “Pondicherry” and “Meeting Krishna”, in which the melody is carried for some time by an unadorned solo vocal, but this verdant theme vanishes from the score almost entirely once Pi and his family leave India – as Pi’s innocence is taken away, so is the theme representing it. It’s only reoccurrences come during “Tiger Training”, where Pi remembers his father’s life lessons from back at the zoo, and during the conclusive “Which Story Do You Prefer?”, tying things up at the end.
The rest of the score blends musical elements from three distinct cultures – North America, France, and India – in an attempt to capture the disparate elements of Pi’s life. Throughout most of the score, thematic repetition plays a lesser role to that of these recurring cultural textures, many of which overlap and blend together to create a magnificent tapestry of true world music. Most prominent, of course, are the Indian elements, which represent Pi’s heritage: breathy bansuri flutes, kanjura tambourines, santoor hammered dulcimers, sarangi cellos, tanpura lutes, mridangam drums, and the ubiquitous sitar feature heavily throughout the score, giving the music a strong and appropriate regional identity. Most often Danna combines these speciality instruments with a large Western orchestra, representing the promise of the new world – Canada – which Pi so desperately wants to reach.
The French elements, which are most noticeable in cues such as “Piscine Molitor Patel” and “Pondicherry”, come via the judicious use of accordions and mandolins; while French music may appear out-of-place in a score such as this, the reasons for its use become clear when you realize that the city of Pondicherry is in the part of India that once came under the control of colonial France, and that Pi was named in honor of his uncle after a swimming pool in Paris – the Piscine Molitor itself. What’s clever, through, is how Danna often blurs the cultural lines further, by having the Indian instruments play a French-style thematic line, or by having the accordions and mandolins play a distinctly Indian motif. Even in the instrumental choices, Danna remains cognizant of the story’s point of view.
The religious aspects of the story, and Pi’s exploration and acknowledgements of faith, usually involve the use of voices, and will remind listeners of some of Danna’s other faith-based scores, notably The Nativity Story. Many cues contain a strong choral element, such as the aforementioned “Christ in the Mountains” and “Thank You Vishnu for Introducing Me to Christ”, and later cues such as the awe-inspiring “The Whale” and “Orphans”, but the choral intensity reaches its zenith in the gorgeous “Tsimtsum”, one of the most emotionally powerful cues on the album, which sees the music reach the sort of reverential heights Danna’s score for The Nativity Story attained so memorably. This music, combined with the visual imagery on screen at the time it is heard in the film, has tremendous emotional weight. Like many great composers before him, Danna doesn’t score the shipwreck, but its devastating aftermath.
The score’s recurring leitmotivic elements are less tangible than in other scores, but do exist. Pi himself has a theme, a seven-note scale which is first heard passed between the sitar and the santoor during the second half of “Piscine Molitor Patel”, and is heard later during the second half of “Meeting Krishna”, in the euphoric “Christ in the Mountains”, in the vibrant “Thank You Vishnu for Introducing Me to Christ”, the melancholy “Appa’s Lesson”, the unexpectedly playful “Skinny Vegetarian Boy” and “Orphans”, and the darkly ominous “The Deepest Spot on Earth”, which sees the only performance of the theme led by brass.
The score’s other secondary theme, which first appears during “Pi and Richard Parker”, seems to represent Pi’s relationship with the elemental forces of the world: the ocean, the wind, the sun, the animal kingdom, and possibly God in all its forms, and how his fate is essentially subject to their whims. A simple two-note seesaw, the motif is the dominant aspect of the score’s second half, with cues such as the aforementioned “Tiger Vision” and the 8-minute “Back to the World” presenting extended developments of the motif alongside a series of beautiful instrumental textures and dreamlike choral vocalizations, often including throat singers and a English boy’s choir, sometimes in unison.
The character of Richard Parker – the Bengal tiger whose destiny is inextricably tied to that of Pi – has an evocative Persian ney flute leitmotif which occurs frequently throughout the score’s middle section, often in sequences where Pi and Parker interact. This primal, haunting motif is introduced in “Richard Parker” and is heard later in the mysteriously beautiful “First Night, First Day” and “Tiger Vision”, among others. The short “Flying Fish” is a brief but exciting action element that acts as a precursor to the score’s only main action set piece, “God Storm”, in which an almost Lord of the Rings-esque boy soprano laments against dramatically portentous string writing, rolling percussion waves, and enormous crescendos of sound. This is the one cue where Danna really unleashes the full power of his orchestra, and when heard in comparison with the meditative sounds of the rest of the score, the impact is shattering.
While Life of Pi is an intelligent and instrumentally fascinating exploration of different musical cultures, and contains several standout cues, I can certainly understand how some listeners might find its central ideas hard to grasp. Pi’s theme can be quite elusive at times, and the most memorable thematic idea – the central bridge from the lullaby – doesn’t appear often enough and isn’t prominent enough to leave a lasting impression on casual listeners. Similarly, listeners need to be comfortable listening to traditional ethnic Indian and Middle Eastern instrumental textures throughout the entire score, and any aversion to their tone, irrespective of how well they are integrated into the Western orchestra, and no matter how pleasing their timbre might be, will be enough to turn some people off.
For me, however, Life of Pi stands as one of 2012’s crowning film music achievements. Throughout his career Mychael Danna has played with the idea of east meeting west, of ideas from other cultures that might sound alien to contemporary North American ears blending together into a single melting pot. This, combined with the extraordinary emotional power of a great deal of the score, makes it a winner, and it would be an enormous miscarriage of justice if Danna did not receive his first Academy Award nomination for Life of Pi next spring.
Buy the Life of Pi soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Pi’s Lullaby (written by Mychael Danna and Bombay Jayashri, performed by Bombay Jayashri (3:42)
- Piscine Molitor Patel (3:39)
- Pondicherry (1:12)
- Meeting Krishna (1:51)
- Christ in the Mountains (1:13)
- Thank You Vishnu for Introducing Me to Christ (0:55)
- Richard Parker (0:54)
- Appa’s Lesson (1:06)
- Anandi (0:55)
- Leaving India (1:20)
- The Deepest Spot on Earth (0:48)
- Tsimtsum (2:49)
- Death of the Zebra (0:33)
- First Night, First Day (3:45)
- Set Your House in Order (2:10)
- Skinny Vegetarian Boy (2:16)
- Pi and Richard Parker (2:14)
- The Whale (2:02)
- Flying Fish (0:49)
- Tiger Training (1:22)
- Orphans (1:36)
- Tiger Vision (4:31)
- God Storm (3:42)
- I’m Ready Now (3:21)
- The Island (1:59)
- Back to the World (8:20)
- The Second Story (4:02)
- Which Story Do You Prefer? (2:05)
Running Time: 65 minutes 30 seconds
Sony Classical 88725477252 (2012)
Music composed by Mychael Danna. Conducted by Mike Nowak. Orchestrations by Mychael Danna, Rob Simonsen, Bruce Fowler, Walter Fowler, Kevin Kaska, Joseph Newlin, Dean Parr, Conrad Pope, Carl Rydlund and Clifford Tasner. Additional music by Rob Simonsen. Featured instrumental soloists Jatinder Jeetu, V. Selvaganesh, Ulhas Bapat, Aruna Kalle, Anwar Khurshid, Courtney Grueschow, Nick Ariondo, George Doering, Glen Holmen, Jeff Danna, Chris Bleth, Rajesh Srinivasan, Robert Thies and the Evergreeb Club Contemporary Gamelan Orchestra. Special vocal performances by Thomas Fetherstonhaugh and the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School ChoirRecorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel. Edited by Erich Stratmann. Album produced by Mychael Danna.