Behind the Scenes With Canadian Composer Mychael Danna

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I’m on a long train journey, standing between bogeys, the door is open and the warm breeze is blowing my hair around my face. Outside, scenes of pastoral India flow past. A man drives a bullock cart along a dirt track. Women walk with bundles balanced on their heads. I’m listening to enchanting Indian music on my iPod. Invariably, it’s by Mychael Danna — a Canadian composer of European heritage with an Indian soul.

Life of Pi India music soundtrack Mychael Danna

My favorites are the soundtracks Mychael composed for the films Water and Monsoon Wedding, and I have listened to them over and over again.

I have been wanting to write about Mychael on my blog for a long time. But since he just won a Golden Globe for the soundtrack to Life of Pi — and he is up for two Oscars for Life of Pi, one for soundtrack and one for song — this seems like the right time. As well as being an extremely talented composer who shares with me an uncanny affinity for India, Mychael is also my oldest friend. We met on Beethoven’s birthday, in a mall in Burlington, Ontario, when we were teenagers.

I think it was love at first sight, for me anyway, though I had never been in love before. In spite of a tendency to turbulence in our relationship (which my romantic mother likened to George Sand and Frederic Chopin), we managed to stay together for most of our high school years, and have remained friends for more than 35 years.

Monsoon Wedding music soundtrack Mychael Danna

In the years after we broke up, while Mychael was pursuing his musical career, he developed a fascination for India, eventually travelling there for the first time in 1992. Over the years, he has returned many times, and has written and recorded Indian music for films such as Kama Sutra, Monsoon Wedding, Water, Cooking with Stella, Heaven on Earth, and Life of Pi. Overall, he has written music for 94 films, including Little Miss Sunshine, The Ice Storm, Vanity Fair, Capote, The Sweet Hereafter, and many more.

I have always known Mychael was going to be a success. I knew by the way his music felt in my ear. And almost nothing has felt better to me than Life of Pi (with the exception of the Water soundtrack). Which is why I knew he was going to win the Golden Globe. Though I thought he would also win for song.

Capturing the magic of India

There is no one like Mychael, to me. No one who can capture the essence of a scene and paint emotion on screen. Mychael’s music, especially his India-inspired music, is deeply emotional yet restrained; romantic and sensual, yet true to the form and style of Indian music. It’s obvious to me he has a special feeling for India. I can always tell when a creator loves India; it comes through in their creations.

Mychael Danna

“India is a second home to me, a second culture to me, I’m very comfortable with it, and very familiar with it … my impressions of India are that it is a place where anything is possible, except what you expect,” Mychael said in an interview after his Golden Globe win. I feel exactly the same way. To me, Mychael’s music captures and expresses the essence of my Indian experience — the magical, mystical, beguiling, exasperating and ultimately completely and utterly captivating nature of India. Here I highlight my three personal favourite India-inspired soundtracks that Mychael wrote.

Celebration of life: The music for Monsoon Wedding

There is nothing like a big fat Indian wedding, and the rambunctious music Mychael wrote for Monsoon Wedding fits the bill perfectly. I love the whole thing, and play it often; but the scene when the wedding planner hands his heart to Alice, is one of the most charming scenes I have ever seen, and the sensitive, romantic music plays a huge role in the effectiveness of the moment. I cried. (Note: I couldn’t find this scene on YouTube, here’s the trailer.)

Mystical insights: The music for Water

The music for Water evokes the mystical, time-honoured traditions of India, overlaid with the emotional drama of the film and the tension between faith and conscience. I find it haunting, stirring and palpable; it is like an intertwining presence in the film that fleshes out the beauty of the cinematography. The first time I saw this film, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I burst into heaving tears at the climax, when the girl is delivered to safety; and I am sure the music played a large role in my reaction. This is the soundtrack I have listened to the most, by far, especially as I travel in India, and write about India.

The shimmering essence: The music for Life of Pi

The music of Life of Pi shimmers with light. The opening scene especially, with Pi’s Lullaby playing over scenes of a fantastical Garden-of-Eden-like Pondicherry Zoo is completely transporting. I saw the film in a mall in Gurgaon, a desolate suburb south of Delhi, and never wanted to leave the theatre; never wanted to face the reality of a cold, foggy winter day in north India with the sombre spectre of reality hanging over it.

The music of our lives

This blog post is an unabashed celebration of a brilliant musician, life-long friend and truly wonderful person. I have known Mychael since he was about 16 years old, and I have seen at close hand how hard he’s worked and how many hurdles he has had to overcome.

Mychael has never really changed in spite of his talent and success. He’s still polite, family oriented, sensitive, zany and fun to be with. He has a terrific sense of humour, a just-slightly-maniacal approach to life and both a deeply felt sense of the sacred and a sure grasp of the dark sides of life. He’s romantic and realistic in equal measure. You can hear angels in his music — and then hear him make the most crushingly cynical statement.

He’s still the same Mychael I knew in high school, except with mastery. Mastery over his art, over his life, over the way he works, and presents himself — as you can see from this clip, below. He exudes a quiet confidence, and so he should. He deserves the Golden Globe, and the Oscar too. And many more.

In truth, I can’t imagine my India journeys without Mychael’s music, and I can’t imagine my life without him in it. Though we have gone our separate ways — he is married to a lovely Indo-American woman, and has two young children, both boys — he has been very important to me. In fact, Mychael is one of the reasons I believe in reincarnation. I just see too much coincidence and serendipity in our lives and our connections with India.

I also feel a sense of unfolding inevitability ….

Mariellen Ward
Mariellen Ward is a freelance travel writer whose personal style is informed by a background in journalism, a dedication to yoga and a passion for sharing the beauty of India's culture and wisdom with the world. She has traveled for about a year altogether in India and publishes an India travel blog, Breathedreamgo.com. Mariellen also writes for magazines and newspapers.
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