Quick Review: Life of Pi

Life of Pi
Music composed by Mychael Danna
Orchestrated by Mychael Danna, Rob Simonsen, Bruce Fowler, Walter Fowler, Kevin Kaska, Joseph Newlin, Dan Parr, Conrad Pope, Carl Rydlund, Clifford Tasner
Score conducted by Nike Nowak
Additional music by Rob Simonsen
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage
Album time: 65 minutes
Available on Sony Classical

Mychael Danna's past work really didn't catch my attention like his score to Life of Pi. Often his scores have minimalist and synthetic qualities that often don't stand out (perhaps on purpose). Probably a name you don't know, Danna has worked with his brother Jeff Danna as well as frequently composed scores for Atom Egoyan. Life of Pi marks another score in the collaboration of Danna and director Ang Lee, which previously did The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride with the Devil (1999). Listening to the score, I am reminded by his scores to Ararat (2002) and The Nativity Story (2006).

The album starts with Pi's Lullaby, the song written by Danna and lyrics by Bombay Jayashri (who performs the song). Naturally the melody of the song appears in the score. Danna's interest in Indian and South Asian music is incorporated into his film scores, and this film follows suit. The album is made up of several short cues, which need to add together for the full listening experience (very similar to Thomas Newman in this approach).

The score begins with a lighthearted instrumental version of the song “Sous le ciel de Paris”, featuring an interesting instrumentation including an accordion. The cultures mix in the track, Piscine Molitor Patel which also features the traditional sitar and bansuri flute sounds. The theme presented in this track is featured throughout the album as it gets varied. The mix of instrumentation continues in Pondicherry. A solo voice begins Meeting Krishna, a mystical sounding track which naturally features many Indian sounds. Christ in the Mountains incorporates more of the Western orchestra with moments of choir – which adds to a beautiful, soothing effect in the score. The same goes for Thank You Vishnu for Introducing Me to Christ, a short and lovely cue. Appa’s Lesson is a highlight, inserting the lovely theme heard in Thank You Vishnu… Anandi is another minute-or-less track, just a hint of flavor and theme interjected into the film.

Leaving India features a melancholic tune on flute and a heartfelt performance. The Deepest Spot on Earth has the horn section play the past theme, this time with a foreboding sound. Tsimtsum is a stunning cue, with orchestra and choir blending, one of the first emotional tracks with a spiritual sound, making this the standout of the album.  Death of the Zebra returns the sorrowful flute solo heard briefly in Tsimtsum.  First Day, First Night features a boy soloist amid the low-register voices drone. The choir remains as the piano and orchestra take over. Among the beauty, there is a foreboding and mysterious sound that continues. With Set Your House in Order and Skinny Vegetarian Boy, we get more integration of ethnic instrumentation. The later features a nice bansuri solo.

The piano and flute take over with new thematic material in Pi and Richard Parker. The Whale unleashes more wonder and majesty into the score. Flying Fish is a short track, and its upbeat nature seems out of place in this part of the score. Tiger Training contains a brief rendition of Pi’s Lullaby. Orphans contains past themes, a tender look back with orchestral renditions.

Beginning with Tiger Vision, the tracks get longer and more emotional. The track ebbs and flows, with the solo voice and flute both briefly coming to the spotlight. God Storm brings the solo boy and low voices back in the biggest cue in the album. The large scale orchestra gives way to the calmer choir, which end the track sweetly. Both I’m Ready Now and The Island are less mysterious than earlier in the score. Both tracks feature more motion, both in melody and chord structure than previous tracks as Pi continues his journey.

Back to the World is the lengthiest track on the album. Pi’s earlier theme returns on the bansuri, but most of the ethnic instrumentation has fallen away for more strings and piano. The final tracks, The Second Story and Which Story Do You Prefer? are subtle and underscore the scenes in the film. The latter is a great track, starting softly with solo piano, flute and clarinet before swelling with choir to the finish.

This is one score that does provide a moving listen; it really needs to be accompanied by the stunning visuals of the film. While awards don’t always mean much, Danna has certainly received much deserved attention for this score.  (At the time of this writing, Danna won the Golden Globe for best score, and is Oscar nominated for both song and score).  His scores often don’t stand out enough for me (or even get noticed).  His knowledge and appreciation for Middle Eastern/Indian music has shone through several projects and fits with the traditional instrumentation effortlessly. Even the song Pi's Lullaby fits the score and adds nicely to the album.  It is a great marriage of film and music, perfectly describing the mythical and religious journey that Pi goes on.  

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