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CANADA MOSAIC | Film Composer Erica Procunier On DAM! The Story of Kit the Beaver

By Nicholas Godsoe on February 23, 2017

Composer Erica Procunier (Photo: Michael Vincent/Musical Toronto)
Composer Erica Procunier (Photo: Michael Vincent/Musical Toronto)

The TSO’s Canada Mosaic initiative is providing dozens of Canadian composers from across the country with the opportunity to produce original works that will be recognized on a national scale in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial. Many of these new works will take the form of sesquies; 38 short orchestral commissions that will be performed by the TSO and 38 partner orchestras across the country. But Erica Procunier’s involvement with the Canada Mosaic initiative as a composer is a bit different. She has composed the score for an animated children’s film titled DAM! The Story of Kit the Beaver, which will be premiered at Roy Thomson Hall — with the score performed live by the TSO — on February 25.

How did this commission come about?

“Back in April … [the TSO] approached me and asked if I was interested in working on this project … Of course, I jumped at the opportunity because it’s such a unique project! I’m so happy that they’re doing things like this.”

The film is about a young beaver named Kit, who is part of a beaver clan who are attempting to build a massive dam. As Kit goes into the forest to collect the wood that she needs to build the dam, she encounters various woodland animals who need her help.

“It’s a story about helping others, making friends, and doing things for the greater good,” Procunier explained.

In preparation for the performance on the 25th, Procunier is attending rehearsals to answer questions from the orchestra members, and to assist with issues that may arise with respect to the synchronization of the live music with the film.

What do you think of this increasingly popular film with live orchestra concept?

“I think it’s great! It’s the best way to watch a movie, with a live orchestra. So if it brings people in to see orchestras, I can’t see how it could be anything but amazing.”

So you think it’s bringing in new orchestral audiences?

“I would say so. I know there’s a big market for it, a fan base … they might not necessarily come to the masterworks, but they will jump at an opportunity to see their favorite films with a live score.”

While she is certainly no stranger to film music composition, this project, in many ways, was new territory for Procunier. I wanted to get a sense for how different factors specific to this project may have influenced her approach to creating its music.

You’ve written film scores, but how was composing the music for this project different, knowing that the music will be performed live, alongside the film? 

“It was quite different than what I’m used to. In the normal process, you don’t have to worry about going from the beginning to the end of the film all in one go. You can stop and start … you can record one cue, and drop them into the film wherever they need to go. Here, you press play, the film is on, and you have to stay in sync with the film!”

Will it be stressful to watch the orchestra play your music with this unstoppable moving image on the screen? Is there any tension in this?

“Maybe just that I’ve made it too difficult to change tempos. And I’ve kind of used the two percussionists to the extreme; they’re going to be running around in the back of the ensemble. But I’m not worried, they’re wonderful players!”

How did your writing style change — or did it change — knowing that this film is intended for young children?

“I didn’t really think of it as ‘this film is for kids.’ I thought of it as ‘this film is its own cinematic world,’ and I thought about what sounds are going to go well with the style of this movie. I was looking to other films which mainly have children as their audiences, like Up, How to Train your Dragon, or anything from Pixar, really. So that was interesting, but I wasn’t going to write simpler music because it’s for kids. Kids are smart. They like music a lot. They can understand anything you put in front of them.”

So you think kids are going to enjoy it?

“Oh, I think they’re going to love it! It’s just so adorable.”

Did the film’s lack of dialogue guide your approach to creating its music?

It was very interesting because it put a lot of time restrictions on my writing. On the screen, the animals will howl at certain moments, or beavers will be chomping on pieces of wood. All of this had to be highly synchronized, which was a challenge […] I did have use a couple extended techniques that I might not have thrown in otherwise. [For example,] when the wolf howls, and when the wolf teaches the beaver to howl, I’m using some extended techniques in the strings and brass with pitch bends and stuff like that […] It’s a hybrid sound design sort of situation.”

Following our discussion on the film and its music, I wanted to talk to Procunier about what it means to have her music be a part of the Canada Mosaic initiative:

“When I heard about it — how it was all of these different arts organizations all over Canada — I was so happy to be a part of it, and I’m so happy that I can make something that will be enjoyed by audiences nationally.”

This initiative is producing dozens of new Canadian pieces of music. Do you see this body of work shaping Canadian music moving forward?

“I think when we will look back on 2017 and hear all of this music it will definitely be a microcosm of what’s happening here and now.”

Procunier continued, noting the flexibility Canadian composers have in expressing their identity through their music.

“…I think that we, as Canadians, come from so many diverse backgrounds … I’m not specifically writing music to be Canadian — this film is very Canadian, it’s about a beaver—but I wasn’t sitting here thinking, ‘what kind of music should I write to be Canadian?’ I just am Canadian. So I think that is what will come out of all of this work being made; it will just naturally be Canadian music.”

I think this idea of “naturally Canadian” music will be one of the most enduring outcomes of the Canada Mosaic initiative. The amount of Canadian music that will be created this year is stunning, and the diversity of this new music is even more impressive. Whether it be a requiem, the adventurous commissions included in the upcoming New Creations Festival, or music for an animated film about a beaver; all of the music that will come out of this initiative will be naturally — yet inexplicably — Canadian.

For more in our ongoing CANADA MOSAIC series, see HERE.

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