‘Life of Pi’ score is a lush meditation on spirituality

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Life of Pi
Composed by Mychael Danna
Sony Masterworks
November 19, 2012

Mychael Danna has spent the majority of his career composing scores that suit their respective films perfectly. This is every composer’s goal, but where some aim to make their presence known, Danna approaches his projects with a refreshing sense of humility and an implicit understanding of what the film needs, preferring to let his music support the film instead of overpower it. With Life of Pi, Ang Lee has given Danna an emotionally rich and visually splendid playground to survey, resulting in a lush, meditative score that artfully explores the complex nature of spirituality.

The score begins with “Pi’s Lullaby”, a tranquil piece that establishes the main theme and reflects the idea that spiritual journeys start at a childlike place of innocence. The place here being a zoo, a Garden of Eden of sorts populated by inquisitive zebra, languid sloths, and a single Bengal tiger. The track also illustrates the theme of storytelling, a notion germane to the film’s structure, and what is a lullaby if not the musical manifestation of a story? Danna uses Indian singer Bombay Jayashri’s soothing, maternal vocals as well as Indian woodwinds and percussion specific to the culture in which the film takes place. All of this culminates in a work teeming with ethnic authenticity that hints towards the musical spiritualism inherent in the rest of the score.

This attention to cultural detail is further exemplified in tracks like “Piscine Molitor Patel” and “Pondicherry”, which underscore the French origins of Pi’s name as well as the once French territory of Pondicherry, Pi’s childhood home. Here Danna uses waltz timing, zithers, and accordions that radiate with whimsy and provide a distinct sense of place, as if one were strolling through the streets of Paris, a la Howard Shore’s Hugo. The gaiety, however, is slowly upended in “Tsimtsum”, an elegiac track featuring a haunting choir accompanied by equally melancholy strings that recounts the tragic loss of Pi’s family. “First Night, First Day” furthers this emotional transition as the voice of a young male soloist soars above a tonally shifting choir. They are later complemented by delicately mysterious piano and string work that imply that despite this tragedy, something profound is about to take place.

Thankfully Pi’s voyage at sea isn’t a completely dour affair as Danna scores the protagonist’s experience with great musical diversity. “Set Your House in Order”, heavy in various ethnic hand drums and dulcimers, is a lively and propulsive piece that provides the score with some much-needed levity as Pi learns to live outside of the bounds of civilization. “Flying Fish” is a short but brilliant track that bursts with bouncy, “Elfmanesque” strings and comical tubas while the titular creatures flit in and out of the 3D frame. The sonically ethereal “The Whale” is a perfect example of Danna’s deference to Lee’s visuals. Instead of an ostentatious orchestral beat, Danna cues a single understated horn as a humpback whale breaches next to Pi’s boat, content to buoy the striking visuals as they tell the story.

“The God Storm” stands as Life of Pi’s biggest musical set piece. It’s a dense track that churns with a gradually building darkness, using swelling atonal strings and harrowing brass that convey a genuine sense of danger and despair as a greater force of nature is at work. The track finds serenity near its end and is followed by the reflective “I’m Ready Now”, which serves as the calm after the storm. The brief inclusion of a music box as well as the solemn reprise of the main theme signifies Pi’s submission to God in the way a child might submit to its parent, bringing the film’s thematic trajectory full circle.

The score reaches its conclusion with “Which Story Do You Prefer?”, a quiet and ultimately uplifting piece that harkens back to that musical spiritualism first heard in “Pi’s Lullaby”, this time in a more matured manner and leaves the listener in a contemplative state, much like the film itself. Instead of attempting to prove the existence of God, The Life of Pi leaves the questions up to the audience allowing them to make their own decisions. Danna’s exquisite score, dutifully enhancing the film by any means necessary, functions in much the same fashion, placing the listener in the emotional state of mind to explore these metaphysical questions.

 

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