When we catch up with screen composer Amritha Vaz in July of 2016, she’s attending the prestigious and challenging Sundance Institute Music and Sound Design Labs at Skywalker Sound, located within Star Wars mastermind George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Northern California. Vaz is here to participate in workshops and creative exercises under the guidance of leading film composers and film music professionals, who are acting as creative advisors. Each composer/director team has their original scores for new, independent film scenes performed live by a chamber orchestra.
“You’re teamed up with these phenomenal filmmakers and given a couple days to score some pretty challenging scenes, and you can’t help but feel instant panic that you might fail, big time,” says Vaz. “But then you remember, ‘Oh yeah that’s the point. If ever there was a safe place to try new things and take risks, it’s here.”
Fittingly, she’s sitting in a room with a poster on the wall that says “Make Mistakes.” “It was such a gift to be mentored by Harry Gregson-Williams, Christophe Beck and Edward Shearmur,” says Vaz. “There’s so much to learn from artists who can work at that level, not just creatively, but balancing all the time pressures, technical issues, responding to different opinions — including one’s own! — and second guessing… I also learned so much from my composer fellows, the Skywalker sound designers, and the whole Sundance team. Everyone was so generous with their time and so honest about their journeys. It’s funny, I came here expecting to only learn writing tools and techniques – and while I’ve definitely gained a deeper knowledge of my craft, I’m leaving with something far more valuable: that every single one of these people you admire is telling you that you actually deserve to be here.” This was the third year that Vaz applied for the program, and she finally got in, so the support is appreciated.
Vaz is no stranger to film scoring, of course. Most recently she scored two films for Film Independent’s Project Involve lab, as well as for the documentaries Made in India (PBS) and Music for Mandela. And before that, Vaz had already been contributing to film scores for years. Born a Canadian of Indian descent, and now residing in Los Angeles, the multi-instrumentalist has worked extensively as an assistant composer to Oscar- and Emmy Award-winning film and TV composer Mychael Danna, on movies such as 500 Days of Summer, Pomegranates and Myrrh, and Cooking with Stella, among others.
So how did she meet the Life of Pi film composer, who draws from South Asian musical traditions as well as Western ones? “When I first saw him, he was actually wearing a T-shirt that had Hindi script on it that said ‘desi,’ which in Hindi basically means ‘local’ or ‘one of ours,’” says Vaz. “I was, like, ‘Oh, really? You think you’re from the ‘hood, do you?’ I was just kidding. It was funny, and he was great about it. After hearing him talk, I could see how he came at Indian music from such a great angle, and I loved the way he talked about film music… It was about finding your voice, and when he told his story, it just really connected with me. The fact that he also did a lot of quirky Indian films, as well [as mainstream ones], meant that I knew of his work. Later I contacted him and apologized for giving him such a hard time. I realized I was actually really proud to call him ‘desi.’
“I feel like the industry as a whole is starting to want to diversify their teams – not only because it’s important to be more inclusive, but also because these candidates are really good at what they do.”
“It’s probably the least likely thing to happen, which is that you go to attend a composer’s lecture and six months later you end up working as their assistant” says Vaz. “I was incredibly lucky to have gotten my start with another Canadian composer, Tim McCauley. Then less than a year later I got another break and started working in Mychael’s Hollywood studio. When you start working as an assistant, you might be exceptionally lucky to land a writing gig, but more often, you’re earning your way to that position. Perhaps because I hadn’t formally studied film scoring, I was keenly aware of my huge learning curve, so I was just as eager to learn how to set-up Logic templates and sync video, as I was to soak up musical insights. Being a bit of a tech nerd probably helped, but even then. there was so much to learn! April Lebedoff at the Vancouver SOCAN office definitely got more than a few desperate emails asking for help on how to fill out cue sheets. Eventually I was lucky enough to write additional music for Mychael, and we even co-wrote two scores together.”
Vaz learned a lot from being an assistant composer to Danna, from about 2008 through 2013. “I gained experience and insight into high-level film scoring, the art of incorporating world music and how to write both sparse and highly orchestrated scores,” she says. “He’s always encouraged me to ‘go to concept’ with my writing, to challenge me to go past what’s obvious, and think about how you can contribute to the bigger narrative, while still striving to write something beautiful. After all that, then there’s the art of graciously letting it all go when what you’ve tried doesn’t land and you’re back to square one. I’m not saying I’ve mastered any of those things, but I’m definitely trying!”
Vaz travelled a path of many twists and turns before she ended up where she is today. She started off in her teens as a classical violinist, but a harsh bout of tendonitis at 16 (“so bad I couldn’t even get dressed, or open doors”) led her to India to study Indian Classical Music, which encourages improvisation. She started creating music, joining bands, and jamming. But the tendonitis wasn’t entirely resolved, so she embraced her other passion – for social justice. Vaz earned a degree in Political Science, followed up with a Master’s in International Development Studies Program, then law, and then went to work in South Africa. She returned to Vancouver, and when the search for work as a lawyer was proving unfruitful, chose to help out some old art-school friends who needed some music for a short film they were shooting.
“My grandfather worked in Bollywood, so maybe that’s why I thought it’d be fun to try, but I had no idea I would be so instantly hooked,” she says. “It was so much fun to collaborate and contribute to storytelling in that way, but there was another light that went on. When I was working in Africa, I learned about musical theatre groups that were having more success building AIDS awareness than traditional policies, and I started to wonder whether I could do something similar with my love of music. Not long after the short film, I met Tim McCauley, and he kindly gave me the opportunity to write on a CBC documentary about Hungarian refugees, and suddenly I saw that film scoring could be that connection between these two worlds.”
As a socially conscious mother, and woman of colour, working in a very rich, white, male-dominated industry, Vaz has a distinctive viewpoint on her film scoring craft. “While it’s no secret that women and people of colour have faced discrimination in this industry, I do think things are changing,” says Vaz. “There are a lot of champions out there, and I feel like the industry as a whole is starting to want to diversify their teams – not only because it’s important to be more inclusive, but also because these candidates are really good at what they do, and they bring new and exciting perspectives that haven’t really been heard before.”
Vaz’s next project is a feature-length documentary that’s in keeping with her views. “Little Stones is about four female artists from Senegal, Brazil, India and Kenya, who are making profound change in the lives of women, specifically fighting female genital mutilation, domestic violence, sex trafficking and extreme poverty,” she says. “They have no funding, no money. They’re just acting on their own, but just doing these amazing things… women who have a vision, who have an incredible story to be told.”
AMRITHA VAZ’S ADVICE FOR YOUNG SCREEN COMPOSERS
- Find your voice. What’s unique about you and your sound? You can learn the technical things, but finding your voice is really key.
- Create a supportive composer/artist community – this can be a lonely field so it’s important to have other supportive artists from whom to learn, collaborate and with whom to sometimes commiserate.
- Build your team – at first you’re doing it all yourself, but as you take on bigger projects, you’ll need musicians, score mixers, Pro Tools assistants, contractors, orchestrators & assistants you can rely on to help you succeed.
- Join composer organizations – to build alliances, enrich your skills and find mentors.
- Have fun – sounds corny, but where possible I try to find the joy in what I write, as I really do believe that in the end what moves me often resonates with other people, too.