For most music lovers, she’ll always be J.Kyll, cofounder of Muzion, pioneer of the Québec rap scene and one of the most relevant voices to have emerged from it. In nearly a decade, however, Jenny Salgado has also made a name for herself in the field of screen and stage composing: her musical score for the feature film Scratch (by Sébastien Godron, 2015) earned her a nomination at the Gala du cinéma québécois, and two awards, at the Canadian Screen Awards, and the Chicago International Movies + Music Festival.
Salgado is adamant that the transition from rapper to screen composer was a natural step in the direction that she herself had traced since the foundation of Muzion. “I did all the productions for Muzion,” she reminds us. “I would even say that music came into my life before words and literature; the impetus to rap came as much from the lyrics as it did from beat-making, so maybe some people see songwriting as a second string to my bow [as a rapper], but the truth is, those strings came at the same time on the bow.”
Still, she admits that opportunity makes the thief: “Like many things in my career, it’s like paving stones appear in front of me and all I need to do is step on them,” she says, recalling the phone call from documentary filmmaker Nicole Giguère, who was the first to suggest that she write an original score for her film On me prend pour une Chinoise ! (freely: They think I’m a Chinese woman!) about international adoption.
“What she asked me to do was quite bold: mixing urban music – hip-hop – and Chinese music,” Salgado explains. “She forced me to dive into a completely different universe, and I stepped up to the challenge. It was a turning point, whereas for Scratch, I fell back into my comfort zone and composed from my roots in hip-hop and street music. In that movie, music was central, it was almost a character in and of itself. My music was well-received, and I think that’s when people in the industry realized that something was abuzz about me…”
Anyone who’s met J. Kyll knows she doesn’t mince words. Nowadays, the pioneer throws her entire talent at the service of a film or stage director’s vision. Last fall, Christian Fortin asked the composer for a soundtrack for his production of King Dave, presented at Théâtre Jean Duceppe. This line of work also requires a balancing act on the part of the screen composer: finding a balance between the director’s commission and the composer’s unique voice. Being versatile means adapting to the filmmaker’s vision, while finding a way to add her own signature to the soundtrack.
“There’s a zone in the middle where you need to find your place,” says Salgado. “I guess one of the reasons I get asked to work on projects is my ability to approach a project while making it mine a little: being at the service of a production – a film, a play – that’s not me, that’s not mine, that’s not my word, my purpose, or my vision, being entirely at its service, while finding something personally creative in it, and offering my own editorial line. I’ve managed to achieve that on every project I’ve worked on so far, but it’s a new challenge every time. That’s part of the trip: finding a way to fit in someone else’s vision.”
She then moves onto the difference between composing for films versus composing for the stage: “When you get the footage from a film for which you’re composing, everything has a time-code telling you exactly where the music is supposed to go; a stage play is more fluid, each performance is different. You must be able to create music that’s flexible enough to follow the content. It takes something that’s structured, but still flows with the words, or the bodies in the case of a choreography – I really like to compose music for bodies. It helps my creative process to have performed [with Muzion] and to have planned the flow of a show, with moments designed to make the crowd react in a specific way. I try to transpose that into my work composing for film or stage productions.”
This, in the case of cinema, raises the question of the expectations linked to these first cuts, which often include reference music – works already recorded, often well-known pieces, that are used to indicate the intention or the emotion that the moving images illustrate. “Those infamous temp tracks!” says the composer. “I’ve had some proposed to me even for stage plays… They’re part of the hurdles I have to get over. The danger with that is what used to be called ‘demophobia’: the fact that musicians get used to the sound of the demo version of a song and become dissatisfied with the clean, mixed version.
“It’s a bit the same with temp tracks; they become embedded in the minds of the film crew. Once everyone is used to seeing these images and hearing a given track, what you need to do is compose a new piece that will succeed in de-throning the original. The trick is finding the right emotion in the original composition, what makes it best adapted to the scene, in a way that’s even better than the reference song. It’s always a challenge, but that’s the name of the game!”