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Convocation 2014: meet honorary grad Mychael Danna

Oscar-winning composer known for collaborations with fellow alumnus Atom Egoyan

Mychael Danna is an Academy Award-winning film composer recognized for his evocative blending of non-western traditions with orchestral and electronic music.

His highly awarded works include the Oscar-winning score for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, and his many Genie Award-winning scores for director and longtime collaborator, Atom Egoyan.

“The most gratifying filmmaking experiences are ones that take effort to unpeel the layers surrounding the heart of the story, and to find the best musical expression of that heart,” says Danna. “Those are always the film scores that I am most proud of.”

On June 13, at the Convocation ceremony for students of the Faculty of Music and OISE, the University of Toronto recognized the extraordinary accomplishments of its illustrious alumnus with a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Danna's passion for presenting complex ideas in a musically accessible way began as he learned his craft at U of T. There, he was exposed to early- and world-music that later influenced his style. Danna earned the school’s inaugural Glenn Gould Composition Award in 1985 and also began scoring for student theatre groups, as he launched his artistic partnership with Egoyan. Danna has scored all of Egoyan’s films since 1987’s Family Viewing.

Danna’s work on Egoyan’s films Ararat (2002), Felicia’s Journey (1999), The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and Exotica (1994) secured him Genie awards from the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television; as did his score for Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated film, Water (2005). In addition, Danna earned the 2013 Golden Globe and 2013 Oscar for scoring Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, following his collaborations with Lee on The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride with the Devil (1999).

Life of Pi’s rich soundscape reflects a deeply transnational story with inventive cross-cultural arrangements: Indian sitars play French melodies, European accordions play South Asian motifs, a church choir sings in Sanskrit, and a variety of other musical combinations soar alongside a full studio orchestra. This highly awarded work embodies Danna’s approach to composition—creating rich soundscapes to be appreciated by a wide audience.

Danna describes his approach as “making music an integral part of the storytelling, not simply repeating what is happening onscreen, but adding unexpected dimension and insight that enrich the experience of the director’s vision.”

Other celebrated collaborations include those with Bennett Miller on his multiple Oscar-nominee Moneyball (2011) and his Oscar-winning drama Capote (2005); with Terry Gilliam on his Oscar-nominated The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) and Tideland (2005); with Mira Nair on Vanity Fair (2004), Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996); and with Billy Ray on Breach (2007) and Shattered Glass (2003). Further credits include the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine (2006), for which he shared a Grammy Award nomination for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album; Marc Webb’s acclaimed romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer (2009); and James Mangold’s Oscar-winning film, Girl, Interrupted (1999).

Danna himself notes, “I have had exactly the career that I want for many years now. I’ve been fortunate enough to work alongside many of the world’s best directors, telling challenging and compelling stories. I hope to continue doing exactly this.”