Alex Pauk and Alexina Louie are established art music composers on the Canadian musical landscape. Each has a distinctive career and reputation. Louie has won Junos, a Chalmers Award, a SOCAN prize and been named Composer of the Year by the Canadian Music Council. Pauk is not only highly regarded as a composer; he has created in the Esprit Orchestra one of the finest contemporary music ensembles in the world. The two, who are life partners, restrict their musical collaboration to the medium of film composing.
When asked to articulate the difference between art music for the concert hall and composing for the cinema, Pauk is quick to underscore the parity between each genre. “It’s a thing that is other than what you as an inspired composer on your own are creating—and that doesn’t mean it’s lesser, it’s just different.” Louie points out that the stakes aren’t quite the same. “When you write a piece for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra you are the one in control of everything. The success or failure of the piece is on your shoulders, and it’s your own success or failure that is on the line. With film music, it’s a collaborative activity. It’s a whole other world, working with a whole range of diverse people, from mixers, to producers, editors, sound technicians, and most importantly, the director.”
Louie and Pauk live together in their recently renovated Toronto west-end home with their two teenaged children. They’ve been together for nearly three decades. In the early days, Pauk and Louie used to tend to their own individual creative careers during the day, feed the kids and get them into bed, and then pull up their sleeves at 11p.m., to start work on film score projects, working into the wee hours of the morning.
Then they’d get up at 7:00 a.m. to get the kids off to school and start all over again. The two literally write every film cue together, sometimes arguing, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying until every single note is agreed to—each second of every score has mutual input, with virtu- ally no exceptions. Louie discloses that the process hits upon the whole gamut of human emotions, but ultimately any and all conflict finds its solution, and there is joint sign-off and commitment behind every note.
Interviewing both composers together in their kitchen, it isn’t difficult to imagine how it is that two individual artists could work, peer-to-peer and co-create every single musical impulse that goes into every note of a film score. They literally finish each other’s sentences, each other’s thoughts, and fill in the emotional nuances that the other misses with a glance or a gesture.
It was Pauk who crossed over into work- ing with the visual medium first. In the early ’80s he went to Montreal and found himself “auditioning” for the National Film Board with a six-part educational filmstrip, To Know the Huron. In those early days, Louie describes herself as “the side-kick.” Their first collaborations were with NFB director Paul Cowan. In 1984, they scored Democracy on Trial: The Morgentaler Affair, Cowen’s documentary profiling the controversial abortion advocate. They also worked with Les Rose on The Life and Times of Edwin Alonzo Boyd, crafting a “blues in the night” kind of score about the infamous Toronto bank robber.
Writing for film was born out of neces- sity. It’s not easy making a living as a contemporary classical music composer in Canada. According to Louie, it wasn’t so much that commissions were few and far between, it was that the money was paltry compared to the efforts invested. Recently, Louie finished writing a 14-minute solo piano piece for superstar Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker. It took her over five months. In order to actually survive on composing alone, Louie believes they’d have to abandon her aesthetic and artistic principles in favour of the “Canadian Tire brand of composing.” Not an option for either.
Louie and Pauk have built a reputa- tion for being able to make a handful of musicians sound like a big orchestra, thus cornering a niche market in the world of film composing. Their particular handful of musicians comprises Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra. Pauk founded this unlikely success story twenty-five years ago, with a vision to perform the works of living com- posers. Today, Esprit is thriving and all but unique in its mandate. It’s impossible for Pauk to conceal his pride in his musicians. He boasts that they are “fantastic readers, highly disciplined, and play with a fullness and edge and attention to detail and passion that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.”
For the record, Pauk and Louie are “people” people. They would far prefer larger budgets to fill out the sound of a score in lieu of contrived electro-acoustic simulations. For both, electronic music is just that—very cool and plastic, but sometimes exactly what you need to achieve a certain effect.
The added value of having a built-in or- chestra is that you have a built-in orchestra. Pauk and Louie come with a full-service roster of offerings. They compose, they orchestrate, they bring the musicians to the project, they rehearse, Pauk conducts, and Louie oversees the control room.
In describing the process of writing music for film, the conversation turned naturally to Jeremy Podeswa’s highly acclaimed The Five Senses (1999). Podeswa had seen Don McKellar’s Last Night, an- other Pauk/Louie score, and was convinced he wanted to work with the duo. Regardless of the pre-rough cut discussions, it took Pauk and Louie a long time to settle into Podeswa’s filmic technique for The Five Senses. For Podeswa it was all about re- straint, stillness, leaning heavily on the dictum less is more.
The film weaves together the separate plot lines of five individuals living in Toronto. At the end of the film there’s a long sequence that artfully pulls together the disparate threads of each character’s life. In order to achieve a sense of unity and to build the necessary momentum, Pauk and Louie were asked to write a nineteen-minute cue. Each character had their own signature musical elements associated with them, and drawing them all together had to be done in such a way that it didn’t steal from the viewers’ comprehension. This particular scene is one of Louie’s favourites: “it does what it needs to do in the film, and it does it well.”
It doesn’t always work out so smoothly. Sometimes the idea the two have for a scene misses the director’s vision alto- gether. One such example was the scene in The Five Senses where a young mother, Molly Parker, first realizes her little girl has gone missing from the park across the street. She’s more than frantic, she’s terrified. She “flies” out of her therapist’s apartment down the stairs. As parents themselves, Pauk and Louie wrote music that read “terror.” Podeswa was after the antithetical effect. Director and compos- ers struggled for weeks over this cue. The composers’ conviction to their musical solution was so strong that at one stage they were ready to walk away from the project in order to give Podeswa the op- portunity to find someone to create what he was looking for.
Podeswa is a director who is very comfortable in his knowl- edge and understanding of music. In the end, Podeswa’s quest for “stillness” was achieved, the scene is brilliant, and the composers didn’t feel they had to compro- mise one iota. The two have a remarkable understanding of their role with respect to the overall project, “It’s a process, and it’s not your vision—ultimately your creative energy is there to serve the director’s vision.”
The process is laced with the constant ebb and flow of give and take. Sometimes Pauk and Louie manage to convince the director that their solution is the best solu- tion, sometimes they don’t. Spoiler alert: An opera singer lives in the same apart- ment as two of the characters in the film. The viewer hears but doesn’t see a beautiful lyric soprano rehearsing throughout the film. During the final denouement, the audience finally lays eyes on the singer— she’s a he. Podeswa came to the table with a specific counter-tenor in mind to play this role. Pauk and Louie had very specific ideas about the voice quality needed to pull off the particular kind of ironic twist demanded in the script. Ultimately, Podeswa went with his composers’ choice, then emergent Canadian counter-tenor, Daniel Taylor.
In much the same way a filmmaker’s complicated scene could end up on the cutting room floor, sometimes the cues over which Pauk and Louie have had the biggest arguments end up being “mixed over” to the point that you can hardly hear the music under footsteps or some other audio effect. One could cry or one could laugh. Both Pauk and Louie choose to laugh. Pauk’s credo: “don’t fall in love with your film music the way you fall in love with your art music.”
Another genre of films which Pauk and Louie have a strong track record in scoring is performance art films. Rhombus Media opened those doors. Pauk and Louie’s work with long-time co-collaborator, director Larry Weinstein has yielded a long list of award-winning films. The two count as their most impressive film score proj- ect a score they wrote for Weinstein’s biography of Maurice Ravel. The lion’s share of the music for Ravel’s Brain is actually by the great French impressionist composer. Pauk and Louie were charged with orchestrating the music of arguably the greatest orchestrator who ever lived. What they did with the film took “virtually every scrap of our total musical knowledge and every scrap of everything we’d ever done with the knowledge of putting music together in a film.” Strands of music are knit together like veins in a complicated organ transplant—with surgical precision —removing instruments there, splicing parts together there…
There’s a memorable party scene in the film. It’s Ravel’s birthday and Weinstein really wanted to use the composer’s Violin and Piano Sonata as the backdrop. Somehow the music didn’t strike the right social scene chord with Pauk and Louie. They suggested “wrapping” the sonata with period jazz-band music to underscore the scene’s mood. It is just one of rabbits that Pauk and Louie ended up pulling out of their eclectic musical bag of tricks for this film.
Louie was terrified when the piece pre- miered in front of French audiences. She was certain that they would be crucified for “toying with the music of ‘god,’” but in the end, the score was so seamless, no one said a word. No one, except two fellow composers who, after screening the film in Montreal, placed calls the next day, simply gob-smacked by their genius.
Pauk recently got back from delivering a talk on film composing at the Royal Academy of Music in London, in response to that call. It’s just one of many accolades the duo have received for adding film composing to their repertoire.