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From rock band to film composer: Yamantaka // Sonic Titan's Alaska B on scoring Through Black Spruce

Melody Lau

It’s a career move many musicians have taken: assuming the role of film score composer. This is particularly the case for artists whose work is already cinematic or heavily embedded in narratives. And in the Canadian music landscape, no one can tell a more compelling story through their music than Yamantaka // Sonic Titan.

The Toronto-based group released their latest album, Dirt, earlier this year, but in the months leading up to its release, certain members of the band were working hard on finishing another project. Late last year, bandleader Alaska B was tapped by Canadian director Don McKellar for a film he was working on called Through Black Spruce, which will premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film tells the story of a missing Cree woman and the consequences of her disappearance on her family in Northern Ontario.

While Alaska B admits she was unsure about taking on this job at first — due to the film’s source material: a book by controversial author Joseph Boyden — she and bandmates, Brendan Swanson and Ange Loft, eventually agreed. “Despite his problematic elements, it’s about people from Moosonee,” she explains. “It’s great for them to see Moosonee onscreen and a story that involves people from Moosonee, that casts locals from Moosonee.”

Ahead of the film’s premiere, CBC Music spoke with Alaska B about her first time scoring a big picture (she had previously scored a video game and some documentaries). For full listings of Through Black Spruce at the TIFF, head to the festival's website.

How did you get involved in this project?

I don’t know exactly. The film’s editor, Lindsay Allikas, is friends with my friend Walter Scott, the artist who is behind the Wendy comics and used to be a member of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. So I’m not sure how it happened behind the scenes, but I got a message from Walter one day being like, “You’re going to get an e-mail from Don McKellar.” And I’m like, what? eXistenz and Twitch City? So two or three days later, I got an e-mail from Don and he said, "Hi, I’m interested in your work and I have a film I just finished.” We met and he told me what the film was and what it was based on and I had a bit of trepidation.


Because of the controversy over Joseph Boyden and his writing, so right off the bat I was like, I don’t know. No slight on Don, but this is totally outside of me and him. But he said this had been in production for a long time, he told me some of the people working on it and the actors and crew — people that I know who work in the Native theatre world in Toronto. So seeing familiar faces and really great Native talent, the group of us said OK, we’ll do this.

Were you given any direction on where to go with the score?

It’s funny. So, Don had set the entire film, with Lindsay, to music from other films. And with a lot of it, I thought the timing was really good because they edited it. So, a lot of the time I would work with elements of the original timing and stretch it to fit my needs. I remember in the early stages of things, I brought in what I had and Don would listen to it and he would literally say, “I don’t want you to do anything like the temp music,” but at the same time I had to do things like the temp music. So, I was given kind of a direction but then told early to throw the direction away and do whatever!

I tried to write motifs for each character but I tried to keep them fairly vague. I didn’t want to have any of that Indiana Jones kind of epic soundtrack where things are too memorable. We wrote these complex motifs and buried them underneath a very dark and strange soundtrack — a lot of early ‘90s thriller elements.

How was working on this film different from your other projects?

You know what I found interesting was that, because I like to write so narratively, musically, already, I really enjoyed doing this and felt much freer.

What did you think of the film, after watching the first cut?

Well I thought the music was a little wrong. [Laughs] The first cut I saw was pretty much the last cut, I think. It just needed some tweaks. I enjoyed it. It was interesting writing for the character of Annie because I think I kind of see a bit of my young, stupid self in the decisions she makes. So, writing for her was interesting but frustrating because I’m like, why are you like this! I don’t know if that comes out in the writing for her.

Are there other film composers whose work you look up to?

I’m a huge fan of Wendy Carlos’s work. My father is into synthesizers so I grew up with them and was surrounded with early synthesizer music, so that is a huge influence for me. I’m also a huge fan of John Carpenter’s work. I like how ham-fisted he plays. Also, I was a fan of Jóhann Jóhannsson and I’ve been a fan of his since I was a teenager.


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