An alumna of the USC Film Scoring Program and the Sundance Composers Lab, Chanda Dancy is both an accomplished film and television composer with over eighteen years of experience and an emerging classical concert composer. Arts Boston named her one of “10 Contemporary Black Composers You Should Know.” She is known for her work on the Sundance award–winning documentary “Aftershock” by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, the hit Netflix TV Original “The Defeated,” the Korean War era epic “Devotion” by J.D. Dillard and the Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” directed by Kasi Lemmons.
Tara Karajica talks to Chanda Dancy about her work on J.D. Dillard’s Korean War film, “Devotion,” as well as her composing career so far, women composers today and what she is working on next.
What made you want to become a film composer?
Chandha Dancy: I grew up around music, and started piano and violin at very early ages, and even started composing sometime in middle school. So, music has always been an integral part of my life, and I could not imagine doing anything else. It was during my undergraduate music education that I was deciding on whether to be a violinist in an orchestra, or a concert stage composer, and it dawned on me “Hey, what about writing music for films?” After all, one of my greatest musical memories as a child was John Williams’ score for E.T. I wondered: “Would I be able to do the same kind of thing?” So, I gave it a try, and here we are!
How do you tap into what music makes you feel in order to find the perfect sound to accompany the images and the special moments that transport us to another place, another time and even another world?
C.D.: For me, it’s a pretty organic process. Visual images seem to automatically generate music in my head. However, in the case of Devotion, the script was so powerful that it generated musical themes as well. I essentially just listen to what has been “downloaded” into me from wherever in the ether inspiration comes from, and write it down. Then, I start the process of seeing if what inspired and emotionally affected me will inspire and emotionally affect others. That is to say, I share my ideas with my filmmaking team in order to calibrate the emotional effect we want the audience to experience.
How do you get in the zone and does your creative process differ from project to project?
C.D.: The process is essentially the same for any music I create. It starts with some sort of visual –picture – or conceptual – story or script – catalyst that opens the doors to musical ideas. I usually will have my iphone next to me and will sing the main melody of whatever has come to me, and then import that audio into ProTools, transcribe it, and then fill out the bass line, then the inner harmonies. For music that is more experimental, or synthesized, it starts with choosing a sound palette from my library of sounds and recording sounds of anything from instruments to things in nature. Then, I just build from there.
How did you get on board Devotion?
C.D.: My agent, Kevin Korn, introduced me to his friends at Black Label Media. Black Label was looking for a composer for Devotion, and sent me the script and asked me to demo. I sent them some of the cues I wrote for The Defeated among others, and got a meeting with director J.D. Dillard, and was hired shortly thereafter!
In your pulsing, heroic and emotional score for the film, you wanted to orchestrally emulate the actual whistles of dive-bombing corsairs utilizing strings, winds, and brass to mimic the unmistakable, high-pitched wailing of fighter plane propellers and engines in steep descent. Can you comment on this choice and talk about how you achieved this sound?
C.D.: J.D., sent me some tracks of Corsair plane sounds for inspiration for the score, and one of the tracks was the sound of a Corsair diving. When a Corsair dives, it makes a really distinct high pitched wail/whistle, and I really wanted to recreate that sound using the orchestra. For the cue “Sortie,” in the recording session I used an expanded wind section – with 3 contrabassoons! – and brass growling and overblowing to create the sound of that dive whistle and revving plane engine sounds. Along with the strings in rising cluster chords, it created a soundscape that mimics Corsairs revving up and diving into battle.
You and director J.D. Dillard share a mutual love of EDM, and you incorporated subtle elements of modern electronic sounds into your classic Hollywood-sounding score, thus making it a bit more contemporary. Can you elaborate on that? How did your classical training inform this part of composing the score?
C.D.: J.D. wanted a score that combined several elements: an emotional core, sweeping themes with a big orchestra, a very masculine sound, and a marriage of the old and new, meaning combining a traditional orchestral score with modern sounds/synths/sensibilities to create something that sounds familiar but fresh. For example, our piano sound in some cues is a combination of an acoustic piano, and a synthesizer to give the overall sound of “affected tradition”. In the cue “The Lighthouse,” we hear low synths combined with the low brass to give that bottom a heavier and more machine-like quality, along with a bouncing synth bass line emulating perpetual motion. All of these modern elements had to be balanced correctly with the classic orchestra to create something that is authentic to the period and timeless, yet have a nod to our modern sensibilities.
You also wrote some of the big-band jazz heard behind some of the servicemen-on-leave scenes. Can you talk about that?
C.D.: The jazz/big band cues we hear in Cannes were inspired and in line with – as best as possible – pre-1950s style songs with French influence. Specifically, I was inspired by Dizzy Gillespie and Django Reinhardt in these cues.
Besides composing, you are also known for your performances with the indie rock band, Modern Time Machines, as violinist, keyboardist and vocalist, and as owner of the boutique post production studio, Cyd Post. Can you talk about your other hats?
C.D.: Honestly, I don’t really have much time these days for the other hats! I haven’t played with Modern Time Machines regularly in years, and sound services with Cyd Post are really only limited to small art projects in which I do sound design. Overall, my working hours are mostly filled with composing only.
There are more and more female composers today. Can you talk about being one of them today and who was your inspiration when you decided to become a film composer, because back then things were different?
C.D.: Women composers shall be seen as what we fundamentally are: composers. There is no limit on who can do action scores, or hero scores, or emotional scores, and so on and so forth. A composer understands this: we manipulate sound waves in an infinite fashion to help the audience feel empathy. The ability to do just that has no gender – it is a universal human instinct, and should be recognized as such.
What was the best advice you received when you started out? And, what would you say to a young girl who wants to be a film composer now? What advice would you give her?
C.D.: I have been told that a career in film scoring is a marathon, not a sprint. You MUST take good care of your body, mind and spirit, and live a well-rounded life with friends and family so as to prevent burn out.
What would you say your sound is and what would you want your audience to feel when they hear your scores?
C.D.: My “sound” is very eclectic. Fundamentally, I would want the audience to feel emotionally invested in the story and characters they are watching, and I hope that my scores would help to achieve that no matter what sounds I use to create them.
What is the best film score ever, according to you? And, your favorite one?
C.D.: John Williams’ E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the best film scores ever, in my opinion! But my favorite film score is probably Joe Hisaishi’s Castle In The Sky.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your composing?
C.D.: I definitely would say I’m a feminist, but I don’t really see how that could inform my composing. I simply am a composer, and a classical musician, and have always been since I was a kid. That simple state of being has never been affected by any external forces or concepts.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and one you would love to work with?
C.D.: I have been a fan of the amazing Kasi Lemmons since her stunning work on Eve’s Bayou and I can say that my dream to work with her has already come true with our collaboration on I Wanna Dance With Somebody!
What are your next projects, apart from I Wanna Dance With Somebody?
C.D.: I have two TV projects coming down the pipeline, but, of course, I am not at liberty to talk about them at the moment, so stay tuned!
Photo credits: Georgia Shu.