INTERVIEW: Jonathan Kawchuk, Composer Of Clara

"It's a very weird existence where one day I’ll be fixing a server and the next I’ll be working on a character’s motivation after divorce."

jonathan kawchuk
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Jonathan Kawchuk is a man of many talents but his specialty lies in film composing using elements of nature. Most recently, he did the score for ‘Clara’, a movie that premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. His work on this particular sci-fi movie involved sampling real space shuttle sounds taken from NASA’s database. It added to the allure and tone of the film and brought forth Jonathan’s passion for music in nature.

Along with composing, Jonathan also works on his own music as a composer and vocalist and quite often travels to unique locations around the world searching for sounds to insert into his music. Most recently he spent time in Banff, Canada doing an artist residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity that allowed him to teach others about his work while simultaneously create music in nature.

Jonathan was an absolute pleasure to speak with and shared inspiring anecdotes about his work on Clara and how music has changed his life. Check out our conversation below!

How did you get into this line of work? And what was that defining moment that you knew this was it for you?
It was always a thing for me. I was always making music as a kid, but when it got serious was one year I didn’t make a volleyball team and I had a summer to myself that I didn’t anticipate having. I was supposed to buy a bass guitar for my band and the guy in front of me got the last bass guitar at the store. I ended up getting a synthesizer instead and some crappy recording software, and I spent some of my savings to get a field recorder. As long as I’ve been taking vocal lessons or learning music, I’ve been recording music and making music with a computer.

In terms of film composing, I had a very lucky break. I do both film music and am a solo artist. Initially, I thought I’d be a filmmaker so I studied film, which I think every film composer should do anyway. One day I was at an event and I ran into a director named Niobe Thompson – he was doing this documentary called Memento Mori and I told him I was a composer. He sent me three minutes of footage to write music to, and I was terrified because before that I had only done a short film. Before I knew it, I had a feature-length film in my hands. Since then I’ve been composing for film!

What makes your style of music unique?
For me, I love music, obviously. But I’m not super-interested in music which is just music for its own sake. What is interesting to me about any medium is what it talks about. I’m almost a mountain lifestyle reporter when it comes to music, and have a deep connection with it. Environmental music is something that really fascinates me. Back in October, I was in the forest with 15 microphones and 7 giant speakers playing back the record I’m working on so it reverberates in the forest and captures the same kind of idea that you would have in a concert hall–it captured the echo of the forest. I take the ingredients of my work very specifically, like a locally sourced restaurant. When I work on films, it is the same approach which is what we did with Clara.

You recently worked on Clara, starring Patrick Adams and Troian Bellisario, which premiered at TIFF. What approach did you take to create the music for this project and what unique elements did you infuse into it?
The director, Akash Sherman, and I went to the same high school in Edmonton, Alberta, and we had known that we both worked in film, but had never worked together. We had coffee one day and he told me about the movie he was working on, Clara. I read the first draft around four years ago, and then eventually it got picked up, and I ended up scoring it. During the whole process, Akash and I have been very adamant about finding the sound of Clara. In the same way that I go to the forest to source the sounds I use in my music, it was about where we would go – where’s the grocery store we would go for Clara, etc.

Because the film is about astronomers, we decided to look in space, and there’s a scene in the movie that came from a discussion we had about sonified data, which is basically when NASA takes a bunch of space data and instead of turning it into a visual graph, they turn it into sound. There’s a bunch of this stuff out there with actual recordings from the Voyager transmissions and sonified data from Saturn. I believe NASA has made a lot of this stuff public domain, including the sounds. So I spent a few weeks sampling and making synthesizers out of Voyager transmissions specifically. When you listen to the score of Clara, a lot of the sounds you hear originate from the actual sounds of space.

What is your research process like and what tools do you use to prepare for a project?
For my own personal work, it’s sort of like an obsession so I don’t know if I really anticipate what I’m going to do. It is a constant piling on of new skills that I run past the filter of whether or not they will be beneficial to my work. Specifically, when this happens there is a lot that needs to be done. When I was in Banff, it was all about going out to do this challenging 3-D thing it was a lot of research into surround sound protocols and impulse response. It was very gross technical things that only like three people on Earth understand. And then the next day I would jump into vocal technique and performance artists who have worked with breath. It’s a very weird existence where one day I’ll be fixing a server and the next day I’ll be working on a character’s motivation after divorce.

There is a quote by the legendary composer David Lang about composition being the act of self-betterment. Essentially, it was more about indecision being the act of self-betterment, because you have these decisions every day where you’re thinking about what microphone you want to use which depends on the music and what it is trying to say, and what I’m trying to say. It almost becomes an existential problem – like who am I, etc.

Given the style of your music, do you find yourself collaborating with others in the process?
When I started out, I was very much doing things on my own and it felt like a very solitary thing. Film music is a team sport. It actually feels strange to me to see my name in the credits because it is more accurate to say that I’m a musical director because so many people are helping out. Akash was my collaborator on ‘Clara’ in a very big way, I worked with a vocalist a lot as well. I find that when you give people the space to do what they do best they usually come up with something you could have never imagined because they are the best at their job.

A lot of musical material for ‘Clara’ was basically me getting into a room with some sketches and turning on the microphone and guiding the other team members with the vibe of what I was thinking. It was a very much a brainstorming session every time and I would go back home and cut the music, so it is all definitely a very collaborative environment. The best thing about creating music is sometimes unexpectedly collaborating with the people around you. For example, sometimes my parents will give me ideas because they’re not in the pipeline of creating music like I am.

What projects do you have coming up in the future?
‘Clara’ premiered and is available to watch in Canada, and additional countries will eventually get a chance to check it out as well (no known date as of yet). As far as other projects, I am working on my second record right now, which I’ve been working on for so many years, but we are getting close.

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