Alumni Spotlight – TIFF Edition: Kalaisan Kalaichelvan

Posted: Sep 8, 2023

alumni spotlight tiff

Kalaisan Kalaichelvan is a composer and pianist based in Toronto, and, is a 2021 alumnus of the CFC’s Slaight Music Residency. His compositional practice spans multiple disciplines, drawing from film, dance, theatre, installation and deals with themes of translation and transference – his music is defined by its genre-bending boldness, classicism and ingenuity. He has scored feature films that have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (“In Flames”), Toronto International Film Festival (“This Place”), Santa Barbara International Film Festival (“Junglefowl”) and the Fantasia Film Festival (“The Protector”).

Named by Ludwig Van as one of “six emerging Canadian composers to keep an eye on”, his music has been performed and premiered by celebrated ensembles such as Pro Coro Canada, the Dior Quartet, NMC Ensemble and Extended Music Collective. Kalaisan is a 2021 Fellow of the prestigious Sundance Composers lab and a grantee of Sundance’s Art of Practice Fellowship. He has also held residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

He was awarded one SOCAN Emerging Composer Awards in 2023. He was also recently granted the Creativity Connection Fellowship with Toronto Metropolitan University and was one of the six composers commissioned by the Canadian League of Composers to write for Pro Coro Canada under their PIVOT program. He’s worked with artists and institutions such as UCross Foundation, Canadian League of Composers, Avaloch Music Institute, Canadian New Music Network, Nuit Blanche TO, Screen Composers Guild of Canada and VIFF.

Having worked across various disciplines and communities of thought, Kalaisan seeks to bring together incongruous institutions to build novel structures that reflect his artistic upbringing. We recently caught up with him to discuss his musical journey, and what’s next for the gifted creator. Read more in the spotlight below.

Who/what inspired you to pursue a career as a composer?

I grew up surrounded by a lot of music, dance and theatre in my family. Being trained as a classical pianist, percussionist and in various other instruments and styles, I really loved learning and trying to figure out how all these different forms actually worked. I was drawn to classical music as a kid because the internal logic of how these big pieces were designed really tickled my brain. I think it was hearing the Rite of Spring for the first time that blew my mind. And then trying to follow the score (poorly at the time) with the music was what made me realize I really wanted to make something, so sophisticated in its machinery, like that someday.

We also happened to grow up with a lot of movies in the house. So, it was natural that the two worlds would come together. I stumbled onto John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Georges Delerue, Thomas Newman and that canon is something that continues to inspire me to keep writing today.

What do you love the most about making music?

The architecture of it. When I started dabbling in writing music, I found the act of building things really exciting. And doing it with other musicians, creating a room and a system to bring these highly specialized skills and pieces of information together to tell a story is incredibly rewarding. Because at the heart of everything I do, that’s what I am, a storyteller. I grew up with a lot of amazing storytellers of all kinds, creating imaginative spaces for me to be a part of. I guess it only makes sense that I ended up committing my life to the same cause.

You completed CFC’s Slaight Music Program in 2021. What was your biggest takeaway from your experience?

I think my biggest takeway from my time in the Slaight Music Residency was the value of community. Sometimes as composers, we tend to operate in silos. And when working in film, what we do can be reduced into something that feels kind of transactional. I was constantly taken aback by seeing how everyone came together to make work at the CFC. I think we were all pushing each other, inspiring each other, getting lost in discussions outside of just work, all of which made our crafts feel tethered to something beyond deliverables. I came out of the program with lifelong friends, people I go to for advice around work and life, friends I get to watch and ramble about movies with, family that I get to grow with. I came out of the CFC knowing that what I get to do is actually a part of something larger. And to get the privilege of being a part of that kind of community was something I couldn’t dream of before this program.

You scored feature films that have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (In Flames), Toronto International Film Festival (This Place), Santa Barbara International Film Festival (Junglefowl) and the Fantasia Film Festival (The Protector). What were your biggest highlights and biggest challenges you experienced while working on these projects?

I’ve been lucky to have gotten to work with some really talented filmmakers on some incredible projects that have played at some really cool parts of the world. But you never really know any of that going into a film. All you have is the work. And you learn to trust it and the director guiding you so that you get taken to some interesting places creatively. All the films you listed were some of the most rewarding creative experiences of my life. The challenge of course, is always trying to find a unique sound world for each project. A sonic fingerprint that feels honest to the characters and fabric of that project without feeling imitative, tokenistic or false. For instance, with In Flames, Zarrar (the director) had me come on pretty early in the process, before production even began, and we just took time exploring various different colours together. We wanted to work with South Asian instruments, but we didn’t want it to necessarily sound like “South Asian music”. But it was actually something in the screenplay, a brief description of the traffic sounds, that unlocked the whole score for us. And then I wrote and recorded a sketch around manipulated conch horns that Zarrar took to set while filming, and it became the foundation upon which we built the whole score.

My favourite part of the process of course is when we get to record the final music and bring in other musicians into the room. With This Place (directed by V.T. Nayani), it was a joy getting to bring in friends from different chapters of my musicmaking life to record these small chamber pieces for this love story. Getting to imbue the music with that human touch is easily what brings me the most joy.

How would you describe the role that music plays in the storytelling process?

I strongly believe in music as counterpoint in the storytelling framework. My favourite films have always thought about how music creates friction in the work. How can the score create cracks without breaking the piece, playing counterpoint to what we see on screen to unveil new layers of meaning in the process? Music that is ambivalent, or music that simply seeks to imitate what’s on screen is frightfully boring to me. It’s like putting a hat on a hat. If the scene is already doing everything the music is on its own, then it doesn’t need the music. So, what subtext is the score seeking to show or reveal to the audience? That is always the driving question for me.

You were named by Ludwig Van as one of “six emerging Canadian composers to keep an eye on”. How has this impacted your career and perception of your influence on the music industry?

It was a real honour to be named up there with other composers and colleagues that I have a deep admiration for. This kind of thing just reinforces this idea of building and being part of a larger musical community. But to your point, I think recognition like this has certainly lent momentum to my career. It’s opened doors to commissioners, presenters, musicians, and directors who have taken an active interest in my work, and I like to think that it’s asserted my presence as a significant voice rising in the industry.

Your music is defined by its genre-blending boldness, what inspires you during your process of creating new music?

A lot of non-musical things actually. I like to do a lot reading and free writing before any single note makes it on the page. I think composition begins from a place of accumulation and then moves into seeking articulation. So finding the words, themes and ideas to hold onto during the arduous musical writing process is really important for me. From there, it becomes a matter of discipline. Write and commit every day, even when it’s no good. I need to get it out there so I have something to respond to.

The music industry has changed radically with technological advances and the evolution of social media. What does the future of music look like to you?

Greater accessibility. There are just so many tools now to soak up information, learn process and methodology and finding new ways to just make and record sound. Continuing to democratize music-making is only a good thing.

What is a piece of advice you would share with aspiring composers?

Stay curious. Be open-minded in your approach, invest time in exploring things that excite you and things that frighten you. And step outside your medium, whatever it is. Keeping that curiosity and appetite big is what helps us develop unique voices of our own. And that’s what draws you to the places you need to be.

What is next for you? What projects are you working on?

A couple of things! I just came off the heels of a big premiere of one of my concert pieces at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and am walking into the North American premiere of In Flames at TIFF, which I had the immense pleasure of scoring. And then I’m going to dive headfirst into a new feature film I’m working on. I’m just wrapping up my debut EP, Golconda, which you can expect to hear later in the fall. And I’ve also got two commissions I’m working on, for chamber orchestra and cello octet that I’m excited about. It’s been a relentless, but exciting year!

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