Asian Heritage Month Alumni Spotlight: Deanna Choi

Posted: May 8, 2023

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This Asian Heritage Month, we are shining a spotlight on award-winning Korean-Canadian composer and sound engineer Deanna Choi. The Toronto-based artist and Slaight Music alum has a long list of accomplishments, which features original music for theatre, film and TV. Her credits include scores for the thriller series Gray, the sci-fi comedy Relax I’m From The Future, as well as various nature documentaries following climate change, such as Last of the Right Whales, which earned Deanna a nomination at the 2022 Canadian Screen Music Awards for Best Original Score for a Documentary Feature Film.

Through her company Split Brain Sound, Deanna has fostered a unique body of work, designing soundscapes and audio systems for more than 80 shows across Canada in the realm of live theatre, concerts and installations. In collaborating with a diverse roster of artists, Deanna’s superior talent has been well recognized and received by her Canadian peers, earning her the spot as the second sound designer in history to win the esteemed Pauline McGibbon Award for Theatrical Design, as well as winning the gold medal in violin performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music.

We recently caught up with Deanna to discuss life after the CFC, her latest endeavours and what’s next for the multi-talented artist. Read more in the spotlight below.  

When did you first recognize your passion for music and realize you wanted to pursue a career as a music creator?

Music was always a big part of my life growing up, but I never considered it as a viable career path. I was finishing my fourth year thesis in undergrad and waffling between graduate school applications. But in all my spare time, I was working on theatre productions, playing music, acting, writing music. A classmate pointed out to me that I seemed to enjoy my time in rehearsal way more than my time in the lab. That was a wakeup call for me, so I moved to Toronto to join the circus; that is, I started working as a sound designer for theatre, which ultimately led me to scoring for film.

Who and/or what are some of your main influences or sources of inspiration as a music creator?

I’m always informed by my classical music training – I’m a violinist and I played in small ensembles and orchestras, so that musical idiom is well ingrained in my brain. Strings are my go-to, but I’m curious about melding traditional string arrangements with electronics, sampling, and other techniques as well. Screen composers I’ve been listening to recently include (but this is by no means an exhaustive list): Nicholas Britell (I know everyone says that but if you listen to the Daily podcast interview with him, his process is amazing!), Mica Levi, Johann Johannsson, Son Lux (I am in love with the score of Everything Everywhere All at Once and I think Ryan Lott was robbed of an Oscar). And I’m always inspired by the projects I’m currently working on. It sends me down a rabbit hole of research and I never know where I’ll end up: Dada poetry? The electronic space westerns of Joe Meek? How to play the tongue drum? The NASA Voyager recordings? Who even knows?

As a former researcher in behavioral neuroscience, how do you integrate the principles of psychology into your compositions?

I think psychology and film (also theatre, dance, etc.) are two sides of the same coin – the former is about the empirical study of human behaviour, while the latter is about the artistic expression of it. When I’m scoring a scene, I think about how emotions, perceptions, and perspectives are shaped subconsciously by our memories, experiences, and cultures. Some associations are innate: we respond to low booms the way we respond to thunder and earthquakes; we respond to lilting melodies the way we listen to lullabies or birdsong. Others are learned in the short term – once you hear the Jaws theme a couple of times, even without seeing the shark, you know that musical cue foreshadows its arrival. I recently wrote an ‘elevator music’ cue for a show that always gets a laugh from the audience because it’s placed wildly inappropriately in an otherwise very tense scene. But it works because of the cognitive dissonance, and just about everyone has had a personal experience of being trapped in an awkward moment on an elevator.

Can you share some of the highlights from your experience in the Slaight Family Music Lab?

Our cohort was a strange year as we spent 95% of it on Zoom. And yet, meeting and befriending my fellow Slaight residents (Aubrey McGhee, Kaia Kater, Kalaisan Kalaichelvan, Alex Petkovski, and Scott Harwood) was one of the biggest highlights. We are all completely different in our backgrounds and artistic styles, and yet gelled so well as a cohort, which I think even spilled into our collaborations both inside and outside the Lab. I learned so much from the other residents, not only with regards to music, but in terms of process: how to conceptualize story, how to take risks, and how to have fun.

Can you share if/how has the Lab impacted your career as a creator in the screen industry?

The Lab solidified my interest in working in film and television. I was sitting on the fence about it previously, but being thrown headfirst into the deep end of the pool was the impetus I needed to push my skills to another level. It was extremely eye-opening to get a get a sense of scope of the industry at a national and international level, and to learn more about the different aspects of filmmaking – everything from editing to music supervision to the nuts and bolts of negotiating a contract. Also, thanks to the Slaight program, I’ve met so many fellow composers who are now my close friends and mentors. It’s made the industry seem much less insular and fragmented; instead, I now am a part of a larger community of musicians and screen composers.

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada. How do you identify with the Asian community?

I’m a second-generation Korean-Canadian, and as I learn more about my ethnic heritage and the history of this country, it gets complicated. On the one hand, I’m proud to be a child of immigrants and am grateful to my parents’ sacrifices for uprooting their lives and crossing an ocean. I love the familiarity of walking through Koreatown near Christie station and recognizing the smells and sounds, or just overhearing someone speaking in Korean on the TTC. On the other hand, as a settler, I am reckoning with the atrocities that led to the formation of this country, and consequently the privileges that I inherited from them. It’s an evolving question that I ask myself both as a citizen and an artist: what I am doing to help move forward in a good way with different communities? What is my responsibility as a storyteller to help empower and make room for other voices?

Has your heritage shaped the person and creator that you are today?

This year, I premiered my two-hander cabaret called Love You Wrong Time at three different pop-up venues across Toronto. Co-created and performed with my artistic partner Maddie Bautista, in the show we unpack our dating lives that are fraught with microaggressions and our life experiences as Asian femmes. Although I usually don’t create work that is autobiographical, this was a special piece that allowed both of us to intertwine personal narrative with stand-up comedy and audience interaction. Music was also the central focus of the show, and we wrote all the lyrics and composed music that ranged from K-pop to queer anthems, classic musical theatre to bedroom synth pop, and everything in between. The show was sold out before it even opened, so it clearly resonated with a lot of audiences. We are taking it on tour in the future so stay tuned for performances near you!

Are there any films or TV series with Asian narratives that resonate with you?

Minari felt eerily parallel to my family’s experiences immigrating to Canada in the 70s. I just started watching BEEF on Netflix and so far it’s keeping me hooked. I think I’m conditioned now to jump whenever I hear the Kakaotalk [Korean WhatsApp] ringtone even if it’s coming from the screen…

Can you share suggestions for what you think people should watch, listen to and read this Asian Heritage Month?

  • READ: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong (@cathyparkhong), Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner (@jbrekkie)
  • WATCH: Sweet and Juicy by Shen Wang on Netflix, Decision to Leave by Park Chan-wook
  • LISTEN: Ang Pagdaloy, the new albumby queer Filipinx band Pantayo
  • FOLLOW: Phil Chan (@philschan), dancer and co-founder of ‘Final Bow for Yellowface’

Any words of wisdom for aspiring music creators?

Form follows function. The devil is in the details. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t worry about what people think about you. Be a savvy entrepreneur. Trust your gut.

What’s next for you?

You can hear my work for theatre at the Stratford Festival this summer (A Wrinkle in Time), at the Arts Club in Vancouver (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), and the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope (Little Shop of Horrors). I’m also scoring a few documentaries later this year. IG @deanna.h.choi and my website

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