Mychael Danna (‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ composer) on how he adapted ‘primordial and ancient’ sounds from the natural world [Exclusive Video Interview]

“Shells play a central part of the murder mystery as a clue,” reveals Oscar and Emmy-winning composer Mychael Danna (“Life of Pi”) about turning to the distinctly ancient sounds elicited from the natural world. For our recent webchat he adds, “as many of us know, that’s one of the earliest instruments that human beings ever used blowing into shells,” he says. “It sounds primordial and ancient, which it is, as an instrument. It really sounds like the marsh. People have asked me, what is that? Is that a voice? Is it a woodwind? Is it a brass instrument? It’s a seashell being blown. That’s kind of cool that you don’t know what it is, but it feels like the marsh that you’re seeing.” We talked with Danna as part of Gold Derby’s special “Meet the Experts” Q&A event with 2022/2023 awards contenders. Watch our exclusive video interview above.

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Where the Crawdads Sing” was directed by Olivia Newman from a screenplay by Lucy Alibar, based on the blockbuster 2018 novel of the same name by Delia Owens. The mystery thriller drama was produced by Reese Witherspoon and Lauren Neustadter, and it stars Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Normal People”) as Kya, who after being abandoned by her mother and abusive father as a child, raises herself in the isolated marshlands of North Carolina. When a young man from the nearby town is found dead in mysterious circumstances, she becomes the prime suspect and tried for murder.

The film straddles multiple genres, including elements of a romantic drama, murder mystery thriller and survivalist tale. Danna knew that he had his work cut out for him when creating the music of the film that would underpin so much of its emotional narrative, employing numerous musical styles and instrumentation in his arsenal, but always coming back to organic sounds found in nature. “The natural world had to be the place that the music grew from, like vines spread all over the story,” Danna explains. “There’s a lot of threads and the arc of the story happens over a lifetime from Kya as a young girl to her — spoiler alert — old age and dying at the end. There were four main threads. There’s the murder mystery, there’s the local social life, which is  the people of the small town around the marsh where she lives. Americana instruments were what were used there and for the murder mystery I used acoustic instruments that were manipulated in a kind of strange and mysterious way. Then we have this whole arc of Kya’s life and for that, the symphony orchestra was the thing that tracked that,” he says. “The musics starts and really ends in the natural world, the world of the marsh, a place of life and death,” he explains.

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