Visual content presented on-screen would never be complete without finely-tuned, complementary music that fits like a perfect piece of the puzzle. Whether conceived specifically for a film scene, a TV series, an ad, or even without any ulterior motive, music enhances images in all spheres of our lives. These three Québec screen composers to watch are dedicated to doing that, each in their own way.
“When I was a child, all my toys were musical instruments,” says Anaïs Larocque as an introduction. An admirer of Michel Corriveau’s body of work, the 35-year-old has been composing for the screen for about six years. After studying jazz in Cégep and university, she switched to digital music classes, and those lessons stuck with her.
“After my Bachelor’s degree, I decided to enroll in a DESS (specialized graduate diploma) in film music,” she says. “I was a contestant in the Montréal international film scoring competition, and finished in second place. The following year, they asked me to be part of the pre-selection jury. I said no, and applied to be a contestant again. I finished in first place [this time], and that opened the door to my first opportunities.”
Mostly tapped to create music for TV ads, it was a 2019 documentary, Odyssée sous les glaces (Under Thin Ice), that was her professional launchpad. “I also worked on The Nature of Things on CBC, and I was very busy during the pandemic while I worked on the documentary The Walrus and the Whistleblower. I love working on documentaries, because I learn things while I compose.”
Larocque has a strong interest in composers who, musically, have to stick to stories that are as sensitive as they are themselves. She’s fine-tuning her art by taking classes online from the Berklee School of Music, in Boston. “I dream of working on a fiction movie, and recording a symphony orchestra,” she says. “I feel like I may have thought about this career late; yet, when I was a kid, I watched movies for their music, so I’m convinced that this is where I belong now.”
“My uncle gave me a guitar when I turned 10, and the rest is history,” says Evan MacDonald, laughing. On the eve of his thirties, the composer can already boast an enviable portfolio of screen compositions. “My parents gave me the opportunity to try all the instruments because I was not the sporty type,” he says. “I studied at Vanier College and McGill, and up until I was 22, the only thing I had in mind was to become a guitarist. I had an epiphany when I was 22.”
That epiphany was an online summer course in screen composition from Berklee. That’s when he decided to enroll – and was admitted with a scholarship – in the actual master’s degree program, that was taught in Spain. That prompted him to complete two more years of education at McGill in a few months, to make sure he didn’t miss that opportunity.
“After a year in Spain, I came back to Montréal. and by then I knew that screen composing was going to be my trade,” says MacDonald confidently. “I sent hundreds of e-mails to film directors every day to offer my services as a composer. I barely got any responses, but when I did, I used the entire budget to record orchestras of several musicians. I was trying to build a portfolio.”
In the wake of his first major project – a documentary, That Never Happened (2017) – he turned to advertising. Now highly sought-after, he’s composed for Google, Pepsi, BMW, Toyota, and many more. “I even wrote music for Joe Biden’s television campaign during the U.S. elections,” he says, a little astonished.
His current modus operandi is to offer his compositions through a library music website called PremiumBeat, the audio branch of Shutterstock. He went to Abbey Road studios to record some of his library tracks and is planning to go back this spring. “I’m always trying to push my own limits to supply a library,” he explains. “I watch a lot of ads to get a feel for what’s ‘in’ lately. I feel like I’m competing with the best in the world when I make library music, because anyone can submit their tracks, and you have to produce the best possible track for the client to decide to purchase your music. Some people on that sound bank have actually won Grammys. I like that kind of competition, because it motivates me to always try and do better.”
Asked what he’d like to do in the future, MacDonald replies, with a laugh, “I feel like I’ve already reached the pinnacle of my career! I just want to carry on doing what I do with creative people.”
Even though he didn’t start with music studies, Benoit Groulx has always had an intrinsic appreciation of this trade. “I played music, but in a very undisciplined way, when I was young,” he confesses. “I ended up realizing that I had a knack for spotting structures in music.”
After finishing his university studies in music writing, he became an assistant to composer François Dompierre. “I had my mid-life crisis at 30,” he says, amused. “I was having a rough time, so I left and spent the winter in India. When I came back, a lot of people wanted to work with me. I did arrangements for Daniel Lavoie and Louise Forestier, among others, and those were more serious contracts that gave a certain lustre to my career.”
In 2000, he orchestrated The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, a British-Canadian series of 22 episodes, each one 60 minutes long. “British composer Nick Glennie-Smith was heading that project,” says Groulx. “He composed and I orchestrated.” A well-oiled machine, they decided to keep working together, which happened several times. “We’ve worked on films in Los Angeles, in England, and in Eastern Europe,” adds Groulx.
His biggest recent project was a series for the BBC, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2015), on which he worked with Benoit Charest. “We had to compose seven hours of music in two months, for directors that were highly educated musically,” he says. “It was incredibly rewarding.”
After completing a Master’s degree in composition, Groulx decided to write concert music, and now teaches at the Université de Sherbrooke. “I’m in my early fifties. I teach young people who want to follow in my footsteps, and there’s a lot of talent out there,” Groulx says, while still hoping to hear his music played by orchestras.
“Nothing compares to hearing your composition played by an orchestra. I’m not from the synthesizer generation, and I want to continue working with musicians for the rest of my career,” he says. “I’m one of those people who prefer to write more soberly, and let the magic happen with humans in the room.”