As a composer of music for multiple screens, Janal Bechthold is used to adapting her considerable talents to the different requirements of each film, TV show, or videogame she scores. And they are truly different, encompassing everything from a feature-length horror movie to a children’s animated web series and a slew of documentaries and games. But her latest project presented a whole new challenge.

The Choice is a documentary series about women’s reproductive health being made by director Joanne Popinska and producer Tom C. Hall. They’re using the virtual reality format, so instead of watching it in a theatre or on a laptop, viewers wear a headset that appears to bring them right into the action, creating a more immediate and intense way of experiencing both the visuals and the music.

“It’s very different watching a documentary in VR,” says Bechthold, “and the music fits differently. Joanne and Tom created new technology to capture the interviews, and it really looks like the person is sitting in front of you. It’s such an intimate experience, and I didn’t want the music to be too loud, or big, or manipulative. That was something I really had to watch for. My role was to help set the tone and guide the audience through their experience.”

Still, Bechthold says her process is pretty similar for every project. “There’s a period of going back and forth with the creator, to get a sense of what the story is and pick the right tone and palette with the musical tools,” she says. “And I’ll choose the instrument or the musical language to go along with it.

“One of the things I love about interactive projects is that I’m brought in earlier and have more opportunity to affect the final experience,” she adds. “For The Choice, we did a spotting session, where the director and the composer sit down together and go through the entire film to figure out where the music will go and what it’s going to say. In this case, what I was doing had to work well with the sound design, and having the team in communication was important to make sure we were supporting each other.”

“We’ve got a long way to go, but I think there’s more opportunity now than there was five years ago”

Bechthold’s musical style defies characterization, as she draws on radically different genres and instruments for each score, but its dazzling range might be partly explained by her musical background. She grew up in Saskatchewan, playing ‘50s and ‘60s pop, polkas, tangos, and Latin tunes on electronic organ before branching out into classical and jazz. She played flute in a high school marching band. and later joined a rock band for awhile, before earning a degree in music therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“I didn’t think seriously about film composition until after university,” she says. “I’d taken some composition classes that really opened my eyes to what music is and how we define it, but I didn’t see how anyone could make a living from it. I was studying music therapy, and for me it was all about music and emotion, and how music can be a communication tool. So it felt natural to shift over to telling stories with music.”

She points out that instruments can trigger emotions because of the collective musical experiences we’ve had with them. “Sometimes it’s hard to hear a bassoon without thinking of ‘The Sorceror’s Apprentice’ in Fantasia, or a mournful violin without evoking sadness,” she says. “Even though I’m an organist, I rarely use organ because it has so many connotations, whether religious or hockey-related. But I like to find new ways of exploring how certain instruments make sounds, or new ways of presenting them.”

Bechthold’s music has been screened by networks and festivals around the world, and in 2021 she was nominated for three Canadian Screen Awards. Her music is mostly self-published, and she credits a stint working at SOCAN for helping her learn how to navigate the system. “Because of my time at SOCAN, I know a lot about music copyright and music rights,” she says. “If you retain your rights, it’s knowing how to make sure you’re getting paid for broadcasts.”

Through her positions as a board member of the Screen Composers Guild of Canada and chair of the Women Composers Advisory Council, Bechthold also works to promote gender equality in her field, where women still lag far behind men.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but I think there’s more opportunity now than there was five years ago,” she says. “I’m really excited that this year’s Canadian Screen Award nominations for best original score for non-fiction are all women. That’s thrilling, considering that when I spearheaded a research report in 2018, women were getting only five per cent of publicly funded opportunities. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. This is the second year in a row when no women were even entered in the best original score for animation. I have no idea why, but hopefully next year we’ll see some women in that category. It’s all about providing opportunity, and creating a community.”

The Choice has its North American premiere March 13, 2022, at SXSW in Austin, Texas.