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.



TiKA SimoneTiKA is a woman of many talents, and entrepreneurship isn’t the least of them. Released in February 2020 on Next Door Records, her first album Anywhere But Here established her as a voice to be reckoned with on Canada’s soul and R&B scene. In parallel to that career, the singer-songwriter took her first steps into the world of screen composing and co-founded StereoVisual, a non-profit organization aimed at fostering the integration of BIPOC musicians into an industry that, even today, leaves them very little space for expression.

Her latest obsession: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. Nearly two months ago, TiKA Simone and rapper Allan Kingdom auctioned a song, “Yebo Life,” via the Etherium protocol, whose token eventually fetched 4.4ETH, the equivalent of just over $14,000 at the time of the transaction. Tika has since followed up by offering tokens of songs from her recent album, limited editions of the .wav files, in this case, while retaining her publishing rights.

“I’m super-stoked by the potential of NFTs,” says TiKA on the phone from Toronto, where she spends her time when she’s not in Montréal. “I find the concept to be a source of progress, especially for artists who are under-served by the music industry.” In other words, they’re a way to generate new, autonomous revenue for artists who often work without the support of established structures or record labels.

These revenues count for a lot in the process, admits Tika, but “they’re also a way to build a community of fans around your project. A major part of the process is posting it on socials or, in other words, being self-confident enough in your own work to actively promote it. You can truly build a community that will, down the line, allow you to rely of a stable source of income. A lot of artists are going through rough times right now because they couldn’t tour. I believe NFTs can allow artists to make ends meet during this rough patch.”

And during said rough patch, TiKA added a new string to her bow: screen composer. Co-written with Casey Manierka-Quaile for Thyrone Tommy’s feature film Learn to Swim, her song “And Then They Won’t” is currently up for Best Original Song at the Canadian Screen Awards Gala on April 8, 2022.

“Composing for a film is a much more intimate and private experience than when I’m creating for my own projects,” says TiKA. “There’s a whole world of difference between composing a song for myself and watching a film, or a scene, to imagine what music would best underscore it, and deciding what instrument best fits that emotion; that’s why I find that process a lot more intuitive. It was especially true with this project, since the director hadn’t finished his movie when I started working on it. That meant we had to communicate a lot about the film’s message, and the emotions the song needed to express. I composed a song based on our conversations, so it’s like I channelled the director’s energy to be able to flesh out the music he was imagining.”

It was also an opportunity for TiKA to take measure of the hurdles she’s had to overcome to gain a foothold in the world of screen composing. It’s a world, she believes, that’s not conducive to the integration of people of colour, who are still very much a minority. As a result, she helped create StereoVisual, an organization that equips that minority to enter the business.

“This project was born out of a strong desire to help this industry change,” says TiKA, who enrolled in a screen composition program at the Slaight Music Residency of the Canadian Film Centre. “It was an awesome experience, but I was also told stuff like, ‘You know, TiKA, if you want to become a screen composer, you must learn to play a string instrument.’ OK, fair enough. But what about all those who don’t get the financial means, or the opportunity, to get such training? Why should they be excluded from that realm, especially since many marginalized people don’t have access to such training, and must learn to use music software on their computer, since that’s all they can afford. It’s the accessibility to that training that sparks a conversation, because if you’re told that to compose for film you have to know music theory, that excludes a whole category of artists who are very often people of colour.”

That’s what the people behind StereoVisual are working on, building bridges between musicians from cultural communities and the “very white and very male” world of film and television. “The whole movie industry needs to change, not just the screen composing segment,” TiKA firmly believes.

 



For 45 years, The Music Gallery has played an influential part in Canada’s evolving experimental music scene, including the creation of its own label, Music Gallery Editions (1977-1981); launching MusicWorks magazine, now separately run; programming a series of “guerilla location” events around Toronto; and eventually, settling into its current home at 918 Bathurst St., a few blocks North of Bloor St. Today, the independent venue can add “programming through a pandemic” to that list.

For its new Artistic Director, Sanjeet Takhar, programming in the COVID era meant accepting its unpredictable nature from day one. “In the first year, I don’t think I was surviving!” says Takhar. “We basically had three plans for each event that we mapped out with each artist: a 50-percent-capacity performance, a livestream at the venue, or a pre-recorded performance. It was exhausting, and required navigating an ever-shifting calendar.”

David Dacks, Music Gallery

David Dacks

David Dacks, the Music Gallery’s former decade-long Artistic Director, now Executive Director, commiserates, adding that watching the music community try to endure has been challenging. “A lot of artists have been taking stock of their lives, their practices, and other big questions,” says Dacks. “Some have left town; some haven’t felt motivated to make art, and struggle with mental health; others, especially now, have gotten sick. So plans have changed constantly.

“We’ve been fortunate to access COVID relief [including SOCAN Foundation support] and keep up a pretty good pace of programming in order to keep paying artists and arts workers, but the fact is that a pandemic is disruptive. We need to listen to our artists and audiences about what they need, now more than ever.”

One way that The Music Gallery gives artists what they need is by being Licensed to Play with SOCAN. “For songwriters or composers whose work we’re presenting, we make sure they’re credited and/or compensated with the help of SOCAN,” says Takhar. “To music creators that aren’t SOCAN members, and/or come from outside Canada, or are no longer alive, we look into clearing all rights, paying attention to use, and compensating their estate if relevant.”

Another way is by being open to change. “Probably the biggest change was when we stopped programming in musical genre-based streams,” says Dacks. “It was too problematic to divide complex artistic ideas into jazz, classical, pop or world music – ugh – streams. In doing so, we were able to take on and help foster unique projects such as David Virelles’ Afro-Cuban chamber jazz project Gnosis, which was later recorded and released on ECM Records, to worldwide acclaim…

“Another was including artists as curators of other events, which is something that’s been increasingly a part of our programming in recent years. The most prominent example was Bear Witness of the Halluci Nation [formerly A Tribe Called Red]  programming our flagship X Avant Festival in 2018. He was able to try out programming ideas, and work on the ‘Halluci Nation’ concept further, including in a live-band format, which subsequently ended up touring and recording.”

Sanjeet Takhar, Music Gallery

Sanjeet Takhar

In spite of their new roles and unprecedented hurdles, Dacks and Takhar found working as a team a natural fit. “It was clear that Sanjeet was the best choice for Artistic Director,” says  Dacks, recalling what made them stand out. “We chose them for their worldview, their empathy, their work ethic, their perspective on what experimentation in music could and does look like, and their attitude towards plugging into the Music Gallery’s history and community, while guiding it forward. Like me, they didn’t have an academic background in music to relate to that aspect of our history, but as a DJ, they have wide-ranging tastes and an innate disposition for programming.”

For Takhar, transitioning from independent artist to Artistic Director required much thought. “Moving from DIY to an arts institution made me really nervous,” they say. “With a massive political shift due to the murder of George Floyd, for months I witnessed IBPOC community members being consumed by institutions that weren’t ready for change. It led to harm, it led to them having to leave. Before accepting my role, I spent about two weeks consulting people with close relationships to the Music Gallery… While I expected the ‘same old story,’ it actually was a huge source of comfort. People praised the space, praised David Dacks, and told me of formative experiences they had participating in events there… It has such a strong foundation for social change, they’ve been working on inclusive policies and practices for years, not weeks.”

Takhar says that as The Music Gallery envisions its future, it’s keeping artists at the forefront: “We’re currently planning our 2022-23 programming year to adjust to these changing times. Programming into the future the same way we did in the past is like putting a square peg in a round hole. It just doesn’t make sense. We’re currently having in-depth conversations with our Board [of Directors], artists, advisory councils, and internally with staff, about new initiatives that will shift our perspective from a concert hall that is limited to livestreams, to a hub for experimentation, where artists can grow.”

Music for All:  Sanjeet Takhar on making the Gallery more inclusive

  • Money matters: “For development and for requested performances at the Music Gallery, review CARFAC (Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens) and musicians’ union rates to match or exceed them. If we’ve worked with artists before, we consider prior rates with inflation. Most importantly, we talk to artists. Money is a sticky subject in the arts, there is so much taboo around it. We try really hard to have candid conversations of what’s in our budget and how we can make something work. We ask artists what would make them feel comfortable and what would be representative of the work they put in.”
  • Open calls for submissions: “To create equity for emerging artists and those who receive less government funding, we run open calls for submissions to present their work in our concert halls. We cover all fees, knowing the barrier to entry isn’t the same for all performers.”
  • Invest in artists: “We invest in all of our artists. There’s always high-end photography, and in recent years, high end video footage to add to their portfolio.”