Both in Québec and worldwide, there are too few female screen composers. Louise Tremblay’s professional path stems from a unique opportunity that she grabbed with equal parts passion and determination. The very tone of her voice, rapid-fire speech, and consistently generous answers to questions are obvious indicators that this musician cherishes her chosen path.
Tremblay, who holds a Master’s degree in piano performance from McGill University, was also, for many years, a piano instructor and accompanist. She often observed and commented on the work of her life partner, James Gelfand, himself a screen composer. “I’d hear music, rhythms, an instrument over what he presented to me,” says Tremblay. “One day, while he was overloaded with work, he asked me to come and write down what I was hearing. So, in 2006, we started simply with sound editing on the software Cubase. That’s how I learned to place music, entrances and exits, cutting and re-composing small sections so that the music would fit the images better.”
Her first work as a composer came a few months later for the National Geographic show Naked Science. She started composing music banks after a discussion with the show’s producer and director. “I remember we hadn’t even seen any images, but still had to come up with music. We’d been given rather vague instructions, such as the fact that it would take place in the mountains, and there would be images of planes. The pieces needed to be two to three minutes long – which is comparatively long.” The result was very much appreciated, and confirmed Tremblay’s long-standing intuition that she was an able composer, who knew how to paint images with musical colours.
This cemented the birth of the all-star team known as Tremblay-Gelfand. For more than a decade now, the duo creates about six film or documentary scores per year. This uncommon productivity is apparent when one takes a look at their impressive resumé. Their recent work on the movie Swept Under earned the SOCAN Film Music Award at the 2017 Montréal Gala.
Although they’re united in composition, each of them has preserved their own sacred, personal creative territory. At the onset of any project, Louise and James each work separately with their copy of the scenario. They each carry out their own research for musical colour, harmonies, atmospheres and instruments in their own studio. Yes, the Tremblay-Gelfand team operates two separate studios on two different floors in order to provide each of them with their own composing space.
Following this solo stage, they pool their resources in preparation of the first creative meeting with the producer and director. That’s when all the various proposals are presented. “Then, we re-unite our creative intuitions,” says Tremblay. “We present them but don’t say who wrote what. We want that to remain neutral. We want to steer clear of any bias.”
Next to reading the script, Tremblay believes those meetings are essential to any film or documentary project. That’s when a direction is determined, a vision established. “As composers, we need to understand the expectations of the director and producer who don’t necessarily have a musical vocabulary to express what they want,” she says. “Our job is to clearly understand what they liked and didn’t like, and why. One needs to be a very good listener to do that.”
Once the direction is determined, the duo pools their strengths, and work as one, in the same direction. “From that point on, it doesn’t matter who composes what, and who does what,” says Tremblay. “All that matters is delivering what was asked, and we both check our egos to achieve that.” Tremblay admits having learned a lot from Gelfand, who had a considerable head-start in the field with his 30 years of experience as a screen composer.
But she says that she’s learned the most during those meetings with producers and directors. According to her, it’s not talent alone that brings in contracts for composers. It’s also their capacity to listen to their teams; their flexibility with regards to what is asked of them; and their detachment from their compositions. “I’m a bit of a teenager and James is super adult,” says Tremblay. “I learned a lot by watching him interact with people. He’s so adaptable, such a good listener and he never takes things personally.”
Despite all of her acquired experience, Louise Tremblay is still clearly motivated by a thirst for constantly learning new things, whether on her own, or in a team, because hers is a trade where one needs to endlessly re-invent oneself.