SPOTLIGHT: COMPOSER AMRITHA VAZ / DISNEY'S "MIRA, ROYAL DETECTIVE"
It's not everyday you get to chat with an accomplished South-Asian composer who is not only talented, but also humble and gracious. Introducing, Amritha Vaz — The composer for Disney Junior's animated series "Mira, Royal Detective." The series follows Mira, a young girl who travels throughout the magical Indian-inspired land of Jalpur solving mysteries for her friends, family and extended community.
"Mira, Royal Detective" represents an important opportunity for Vaz to spotlight her background through music. Raised in a family of musicians, she incorporates traditional Indian instruments into the show's underscore and sound, tapping into her connection with her grandfather, famed Bollywood musician Francis Vaz.
Vaz began her career in music assisting Academy Award winning composer Mychael Danna on "500 Days of Summer." She has scored additional films and television projects since then, most recently the India-themed episode of the upcoming series "Home" and the film "Miss India America." Selected as one of six composers in the 2016 Sundance Institute Music and Sound Design Lab, Vaz is a multiple instrumentalist and writes in a wide range of musical styles.
We had the opportunity to talk with the talented composer about her South-Asian upbringing, journey with composing and working on her latest project, "Mira, Royal Detective" on Disney Junior!
1. What was your first memory where you can pin-point What sparked your interest in music composition?
I grew up in a musical family and we were all encouraged to play and sing and create music. Family sing songs were a big part of my upbringing. We played instruments, sang songs and arranged parts to favourite tunes over the course of an evening. Although it sounds high stakes, it was actually so much fun, and when my Indian family was involved, it was fun, bordering on raucous.
On the other hand, I also had a very traditional western classical upbringing in violin and piano, emphasizing technique, western music theory, and heaps of discipline.
So from a young age I was doing a lot of "small c” composing, but i never really considered myself a “big c” composer. Little did i know that figuring out how to sing Christmas carols in 4 part harmonies on the spot, would provide some of my earliest intros to music theory and composition.
2. Which artists inspired you the most growing up? Who are you listening to now?
Growing up I was a big classical music nerd. I loved large orchestral works, but what I responded to the most was the intimacy and vulnerability of chamber music. The magic of a few musicians gathering on stage to perform resonated with me then - and still does today. Outside the western classical world, the artists whose albums I wore down the most, were Keith Jarrett, U. Srinivas and Prince.
Current composers I’m listening to right now also happen to all be POC:
Nainita Desai - I love the textures and soundscapes she creates and the way she interweaves vocals, strings and electronics with really cool rhythmic centres in her scores.
Vijay Iyer - is a MacArthur fellow with incredible talent! his music is so fundamentally compelling and spellbinding :)
Esquivel! - was an outlier, who was self taught. an explorer who loved telling stories and pushing boundaries and making really unique combinations, without losing a groove.
3. How did your family feel about you pursuing a non-traditional career path (i.e. doctor, lawyer, engineer)?
Even though my parents pursued professions in finance, my mom’s side of the family comes from a rich lineage of musicians. My grandfather, Francis Vaz, was an accomplished drummer who played with India’s legendary jazz trumpet player Chic Choclate. He also had a vibrant career in Bollywood working with great music directors like C Ramchandra and RD Burman, and sisters Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. My uncle Franco also worked in Bollywood, and is still a very active force as a drummer in India. So given that background, choosing a career in music wasn’t something that was foreign to my parents. However, that meant they knew first hand how difficult it is to survive in this profession. To their credit, even though there were many times they wished I’d kept music as a “hobby”, they understood my decision to pursue it.
4. How did you become a composer?
My story is probably the least direct route to becoming a composer, but perhaps it’s a positive reminder that it’s okay if you don’t have it all figured out in high school…or even after a few degrees… :)
From an early age, I had my heart set on being a classical violinist, but when a hand injury arose, I thought I was giving up music for good. I decided to choose a completely different path and pursued a career as a post-conflict lawyer, but it seemed music wasn’t done with me yet. Five degrees, later, while I was working in Sierra Leone, I saw communities using theatre as a way to empower social change, and I realized there might be a way to bridge both of my passions. When I returned to Canada, an opportunity to work on the score for a documentary about Hungarian refugees found me coming full circle back to music in the role of a composer.
Just as I was starting to question whether this big career change was the right decision, I met Mychael Danna. My chance meeting with him led me to later apply to be his music assistant and start a new life in LA. During the five years we worked together, he scored 11 feature films and 3 tv shows, and I was extremely lucky to co-write two of those films with him! After going off on my own, I got another huge break by being accepted to the Sundance Composers Lab. The lab opened a bunch of doors for me which eventually led me here to Mira!
5. What was it like working on Disney's "Mira Royal Detective?" Do you have a fun story you can share?
Of course working on Mira is an incredibly fun and satisfying experience. I get to write music using instruments and traditions that I have a deep connection with, and my collaborators couldn’t be more amazing and talented. But the true joy comes from watching my 4 year old daughter experience the show. As a composer, it’s rare to create music for film and tv that’s not only appropriate for her, but specifically geared to connect with her and help tell her a story. My daughter literally cheers after every episode I’ve scored — how many parents can say that? :)
6. Your episode, "The Mysterious Polo Player" had a vibrant and energetic sequence with the characters playing the game — Can you tell us a little about your approach to the cue?
The way this episode turned out is really a testament to Showrunner Sascha [Paladino] and his constant encouragement to create a score that takes risks, is original and incorporates unique elements of South Asian music. Since the series began, I had been itching to showcase some of the incredible systems of vocal expressions from Indian classical and folk music. When I found out “The Mysterious Polo Player" episode touched on communicating without using words, I thought it might be a fun opportunity to bring in these complex rhythmic elements which form a “language" of their own. Traditionally, score doesn’t use verbal elements because it could be distracting from the dialogue, unless you get to score a montage - which this scene was! Sascha and our Disney Junior execs were so excited. They encouraged me to use more! The whole process was really validating and super fun.
7. You're having a traditional Desi dinner party — What dishes are a must for a perfect meal?
As an aside, one of the running jokes amongst all of us working on Mira, Royal Detective, is that there is SO much food featured in the show, we’re always hungry when we work!! Postmates orders for Indian food must all skyrocket around our respective deadlines...
Being Goan, my dream Desi dinner party would include some of my favourite south Indian dishes!
Mutton Potato Chops
Idlis with Tender Coconut
Rava Masala Dosa
Bombay Duck and Dahl
An assortment of Ladoooos!
8. What advice do you have for young desi girls and boys who aspire to have a career in TV/Film scoring?
When I was young, I never set out to be a composer, because I never knew I could BE a composer, and I hadn’t even heard about the craft of film scoring. So the fact that you are driven to be involved in film scoring is just terrific. Having said that, do know it is a very challenging and competitive field and you will need to focus on the long game as you go down this path.
I feel very lucky to be working as a film/tv composer, and am happy to share some of the things that have worked for me.
a. The first one is easy - which is to watch more film and tv!
Not just for the fact that it’s important to know your craft, but it’s an excellent way to discovering new approaches to storytelling, learn what inspires you and it can lead you to strengthen your own voice.
b. Find a community of musicians, creators, kindred spirits to commiserate and collaborate with! Collaboration is key for this profession and the more opportunities you can get to practice your craft, and have it be seen and heard, the better!
c. As composers our unique point of view and vision for the score is really valuable, but it’s important to be flexible and trust the process. Unlike pure artistic expression that you can do in solo works, working in film and tv requires us to prioritize collaboration. I can’t tell you how many times the Mira score has gone down a way cooler path because of the incredible feedback I received from the team.
AN INSIDE LOOK AT the music of
'MIRA, ROYAL DETECTIVE"