Film composer Suad Bushnaq and the magic of the perfect soundtrack

With an impressive resume that includes compositions for symphony orchestras and an upcoming album, the multi-hyphenated musical wonder opens up about her work ethic and how she got into the film scoring world.
Film composer Suad Bushnaq and the magic of the perfect soundtrack

The jarring strings of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho; the unmistakable whistle in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; the epic march of George Lucas' Star Wars -- these are all sounds that make up the soundtrack of our collective cinematic existence. Movie scores are as essential to a film as water is to life. Without sound, and more specifically music, a film could never achieves its full greatness. Even silence, used in the right way becomes a soundtrack, of course.

Multi hyphenated composer Suad Bushnaq is in great company as she joins Bernard Herrmann, who scored Psycho's soundtrack, as well as Ennio Morricone and John Williams in helping to create what could easily be called the soundtrack of our lives. Bushnaq is an award-winning, first-generation Jordanian-Canadian composer of Bosnian, Syrian, & Palestinian roots who is active in both the film and the concert worlds. She has been hailed as an "incredible artist" by another film composer, the legendary Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar for The Lion King back in 1995 and is now again nominated for a 2022 Academy Award with his work on Denis Villeneuve's Dune. Suad herself just got nominated by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, for a Canadian Screen Award, which is the Canadian equivalent of a BAFTA or Cêsar, for her score for the Canadian feature film Jasmine Road by director Warren Sulatycky -- a film which talks about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a widowed conservative cowboy who takes in a family of Syrian refugees.

While her work on film scores is what she may best be known for in the Arab world, Bushnaq's artistry as a symphony composer is impressive. Her music has been performed by the Vermont Symphony, the Belgian National Orchestra, the Bergara Symphony (Basque/Spain), the Lüneburg Orchestra (Germany), the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings, the Norrköpings Symfoniorkester (Sweden), the Friedenauer Kammerensemble (Berlin), Orquesta Ritornello (Spain), the National Arab Orchestra, and the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra to sold out concerts at prestigious concert halls like the Flynn Center for the Arts, Konzerthaus Berlin, Berlin Philharmonie, the Elbphilharmonie, Mälmo Live Konserthus, and the BOZAR, just to name a few. Bushnaq's compositions also include works for solo piano, chamber ensemble, choir, and electroacoustics and have been performed in venues spanning from Hawaii to Jerusalem and Dubai, and even include Carnegie Hall.

Apart from her latest film work in the Region, which includes having scored two wonderful short films making the circuit this year -- Night by Ahmad Saleh and Lovesick in the West Bank by Said Zagha -- the prolific composer has an upcoming album, The Edge of Life: Soundtracks from Arab Cinema. The collection features a selection of original soundtracks Bushnaq composed and orchestrated for award-winning independent Arab films, all tied together through the common thread of war, displacement, migration, family, home, loss, and identity. The album will showcase original music which skillfully blends traditional Middle-Eastern instruments, rhythms, and scales with diverse musical genres and harmonic colours, through cinematic orchestrations that reflect the stories being told on screen and the universal human emotions connected to them. With the help of a production grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) the album has a planned release for later this year.

In 2021, Bushnaq was the recipient of the Kathleen McMorrow Music Award, a prize established to recognize and encourage the composition and presentation of Canadian contemporary classical music and managed by the Ontario Arts Foundation.

We caught up with the kind, generous Suad Bushnaq via Zoom, as she's based in Toronto, to ask her about her craft and her method of working. It's important to remember that directing and acting aren't the only two professions available in film making. There are many lines of work that need to be explored, especially in the Arab world, to make sure the stories in the Region and among the diaspora continue to be truthful and authentic.

Bushnaq possesses a wonderfully positive energy, and an inspiring way of talking about her work. She took the time to explain her process and we learned so much about what it takes to be a great composer, but also a successful human being.

How did you get to this point, I mean, how does one become Suad Bushnaq, contemporary music composer?

I've always wanted to be a film composer and I went to university for music composition, but then I kind of took a hiatus when my mom passed away and veered towards education. And I remember in the summer of 2012, I woke up in the middle of the night, pulling my hair out and asking “what have I done with myself?” Because all my life I grew up in Amman, where my parents supported me to become a musician, against the flow in Jordan, where people thought of it as just a hobby. And my parents were like, no if you want to make this your career, you do it! They sent me to university for it. So I remember that summer in 2012 when I woke up asking myself “what did you do with this dream? How did it just evaporate?” So I went into an extreme mode, I created a website and I started sending messages to filmmakers I found on Facebook. I did the dreaded cold calling— just sent messages to filmmakers, specifically Arab filmmakers. And it just so happened that at that time, the cinema industry was starting to boom in places like Jordan. There was a new cinematic movement with young filmmakers. I sent so many messages, sometimes I never got a response, sometimes I got a response that was like, “Who are you?"  Even though I would send my name, samples of my work, etc. But on the other hand, I also got a lot of responses from very important filmmakers like Annemarie Jacir, for example, who actually took the time to listen to my piano album and get back to me telling me that she loved what she heard, and other filmmakers who did the same. These filmmakers ended up being the seed that planted my film scoring career, and now I am in the fortunate position where I get approached by filmmakers asking me to collaborate more than I reach out to them. 

That's it, you were cold messaging people?

It started with me contacting people, and then whoever got back to me I didn't necessarily work with them, or work with them right away. But I maintained the relationship. And two filmmakers, one filmmaker, from Jordan named Rifqi Assaf told me “I love your music and I'm working on my first feature, here's the synopsis. Would you like to read it?” And that became the first feature I ever scored which went to the Dubai Film Festival and it’s called The Curve. And because back then I was working as a full time teacher and only had this one film to score, I actually spent four years testing different tracks that I was composing for him until we reached a point where he loved the score.

How was it working with the late Rifqi Assaf?

It was like a slow simmer kind of film scoring which doesn't happen anymore in my life. Rifqi knew exactly what he wanted but because we still didn't have a picture to work with, it took a lot of trial and error. It was still a very enjoyable and rewarding process. Now the maximum I have is a month to finish a score. In fact, I just finished a feature in 10 days for CBC (Canada's national TV station) last month. So I started my film scoring journey with Rifqi, who unfortunately passed away suddenly two years ago, and that same year, I also did a feature documentary for Lebanese filmmaker Niam Itani -- I did the score for Twice Upon a Time, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. She was also one of the few people who replied to me (along with Areeb Zuaiter whose documentary I also ended up scoring). Niam's film was my first feature documentary, and both her film and Rifqi's opened in 2016 and 2015 respectively. In a way I got into cinema through two feature films that went to important festivals, which is actually a huge privilege and responsibility because a lot of film composers start off with student films and shorts. I owe my cinematic music scoring journey to the late Rifqi because he opened a wide door for me when he entrusted me with his film.

Suad Bushnaq with Hans Zimmer in his studio in 2018

But now fast forward to Night and Lovesick in the West Bank, two short films. We're now in 2022 and the landscape of cinema has very much changed. I think that making a short film is no longer viewed as a student project. It is almost like a pearl in a collection of different projects because a lot of really established filmmakers are making short films. What do you think?

Absolutely. And I feel that shorts are little gems that actually have a huge chance to make it big and go to the Oscars. Not only that, but the term 'student film' is obsolete nowadays, when you see a student film like Murad Abu Eisheh's gripping Tala'Vision get shortlisted for an Academy Award. Shorts are not easy to make, and they are a joy to score because of the beauty and magic their stories encapsulate in such a small, compact format. What I mean to say is that, most composers don't get entrusted with a feature film if they have no previous experience scoring films, and usually this experience is gained through scoring short films. In my case, I was privileged to get entrusted with two features without any previous film scoring experience, but that's the exception to the rule.

So you come involved in those two projects and Night is very much a soundtrack that is almost about sounds and emotions, whereas Lovesick in the West Bank is the sort of you know, cute, catchy soundtrack. How do you compose each one and what goes into your work?

The fascinating thing about these two films is that I also scored them around the same time. They both talk about injustice in their own special way : Night is an animated drama, Lovesick in the West Bank is a live-action comedy. Lovesick in the West Bank is such a highly stylized film.  I loved it the minute I saw it. It's visually stimulating. Everything is a heightened reality in it. I love that style and am a big Wes Anderson and Coen brothers fan. With Lovesick there was a lot of back and forth between me and Said [Zagha] regarding very specific hit points in the score, because we did what we call in music composition Mickey Mousing, which is basically a term derived from back in the day when Mickey Mouse came up and every hit kind of matches an action or a movement of the character on the screen. So with Said’s film there was a fair bit of Mickey Mousing, and the score was orchestral. Visually speaking it was vertical work, you know, we were working second by second and at the same time, the music is texturally very rich, because you have an orchestra, you have percussion, you have melodic instruments. I did a lot of revisions for Said. And I'm the type of composer who never minds that. If you want 100 revisions, I'll make them because at the end of the day, this is the director's baby — I need it to be exactly what they want. I also had to keep going back and forth with the film’s sound designer Israel Bañuelos to make sure my music didn’t trample on his sound design.

And what about Ahmad Saleh's film?

With Night it was a bit different. The moment I saw it I was already working on a feature. I dropped that feature and music started writing itself. There was something about Night that was so magical, it just gripped me. Ahmad wanted music only for a scene in the last third of the film where people wake up and it's almost like a lullaby scene. That's the only score he wanted. However, when I watched the film I heard more. I told him, "Your film is so magical, but we need to hear the grids of the earth. We see a lot of earth, a lot of rubble, and we don't hear that." So I remember sitting, and on the second watching I was already playing a gritty strings kind of score to open up the film. Then at the scene where people are asleep and under the rubble, I did more gritty strings there. He listened to them and he loved them.

We had to do a lot of back and forth because the challenge of the lullaby scene was that it had to be heard as something that puts you to sleep almost, at the same time the action that we see in front of us on the screen was very measurable in terms of actions, so I also needed to hit some hit points. Although the score is not Mickey-Moused, it's more of a broad strokes kind of score where you kind of gloss over the action, with that specific lullaby scene, because it was so minimalistic, we wanted to make sure that it still fits with the action on the screen. And that took a few revisions until we got it right.

Do you think being a woman composer is better, as it allows you more of a humble quality when it comes to working and reworking things, a quality that perhaps a male composer doesn't possess quite so naturally?

I wouldn't attribute it to gender as opposed to attributing it to entitlement and privilege. I think at the end of the day, what matters isn't whether I'm a man or a woman but how I grew up and the work ethic that was instilled in me. And unfortunately, in this industry, you see composers who say for example, on the contract, "three revisions only." I've heard of composers who do that or composers who insist on their way of doing things and in my case, the way I was taught was that as a film composer, you are two things at the same time. You are an expert of music, but you're also a servant of the film. And that composer ego that a lot of artists have needs to be shelved the minute you come to work with film.

So how do you stay humble?

What probably helps me is that I'm also actively prolific in the concert world, so my composer ego goes there. With these orchestral commissions, I'm technically allowed to do whatever I want, and I go and I do that, so that when I come to work on a film I've already gotten that out of my system. Now I can work as a team member, and I'm not emotionally attached to what I'm writing. I'm writing to enhance, to make sense, to add a missing element to the scene, or to solve a problem. I'm just adding a layer to a multi-layered thing happening in front of me and a lot of the times I tell directors, I don't think you need music in this scene, because it's telling me everything I want to know. Film scoring is not about the composer, it's about the film.

And then, you also have an album coming out soon. Can you talk a bit about it?

In 2018 I got a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture AFAC to produce an album of soundtracks that I've written for independent Arab films since the first film I scored The Curve up until the last Arab films, which are Lovesick in the West Bank and Night. The idea of the album is that it is going to showcase selected tracks from about seven or eight films that I have worked on, all of which are connected through the themes of loss, diaspora, war, displacement, identity, and family. All of which weave in a little bit of Middle Eastern influences through cinematic soundscapes of different styles. And that album was supposed to be released by 2020. But then Covid happened and my grant got extended and the plan is now to release it this year, in 2022. The title of it, The Edge of Life, comes from one of the tracks from The Curve. But also I found that the title is very suitable for the way life has been, for people who live under war and destruction. They're almost living at the edge of life not knowing where they are -- they're in limbo.

When do you think it will be available and what do you plan to do when it launches?

I think it's going to be available towards the fall of 2022. For me, this is a bit of a calling card almost, a little showcase of music that I have done, and at the same time it will include information about these films. My wish is that listeners who listen to the music will also look up the films and end up watching them.

The last question I want to ask you is, who are some of your musical inspirations like music that you grew up listening to?

I grew up listening to a huge diversity of music. My dad was an avid classical music listener, so we had everything from Bach to Rachmaninoff. From the film world, I don't have a favourite composer. I know that I love the music of Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Gabriel Yared, Michael Giacchino, and Dario Marianelli to name a few. I don't have specific favourites but I know that the day I decided to get into film composing was through a film and music course that I took in university, where they asked us to analyze, through a 10 page analysis, the score of The Talented Mr. Ripley by Gabriel Yared. I remember analyzing that score and it's such a brilliant score. And when I was done watching the film and analyzing the score, I was like, I want to do film music and I want to do it as well as Yared. It is what we call a thematic score, it all builds from the same theme, the same idea and it comes in different ways. And it was so brilliant. It even had influences from Bach and it blew my mind.

All photos courtesy of Suad Bushnaq

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