by Dan Goldwasser
Composer Benoit Jutras has been behind the music of much of Cirque du Soleil for almost two decades. The Montreal native also scored the hit USA television show "The Hunger," as well as the film versions of the Cirque shows. He recently finished work on a new show in Vegas (not a Cirque show) called Le Reve, and it's the most expensive show ever produced. SoundtrackNet talked with Benoit during a recent visit to Los Angeles.
You have a new show opening at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel called Le Reve. What can you tell me about it - does it follow a storyline, with a theme?
It's a little like the Cirque Du Soleil shows - there's always a storyline, and you can barely understand it, even when you've been working it for five years! You're like, "what is it about already?" This show is a little bit more defined, but definitely not the driving line - the show is not the story unto itself. The subtitle is "A Series of Imperfect Dreams". There is a main character who is a dreamer, and we follow his journey through a series of his dreams.
Does the dream-based theme allow you to be more creative with a wide musical palette? In your previous works, you meshed many different styles - is this the same approach you took with Le Reve?
Yes, but even more than that, actually. For this project, I was able to go deeper into specific styles. With Cirque, I tried to blend two or three styles at a time, but with Le Reve I try to go into one precise style at a time. Sometimes I would blend different styles and approaches, but often I would decide to try classical in a modern way, or modern in a classical way. Sometimes I did a pop style - a sound that I never did with Cirque. There are some hybrid parts of it, where it's a blend of different styles, and you'll hear a bit of world music and a bit of classical and a bit of rock. But it's more defined with this show - I was able to go deeper into specific feelings that way. It's really emotional.
How do you write music for the show?
Usually I meet with the director about 18-months before the premiere of the show, and we discuss the general concept. For Le Reve, we wanted to "tap into the sacred" - that was important to us. And we wanted to evoke a dreamlike feeling. So I went off to write different styles of music that touched upon those topics, and wrote hours of music. I have a tendency, when I'm composing, to keep going - it's really hard to get into a song and just stop. Sometimes I'll write ambience for a few minutes, but then get pretty detailed. So I write hours of music, and the director can use that to work with. The artists will hear the music, and they can start working on the show and see what is working and what isn't working. In every show, we only use about 20% of what I've written. In the end, I re-compose everything in the last 6-8 weeks. Most of the theater and dance is written to the action, so they try to make the act as technically efficient as possible, and I have to follow that action.
So you write the music, they "edit" it for the show, and then you rewrite it?
I have about nine hours of music right now that is just sitting there. I always think it's cool because I can go on to the next project and take some of the music I have sitting here, but it never works! That's why I'm going to keep accumulating music. For Le Reve, I was able to use one song that I previously wrote, so that saved me about five minutes! <laughs> On top of that, the music for these shows is very specific, so I can't use it for movies. I tried - I really tried! - but it just doesn't work!
When you're rewriting the final score, do you build in "loops" so that if a performer is taking a bit longer to finish the act, there isn't a weird gap?
Often I'm trying to build in things that are more detailed, and can go from A to B, but also have musical elements that go from A to B to C, and then also from A to E to C - depending on what is happening. All of the music has to be performed live. For Le Reve, it's a bit less, because there is often more dance than acrobatics. So I was able to be fixed in places. But even with dancing, there is a chance of a problem - the show has been running for a month now, and sometimes they take 5-seconds longer to do an act, and you need to build in those extra 5-seconds so that no one would notice.
How does the orchestra keep track?
I was a bandleader for seven years, and as a composer I now know how to write for these situations, because I've been in them! I have also had great bandleaders over the last few projects, and they keep and eye on the show, and know when to go from one part to another. They tend to rewrite their own cue sheets - so at the premiere, I can say that it's their own score, with little notes here and there. Then they'll take the show into their hands and make it their own. I'll come back and there will be some part that has changed - the show has to breathe! After two or three years of the same music, they need their freedom. But at the same time, I need to be comfortable with it - I'm very picky about how much they can change. I do go back three times a year on every show, and take notes, make changes, and stuff like that. If there's even something like a 20-second change, the bandleaders are asked to send me the video so I can approve it.
How many shows have you worked on, and how many do you check?
Currently there are five shows, so 15 performances per year. And writing all that music - it's busy! I take notes, make changes. Since the shows are all over the world, I get to travel a lot. The Cirque touring shows are quite fun to deal with - I played on one of the shows for four years as bandleader.
When did you start with Cirque, and what were you doing before then?
It was in 1987. I wanted to be a serious musician - I was finishing up my Masters degree, and preparing to get my Ph.D. in composition. A friend of mine called me up and asked me if I wanted a summer job working with Cirque - which was only like 25 people at the time. They needed a bandleader for a few months, and I thought it would be fun - I had seen them on TV before; they were playing a bunch of smaller venues in Montreal, and then going to California for a bit. I figured it would be good - I could do it for five months, and then go back to school. The music I'd have to write would be light "new-age" styled music. It's funny - I was such a serious composer that I would get offended when people said my music was "new-age"! But that was then. So I started to work with them for five months, and stayed for 17 years!
All of my friends who were working at the same time had day jobs, and had their music performed here and there - they were writing contemporary classical music. There's not much of a market there! I remember when I would go to their concerts, it was fun and they would present their pieces, and the music students would play it. But that was it. I rarely listen to contemporary music anymore.
Do you still write music for yourself?
Usually after writing that many hours of music, the last thing I want to do is write more! But I started working on my solo album last year. It's scary to release a solo album when you've been working with people for so long, because I'm wondering if that will be "me." What is "me" after working 17 years for Cirque, where it's a special style, and I helped define that style. But how much of "me" has been influenced by the Cirque? So I'm trying to search deeply and figure out what music I do like to listen to - and I have to say that sometimes I write music for the solo album that would be perfect for a trapeze act! So it's not good at all! <laughs>
But my main goal right now is to do films. I did a few movies in Canada, and "The Hunger" here in the USA. I did the first season, and they asked me to come back for the second, but I couldn't because I was busy with Cirque. On that show there was always a supernatural element, and a sex scene - so I couldn't complain about that! It was fun to do.<#GOOGLEAD#>
What film aspirations do you have? Do you prefer action movies, dramatic films, etc.?
I think the genres will really be what I'm doing - I did compose some music for an action movie and I liked it a lot - I wrote a demo, and realized that action films can be a lot of fun!
How did Le Reve come about? It's not Cirque, so are you leaving them?
Probably for now, but at the same time, the Cirque is ready to look for other people. I will certainly work with them again!
What is your musical background?
I started out working really hard as a concert pianist, and then I discovered rock and roll, and girls and drugs - and that stopped my career right away! Then two years later I discovered Stravinsky, and as soon as I heard "Rite of Spring," I knew I wanted to be a composer. It was inspiring, so I switched from piano to composition. I was still writing pop music on the side, to help pay for my studies and family, but I wanted to be a serious composer and I was comfortable with meshing both styles.
Did you learn piano at a young age?
Actually, I was playing concerts from the ages of five to ten. Then I decided to stop for a while. I was playing really well – and by the age of 20, I could have been a concert pianist. Now I'm not playing nearly as much; I compose with the keyboard but I can't really play as well as I used to. As I have been composing, I'm slowing down the tempo as I write, more and more.
Do you write with a pad and pencil, or on the computer?
It's a longer process – for example, with Le Reve, I worked out the larger structure on the computer, and when I had to write the choir and orchestra, I would use a pad and paper - I find that if you really want to be careful about your voicing and make everything unique, paper is the way to go. It's easy with a synth - you have a string sample and 10 minutes later you have your strings. But then you realize that there's nothing remarkable - so it sounds good and it's easy, but I have too much fun doing interesting counterpoint- so I'm always trying hard to make nearly every voice move in different ways. That's why I still use the pad and paper when I can - it gives me more control.
Have you done a lot of traveling, researching world music styles?
I love to travel, but I hate flying - I'm terrified of it, and I travel a lot! I'm always traveling to see my family who lives in Canada. My wife's family lives in Australia. I try to travel for the fun of it, but barely for research. With the way the world is now, you have greater access to world music without actually going anywhere.
Why do you live in London, if your families are from Canada and Australia?
The main reason is that my wife is Australian, and I'm Canadian - and we wanted a neutral place to live! Los Angeles would have been in-between, but London made sense for now, and it's the coolest place on earth. I have a place in Covington Gardens, and everything is within walking distance - there's so much happening all the time.
And it's because of your location in Covent Gardens that you found a singer for Le Reve. What's the story there?
I used to have an apartment near the piazza, and there are a lot of street performers. But they're always playing the same thing - to the point where you feel like you're going to kill someone! It was hot, and I didn't have air conditioning, so I had to keep the windows open. There was this guy out there singing the same song - and I was going to go tell him to take a break- but when I got down there, I could hear that he was actually a really good singer! So I talked with him, and asked him if he could learn new songs for next week. Then I asked him if he wanted to come up and record a demo with me. He had the perfect voice, so we offered him a contract! So he went from singing on the streets of London to singing in one of the biggest shows in the world!
What else did you do during your break between Cirque and Le Reve?
Well, I did "The Hunger", and two movies. I also did a musical called Francesco, Il Musical in Italy. Actually, a really interesting project - the books and lyrics were written by Vincenzo Cerami, who wrote Life is Beautiful. I worked with an absolutely incredible team. The guy who did the sets had done a lot of Martin Scorsese films, and the costume designer had a few Oscars. And it was all for a little play in Assisi! We're having meetings about launching it again, with the idea to have a permanent show in Assisi, and then create a touring show.
Mainly, though, I was able to have a life for two years! I met my wife - she was an acrobat in a Cirque show, so I traveled a lot to see her. I also wanted to spend time with my daughter, who was a singer in one of the shows for four or five years, from when she was 10-15 years old. I spent a lot of time with my family, which was important. I did other projects, but I slowed down my pace - it was good! Now I'm back to working a lot, and that feels good too.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on the CD for Le Reve - that's a few weeks of work. I have an underground multimedia project that I'm working on as well, and keeping myself open for movies. Before I came here, I met Terry Gilliam and I had an open window to work on Tideland, but I had to decide - I couldn't do Tideland and Le Reve, and I had already committed to the producer of Le Reve, with whom I have a long relationship. So I chose Le Reve. I really like Terry, and would love to work with him. Meeting him was great – he has such a fantastic sense of humor! The editing room for Tideland was about three minutes away from where I live - it would have been the perfect job! Since I've been really busy, I’d like to keep myself open for film opportunities.
Le Reve is playing at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel. The soundtrack will be out later this summer.
Special thanks to Kristen Chin at Chasen & Co. for her help with this interview.