Baz Greenland chats to composer Chad Cannon about his work on American Factory and his wider work in Asian American music.
After gaining a hugely positive reception at Sundance early this year, documentary American Factory, from renowned documentarians Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, continues to receive critical acclaim. It won the Best Documentary Feature Award at the RiverRun International Film Festival and was the first film picked up and released by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. It made it’s debut on Netflix last month.
American Factory is a raw, emotional and eye-opening look at the impact of the closure of the GM factory in Ohio in 2014 and its resurrection as an autoglass-making factory under the leadership of Chinese company Fuyao glass company. What follows is a powerful look at the fusion of American and Chinese work cultures as they adjust to each other. It’s funny, harrowing and utterly absorbing, a fascinating portrayal of the global economic challenges and the life of the worker in an ever-adapting world.
The composer of American Factory, Chad Cannon, is no stranger to documentary film. The award-winning composer has travelled the world, drawing inspiration from cultures, history, and human stories to create moving scores for documentaries, animation and live performances. His debut soundtrack for documentary Paper Lanterns received an IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Awards) nomination for Best Original Score and his soundtrack for Cairo Declaration, co-composed with Xiaogang Ye, received China’s highest film prize, the Golden Rooster Award for Best Music. Cannon was chief arranger for Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi, creating large symphonic suites for Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, and Spirited Away. He also created the arrangements for the Joe Hisaishi Symphonic Concert: Music from the Studio Ghibli Films of Hayao Miyazaki.
Fluent in Japanese, Chad Cannon is the founder of the Asia/America New Music Institute (AANMI), which promotes cultural diplomacy through contemporary concert music. With AANMI, Cannon has produced chamber music concerts throughout Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and the United States, featuring some of the world’s most impressive young classical talent.
I had the opportunity to chat to Chad Cannon about his work on American Factory and his wide and fascinating musical career, from his studio in LA.
Thanks for taking the time to chat to The Digital Fix. What lead you to working in music composition?
My mother was adamant that all six of her children play a musical instrument and her battles in life were getting us to practice every day. We did the Shinichi Suzuki method of learning violin and cello and harp. My siblings played the other instruments and I played violin. I absolutely hated it until I was about 12. Then I realised that music has a lot of interesting opportunities. My Suzuki ensemble, it was a violin group of about fifty kids, got to go to Chicago to performance at this big conference and that was an eye opener to me that music can open the doors to the world for you.
And then I discovered Bono! [Laughs] I got really into rock music at high school and I started a rock band. I wrote about fifty songs for that band and we recorded three home-made albums. That all led me back to classic music; because as my writing got more complex, I would bump up against questions of how do I modulate? It became a problem that I didn’t understand music theory very well, so I set out to really learn it. And that set me on the path to becoming a composer.
You mentioned you’re love of Bono. What are your big musical influences?
Well Bono, I don’t know if that was musical or just personality! [Laughs] These days, I listen to everything and anything. Somethings I turn on the iTunes top 100 just to see what people are listening to and I’m always amazed at the number of hip-hop songs on there.
But I would say my biggest classical musical influences are probably from the American Minimalist School, like Aaron Copeland. And then in Japan, I’ve worked a lot in Asian but I particularly love Tōru Takemitsu’s work. He was someone who was a role model for me, because he not only bridged the film and classical concert music worlds, but he was also a pioneer of bridging traditional Japanese music with contemporary western classical music. That’s something I hope to emulate in my career, by always doing different projects and connecting people through music.
You like to work in a lot of different mediums?
Yeah, that’s one of the things I love about being both a film and a concert composer, is that there’s a lot of varied, different projects. Every day is a new adventure!
Do you find working on film composition inherently different to documentary?
Well they’re both film. I go to Sundance every year and they’re always harping on that documentary is film too! But yes, definetly a narrower band of emotion and drama that you can inhabit while you’re writing for documentary. You can’t quite emote as much as you would in a fiction film.
Because when you go to a fiction film, you suspend you’re sense of reality, right? You accept the new world that you’ve been given, from the writers and the directors and the cinematographers. Whereas in a documentary, this is a true story; it’s based in reality. Musically, you’re sort of limited. Because unless its a bad documentary where you’re too editorialising, the music has to have a sense of reality.
Let’s talk about your work composing for American Factory. Did you expect it to get the attention it did, particularly being part of the Obama’s production company Higher Ground?
Well, we should be clear that the Obamas and Netflix came onto the project after it premiered at Sundance. I didn’t suspect that it would go that big, with those names involved. Participant Media was the one who financed the project for the two or three years Julia [Reichert] and Steven [Bognar] were filming and Lindsay Utz was editing. When they brought me on, of course it was a huge honour, because Julia and Steven are amongst the most accomplished documentarians of all time. They have decades and decades of wonderful films and I am still making an effort to watch all their old movies. Because they have been active almost twice as long as I have been alive.
Once it did well at Sundance, then it got all this attention and then the Obamas came on. I think they saw the film and understood it’s a really nuanced and important documentary about a huge topic. American labour, Chinese labour and the economic rivalry between the countries. I mean, that’s such a big story and it’s a challenging story to tell. It could become very dry and academic, but Julia and Steve did a wonderful job of basing the story in human emotion and basing it on a story about people and not just economics.
Absolutely. It was certainly a documentary with a lot of emotional high and lows. How did you approach to the score to capture the mood of the story being told?
There are lots of highs and lows in this film and it is a huge emotional journey. Steven and Julia did a pretty good job of putting me on the right track to start out with. For example, the opening sequence shows the closing of the GM plant in Ohio; it’s a one-minute scene where a guy leads the group in a prayer and they close the plant down. It’s the middle of winter and things are cold and dark and sad. And then we get a title sequence where we see sand in big piles being melted down into glass and then coming out the other end as auto glass. It’s a really beautiful montage and the factory is coming back to life. That sequence was so fun to score simply because it’s so beautiful. I could watch that all day. It’s so mesmerising.
But musically, they wanted something that felt very unsettling. The first couple of passes were probably just too beautiful, because I was responding to how beautiful the imagery was. They were saying from a narrative perspective, this need to be unsettled. It looks beautiful but there’s something mysterious and we don’t know what’s going to happen. That was an example of a place where we changed the emotion to be a little more ambiguous as to whether it was good or bad. It’s more focused on the fact it’s not grounded yet. We’re not settled. Unsettled is the word I keep coming back to.
There were moments throughout the rest of the film where a Chinese worker and an American worker were becoming friends; things were really positive between them. And there are these moments where things are really tense between the union and the management. Then at the end we have this issue presented of automation and artificial intelligence and what’s that’s going to do to the world’s workforce. There’s this beautiful montage of Chinese and American workers leaving their factories and they’re laughing and smiling and smoking and eating; they’re just being people. These are just regular human beings doing their jobs. That scene is simultaneously celebrating these workers and all they do but not so triumphantly; this battle is just beginning. It’s very open ended.
Going back to that title sequence; it was a wonderfully cinematic opening. Your music certainly mirrored that. Was that your attempt to let loose a bit?
Yes, for sure. Because it’s one of the few scenes where we don’t have a lot of dialogue. The whole film is just saturated with dialogue. I don’t know how many people show up in this movie but it’s dozens and dozens speaking. A lot of it is very simple, where you’re just following them in their conversations and their meetings and their lives. There’s a lot of sounds and words that happens there. You can’t oversaturate the sound environment with music in those situations. So yeah, I did let loose a little where there were points for pause and without dialogue.
One thing I noticed, even in the highs and lows of American Factory, was this this quite playful tone to the score that runs through the documentary. Did you have a sense of a core musical theme you would have running throughout American Factory?
Yes. I’ll address the first part of that question first, which is the playfulness. Julia and Steve specifically said we need to give permission to the audience to laugh at some of this stuff that is happening. A lot of it is kind of funny; Chinese people are a sitting here in the middle the American Midwest, learning about Americans. And it’s funny to be told what Americans are like from an American perspective. Americans wear this, Americans fake this; that’s oh, sort of true. We experience a lot of stereotyping of other cultures but it’s funny to be stereotyped by an American.
But as far as themes that run throughout; all the music material is generated by this musical montage that you hear. It’s got this syncopated, parallel fifth- that’s the main melodic motif. That comes back in different varieties and variations throughout the score. There are some scenes that are punchlining one joke or one comment that aren’t necessarily a musical derivative. But because the instrumentation is pretty consistent throughout – we have a lot of woodwinds that tend to be comedic and colourful, with a lot of character – you get a sense of playfulness. Which I think Julia and Steve really wanted because it is such a heavy film and it is an emotional ride that the lightness of the music helps you survive. It’s a tense journey.
American Factory is very much a fusion of American and Chinese cultures coming together. How did you create that in your choice of music?
At this point, Chad steps over to his keyboard to play a couple of examples.
So there’s the theme I just talked about – the main melodic theme that comes in right in the opening of the forge, once we get into the rhythm of the glass being made. A lot of times, in Hollywood, when you hear a stereotypical reference to Chinese music, it’s like a parallel fourth. Chinese, and Korean and Japanese modes are often based on the Pentatonic scales, these parallel motions that sound stereotypically Asian. I wasn’t necessarily saying let’s make this an Asian theme. It’s more that the openness of those chords felt right for the hollowness of the glass you see.
Also, Aaron Copeland, who’s one of my favourite American composers and is referenced in my score – my dog is also named Copeland [laughs] – his harmonies tend to have a lot of open fourth, fifths, sixths, and so the closing sequence of the film has a lot of those open harmonies. It’s a nice touch from a music theory standpoint that American harmonies – things that sound ‘quote on quote American’ – are pretty similar to things that are ‘quote on quote Chinese. So I guess, in a sense, I was quoting on the innate musical connection from our folk traditions, even though we’re 6,000 miles across the ocean from each other.
But in terms of direction – in terms of Chinese references – there’s almost none. With Julia and Steve, as American film makers, we entertained the idea of using Chinese folk elements – specifically from Fujian, which is the provenance where the Fuyao glass company is headquartered. I’ve been there before and heard some of the music from that part of China, but they [Julia and Steven] wanted it to be a more universal story than just the Chinese and the American thing. It’s bigger than these local cultures.
You graduated in Music and Japanese, scored documentary Paper Lanterns and worked with Studio Ghibli. Can you tell us how your passion for Asian music came about?
So, my first time going to Asia was in 2006, where I was sent to Japan as a volunteer Christian missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon church. I grew up in Utah in a big Mormon family and I knew almost nothing about Asia; I had very few Asian friends growing up in Utah. So I was sort of thrown into Asia full on and I learned Japanese trial by fire. The first six months in Japan were miserable because I couldn’t understand anything. But now, after studying and learning Japanese for thirteen years, I developed a deep love for the culture and the history.
So when I went back to school after this two-year mission, I made a very deliberate effort to stay in touch with Japan. I took advantage of some resources that Harvard University had in the Japanese studies field, where I was given five or six different grants to travel to Japan and participate in different projects. For example, in 2009, I went for three months and worked in a factory in Yokohama; some of the scenes in American Factory really took me back. The Japanese do this morning line-up thing where everybody does roll call, they sing the company song, the clean up the garbage together and then they go to work. Everybody is wearing their uniforms – I really related to that, when the Americans were visiting the Chinese plant. They were really blown away by the discipline of the teams in the factory. For my senior thesis at Harvard, I spent a summer in Okinawa, studying Okinawan – which is different from Japanese – traditional court and folk music. And then I wrote a composition for chamber orchestra with some Okinawan poetry and some Okinawan instruments, which was played at Harvard.
One thing led to another, and I worked a lot in Japan and ultimately I was introduced to Joe Hisaishi through Midori Goto, who is a very famous Japanese violinist. Joe had written a theme song for her music charity group, which I arranged and orchestrated and recorded. He liked it and that led to me on tour; it’s been three years now working him on his music concerts and a couple of his films.
You’re the founder of the Asian American Music Institute. Can you tell us how that was developed?
Again, it was connected to my experiences having worked with Midori. She has this non-profit called Music Sharing, which takes classical musicians into developing countries in Asia and gives free concerts co-produced with the United Nations. I produced eight concert tours with her throughout Asia, five in Japan and three in southeast Asia; Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal. Those experienced really taught me the experiences of face-to-face musical exchange and how much good it can do in helping people understand different cultures and sending this message of world peace through music.
So that really inspired me to do my own thing that’s related, but not directly. So that Asian American Music Institute is an initiative I created to bring composers together with conductors and performers in cultural exchange programs throughout Asia and the US. So we’ve done concerts now in eight countries and the biggest thing to date was a big seven-city tour of Japan last summer, sponsored by the US Embassy and Tokyo. We performed at some very high level venues like Suntory Hall and a couple of world heritage sites such as Nijō Castle and Kyoto, which is where the Shoguns used to live.
Then there was Dazaifu Tenmangu, which is this gorgeous historic shrine in southern Japan. We’re planning another tour of Japan next summer, where we’re bringing seven composer from seven countries together in a sort of Olympics-themed tour of Japan right before the Tokyo Olympics. So we’ll be performing in the Zōjō-ji, which is the old Tokugawa temple in Tokyo; it’s where fourteen or so of the Shoguns are buried. It’s a really. really big honour to be able to present there. We’ll also be bringing in young composers that we’ll find through our first ever international composition contest and we’ll choose someone who we thinks fits the build of using their music to promote world peace through cultural exchange.
So we’re still a sort of grass roots small-type of organisation, but we have strong connections, especially in Japan and China. So we’ve been able to do a couple of high profile projects, even though we’re not a multi-million dollar organisation.
Before we finish, I wanted to ask about your concert work Sky Visions [Himmelserscheinungen], inspired by photographs of Antarctica. Can you tell you tell us how that project came about?
So my friend Kahchun Wong, a prominent, young Singaporean conductor has worked with my organisation the Asian American Music Institute, was recently named the Music Director of the Nuremberg Symphony. He gave me a commission to write a season opener piece for their 2019/2020 season.
So I went and read abut Nuremberg’s history and tried to learn as much as I could about the city. And I came across this crazy, Sixteenth Century woodblock print. It was called a broadsheet. It was basically like a Sixteenth Century tabloid, spreading the news of the time around town. And they had apparently seen this crazy thing happen in the sky, where it looked like the sun had exploded and there were flying objects fighting each other and one of them had crashed. People look back on that and go, oh look, this was a UFO over Nuremberg! It’s proof that there’s extraterrestrial life! But scientists look back and say that was probably a parhelion, or a sun dog, which is this effect where there’s a lot of ice crystals up in the sky and the sun quintuples and you see four big reflections of the sun in this crazy shape.
It’s a real effect that happens in the scientific world and my friend Christopher Michael, who does these photographs of Antarctica, has a bunch of really cool photos of him standing in front of one of these parhelions. And it looks like the Eye of Sauron looking down on Mankind. It’s really crazy and beautiful. So the piece Sky Visions is basically what would it have been like to have been in the Sixteenth Century in Nuremberg and see this thing and try and interpret what it means. So you’re trying to simultaneously be really afraid and at the same time really awed. The piece kind of shifts from this awesome nature appreciation to crazy fear to conspiracy theory and back to triumphant and beautiful. It’s a fun short piece; it’s ten minutes long.
That sounds amazing. So finally, of all the projects you’ve worked on, what are you most proud of?
Oh, I think American Factory is probably the one. American Factory and Paper Lanterns are both very meaningful documentaries, that were given enough budget and attention to the score to create something that really I feel, if I died tomorrow, I would be proud to leave that behind as a message of hope and reconciliation.
I also did this piece last year that I recorded and released, called Dreams of a Sleeping World, which was also experienced by my experiences in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal visiting refugee camps. And also north eastern Japan after the Tsunami, one of these Harvard Grants I got was to go do volunteer work cleaning up and also delivering food supplies delivering food to people in temporary housing. These volunteer experiences left me with so many friends and a deep personal understanding if what these calamities mean for individuals, even though I myself have never lived through a giant calamity.
The piece is inspired by ten painting of the Japanese Brazilian painter Oscar Oiwa, whose paintings also deal with these large scale calamities – tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes – and the inner section of the industrial world meeting the natural world. His paintings are just gorgeous and incredible. I chose ten of his paintings and poetry by people that had experienced these types of calamities and I wrote an hour-long symphony multi-media piece. The Slovenia Philharmonic premiered it in 2017 and then I recorded it here in LA with a big studio film orchestra. We have over a hundred and twenty players on that album. If I died tomorrow, I would want the world to remember me for that, because it feels very universal and hopefully people with a sense of empathy and also hope for others.
A huge thank you to Chad Cannon and Impact24 for their time chatting to The Digital Fix. American Factory is available to watch on Netflix now.
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