Austra Finds Her "Dream Project" in Rewriting Tchaikovsky

With 'Swan Song,' Katie Stelmanis subverts the orchestral music of her youth

Photo: Colin Medley

BY Tom BeedhamPublished Sep 29, 2023

Katie Stelmanis was in a rut. 

In May 2020, the Toronto musician also known by her middle name, Austra, delivered her fourth studio album, HiRUDiN, to a fraught listening landscape. Arriving at the height of pandemic uncertainty with no touring to be had, save for the odd belated show, she never got a chance to bring the record to life, precipitating doubts about future prospects of the project.

"It just never really went anywhere. I was sort of confused about what to do next," Stelmanis tells Exclaim! "I was feeling pretty bummed about music in general."

So when producer Sean O'Neil (Lido Pimienta's LIDO TV) sent her a DM on Instagram last winter with an invitation to score Swan Song, a documentary he and director Chelsea McMullan (Tanya Tagaq's Ever Deadly, Rae Spoon's My Prairie Home) penned about a 2022 production of Swan Lake, it couldn't have come at a better time.

A process documentary bringing viewers inside the National Ballet of Canada as the company set about mounting a visionary take on the popular ballet from celebrated ballerina and director emerita Karen Kain on the eve of her retirement, the project called for a contemporary scoring hand that could reflect the production's modernist perspective while maintaining its dialogue with tradition — anchored, of course, in the lyrical majesty of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's iconic score.

"Immediately I was like, 'Okay, this is a dream project,'" Stelmanis enthuses. "I love Tchaikovsky. I love Swan Lake."

A member of the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus (CCOC) in her youth, Stelmanis traces her relationship to the 19th-century Russian composer back to her first performance ever — a National Ballet production of The Nutcracker that enlisted the CCOC to bring Tchaikovsky's 71st opus to life.

"We'd have 15 kids or something lining up in the orchestra pit at the O'Keefe Centre or Hummingbird Centre, or, I don't know, can't keep up," Stelmanis trails off when describing the venue currently branded as Meridian Hall, stumbling to keep facts straight while bottling her excitement. "I just remember as a kid being surrounded by the massiveness of the orchestra — because I was literally in the pit — just being completely enamoured by it. That stuck with me forever."

That reverie fully intact, Stelmanis set about composing her score in opposition to Swan Lake.

"I really liked the idea of making something in contrast to the orchestral music. I wanted it to sound really heavy and gritty and moody, with tonnes and tonnes of texture." 

Composed mainly on a Mellotron purchased with the score fee she received for the production, as well as a JUNO-106 synth and her classically-trained soprano voice, the resulting score sets audiences up for a dizzying ride reeling from dark pulses, distortion, and downcast drama to nostalgic glow and swirling carnival bounce.

"You have this beautiful, perfect, pristine orchestral music, and then the Mellotron just sounds a little bit fucked up, so it's like this wonky orchestra on the side, which I liked."

Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake is a recurring presence throughout the documentary, a diegetic element in the production's rehearsals and elsewhere a manipulated subtlety haunting the documentary's score. But Stelmanis says her most involved engagement with the source material came in scoring the company's opening performance of the ballet at the Four Seasons Centre, what she describes as a "team effort" shared with sound effects editor Stefana Fratila and re-recording mixer Graham Rogers.

Running the orchestral performances through a space echo, the Tasty Chips granular synthesizer, and other filters, they achieved a psychologically tense soundscape, its ominous scaffolding interspersed with hard cuts to ballet shoes pounding the stage, legs fluttering like scissor blades, and whispered backstage excitement.

"If you listen closely, there's a tonne of really weird sound design stuff happening. That was one of the most fun parts for me, and I think Stefana as well."

A feature cut of the documentary premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, with a theatrical release following in Canada today (September 29), but Stelmanis says Swan Song was originally assembled as a four-part miniseries, airing November 22 on CBC Gem and CBC TV.

Making two different cuts presented its own set of challenges — "They'll cut like four seconds and it'll just transform how everything fits together" — but she came to think of the film as "the greatest hits version" of the score. 

"I got to repurpose a lot of the stuff from the series into the film like different segments. So there'll be some cues that have different placements in the TV show and a tonne more music. It was just so much music."

With a film and a TV score in the bag, Stelmanis says she's finally prepared to get to work on her follow up to HiRUDiN and complete her contract with Domino Records.

"Now I need to get down to business and make something."

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