Photo By Raphael Ouellet

Enter 'Sharp Objects' Composer Alexandra Stréliski's Fever Dream

The 'Big Little Lies' composer abandons stability to produce her most intimate album yet for 'INSCAPE.'

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Oct 5 2018, 1:26pm

Photo By Raphael Ouellet

The dust is settling for neoclassical composer Alexandra Stréliski. After a year spent ravaged by the existential chaos of losing her place in the world, the release of the Montreal native’s sophomore record, INSCAPE, marks her emergence from the ashes. Eight years since her debut album, Pianoscope, Stréliski’s recordings have been featured in Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club, HBO’s Big Little Lies, and most recently, Sharp Objects—but for all the stories her music tells on screen, INSCAPE is by far her most personal.

We catch up over the phone. Her voice exudes an open warmth as she delves into what provoked this particularly intimate collection of recordings. Carved from strife, the album documents a brutal purge of any stability in her life. “I left my job, I got separated, I moved—very major pillars in my life that I had to change,” she says. “It came with huge transformations. I don’t know what it was—intuition? Instinct? A gut feeling that I wasn’t in the right place. I was living in a space-time that wasn’t my own anymore. I probably didn’t need to implode everything, but I did.”

Stréliski was helming the music department at a post-production studio, and creating original scores for advertisements. Although the daily exercise was very close to what she loves to do, she takes little comfort in consistency and routine. “I kind of forgot what I wanted to create on a more personal level,” she says. “I got really sick and burned out from responding to other people’s needs before my own.”

INSCAPE ruminates on the process of coping with drastic, self-imposed changes. Songs like “Interlude” listen like a fever dream—a slow-burning tension that nods at an imminent crescendo, as dizzying tones anxiously mull over the opening measures. By “Overturn”, any wistful hope from the first half of the record has matured into somber resolve. As one of the last recordings written for INSCAPE, it harbours the most meaning for Stréliski. “It’s the place where I started to look ahead,” she says. “The pivot point, where I had to put away this messed up time of my life, and have the courage to face what was coming up.”

Stréliski captures complicated perspectives through delicate tones. Minimalism masks the theoretical intricacies of her playing style. It’s a contrast of depth and fragility that uncannily resembles the human condition itself, and stands as a wicked testament to the range of emotion that Stréliski can grasp. “I think it’s more powerful to have less than more instruments sometimes,” she tells. “I needed this medium to express myself with more profound emotion than anything else. That’s why it’s so vulnerable. It’s very intimate for me. They’re very personal emotions.”

Where Pianoscope was what Stréliski describes as “a collection of small themes, sort of like a series of short films,” INSCAPE is bound by a cohesive narrative—though it wasn’t obvious to her at first. Her spontaneous and improvisational recording process left the story unclear until the album was complete. “I saw it afterwards,” she says. “I always compose and then I look at my work, and then I ask, ‘what is this?’ This is clearly the period that I just lived. There’s an entire order, and there’s a narrative and a time.”

Although Sharp Objects features selections from INSCAPE, it was through Pianoscope that French-Canadian director Jean Marc Vallée discovered Stréliski. Their work together began with him licensing “Prelude” for “Dallas Buyers Club," but the pair were yet to meet.

That film went on to the Oscars in 2014. Flattered, Stréliski decided to write the director a thank you, without any intention of soliciting a response. “I spoke about the emotional quality of ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, because I’m always amazed at how Jean Marc is able to use subtly and complexity into how he portrays a human being,” she recalls. “I think we resonate with each other creatively there. I said basically thank you, it’s an honour. And then he wrote back.”

No one warned Stréliski that her composition would be performed live at the Academy Awards ceremony. The night of the broadcast, all of her phones began to ring at once. Her social media became inundated with congratulatory messages before she even understood what was happening. Such an honourable mention at the Oscars would be the highlight for most in her position—Stréliski, on the other hand, was more excited about Meryl Streep hearing her music. “I think she’s one of the most talented actresses of our time,” she laughs. “That was the first thing that came to mind.”

The nature of her working relationship with Jean Marc Vallée has evolved substantially since then. What unceremoniously began as a music licensing agreement has bloomed into an immersive collaboration. For “Fix,” the third episode in Sharp Objects, the pair developed the emotional tenor of the soundtrack side by side. “I had a more direct relationship with him. I had to play and interpret the theme, and a Bach piece. I went to his house, and it was more of a collaboration” she tells. “We’re very close emotionally, so it wasn’t hard. It was natural for us to be doing that. If I felt the piece, I knew he was going to feel it too.”

To Stréliski, ivory keys are a confessional booth. She uses the piano to distill emotion from her lived experiences, and the results boast a tremendous impact on the ear and the screen. Stréliski can feel, and she celebrates it. She embraces the repercussions of acting on emotional impulses, rather than suppressing them. Social conventions might scoff at this childlike spontaneity, but in surrendering to the heart, she captures the parts of ourselves that most of us try to conceal. As a composer, this is her secret weapon—it gives her perspective.

As INSCAPE marks the denouement in Stréliski’s loss of identity, the relationship this composer shares with her instrument becomes a larger statement on how true stability really looks and feels. To her, it’s less a balancing act of external pressures, and more about finding your voice, regardless of how abrasive its sound may be to others. “It became my way of expressing myself—more than words, more than anything else,” she says. “I think if I didn’t have a piano in my life, I would have been way weirder.”

Corinne is on Twitter.