Size / / /

Donald Quan is the composer for the television series Relic Hunter (Fireworks/Rysher/Paramount), currently in its third season and starring Tia Carrera. Other series include Tracker (Lion's Gate Entertainment), currently in its first season and starring Adrian Paul, and Star Hunter -- (a 22 episode series from Star Hunter Productions/Space). He has worked with a wide range of musicians, including Loreena McKennitt, Ron Korb, and Rita MacNeil, as well as producing his own CD, "Invocata." His feature film credits include 2012 -- The Deadly Wake, Replikator, and In the Dead of Space. Strange Horizons interviewed Donald Quan at Q Music in Toronto, Canada.

Peggi Warner-Lalonde: Your bio now is very short, not even quite a bio, I would say. You do have a very impressive background. What kind of musician or composer would you consider yourself to be? Or do you?

Donald Quan: Composing is my choice of expression. It's not what defines what I do or who I am. I always say to myself, if I lost my hands, or, if I couldn't play any more, then I would just switch my means. So, music is my means of communicating; it's my means of relating to people. I've always been a shy person at heart with words, and I've always used music to communicate. So a byproduct of having done that all of my entire life, since I was five years old, is that I have learned enough about communicating with music that I am able to do it on a higher level, a scholarly level, a business level, just beyond "Oh, I do music." I can run my life with it. I can use it to fuel everything that I do. And that's how I define myself as a composer. Composing is the definition of things that I have communicated that have manifested themselves in something tangible. So that's where the composing part comes in. And it leaves a lot of open doors, but that's what I'm about. I have no narrow roads, you know. My musical life is three dimensional, and so, in a way, it is who I am but it's also just my choice of communication, how I choose to communicate my feelings to others.

PWL: So then, that would explain to an extent why when I've gone through your background, your experience, the kind of work that you've done for television, movies, and so on, no one genre seems to stand out any more than any other.

DQ: If there is a kind of leaning, there is a little bit of a leaning, from a non-emotional, almost a philosophical standpoint, especially with my TV and film music, to the fantasy, science fiction realm. And that's not really a chance thing. I mean, it's the one subject that allows the breadth of human existence to be explored in an optional, other than what is reality mode. And it encompasses everything about being human, so from that perspective, it's people who have worked on science fiction projects and fantasy projects who tend to like the way that I see music. And funnily enough, I relate, say, a science fiction film that I've scored to my work with Loreena [McKennitt]. It's opposite ends of the spectrum stylistically, but, what I do in both of those projects is very much the same thing. You know, I explore the spirit and a really deeper side of human existence with my music.

PWL: Interestingly enough, when you mention Loreena McKennitt, her music to me seems a little bit more than just singing a melody, expressing a song, what have you. She works more, I think, in concepts, and so, it's not just a song that's being sung, but there's imagery around it. There's a whole, almost, world around the music that she's doing. At least that's what comes across to me. More so, perhaps than many other singers or many other performers. Is that? . . .

DQ: Uh, yeah, I mean, on the one level, she's a singer-songwriter, it's as simple as that. And if you enjoy her work on that level, you'll be very satisfied. Most people enjoy her work on a much more deeper level, and that level is achieved through a very complex process of living and working. It's not contrived in any way, and the heart and sweat that gets put into her recordings ultimately gets reflected in this very deep, almost spiritual sense, definitely emotional. And, when you're dealing with music on that level, all of life is relevant. The whole process of creating the music is relevant, right down to the meals that you eat, the people that you bond with or work with during the process all affect the deepness and the outcome of the music that is being created for the time period that the music is being worked on. The similarity between that and my film scoring is that I'm dealing with the same elements, but in one case the story is discovered. In the case of Loreena, through the process she sets up over the period of a year to work on a record. The story, the plot line, so to speak, is discovered as you play through the process, whereas, in a movie, somebody writes the story first, and you have to come at it from a backwards angle, and say, "How do I express these feelings? How can I get the audience to feel these very specific preformatted or preconceived ideas that the writer and the producer of the film have in their heads?" So, in a very odd way, they're both the same processes, but they're completely backwards from each other. One's the reverse of the other.

PWL: Now, I understand that, when you're scoring, you're actually doing it . . . it's playing on the screen, you're watching on the screen, and you're scoring as you're watching it.

DQ: Yes, in a nutshell, I start my scoring process when the film is, for all intents and purposes, finished, except for the sound effects, and certain sound elements. Generally, I do not even see the film until it is finished, what they call a locked cut, so in the case of a feature film, the company might work on it for three years, and I'm involved, really, perhaps in the first week of the project, and then ultimately three years later, for about a month at the end. What happens in between doesn't involve me then, unless it's a musical of some kind, which I've done as well. But for the most part, I start work when the film is done. So, the only way I can write to it is by watching it, because I have to take into consideration the style of the editing, the pace of the editing, scenes that were supposed to work but didn't end up working very well because the acting wasn't so good, or making those adjustments. So, there are so many of those things to take into consideration it's a waste of time for me to work on anything beforehand, because I don't know what is going to be needed in the end.

Given that I only have a limited time to write the music, I tend to go at it, personally, in real time. I don't say, let's see, this scene is six minutes long, and then go away to my desk and compose a piece that's six minutes long, and then play it against the picture and see what happens. I don't do it that way. That takes a lot of trial and error, and a lot of trial and error automatically means a lot of time, and I don't have a lot of time. So I basically have to sit there while it runs in real time. And one scene may go through anger, sadness, all kinds of emotions, changing throughout a given scene, and I have to, using a combination of composing and mathematics, figure out how to compose music that matches that picture as it plays in real time. That's a long answer to "Yes, I compose to a running film usually, when I write a score.

PWL: It's a little reminiscent for me . . . when you were speaking, you reminded me of something I took in film study, years ago -- in Sigfried Krakauer's Theory of Film -- the story of the drunken piano player in the cinema, where the music is so important to what is being shown on the screen. Because, if someone is playing something in counterpoint to what is happening on the screen, it can totally change the feeling of the scene, which I guess, leads to my next question, then. Have you ever been called upon to use your music to influence how a scene comes across, where a scene that may have been potentially weak, because of the acting or whatever, you influence it with your music so that it works better as a scene?

DQ: Yeah. I would say that in a feature film, that's 80% of my job. In a TV show that's 50% of my job. Music is most effective when it's communicating to the viewer something that is NOT being communicated on the screen, or with the words. That's when it's most powerful. Because it's making something that's kind of two dimensional turn into something that's three dimensional. It adds something that is not there already. That's when it is most powerful. Where I like to be most of the time. If a film is nearly perfect before I get it, then I can make it deeper by putting a music score with it that works in counterpoint with the movie. It happens much more often in feature films where a lot more time is taken to make it, there is a unique concept for that one film. This for the most part is without the use of music, which gives me an arena to play which allows me to play counterpoint against that. In TV, 50% of the time, I'm being asked to strengthen scenes which are only halfway successful, because of the time frame of TV. If you ever watch an action sequence from a TV show without the music and without the sound effects, it's not really action at all. You'd be hard pressed to get your heart pumping. And that's a factor of cost as well and investment. So, in TV, I'm much more often asked to just make it better, and that's a large part of my job, whereas in film I usually have the opportunity to say, "well, this is a very sad story. Is there a way we can give the audience some hope in there?" And I can do that musically without them having to change the film. It can be a sad story from beginning to end, but with the right music I can add elements of hope to it. That's where it's the most powerful. And so I get a chance to do that much more in feature film than for television.

PWL: I've been thinking about film and television as you're speaking, and thinking back to what I remember of music from television as opposed to music film. I find that I remember music from films far more than I remember music from television, unless of course it's themes, or theme music. And it would almost to seem to me perhaps in the interpreting, or just that I have my own strange ideas, that music in a television show works best if it's more subliminal but it doesn't stand out more, whereas in a film you want it to be more noticed. Is that? . . .

DQ: I think that's true, that's absolutely true, and I think the real difference is that they are two very different genres. They're as different from each other as they are from theater, say. It's dealing with acting and music and things, all the same elements, but it's a very different function. In a film you have a captive audience. Maybe one person in the audience may get up to go to the bathroom, but basically for an hour and a half they are staring at that screen, doing nothing else but watching that film. If you have an audience that's that attentive, you can be very deep, you can be very rich, you can be very complex if someone is paying attention. You have a lot larger canvas from that perspective, in film. So every element of the film is stronger, has more meaning, and more money seems to be put into a single film than into a single episode of a TV series. So on all counts, it's just richer, and because it's richer musical statements can be bolder. And, if a musical statement is bold, it almost equates to being memorable. Whereas with TV, it's been designed right from the onset for people to watch it in the periphery. It's going to be on in somebody's house, and they're usually in their living room, which means that they live in the living room, and are doing other things while they're watching TV: eating, whatever. [laughs] Many other things while the TV is going, and people make TV shows knowing that that's the case. And so, the requirements for the show are much more . . . if it's too complex, unless we're talking about a TV movie, and that's a little bit different, it's more like a feature film, for the most part . . . a TV series is the cartoon version of film. It's over the top, and people really don't want to think when they're watching TV. I'm talking mostly dramatic TV, as opposed to documentaries. . . . It has to be much more subliminal. You know, in a TV show, when you get sad, you go, "You know, I feel a little sad, I feel sorry for that character." That's the result of an emotion on TV. In a film, you might actually be crying.

PWL: I cry for TV. Mostly TV movies, but I cry for TV.

DQ: TV movies are a slightly different genre. I don't do a lot of TV movies. Most of my TV work is documentary and dramatic series. I've done a couple of TV movies.

PWL: You mentioned that you have a leaning to working with science fiction and fantasy. Is this an area you are interested in yourself? Is this an area of literature that you enjoy or does it just happen that you like working in that area?

DQ: As a child, it was my genre of choice for reading, for music. I was obsessed with the film and the book version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's stories, and even musically, you know, one of my most favourite recordings was, they called it a rock opera, well, there's two. One was Tommy, and the other being Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Center of the Earth. And there were other theme albums. For example, there's another like King Arthur, and Rick Wakeman. . . . I still listen to music this way now. I don't listen to much, but what I do listen to I really obsess over, and I listen to over and over and over and over again. As a child, as a youngster, that's the genre that drove me. When I hit my teens, I lost all of that, but I carried the internal search, I guess, for different ways of seeing things with me throughout my adult life.

When I discovered that I could create music, I almost stopped consuming it. When I discovered that I could create art I stopped consuming it. And so, as a listener, I have a very strange collection of tastes, and the reasons that I listen to music are very odd. For example, again, with an obsessive ear, I had two tapes in my car which I would just listen to. Not just because it was on, I purposely listened to it over and over. It was a collection of Gordon Lightfoot songs and a Bossa Nova tape called Wave.That's what I listened to, over and over and over again. It put me in a place that allowed me to create, both of those things. You know, there's a lot more recordings, there are a few dozen recordings throughout my life that are mainstays. I listen to music for myself, because it puts me in a certain mindset, a certain place to be creative. And then, of course, there's my professional listening, which more resembles what your normal average listener does. I listen to everything, at least once. I check it out and see what it is. I've heard just about everything, and with most things that are in the popular idiom in any genre, I could basically know what's going on. I know how the tunes go, I know what's on now, I know what songs are hot. I don't consider that listening. That's just research. So, what I do listen to is music that puts me in a very particular head space that allows me to create, and that's how I listen to music, and why I listen to music.

PWL: Do you find that being a professional musician or a professional composer makes it more difficult for you to listen to music sometimes objectively? Or just to enjoy it?

DQ: I would say no. I would say most musicians you ask that question to would probably say yes, but, in many ways, I am not a critical person. And that's related to a certain open-mindedness, as opposed to a laziness or lack of quality control. I'm quite open minded to things. If somebody likes it, and I don't, my reaction is usually not "I'm never going to listen to that again. I don't like it. I don't get it." I shake my head. I don't do that. If I listen to something that somebody else really likes, I will sit there and think about until I think that I understand why they like it. And as far as the musician goes, I am not critical when it comes to practising, recording, producing. I'm not critical in the way that other people are, like listening with an ear for details that are not heard by the average person. I tend to hear music as the average person does, because I don't see music in this kind of technical, analytical way. I didn't do my scales when I was young. I don't care if there is hiss on my recordings. I am not about these musicianly details, or producerly details that other people are into, like, if they're watching a movie, they're listening to it, saying "Oh, how did they mix that sound?" I don't see my own music that way, so I don't see other people's music that way. I hear it from a very broad, non-judgmental way, and let it do to me what it's supposed to do or not do. So I don't believe that it changes my perception. When I watch a film I enjoy it as much as anybody if I like it. I would never be leaving the theater going "Oh, the sound mix on that was superb." I would never say that. It's like "I loved that movie! It made me feel great."

And I generally don't participate in voting for things, where someone is trying to choose something that's the best. For example, awards in various organizations I'm in. People have awards to pick the best something. I don't participate, because I can't. How can you say the best? It's not a race. So I tend to just enjoy it as much as the person that I'm in the movie with, or I get into a group as much a someone who knows nothing about music obsesses about a group. And I try to keep that as well. There's a conscious effort not to let myself get caught up too much in the nitty gritty. And that's, oddly enough, why I end up working with Loreena so much, because that's how she does things. But if you're making a record where people are putting a lot of money into it, you can't actually go "I don't care if there's hiss on it." But there's someone there helping out who listens for those things. I tend to be there to kind of jumpstart creative processes and things like that. And I'm one of the rare people that, because of my inherent nature or ability to deal with numbers and computers, I'm a rare person out there, because I'm such a natural with that stuff. I'm a person that knows almost everything there is to know about music and computers. Yet I could care less about them. And that's why I feel good about the work that I do, because a lot of people don't like them either, but it's a necessary part of the process, and I just happen to have been born understanding them. I don't know how I got that, but I've never had to learn technology. I never went to school for that. In fact, I failed my mathematical courses in school because you can't tell someone how to do something if they already know. You tell them to do it a different way. And it was a really weird experience for me as far as technology goes.

PWL: I was going to ask you if you have found that computers have changed your work at all. Have you found that they have made it simpler, or more difficult, or have you found them to be another tool or even another musical instrument for you?

DQ: Definitely not a musical instrument. It has simplified my process and my life so much to the point that I actually feel I have three careers at once. I am able to do three times as much, five times as much, ten times as much with them than I could achieve without them. And I'm not talking about just amounts of stuff. It's not the quantity, but the quality and the diversity of what I get to explore, because the computer is my friend and appendage.

When I work with a computer I become one with it in a very odd, physical way, and I absorb the power of the computer, the ability of that computer to remember things and to keep track of things and to do things in the blink of an eye that a human would take time to do has become part of my physical being. Even though it's not attached to me, it's part of my physical body. I can't imagine not having a computer to pursue my art. I can certainly live without a computer, but not to pursue the art in the way that I do, because it allows me to do things that I couldn't possibly accomplish. And from a business perspective, because of mastery of the computer, I'm able to execute things very quickly sometimes, which is everything in the service business. If you can build a house in a tenth of the time that someone else can, for the same amount of money, I think you'll get a lot more work, if it's the same quality. And, it's not that you're going to get more work, but you're able to do ten times as much, therefore your business is ten times bigger. Therefore you have the resources and the capital to do that many more things. And the computer, as far as my business goes, has really changed how I go about doing things.

PWL: I understand that in the past you may have been described as being somewhat driven, in that you may start working on a project and just keep going, lose track of time, and so on.

DQ: Yeah, that's a direct kind of observation from what we have just been talking about, the computer. I somehow, I've analysed it a bit, but the people that I work with, the people that I collaborate with, have discussions with all the time, and I'm exploring some very weird concepts of time. It's very interesting. I couldn't explore this concept in another genre, possibly, but music is a very interesting genre because of its relation to time. Music can't exist without time. Art can exist without time. You can look at a piece of art, and you can't count how many milliseconds you can absorb that piece of art. And yet it's done. The process is finished. You have seen it. You can't do that with music. You have to wait while the music plays out, in real time, in life time, in real seconds and minutes. You can't speed it up and say, "Okay, I'm going to listen to a song at double speed, and I'm going to listen to Celine Dion. I don't have much time to listen to her, so I'm going to play it twice as fast." You're not going to cry after it if you listen to Celine Dion twice as fast. So, intrinsically, the art form is related to the passage of time.

However, even though you can't listen to the music out of the context of real time, it can be created, especially with the help of computers, out of the context of real time. I can write a two minute piece, that takes two minutes to listen to, I can write it in one minute. And I can record it in one minute with the use of a computer. That is a really weird thing, if you think about it. You have to listen to things to understand them. If you want them to affect you, you have to listen to them in real time. But to create them, the more you master what you are doing, you can create them faster than playing, and this is not just because of computers. Mozart could sit down and write out a piece faster than it would play in real time. Because we are documenting something which is static, let's say, a computer file, which is static in a way, or a piece of sheet music which is static, something which you can look and see the whole thing at once. You're creating that as a map for something that takes time to do. A very stupid example would be, I can write on a piece of paper now, and I can put three dots on that page. How long would it take me? [Puts three dots on a piece of paper in rapid succession.] That's how long it takes me. Dot, dot, dot. I wrote a piece of music. But you go to the piano, and is this is actually how it goes [plays three notes of varying tones and length]. That took twenty seconds. So, with what I wrote down, dot, dot, dot, actually, I've created a piece of history or life in one second that actually has a value of twenty seconds or so. So, when people say I'm driven, it's because I'm constantly working in this kind of paradigm of creating things in such an instantaneous way that when it takes its tangible form, it expands into real time, and that's how I work with computers. When people see the results of my labors, they say, "Well, how did you write a score for a film in 6 hours?" And they don't know why. But it's because I live in this world where time has a relationship to music, and I write my music in the moment.

I have a friend in Boston who is a music professor, and of composition. I'll talk to him in one month, and then six months later, "So, how's it going? What's new?" "I'm still working on that piece that I started six months ago." And it's great. He goes over it, and rewrites it and tries it out and switches it around and writes it out, gets it played. Hears it back. And that's viable. You're allowed to do that. You're allowed to take longer, too. But I choose to do it the other way. My compositions are improvisations, and I develop those improvisations as I play them. When I work on improving my own music, I work on improving my relationship to the music as it's conceived, not as it's formulated, not as it's written down and changed and redone. If I play something, or improvise something, that I don't really like, if I'm going to work on making that better, I'm not going to write that down and start messing with it. I'm going to throw it away, and start again. And say, how does this sound. And if I like it, that's it. That's the composition. It's done. It's finished. I don't work in the idiom of jazz that much. But the art form of jazz exists in that realm. There are jazz recordings that have been listened to over and over, like famous Charlie Parker solos, 40 to 50 years old. . . . They have been listened to over and over and over and over and over again, they were created in the moment. One microphone was on when he played those notes. He didn't make up those notes before in the dressing room and come out and say, "Oh, I'm going to play those notes I just came up with." It's like, he was playing, and only jazz tends to do this, or avant garde, maybe, but I take that philosophy as a composer and that's how I write.

PWL: I see you were recently involved in the tribute concert for Peter Gabriel. One of the things that was of interest to me was that Tia Carrera was listed as one of the performers.

DQ: Really interesting story. Tia Carrera is the star of Relic Hunter, because she played a couple of really strong characters in movies. Not lead characters, but kind of supporting actress roles. She never really wanted to be an actress. She was always a singer. In Hawaii, she won all the singing contests when she was a kid. She was a singer; her family would say "She's the singer in the family." So, when she finally made it to acting, she didn't go there on purpose. They discovered her, and put her in something, and she was successful. People don't believe it. They say, yeah, right, you just act. But she's a fantastic singer, a great singer.

So I'm doing this Peter Gabriel thing with Harbourfront, and even I was guilty of my own preconceptions. You know, you've got the Harbourfront thing, very artistic, proudly artistic, "Oh, we're going to get the very top local talent, line up Jane Siberry, and some people that are really exploring what we would consider high artistic ventures, and I had been talking to Tia. I work in projects with her a lot, and I considered saying, "Wouldn't it be neat?" And I think, "Nah, that's a little strange, you know having Relic Hunter come and sing with Jane Siberry." And then one day, I was sitting with her talking and we were playing some songs and stuff, and I'm going, "You know, she's as good a singer as anybody. I've got to get her into this." And I went to Harbourfront, and I said "I've got Tia Carrera. She's going to perform." And at first, they were, like "Really!?" And then they said "Okay, I trust you." And she did a great job. She did as good as a job as anybody. And she was asked back by Harbourfront to do a tribute to him, on the next night, to his face. She wasn't booked on that previously, just Jane Siberry. And she did so well in the concert the night before they said, "Oh, that was so good. It was beautiful. You have to have her come do that for Peter." So, it was all arranged. And she was thrilled. Because no one had ever asked her to sing.

PWL: I just noticed, because I had not realized previously that she was a singer. And yet, being used to sing in a band used to be a staple of any performer.

DQ: Pretty standard, yeah.

PWL: Everyone had to. Of course, the most famous I can think of are Hal Linden or Doris Day, who were big band singers, and also actors or actresses.

DQ: Absolutely.

PWL: But it seems less common these days.

DQ: It is less common. It's not because fewer people do it. It's just because that's the way the market has gone. People are very cynical, and they have a hard time accepting that someone can be multi-talented, and that's the problem Tia has. Especially because she's kind of typecast. It's the same old same old problem. You get cast in a B movie. You become famous in that role. Is someone going to cast you in an art film? So, I wanted to change that. I always want to change stuff like that. I have no problem with it. I was very happy, because everybody realizes it.

PWL: You were working on another program, I noticed, called Tracker.

DQ: It's another science fiction series with Adrian Paul from Highlander. It's his new venture. It's the same general idea [as Highlander]. The characters have changed. But he's not a time traveler, he's an alien, for lack of a better word, he's a savior, a collector of souls. He was given the power by his planet to be a bounty hunter for various criminals who all broke their jail through a worm hole and ended up inhabiting the bodies of the entire train from Chicago to New York. Each one of the aliens has a different set of supernatural of super powers, alien type, non-human powers, and they all inhabit human bodies, so this is a 100% science fiction show, with only humans and only earth in it, and only Chicago present day in it.

PWL: Whereas Relic Hunter is not actually science fiction.

DQ: It's more fantasy. It depends how you see it. It's not really science fiction per se. It's fantasy.

PWL: You were talking of working for Loreena, and how working with her was similar to working, for example in the genre of a television show, like fantasy, and so on. But then, I go back through your credits, you've also worked with Eye Eye, you've worked with Lighthouse, you've worked with Enter the Haggis. . . .

DQ: Yes.

PWL: That's a very wide range. From Celtic, you go to world music, to what have you. Is there anything that you specifically like about the different genres? Is it music in general? Would you say that you consider yourself a musician without a particular genre perhaps?

DQ: No, I am, it goes back to my very first statements. I am a life musician. I am a composer/musician, whatever you want to call it. It drives my life. I do not limit myself to any preconceived ideas. What makes me make decisions is the sheer desire. I want to do that. Sometimes I have a good reason, sometimes I have no reason. I just built this kind of screening room thing out there. "Why?" I wanted to. I don't have a very good reason. It's a good enough reason for me, though. I wanted one.

With Eye Eye, that was a weird one. I was working in a tuxedo in a three piece lounge band, the house band in the Sheraton Hotel on Queen Street, and these rock and roller guys who were there for whatever reason saw me play in this very conservative band, and said "That's the guy we want as our keyboard player." And they were hounding me. They kept showing up, at my gig, listening to me play 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' over and over again, you know, and they kept coming, showing up, and going "Come on, we're going on tour, it's going to be fun." And, I'm saying, "I'm making money here. I'm not going to make any money with you." So, I mean I am going to make money but I'm not going to be able to live on it. And I said no. No. No. No. No. . . . And finally, they just bugged me enough, and I said, "Okay. I don't actually like doing what I'm doing. So I'm willing to just try it and live off a credit card for a couple of months." So I did it based on the fact that their road story sounded like fun. You know, "Oh, we get to party, we get to play for fun gigs," and I had no concept at the time. I just kind of started doing some shows with them. And they said, "Okay, that's enough warm up. We'll do our first arena show tomorrow." I said, "What's an arena show?" I'm really out of it. I've never been part of the rock and roll world before. And they say, "Well, you know, it's an arena. There's going to be like 20,000 people there, and we've got a big stage and they're all going to be in the arena screaming." And these arena shows we're doing, like Maple Leaf Gardens, are all over Canada, and I'm just really getting into it. I'm enjoying it, put my hair up, had a lot of fun. I was the youngest person there. I just started morphing into that situation.

At that time, when I went with Eye Eye, I was well trained in film scoring, but it had nothing to do with my desire to go with that band, and to hang out and to do that, and it led me to contacts which led me to play with Lighthouse. Lighthouse -- 'One Fine Morning' was my favorite song when I was in sixth grade. At recess time, break time, I would pull out 'One Fine Morning,' the album, and I would put it on the record player, and I would listen to it for the break. I didn't like the rest of the album, just that one song -- 'One Fine Morning,' 'One Fine Morning.' It was so good. You know. Sixth grade. And to have a chance to play the song I loved when I was in sixth grade. How old are you in the sixth grade? Ten? Eleven? The song that I loved when I was eleven, now I get to play in the band that played this song. How cool is that? And then, I started rehearsing with them, and it was, "You guys did this song? Oh, that's crazy! I like that song too. Oh, you guys did that song?" Even the song list, I'm thinking "I didn't know they did all these songs. When I was 10 years old, Lighthouse was as far out there to me as Michael Jackson is to most normal people. Could everybody imagine going to Michael Jackson's Never Never Land and actually having dinner with him? No one can conceive this. But for me, being 10 years old, listening to the song, I didn't know that they were Canadian. I just thought they were this famous group, and I carried that through my life, and then, when I was finally asked to play in the group it was just so thrilling. I kept on sitting there, going "That's Bob McBride! Whoa! I'm in Lighthouse! I'm a member of Lighthouse!" And I started getting so excited. I spent three to four years playing gigs with them, and, there was a true excitement.

If you go into a project with that kind of positive attitude, it just leads to more, and all my gigs just lead to the weirdest things. I don't know how it works. It's not my own doing. The only thing I do is keep an open mind. That's my only rule. I don't try to go after this job. Every job, every credit on there, I did not go after, it landed in my lap. But that's not luck. When you see a list like that, I have to start saying, after awhile, it's not luck. And I start to preach my philosophy to other people, saying, "You don't have a gig? Well, why don't you try this? How about forgetting about what you want to do, and just doing what you think you want to do. What do you feel like? Do that. And if an opportunity comes up, take it. Don't worry about it." I try to tell people that, like people who work for me, who are up and coming composers, and what not. They say, "I want to write music for a TV show. I say, well, if you go into a career with that goal in mind, chances are you're not going to hit it because you're narrow minded. If someone offers you a job as a musical director, you can say, well, I don't do that. So. Whereas I just say, "Sure. Where do I sign up?" And the times when I was playing with Lighthouse I'd still be making coffee over at MickeyMar. I don't care. I don't care. It's all fun to me. And I just do everything. I say yes to everything. And it just so happens that really cool things just keep showing up, and I really don't do it. One day I'll come into work, and I'll get a call, and it's kind of like, "That's cool!" I don't plan for it. And I can't tell you what I'm going to be doing in a couple of months. I can tell you what I'm doing. It's very rare that I can actually predict what I'm going to be doing three months in advance. But usually, for most of my career I couldn't tell you what I was doing a week in advance. And, I don't know what's going to happen in, say June, but something's going to happen. I don't know what. But I just know something will. It's just weird. Even this year, they're all projects that I had not done before. They all just come up. I really don't know. And I can only analyse my own career and say, "Why is this happening? Why do people ask me to do these things?" And I don't have an answer. All I can do is talk about it once in a while and try to figure it out. Meanwhile, I just have a good time and do it. And they just seem to come. You know, like my new projects now, they just came up. I'm writing a musical with a writer named Bob MacLean, and it's a kind of parody, musical, over the top, you know, an exploration of the sex lives of Canadians, and, it's very very funny.

PWL: There is one? [laughter]

DQ: Compared to England, yes!

PWL: Oh, of course!

DQ: But, I don't know how it works. I just keep what I'm doing, and things happen.

PWL: How did you end up working on a computer game? As a vocalist?

DQ: [laughs] I'm doing a lot of co-productions with the U.K. Companies get their investment money for their TV shows from many different countries, and, when a country invests in a project they have to spend a proportionate amount of the project's budget in that country. So if the U.K. puts in a third, Canada puts in a third, the U.S. puts in a third, they can't spend all the money in Canada. It wouldn't work. So they all chip in, and they say, "Well, you know, we'll give you a third of your budget, as long as you spend a third of the money here."

I've always loved London and the U.K. All England. So I decided to make some kind of contacts there. I spend a lot of time there. I was spending just months and months and months for the past few years there. And I came to kind of partner up with a guy, who is as whacked out as I am. And he got this contract from this unknown video game company. "Do you want to talk about doing music for some new video game?" He's on the folk circuit, and he's used to people offering $50 to do a gig. And he goes "Yeah, sure, I'll think about it." So instead of saying "How much do you charge?" they say, "Well, we only have 'x amount'." It was more money than he'd ever been offered before to do anything. It turns out this huge startup company, which doesn't have a record, but they have a lot of money, gave him the gig. I was in England at the time and he, like me, is kind of cranking it out, and I was just there hanging out with him. He said, "Well, I'm doing some tracks tonight. We gotta make it sound like these warriors are going after these other warriors." He'd gotten all the formats, and he said "Do you want to help out?" And I have this way of chanting or singing, you know, I do a lot of kind of drone things. I just did it for him. And it turns out that after he packaged it and delivered it, it became the number one game in the UK.

PWL: Not too shabby!

DQ: All my jobs are like that. It all just comes weird. Funny.

PWL: I was going through your credits, and I've noticed you've done quite a few things for Ray Bradbury. . . .

DQ: Ray Bradbury Theater.

PWL: As you've said, a lot of the things that you've done stand out as science fiction, except perhaps for the theme for the Canadian Football Network.

DQ: The Football Network?

PWL: Yes.

DQ: That's a very funny one. That was the very beginning of my writing career, and my father, eager to help out, kept passing names of people that he worked with. He worked for 40 years for the CBC as a graphic designer. He just kept handing me guys' phone numbers, you know. "Call this guy, maybe he can use you. Call this guy, maybe he can use you." And one of them just turned out to be the guy who was putting together the football network, overseeing the whole network. And I was the first one in line. He said, "Oh, you're Phil's son. Great! Would you do this? And that was, for me at the time, probably ten times the amount of money I had ever made for one job. It was one of those good ones. All of my jobs come out of just life, out of living. There's nobody calling my agent, saying, you know "We have a job that this person might be able to do." It's always come from a friend I meet here, or there, that turns into these things. It's life as I live it every day.

PWL: Well, you've been very kind, and I know I've taken up a lot of your time. I appreciate this.

DQ: No problem.

Visit Donald Quan's Web site.


Donald Quan pipe organ, dumbeq, drones;
Steafan Hannigan, Uillean pipes

The Gift

Donald Quan piano, viola;
Ritesh Das, tabla;
George Gao, erhu;
Steafan Hannigan, Irish Low Whistle;
Richard Armin, raad cello;
Lenny Solomon, violin

Few Returned

Donald Quan, piano;
George Gao, erhu;
Steve Lucas, bass

The Dance of Life

Donald Quan, piano, viola, oud, percussion;
Ritesh Das, tabla;
George Gao, erhu;
Quo Min Ging, yang chin;
Steve Lucas, bass


Reader Comments

Peggi Warner-Lalonde is Senior Music Editor for Strange Horizons.

Issue 10 Jun 2024
Issue 9 Jun 2024
Phonetics of Draconic Languages 
A Tour of the Blue Palace 
A Tale of Moths and Home (of bones and breathing) (of extrinsic restrictive lung disease) 
Critical Friends Episode 11: Boundaries in Genre 
By Salt, By Sea, By Light of Stars 
Issue 3 Jun 2024
Issue 27 May 2024
Issue 20 May 2024
Issue 13 May 2024
Issue 6 May 2024
Issue 29 Apr 2024
Issue 15 Apr 2024
By: Ana Hurtado
Art by: delila
Issue 8 Apr 2024
Load More