Role Models: Alexandra Stréliski Is Inspired by Jean-Marc Vallée’s Intuition

The pianist and composer remembers the filmmaker, her late friend and collaborator.

We didn’t meet for a long time, actually. It’s just that Jean-Marc Vallée was in love with music, as a director who composed his films himself with the soundtracks that he discovered. And at one point, he put one of my songs — “Prelude” from my first album, Pianoscope — in Dallas Buyers Club

I was very unknown at the time. I had an album on Bandcamp, and it was all very surprising to me. Then he did it again and placed a song in his film Demolition, so I reached out and was like, “Hi, I just wanted to say thank you. This is changing my life.” Then he wrote back pretty much immediately and said that he loved my music. And that’s how we met, basically — we had lunch, and that’s how it all started. We just got kind of connected in the universe before even meeting each other. 

I was very familiar with his work before we worked together, because here in Quebec, he was a very famous director already. He was one of the directors who I had the most connection with the work of. He had done a film called C.R.A.Z.Y., which was one of his first films, and it’s still to this day an amazing film — I really recommend people see it. So I was in awe when I got the sync request, I think 10 years ago now. I was completely flabbergasted that he would reach out to me, because I was totally in awe of his work. That was my first big sync. I’d had people ask to use my piano for a video of their dog on YouTube — that kind of sync — but Dallas Buyers Club was my first that went international.

Later, I wrote for him on his show Sharp Objects. We had a collaboration there, but Jean-Marc didn’t really work with composers. He is the one that really composed his films, if you think about it, because he picks out the songs and creates his own soundtrack. I got to know him, I think in 2016, and then we started working more closely. Then when he would need something, he would call me up and we would work more closely and more precisely together. But he never had a film score written for him. So I was an ally, but I wouldn’t call myself his composer. 

I think where we really did meet was our sensibilities. Jean-Marc has something in his art about humans — contradictory human beings, and how so many emotions can coexist. A character could be beating their partner, and then he’d somehow find a way to get you attached to the character. He wrote about all of these things that are not supposed to coexist together, and I think that’s where we aligned, because I am very much driven by emotion and humanity. I think the most central point of what I do is how I feel and how I’m expressing an emotion through a piano. Then what I’m interested in is how it is going to resonate with another person. I think those shades are never clear; they’re very contrasted. Jean-Marc has that in his work, where he has characters that are very complex. And he’s intuitive — the way that he edits his films are like music, it’s very rhythmic and emotional and spontaneous. I think that’s where we align, definitely. 

I also had a chance to observe him work in a more day-to-day business setting, where he would write these long emails to explain and defend his ideas. You know, there’s many people implicated when you’re working in those spheres. So he inspired me as an artist, but also as a person, really, because he had this way of defending his ideas, and then he would be very calm and humble about everything that was happening to him. He also kept his local team very close and brought them with him to Hollywood — that was something that I very much admired. So I would say that he inspired me to be an artist who was going to be able to have a voice that would reach different places and remain grounded to where I come from, and remain elegant and polite with my partners. I think that’s what has had the most impact on me on a personal level. 

There’s a song that I wrote for him on my new record, Néo-Romance. When he passed last year — it kind of takes me a while to process my emotions when there’s a shock like that, so there was a moment where I couldn’t touch the piano. Then when I sat down finally, I composed that track, called “The Hills” — which translates, though not immediately, to “vallée” in French. So that is the song that I kind of processed his passing on. But also, like I said, he was very intuitive; he would go on set and try to get these moments, and he felt like spontaneously something was going to happen and he would capture it. So in that way, if you want to make a more artistic comparison, “The Breach” might also be influenced by him, because it’s very raw and I just kind of went for it with no questions. 

Anything I can do to honor this man is a good thing. He was a great man.

As told to Annie Fell.

(Photo Credit: left, Johanna Berghorn)

Alexandra Stréliski is a Montreal-based neo-classical composer and pianist. Her latest record, Néo-Romance, is out now on Sony Masterworks/XXIM.

(Photo Credit: Johanna Berghorn)