Scott Deal is a professor of music and the director of Donald Louis Tavel Arts and Technology Research Center at IUPUI. His 2004 song called “Qilyuan” was featured in the Academy Award winning movie “The Revenant.” The movie that finally earned Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar. “The Revenant” is currently playing in theatres. According to the New York Post, it sold more than 300 million tickets worldwide in February.
In a recent interview with The Campus Citizen, Deal expressed his feelings about his song being featured in an Oscar winning movie, the history behind “Qilyuan,” and he assured anyone with a passion that their endeavors never go unnoticed.
How do you feel about the song “Qilyuan” that you recorded being featured in an Oscar winning movie?
It’s tremendously exciting. That piece and I have a long history. It was composed by a guy who’s won a Pulitzer Prize and won a Grammy last year for an orchestra piece. I’ve known John Luther Adams since 1995 when I was a brand new professor. When I moved to the University of Alaska to begin my first career job, I knew he lived in Alaska. I sought him out, because I already knew about his work and his compositions.
We became friends, and that piece was the first professional, commissioning piece that he agreed to write for me. The Fairbanks Symphony gave him commission. It was the first time I’d ever [sic] done it professionally. I had plenty of composers who were my friends, write me pieces, but this was the first time it was formal. In 2004 we decided to record it, and I had raised the money to record it. I had to hire someone in Los Angeles, fly them up, and pay them while they were there. It was quite a bit of money.
It was a fun project. I was really into it. I found the money, and did the whole thing. It was very satisfying, because if I did the work then John would use his connections and shop it to new music record labels. In fact it ended up on a label, and that’s what you hope for that maybe 200 people would listen to it in my lifetime. It’s a pretty esoteric piece. It’s just a bass drum for 15 minutes.
Was it just you, or was someone else recording with you?
The first time John wrote it, it was a solo for one player with playback from three huge speakers in the audience. It’s like a quartet with three parts. The other three parts were just recordings of me playing.
John thought that ‘if we’re going to publish this, then I’m going to publish this as a quartet.’ I flew one guy up and we played two parts at a time.
How did you find out “Qilyuan” was in The Revenant? Did John Luther Adams call you?
He didn’t call. We were very close for ten years when we were both living in the same small town of Alaska. He was a rising star. He was getting bigger gigs. I moved to Indianapolis and he moved out of Alaska shortly after I did. We see each other occasionally once every couple years. John’s just one of those people that I could send him an email and I might not hear from him in six months. He may not even answer and it’s not personal. He’s just busy.
I called his engineer and that’s how I found out about it. His engineer, Nathaniel, is a good friend of mine. I wrote to him and he wrote back and told me that they used the big orchestra piece. Director Alejandro Iñárritu asked him if he could look through John’s catalog for a couple more things and he said yes.
He didn’t call. No one called, fine, but my wife is a scientist. She’s very detailed. She loves to sit and watch all the closing credits—all of them. We’re sitting there until the closing credits, I’m checking my email and she says “Scott! Look ‘Qilyuan!’” It went right under just as I saw “Qilyuan,” John Luther Adams, Cold Blue Records. It didn’t say Scott Deal, but it said Cold Blue Records. We went back the next day or two days later to try to listen and see where it was in the movie.
You didn’t notice your song during the movie, did they change anything from the original piece?
I could hear John’s music in there. His music and style is very distinctive. I was watching the movie and there were some times where I thought ‘it sounds familiar, but I don’t know what that is.’
During the drumming there was a fleeting moment where I remember thinking ‘That sounds like some of his drum pieces I’ve played,’ but you’re so gripped by the movie. You’re immediately engrossed. This guy's getting shot up by bears. He’s getting shot at by Indians. It’s a very intense movie.
Do you own any rights to the song?
Do you wish you did now?
Yeah I guess, you know. What can you say? First thing, no one’s making any money off of recordings anymore. Now the way to make money is live performances. It used to be that musical acts toured to promote the sale of their records. They made a bunch of money off records. Now it’s upside down. They make records to promote their tours. Taylor Swift, she’s complained a lot about that in the news. She doesn’t even make any money selling records. You don’t ever expect to make any money. I was a professor, that’s how I was making my money.
I don’t think John would make any money from residuals. How he gets his money is by selling the music for someone else to play it. He owns copyright to the music. That’s how composers do it. They get the music out, players want to play it, and they buy the music. He was the composer and I was just the player.
What would you say to someone who’s pursuing music or would want their music to be in movies someday?
If you do what you love, really give it your attention, supreme effort, and your heart―those actions resonate and come back to you over the years of your life.