Ari Kinarthy on Making Meaningful Music

Composer Ari Kinarthy sitting in front of a large concert hall organ.

Victoria-based composer Ari Kinarthy is the subject of the documentary Ari’s Theme, which will have its world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto on April 30. Akimblog recently spoke to him about his work and what it’s like to be the subject of a documentary.

I took some piano lessons as a kid, back when my hands could play piano. My family has some musical background. My grandmother was an opera singer. I don’t have much background. I just got into it gradually over time. I grew up watching a lot of films, especially John Williams films. He wrote the music for Star Wars and Indiana Jones and a lot of iconic scores. Those melodies repeat over and over in my mind. I fell in love with his music and the music of some other composers as well. But it wasn’t until I was sixteen and started music therapy that I began to create music.

I got introduced to music therapy a little bit randomly in Vancouver. They had a program at a place I was staying. I met a therapist and worked with them for one session. They said I had a knack for it, so back in Victoria, where I live – it was like seventeen, eighteen years ago – they referred me to my current therapist Allan Slade. I wasn’t even creating my own pieces when we started. I was just remixing things, having fun. But very early on I knew I wanted to do something constructive. Alan had to adapt his music therapy style with me because I was all about creating things, rather than just playing music for healing sake.

Composer Ari Kinarthy with headphones on at his digital audio workstation.

I started to write my own pieces by working with technology. There is a technology that lets me move my chair to create music called the Soundbeam. I used that for a number of years. In 2013 there was a competition for music hosted by the Soundbeam company. I told myself that if I won it, I would start focusing on music more seriously. I would study it and I would use it for a career. I did win the competition, and so I started studying music. I completed an online certification from Berklee and kept working at it.

I compose mainly on the computer. I use a digital audio workstation called Cubase and a notation program if I need to write down the music to be played by real musicians. For everything else it’s sample libraries from companies like Spitfire Audio for sounds from instruments that you can recreate on the computer. Then I use Midi, which is how the computer interprets the notes. I use my mouse and plug in the notes one at a time in a sequence. When I have Allan with me, I can give him the ideas I have in my head, a chord progression or a melody, and he can play live on the keyboard, which records exactly what he’s playing. That speeds things up a lot.

The one thing that isn’t great about solely relying on the computer is that it sometimes doesn’t feel natural. It sounds like a computer has written it rather than a human. Real instruments and real players are always the way to go, if you can. But it takes some getting used to. I have to take away the part of my brain that always wants things exact. The computer is mathematically exact, but players interpret naturally. The beauty of instruments is not perfection.

There’s a moment in the film when I’m working with this other composer from Austria, and we have a discussion about disability as an artistic style rather than as a limitation itself. That’s something I’d never thought of before, and honestly, I’m still thinking about it and trying to welcome that idea. Being disabled and a composer is not easy. I want so badly just to put my hands on the piano and let the music flow out of me. Instead, I have to calculate everything inside my brain and how it’s going to be. Music is more like a puzzle to me, and I’d much rather be more expressive. I think, as time goes on, I’ll get better and better at bridging the gap between calculating and just expressing myself. But that’s the main way that being disabled impacts being a composer.

Poster for the documentary Ari's Theme. An image of composer Ari Kinarthy in front of a red curtain with the film credits in white text.

The nature of filmmaking is that things develop and change, and it certainly did for this project. It started as one pitch, and I’d say it changed at least three or four times. The initial idea is definitely still there, but it turned into a hybrid film with documentary stuff, but also a dramatic story as well. Writing music about the memories of my life was the idea from the beginning.

I was involved in pretty much every aspect of the film in some way. We collaborated on choosing what memories were the most impactful. The directors, Nathan Drillot and Jeff Lee Petry, would ask me questions, and then they would come up with ideas for the visuals based on my answers. For example, they would ask what image comes to mind about viruses and sickness. I described a black ooze, and they ran with it. They gave me a script to work with, but I often didn’t know what they were going to do and I still had to write music, which is a big challenge and very unorthodox for filmmaking. But it meant that sometimes the music I wrote shaped their ideas of the visuals.

A scene from the documentary Ari's Theme where Ari imagines his sheet music flying into the air.

Honestly, I had a lot of fear about making this film because it is a lot of myself put out there for the world to see. It’s not an easy thing to do. There are a lot of scenes that dive into my anxiety. I didn’t want people to see me as a failure. But now that it’s coming out and being met with a lot of positivity, my fears have been quashed.

I’ll be honest, I had a lot of arguments with the filmmakers. I was like, “No, you can’t show that. Nope, you can’t do that.” But something happened to me. It shows this in the film, although it’s not said directly. Throughout the process of the film, I really opened up a lot. The directors tell me all the time that when they met me, I was always like, “No. Can’t do that. Can’t talk about that.” But then, a year later, we continued working and I just started to focus on wanting to make a good film, wanting to have something in this world that was meaningful.

It was important to show the challenges in my life, that I’m still here and I’ve overcome quite a lot of things. Everyone wants to see the hero fall before he rises up again. That was a quote the directors said to me many times. And it’s true, people want to see the journey. That was a key thing for me. I do think it’s important that people see all of it. I hope that it inspires someone to not give up and to keep pushing forward and to follow your dreams. I’m a people person. If I don’t feel like I’m doing something meaningful for others, it’s hard to feel worthy of anything. Now that I’ve left behind something that can impact people positively, it means the world to me. It makes me have more peace in my heart to leave behind a legacy like that.