Nitin, firstly thank you so much for letting me come down to the session the other day – it was really fascinating, although is seemed a bit fraught at times!
Yeah it was a bit mad! It’s actually come out really well – it’s sounding fantastic and the director and producer are very happy with it.
I spoke to Stephen Hussey and made the analogy of him being the translator between the box and the orchestra, but you’re also stuck in the middle aren’t you?
I’m probably even more in that hot seat because I reserve the right to fight for my composition if the director wants to do something that I’m not wholly in agreement with. Sometimes it can be challenging, but you have to find your way through - other times it can be very easy. Mira for example is a director with a very specific vision– she has a very strong concept of what she likes, and might be reluctant to try something new until she hears it. But then she might hear something else and change her mind again entirely! But if you build a solid relationship and understanding then it can really work. The session you came to wasn’t really typical because we had difficulties with some of the technicalities, but we still got through nine cues in 3 hours and it sounds fantastic! We mixed the music at Sony Studios in New York and now that Mira’s heard it all in context she’s completely head over heels in love with it.
So how does composing for film compare to all your other different projects – writing classical music, making studio albums etc?
I love film work – I’m working on another score right now! Sometimes you’re left to your own devices and you work on your own, play them something and they’ll say “that’s exactly what I was looking for” and sometimes it’s not so straightforward – you need to sit down with the director and find a mutual way forward – a lot of it can be about suspending your ego. At the same time you also have to keep hold of your identity and that’s where being a recording artist comes in very useful because I’ve made a lot of albums  and I have a very strong sense of my own personal identity in terms of making music and production and the sounds I like.
So do you pass on tracks from your albums to directors in the early stages?
Yes, it’s actually very handy, because a lot of directors will use my albums as source materials for the kind of things they’re interested in. I’ve made seven albums and they can go through and say “this one’s closest” and can reference my own music to me, which is great because I know exactly how that music was made and how to reproduce the aspects of that music that they’re most interested in.
That’s interesting because I sent Maya (the Orchestra’s leader) a couple of your tracks before the session to give her an idea of the kind of things that might come up – in particular Koyal and Rag Doll from your Philtre album.
Yeah there are aspects of those, and Mira really likes Koyal – in fact that’s a reference track for the film I’m working on now too! Maya did a killer job – we used her solo on the end montage and she had a really great Asian sensibility in terms of how she played the grace notes and slides and so on – she really made those work and brought out the Indian style of bending and slurring notes whilst maintaining the kind of Western tone which is very rare – you don’t get that really! The combination is a killer combination – she’s a really great violinist!
Do you find you have problems when composing for film because you have to manage the music to the length of scene or to fit certain notes to what’s going on onscreen exactly?
Well quite often I’ll endeavour to compose for exactly the right length of time, but the difficulty with The Namesake was that I got the timecodes very late in the day because right up until the end they were cutting parts and editing. I was never actually given a ‘locked-off’ copy, which has never happened before! I guess you take it all in your stride, but for me as a composer it’s preferable to have a locked-off copy so I can stick to a time frame.
How do you work out what parts of the film are important and what particular aspects the music should highlight?
I’ll sit down for a spotting session with the director and sometimes the producer as well and we’ll kind of mood map the film – we’ll look at the different moods and psychological subtexts and narratives that go through the film. Sometimes I’ll even come up with an overture which contains all the strands and elements of the narrative and then break that apart so that I can follow through those strands along with certain parts or scenes that travel through the film. For instance there might be a ‘Family’ theme or a theme relating to a specific character or their psychology or a situation. You have to think to yourself do you want to emphasise the character's personal development or do you want to emphasise the situation that they’re in, because you don’t want to just underline what’s going on in the film. Quite often if you really listen to a score carefully in the cinema you can really get a hint of things that are going to come up, or some kind of a sense of how things are developing which can be much stronger than just watching the film and listening to what’s going on from the words and the acting.
So who do you think manages to do this well and where do you draw your inspiration for film composition from?
My all time favourite has to be Ennio Morricone who I think is just a complete genius. My favourites are the spaghetti westerns and also Once upon a time in the West. Bernard Herrmann was also a genius – I love the Hitchcock films but also Taxi Driver with Robert De Niro which was a real departure from his more symphonic scores and he really managed to capture a real sense of character with that. Ravi Shankar’s score for the Apu trilogy was also quite something. Recently I’ve really enjoyed the scores by Gustavo Santaolalla who did the music for 21 Grams and The Motorcycle Diaries. He’s great as he uses fantastic solo guitar music which is very simple and very direct. I really like people who’ve got the control to be able to jump between moments when you need something to sound massive and symphonic, but also know how to control a scene where you need to be much more intimate and sensitive – those sorts of composers are the people that I really admire.
It’s interesting because many blockbusters these days seem to be end-to-end wallpaper music, whereas your music highlights things and works in harmony with the film.
Yeah I’m really into picking out images and moments which is something Morricone used to do – when a cigar moves from one side of Clint Eastwood's mouth to the other he’d pick it out with a flute or a panpipe or something. He really had a sense of how to find the spirit of a film and the more subtle mysterious element of what was going on in a film, and really brought out something very special.
Do you enjoy working with an orchestra in this context and having all the options available?
Yes very much – I’ve just bought a new library of symphonic sound files for my computer which will enable me to score even more accurately for orchestra, but you can’t beat the sound of a real orchestra. It’s important to recognise that midi and samples are incredibly good these days, but you still just can’t match a real orchestra - the human element is just too hard to replace and you just can’t replicate solos like Maya’s. Sometime I will use samples in with a live orchestra to enhance things but overall I always like to come back to a real orchestra.
Do you play any orchestral instruments?
I used to play the French horn when I was a lot younger but not particularly well… I play classical piano and guitar but I’ve always been into listening to a lot of orchestral music and playing a lot too – I guess that helps me compose.
What do you think an orchestral musician’s role is in the 21st century?
I think orchestras have a lot of pressure to adapt to the changing world and to recognise the multimedia direction we’re going in – currently I’m working on the music for a Playstation 3 game, for a live orchestral concert with film. You have to find people who can really work with a groove – I grew up playing jazz and classical music and I find music’s really about listening to other people you’re playing with and to the composition as you’re playing rather than focusing all the time on reading the music and what the conductor’s doing. I think that has been the case with orchestras in the past and it’s more important to have a sense of the spirit and the feel, which I think will enable orchestras to fit in more with the changing world. Because orchestral musicians are asked to play in more and more different contexts I think they need to have a really strong sense of listening and adapting to the situation they’re in. It’s interesting because some orchestras don’t groove and some do – I think it’s important that orchestras adapt to have the understanding of playing in all these different styles and grooves.
Nitin, thanks so much for speaking with us and we’re looking forward to seeing the film.
To hear some of Nitin's music visit http://www.nitinsawhney.com