FIVE QUESTIONS FOR NAINITA DESAI
One of the leading emerging artists in the British music scene, Nainita Desai has worked on countless film and television scores for some of the largest broadcasters worldwide such as the BBC, HBO, ITV and Channel 4. A BAFTA Breakthrough Brit and Music & Sound Award winner, Nainita has garnered a reputation for having an incredibly creative and eclectic musical output, composing scores for OSCAR, BAFTA and EMMY nominated projects and working with some of the finest orchestras across London and Europe. Recent projects include feature films Darkness Visible, Untamed Romania and Extraordinary Rituals for BBC's Natural History Unit.
As one of the UK's leading composers, you have amassed a portfolio of some incredible projects. What is one of the experiences that you are most proud of?
ND: Becoming a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit was certainly a proud moment for me – receiving acknowledgment from the industry including BAFTA, an institution I’ve looked up to my whole career. But above and beyond that, it’s always been achieving personal musical goals that I’ve been most proud of.
One of the most personally rewarding projects I’ve ever scored was the BBC film, City of Dreams - A Musical - a unique hybrid documentary musical where actuality and interviews were interwoven with bespoke songs written for the contributors to sing and perform. It’s a ground breaking film that made music an integral part of the documentary narrative. There were a lot of firsts for me on that – writing lyrics – which was new to me - as well as working on an International shoot handling various contributors, orchestras, and musicians.
Another wonderful experience was scoring the natural history feature film Untamed Romania, where my score was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Wales – a great 75 piece band !
On a ‘story’ level, being involved in documentaries about strong social issues, true crime, and political subjects that promote discussion, debate and change, is incredibly rewarding. Films such as For Sama that premieres at SXSW, profile of female Syrian camerawoman Waad Al-Kateab, BAFTA nominated series Catching a Killer and Raped-My Story, The Life After set in Northern Ireland, Searching for Mum about adoption, are all remarkable stories to have been a part of. The films are so powerful, there really is no need to manipulate the audience with over emotional music.
Conversely, the music can’t be so bland so as to not have any impact at all, so it has to be finely crafted around the dialogue and story, but still retain a distinctiveness and unique identity that handles the subject matter in a sensitive and respectful way. Being part of telling important stories and issues is one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do.
We all know that the television industry in particular is known for it's tight deadlines. How do you manage all of your projects and still find time to hustle for more?
ND: Early on in my career I focussed on purely writing and developing my musical skills. I’d work intensely during a project and then find myself out of work when the project came to an end. I realised that networking AND writing music at the same time was essential and a tricky balancing act I needed to learn.
Now I spend 50% of my time networking unless I’m seriously up against deadlines. I have endless to do lists broken down into monthly, weekly, daily and hourly tasks. Urgent email requests or phone calls mean my schedules are constantly re-writtten. I mix in the morning when I’m more alert. I tend not to work past 11pm at night unless I have to.
When I’m locked in the studio, I’ll only work on 1 or 2 projects in a day so that I stay in the zone when writing on any one project. It sounds like a very ordered regime but I do balance it out with plenty of chaos. Chaos and Order are really important to me in achieving an equilibrium and work flow.
Along with working with sampled instruments, you also get the chance to record with orchestras at some of Europes best studios. Do you find your creative process changes when writing with samples or for live players?
ND: Very much so ! I recently scored a theatrical feature doc Untamed Romania that was released in the cinema. The score was recorded by the 75 piece BBC NOW Orchestra at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff. I would create sketches that were developed into mockups that were then approved by the team. They had to sound as good as possible to get passed the director. Non musicians tend not to have the aural vision to realise what a piece will sound like when finished and recorded, hence the huge industry built up with sample libraries and demos to convince them to a) trust you that it’s all going to work out fine and b) allow them some creative authorship in the writing process!
I recently recorded the score for Telling Lies, an Interactive movie / narrative video game for Annapurna Interactive with the London Contemporary Orchestra. That process involved some improvisation with the orchestra while recording at Angel Studios. It was an incredibly liberating process where you’re delving into the unknown. Two features I scored recently Darkness Visible and Enemy Within, were all scored in-house bringing in a handful of the best soloists to enhance a sample based score. I do like to mix things up sometimes by bringing in musicians early on in the process to play on rough ideas. I’ll record lots of semi-improvised playing - it’s a way of building up a custom library of sounds and experiments that act as temp tracks, that then get further developed during the edit. Once we reach picture lock then it’s a case of refining those tracks that have been used as temp and writing more new material to picture and finally bringing in musicians again to play on finalised tracks.
I have to adapt and frequently work in the box due to various reasons - either I have to hit the ground running on a project if I’m brought in late into the process, or have demanding clients that want many rounds of changes to a tight schedule, or working to a tight budget. In all the above scenarios, I still have to produce the highest quality ‘demos’ or in many cases the finished product.
I’m really keen to break down technology barriers and find a way of injecting human expression into the writing process in as fast and organic a way as possible. I was an early adopter of the Roli Grand Stage and have controllers such as the Touche Expressive, the Jouee, Roli Rise and blocks. Using instruments in an unorthodox way can inject a fresh way of writing instead of the default mode of just sitting in front of the keyboard and mac. I may record the guitar viol or sing to start the musical process.
Something that I learned from working with Peter Gabriel and the Daniel Lanois school of writing is to ‘capture the magic’ of performance without letting technology get in the way, so I tend to have the record button on all the time with live improvisation to picture when composing, and then edit and fine tune later on.
In relation to the television industry, have you found that it is more important to have your own distinctive sound, or to be able to adapt to whatever comes your way?
ND: Of course it depends on what genre you are working in, and having a unique sound that you are known for or being a ‘jack of all trades’ both have their merits. Embracing writing in many styles of music has been my strength in terms of developing my skill set, sustaining a career, and helping me find my own voice. It’s given me a solid foundation and helped me realise what I naturally gravitate towards stylistically through that process of trial and error.
If you’re developing a career as a composer for drama or features, it’s never been more important to have a distinct musical voice. That’s something that comes after some time of creative self discovery. It gives you an authenticity and creativity integrity that film makers are often looking for.
What was the last piece of music that you heard that you think everyone reading this should hear?
ND: When it comes to film scores, I tend to not listen to scores without watching the films. The music has to help tell the story, so if you are not watching the film when listening to the music, it means you are only getting 50% of the intended effect. Some films and scores combined that have made a big impact on me include Taxi Driver, Gladiator, Schindler's List, Blade Runner (1982), American Beauty, the Piano, the TV series The Handmaids Tale, Pi and The Fountain by Clint Mansell amongst countless others. Other recent artists I’ve recently been listening to include Colin Stetson, and Adam Ben Ezra – great instrumentalists pushing the envelope with their instruments.
For more information about Nainita, visit www.nainitadesai.com