Niraj Chag is a self-taught musician who was signed up to Outcaste Records at the age of 20. He worked as a pop producer for Warner Music before moving into composing for theatre, dance, television and film. He talks here about creating Vyuha (2013) with kathak dancer Gauri Sharma Tripathi.
I like to begin new projects like a blank canvas, without too much baggage, because I think the outcome can be more interesting. Working on Vyuha was quite unusual, even by my standards! It started while Gauri was in India and I was in London, exchanging ideas by email. We worked with some key phrases, like “memories and voices”, or “inception revisited” – and then, quite late in the day, I got a message from Gauri saying: there was a piece I’d made with her for a 2004 project that was never finally performed – and it was just perfect.
So I stopped what I’d been doing, and instead dug out this old piece which I’d actually forgotten about, called Vyuha. It was quite weird. Nine years on, I have a different psychology, different ears and of course different technology. So a lot of what I did – after converting the sound files to a more modern format – was not composing, but revising and updating it. I didn’t change the structure, because Gauri was already working to that. Instead, I mainly reworked the sonic mastering and the mix, so that it sounded more up to date. I’d say about 75 to 80 per cent of the score was the same as in 2004.
The music itself is in lots of sections, with alternating chunks of vocal and instrumental, and a less rhythmic section at the beginning. The vocals were quite traditional for kathak. With the instrumentation, I made a deliberate effort to limit the sound palette to just a few instruments, but each section used them in a different way. So I used a Chinese eru sound, which has quite a harsh texture that I liked, and also an acoustic guitar, and a kind of twisted santoor sound that I manipulated. And with that same palette of sounds and textures, I looked at the different melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ways that I could used them in different sections.
When we worked on Vyuha in 2004, it was really collaborative. Gauri recorded the vocals, I composed, and we both worked together in the studio. There was a lot of back and forth. Then in 2013, the process was very different. We were in different countries, and she was creating different choreography, to music that was originally made for a different piece, that I’d actually forgotten about. It was pretty strange!
When composing for dance, there are two questions that I find important. The first is to make it clear early on how we’re counting. It sounds a bit banal – but it’s really important! Because everyone counts in different ways, contemporary dancers different from classical, musicians different from dancers. So it’s good to establish early on what counts we’re talking about.
The second issue that I find really interesting right now is the dichotomy between being literal and subversive. The opening of Vyuha was quite literal: the music set a scene and a mood that was very congruent with the choreography. But you can also give the music a separate identity that works against the choreography, but still serves it on a different level. For example, if the dance is sad, sometimes it’s more powerful to almost fight that, in order to make the emotion even more salient. Instead of spoonfeeding more sadness, it can become dark, or bittersweet, or something else. That’s something that I’m exploring more and more.
Born in Sri Lanka and trained in Carnatic music, Yadavan is a composer and musician who works regularly with his wife, bharatanatyam dancer Nina Rajarani MBE. He talks here about composing for Quick!, the piece which won Rajarani The Place Prize for Dance in 2006.
The idea for Quick! came one day while I was in the street with Nina. We were at a pedestrian crossing, watching how impatient the drivers were at the red light, and I said: imagine if we could entertain them with a dance on the crossing in the few seconds they have to wait! The idea about city businessmen in a fast-paced life started from there. Nina understood it – she likes to do things quickly herself, and always wants everything done yesterday!
On Quick! Nina gave me the basic idea for each section, and I then composed a rhythmic structure for it. The first section shows the four businessmen waking up. When you wake up, you don’t get started straight away: you start slowly, pick up pace, and then suddenly you are rushing because you are running late. I made a trikala jati (‘at three speeds’) to show that. Then there was a scene with everyone getting frustrated as they waited for the lift. To suggest that I had a really drawn-out jati to represent the waiting. Overlapping this was a faster version of the same jati at quadruple speed, representing the build-up of frustration. And right at the end, almost like an outburst, I wrote some really fast syllables to cram into the bars – like extra notes rushing to squeeze into a space that’s already full.
Next was a board meeting, a series of equal exchanges – four bars matching four, two bars matching two, like a dialogue back and forth – which was all improvised live. At the end of the meeting everyone came into unison, as if a deal had been struck or an agreement reached. In the night scene we used modern electronic sounds, with input from drummer T. Pirashanna and our recording engineer Stuart Walton on bass guitar. The sounds were more relaxed, but the businessmen were not really chilling out because there was still that undercurrent of competition. As a finale I increased the volume, and brought in overlapping textures including both Indian percussion and the western drum kit. So it was like in a club after a few drinks, when everyone gets louder and louder, all talking at once.
Quick! was the first time we used a recorded backing track alongside the live music. The piece was made for a dance competition, and we used it to keep within the time limit of fifteen minutes. The recording had very basic rhythms, more like a pulse to keep us in time, but it also added layers of sounds that couldn’t be produced live. We used the mridangam on the track because in the choreography the musicians move around too, so playing the mridangam live was impossible. It was quite demanding. With live music, if the tempo varies you can still keep together as a group. With the machine, we had to be like machines too. A little bit out of synch one way or the other, and it would really show. That can be very complicated with Indian music, with its 9s and 7s and all.
When you compose music on its own you’re free to do as you wish. But when making a dance score, you first have to draw out what the dancer needs. The music is composed for the dancer, not the other way round.
Birmingham-based tabla player Sarvar Sabri was born in India into a musical family (his father is renowned sarangi player Ustad Sabri Khan). He is the founder of the Sabri Ensemble world music group, and is musical director of the Sonia Sabri dance company. He talks here about working with Sonia on their piece Kathakbox, which premiered in 2011.
Being a tabla player is a good training for working with dancers. I have accompanied many great dancers (it’s how I met Sonia, in fact). And as a tabla player especially, you gain an intimate knowledge of the compositions that are integral to the kathak repertoire.
Kathakbox came about because Sonia and I had been working on a lot of projects with deep, serious ideas and we wanted to do something that was more for fun. It started with an idea: let’s not use any instruments at all. The music will come only from our voices and our bodies. In fact, in the end we did use a loop machine, but the the voice was the main form, with the body as percussion.
It was quite a complicated collaboration. In kathak, it’s quite common for composers to give music to the performer, who then creates a dance to it. Sometimes (though it’s much less common nowadays) it’s the other way round: a dancer will send a video and the composer will create to that, bar by bar. But in Kathakbox we had a very different situation. Marcina Arnold is a spoken-word artist, Shan Bansil is a beatboxer, and the dancers (Amayra Fuller, Nathan Geering and Suzanne Grubham) had training that included contemporary dance and Egyptian dance, but not kathak. The only way to find our reference points was to make them together. So we created everything together in the studio, as a group. The whole piece – music, dance, voice, percussion – was developed organically.
Of course, the lead was different in different places. For example, for one section I wrote a percussion sequence based on my understanding of tabla music. But it was four minutes long, and the problem was: how could anyone but a tabla player memorise it? So we created a spoken-word way of understanding, a little story with words as rhythms. So I’d say ’emp-ty choc-late box, choc-late box’ and the dancers would make up phrases like ‘went up to the shop, the shop, to the shop’. And we memorised it in half an hour.
In another section, Marcina came up with the lead, with a series of words around ideas of Britishness: fish and chips, stiff upper lip, and so on. It was like a wordscape of British culture, and it was so interesting that all the movement followed that lead, with Shan and I adding layers of sound on top.
In fact, the idea of layers became central. To start with, we had no instruments at all, but in the end we did use a loop machine as a layer of rhythm that would keep us all together. We all created different loops, and on top of that layer, Marcina, Shan and I all performed our own layers live. So the loop machine became like a fourth musician in the ensemble.
Working with a dance company is very different from playing as a musician in a concert. It’s more wholistic. In a music concert, you focus on reading and playing the music and keeping together with your ensemble. With dance, you have to be very alert to the movement, the performers, the lighting, as well as the sound. In dance, I’d say I am 200 or 300 per cent more aware of my surroundings.
Tapan Raj (MIDIval Punditz)
Childhood friends Tapan Raj and Gaurav Raina formed electronic music group MIDIval Punditz in 1997 in Delhi. With no formal musical training, they began producing music by DJing and remixing, and found their groove by putting together Indian folk or classical music with ‘beat music’ from clubs – drum and bass, jungle, breakbeats. Here, Raj talks about composing for Sivaloka, a 2011 piece by UK choreographer Mayuri Boonham.
We first worked with Mayuri back in 2003. Previously, we had composed some scores for fashion shows, which often have an element of choreography, but nothing on the scale that Mayuri was looking at. But it worked well, and by the time of Sivaloka we had already done three pieces with Mayuri. So already had a chemistry. She is very collaborative, which is how we work too. She suggests ideas and then we talk through whether the music should be fast or slow, whether the voice should be male or female, and so on. She doesn’t dictate what to do.
The idea for Sivaloka came from Mayuri. She had been very inspired by the statues in the Elephanta caves, near Bombay, and she wanted to make a piece that portrayed different aspects of Shiva. She suggested that we actually go to Elephanta and record there, to get the ambience. We loved the idea of getting the actual vibe of the place onto the recording.
Before going, we laid down some base arrangements in the studio in Delhi, so that we didn’t arrive with an empty slate. These were like a minimal canvas which we could score later. They had maybe one or two melodies, so something that set the scale, or tempo, or mood. Then we went to Elephanta with a tabla, mridangam, temple bells, vocalists and we had two sound engineers who were experienced at field recording. We recorded out there in the caves – which was tricky! Some of the pieces were quite complicated, and we had to record everything very quickly, in between the busy tourist times.
Then we went back to the studio in Delhi and did the final production. Recording in the caves made a big difference. They have a natural ambience and reverb. Applying a studio reverb to the sound of temple bells would have been nothing like what we got when we recorded in the caves themselves, with six mics. When we heard that sound, we were blown away. It was awesome.
The opening section with the bells is very atmospheric. It’s basically an interpretation of spiritualism, and the music sound was like a sound environment for the dance. In other sections, the music and dance worked totally differently. There was a rhythmic section, which had a basic 4/4 time signature but we used counts from the Fibonacci number sequence. We counted through 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, then all the way back down again, alternating between the mridangam and the dancers. It was pretty complicated! But we had a great time doing it.
I don’t think there’s a great difference between how we compose for musical performance and how we compose for dance. The main one is that for music performance, it’s your own story and your own music. With dance, that narrative comes from someone else, working in a different medium. So you have to pay attention to the dance style, and the story in the music is not something you’ve created, it’s something you’ve interpreted.