Monday, 29 January 2018

Anoushka Shankar interviewed for Shiraz (1928), in cinemas from 2nd February.


For her first film score, Anoushka Shankar not only succeeded she excelled. Given that this was a silent film and a long one, and that her work was to be unveiled live – without a safety net - the rapturous reception it received at last year’s London Film Festival Restoration Gala is even more remarkable, yet from the very start of our discussion I began to understand the reasons why.

I met Anoushka in her London studio and was very kindly offered tea in a mug on which the following question was written: What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail? I put this to Anoushka as my first question, hoping that other mugs would soon arrive with further questions… and it evinced the first burst of laughter from a woman who is as gracious as she is talented; she laughs like a lark but is very focused even in the face of my random question.

“To fly! I always had flying dreams as a kid, it was my big obsession…” but as soon as she thinks of applying this to the real world, she says “I almost wonder if that takes away the fun of trying to be honest… there’s a tension in trying something new and unknown, …from not knowing if it’s going to work or not, so it would almost take the interest away.”

Luckily this ties right into the question of why you would tackle a project like Shiraz, not just a huge exercise in scoring but also one that would be given a live premier in front of thousands. But clearly, it’s a question of “what would you do if you knew you could fail”?

AS I like to challenge myself and this was two-fold; there was the act of writing my first film score and having that be augmented by writing for a silent film and how much more was required for that…Then there was the fact that right from the beginning it was booked to be a live premier and that really intrigued me, I’d only seen a couple of films with live music being played and found it really electrifying. The dual element of having to compose and perform I found fascinating.

On stage and on screen at the Barbican. Photograph - and above - from Darren Brade.
PJ It must be very hard to not overstate and to draw the focus away from the film; some modern scores have taken over the narrative in a way but not yours, you kept the balance.

AS Yes, I saw that you said I hadn’t done that and that’s one of the things I appreciate, so thank you…

PJ: I wrote that before I knew I was coming here…

AS (Laughs…) That’s lucky then!

I grew up as an accompanist, so much of my playing was as the second sitarist to my father and so I have a good training in being the side person who is there to augment and I think that’s really important. Sometimes there is a clash - there can be an ego desire to play the very best, the most clever line there is and sometimes that’s just not appropriate in that moment, the choice to do it less or do it a little bit differently… it might not show in that moment the best of you but it’s best for the bigger picture. I had that experience in my past, so I kind of knew to do that in scoring a film.

But ultimately, people are coming to watch a film and if there was ever that experience of them being torn away from the film by me trying to take attention then that wasn’t going to work. So hopefully we would come across well…

PJ In some ways that’s kind of Rule #1 for silent film and yet it is so hard to apply in practice - which is why your score is so striking.

AS It was a great way to have a first experience, ‘wow, the Barbican Gala! OK!’ It was an electrifying night I thought, one of my more memorable shows I think.

PJ I saw Shiraz again last week and if anything, it’s even more powerful second time around. How does it compare with other collaborations?

AS The thing that felt scariest was the level of responsibility involved, with the fact that there was no one there who had been part of making the film to help instruct me as to what the intentions were. In any given scene I could easily chose the wrong way or read it the wrong way. So, if something was meant to be a very, obvious signifier of something to come, for example or if I just noticed it because I saw it 30 times and actually it’s not meant to be you know… Those are things that a director would tell you how to do as a composer and that director wasn’t there, so I did feel the weight of that responsibility of wanting to really try and have the film play as it as intended…

PJ Other directors are available… did your husband (director Joe Wright) help?

AS Laughs… Yes, I played it for him at the beginning and then half way through. It was helpful because at the very beginning we watched it together and he gave me a couple of pointers about pulling out just what I thought the themes were and always trying to decide that any given scene was about one of those themes or sometimes more than one that could make for interesting counter play. That was really helpful because it gave me a bit of a template to start with… and yet, for any director, it’s not their film so they still don’t know what the other person intended so there was still that shooting in the dark feeling, so, I hope we did that the best we could.

Himansu Rai and Charu Roy at the Taj Mahal
PJ I’ve been listening a lot to (Anoushka's latest album) Land of Gold and listening to tracks like Disolving Boundaries you feel like you’re wrapped up in the centre of a defined musical narrative: it starts in a disparate way before pulling together with an uplifting and forceful piano line as you're moved along; it’s very effective and very cinematic music.

AS Thank you, I really appreciate that. I’ve heard people use the word cinematic about my music for years and I can’t say I always knew what that meant but I liked it and I thought that now I’m writing for a movie I won’t know how to make it cinematic – laughs – now that I’m thinking differently!

PJ There must be the concern that you over think it and start to undermine your natural instincts?

AS It was just a question of doing it over and over again really. One good decision I made was not to start at the beginning… and not to work in order. So, we ended up with really-random patchworks and then each bit would inform the next, and kept going back over it and sieving though it and one more time and one more time… We were able to build in a lot of detail and a lot of quite specific structure within it.

PJ There’s a lovely bit when Shiraz is chasing after Selima is kidnapped and there’s a riot of counter-rhythms from the tabla and other percussion.

AS We started with one percussion and then a second percussion and then a third… we wanted it to feel chaotic whilst he was chasing and lost… we were quite careful about how we would use surround sound, it was quite minimal, and we wanted it to have impact when we did it. That was the first moment where we used an element of surround sound, so the percussion starts coming form all over the place it enhances the feeling. There’s a moment when they all charge to chase after him and that’s the point when all the percussion snaps together and starts playing in unison… Stuff like that was really fun to get to play with which I would never have thought of if I was just writing for an album.

PJ The music is so well edited as part of the film and it struck me that the sitar was almost like the narrator and that when you’d have an intertitle the sitar would solo, pausing the action between the scenes and preparing for changes in mood.


AS I’m aware of myself as a band-leader in the context of it being a live show as well – again I was building this soundtrack knowing that it would be a live show as well, so I was having to build it in a way that it would work live, so there was an element of thinking who was playing what and needing to make sure I could lead in a song… For me I often err on the side of caution where I’m paranoid that I’m taking up too much space with my instrument so I almost back out of pieces too much at first when I’m writing and give all the melodies away to other people. It usually takes someone else coming in and saying ‘where’s the sitar? I haven’t heard it for three scenes?!' and I have to go ‘alright!’, I’ll just be sat there and need to put myself back in. You have to find a balance but no I tend to be quite paranoid of being too showy.

PJ What other concerns did you have about the project?

AS Time period was another one and stylistic choices. I know I’m already known for making music that’s quite multi-cultural, with an Indian centre and yet incorporating other elements, so when the BFI commissioned me I figured it was with an openness to that. I assumed I had the freedom to chose whatever pallet I wanted to but that was a bit paralyzing at the beginning… I keep coming back to this but that fact that it was booked as a live premier was really useful because I had to commit right at the beginning to what my ensemble was going to be and that meant I knew who I was writing for. But at the beginning I could have gone in any direction, I could have chosen a full ensemble of eight purely traditional Indian instruments in order to make a fully authentic Indian score or I could have gone a bit more Avant Garde and just gone sitar with a quartet, electronica and made it be a more London-based soundtrack…

In the end I settled on a mixed Indian and Western ensemble that would help me give a lot of variation through what’s a very long film. I made the decision to start very authentically in the way one would expect with the opening credits: ‘this is an Indian film from the 1920s…’ and slowly from there to start to bring in developments in a way that wasn’t too jarring…

PJ Does that development come with the emotional flow of the film?

AS Yes and it was a kind of narrative as again it was following the story of the film. There is that point in the film that you talked about where Selima is kidnapped, it’s such a dramatic moment that it felt appropriate to introduce a new instrumental sound and once the piano is in you can begin to establish other sounds and so, by the end of the film you’re in what almost could be a more pop-feeling arrangement with sitar being like a vocal and having full verse/chorus elements in that final love scene... but you had to get there carefully, and if we’d have brought that in at the beginning it would have felt strange. It’s a process of going one way and then another and then another before fitting it all together: it feels very fulfilling I think? I Hope! (Laughs!)

PJ I think the film’s not an obvious film either, it ends with the love of the Prince and Shiraz and their mutual dedication to honouring Selima.

Charu Roy and Enakshi Rama Rau
AS I think a lot of people are surprised with which man she chooses in the end… which is funny when you think of what the film’s about…

PJ …and he seemed a nice prince too, perhaps just a little harsh on occasion?

AS Yes, just a bit! It does twist and turn in tone and you can play with that and then you’ve got Daliah, who’s just such a great character to write for.

PJ Have you seen A Throw of Dice and Seeta Devi’s other films? It has a soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney but there could be room for another one?

AS She’s brilliant isn’t she… and, well no! (smiles) I watched it for Nitin’s score years ago not knowing that I would end up doing one as well, so I didn’t pay as much attention beyond the music I think. But yes, she’s wonderful and she gives a different colour. It was nice to have a couple of moments to play with humour, it’s very serious and it’s very epic and so on, but we did try and have a giggle now and then!

PJ There are some moments as with the elephant’s foot, when it starts off a bit funny and then…

AS I found that scene incredible even without music, it was really well done.

PJ The way it was cut, you were convinced that Shiraz is going to get squashed… And there’s something about that character too, and the actor, Himansu Rai, he’s so relate-able, humorous and serious in turns.

AS He’s very likable, you identify with him, he’s the kind of everyman isn’t he?

Seeta Devi
PJ He’s totally naturalistic in the same way that Seeta Devi is as well… that’s something you find even this early, with some people, whether it’s because they’re acting themselves, fundamentally, or just acting “well”. You look at Seeta once and she reaches across the decades and feels very fresh. And that’s where the music helps… in this connection.

AS Well that’s the aim, you want people to be able to reconnect with this film and the music is what brings them back into the film. The first time I watched the film it was silent…I found it amazing and impressive but it was a very disconnected experience my first time watching a film with absolutely no sound and I was struck by how two dimensional it felt without the music.

I’m so curious to know what music was played with it at the time. It’s really wonderful that the BFI have restored it this way… I’m so glad I did it!

PJ You can say that now… but was there any point when you thought you’d bitten off too much?

AS Yes, definitely… especially in the final weeks. We had a big technical issue and had to re-do a lot of the things we had to in the last three weeks. The sheer volume was really quite insane. So that was the black moment! I work with incredible people, my soundman and my cellist/pianist who worked co-arranging a lot of things, were brilliant and we all just pulled in and did it together.

PJ How do you approach composing for western instruments?

AS I feel woefully ill-equipped in comparison to on the Indian side, I can’t notate and I have very little understanding of harmonic structure, so I tend to write melodies and then I’ll work with someone to help me ground things. They’ll help me understand what I’ve done because it’s more instinctive than from knowledge,  I’ll write the Indian notation for that part of the ensemble and then I’ll need to work with someone to notate that into western score

The great Himansu Rai
PJ We’re no longer talking about “world music”, just music – “thank goodness!” – and in terms of experimenting and blending styles, your music is innovative but from the point of view of a virtuoso… always balanced even when it’s pushing boundaries.

AS When I started moving into, I guess, multi-cultural or experimental music, that was one of my aims, because I grew up in a classical world, I know the standard with which people listen to a classical musician and they expect a certain qualitative element to be there. I hope that anything I work on, that people listening with other ears, that are trained in other cultures, would be able to find those same elements of quality in the elements I use even if I’m not an expert in them, so that’s where the collaborative approach comes in where I need to work with other experts who can help me make sure of quality in areas that I might not be aware of. 

I love all kinds of music and I’m very open, but it will make me wince sometimes if someone who is a fantastic musician from a non-Indian culture, just doesn’t understand what they’re doing when they choose an Indian melody or line, you know and just stick it on there. It’s a tough call – sometimes it could sound pretty to someone who doesn’t understand but to someone who does understand it sounds all wrong or out of tune or expressed weirdly… all those things, so I know that way of listening and I would hate for someone to listen to something I’ve used and feel the same way.

PJ I listened to a couple of Mogwai remixes of tracks from Land of Gold - and I love Mogwai - yet they’re very masculine in their approach but good at structuring sound. They did a good job – your tune and their sound blend so well.

AS Thank you, I love Mogwai too!

Recommended and don't miss the remixes!

PJ What was the response in India to Shiraz?

AS It was equivalent, it was good. We did 4/5 shows and they all had the same immediate response that we had at the Barbican at the end. I think that there was perhaps an added element of the emotion involved in watching something from your own culture that’s been restored. A lot of people were watching a film from their own country that was older than anything they’d ever seen before. There were some chiming moments in a couple of the cities during the first kissing scenes, people just gasped dramatically all the way across the hall because they weren’t expecting that because we’d generally grown up with not seeing that… I gasped and my Mum gasped as most people would never have seen a black and white film with a kiss in it… and then there were two! So, there were lovely moments like that.

PJ Do you have any other film projects?

AS I’m touring at the moment, then working on a new album sometime this summer, so it’s a question of seeing how we go. I definitely found it very fulfilling to write for a film and would so I love to do more… whether another silent film falls into my lap or not I don’t know, but film hopefully. I would be curious to learn how to write for a non-silent film at this point because, in a way, that has a completely different set of challenges. That would be interesting and that might have more scope for opportunity as well.



Shiraz opens on Friday 2nd February for runs at the BFI and Home, Manchester and then around the UK until the end of March. A digital release will follow but I would urge you to not miss it on the big screen and with the full might of the Shankar score! Full details are on the BFI site.

Details of Anoushka's tour and impressive back-catalogue can be found on her website.

My review of the now legendary Gala Performance is here.


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