Nitin Sawhney: How I Wrote Music for a Dance Without Dancers
He has composed for films, TV series, and orchestras. But his Dystopian Dream could be his most ambitious work yet
By Judith Mackrell
Nitin Sawhney has always loved writing music for dance, but he finds working with choreographers a very specific discipline—with very specific restraints. “You have to suspend your ego,” he laughs and mentions a particularly challenging moment during a collaboration with his good friend Akram Khan. It was late and Sawhney was still recovering from the marathon of writing music for all eight episodes of the BBC series Human Planet. He admits he was not at his most receptive when the choreographer said to him: “Right Nitin, what I want here is 10 minutes of just banging.” As he recalls: “I was like, ‘What? What kind of banging?’ How is that going to work for me?”
However, once he’d worked out that Khan wanted something that “sounded very tribal, very primal,” he went on to write music unlike anything he’d ever composed before. “It was a ticking that gradually expanded into this huge pulse,” he says of his compositions for what became 2010’s Vertical Road. “It sounded so epic, so strong—it was like the beginning of the universe. Working with someone else’s vision can be such a revelation. Once you start digging into their thoughts, you create something you would never have got to by yourself.”
He may be a DJ, a producer, a guitarist, and a composer who’s written for films, TV shows, video games, and symphony orchestras, but dance has always been a force in Sawhney’s life. His mother trained as a bharata natya dancer when she was a young woman in India; and during his own teenage years in Kent, he became heavily involved in the local street dance scene. Seated in his Brixton studio, a magical hive crowded with instruments and recording equipment, he says: “I was a break-dancer when I was a kid. I was really into it.” Later, as a young composer, it was his study of classical kathak music that led Sawhney to write his first scores for dance, working with British-based performers like Nahid Siddiqui.
Nitin Sawhney (Image credit: Suku Dhanda)
Collaborating with Khan—a pairing that began with the 1999 solo Fix—has brought a wider involvement with the art form. He makes proud mention of a charity event at which he performed a solo choreographed by Hofesh Shechter—“a rave dance with a glitter ball”—and says he now attends dance performances regularly, and attentively. “It’s amazing to see how dance is put together. As a musician, it’s such a wonderful vocabulary. You can hear music in every movement the body makes. Even when there’s no movement, there’s a tension that is always exciting.”
Sawhney has become such an integral part of the British dance scene, he’s been made an associate artist of Sadler’s Wells, the UK’s premier dance house. He feels a deep affection for the London venue and his latest project is almost a love letter to it. The work is part of No Body, a series of multimedia installations designed for different parts of the building, which, although inspired by dance, involve no live performance. Instead, the event is conceived as a choreography of light, imagery, and sound, with creations by lighting designers Michael Hulls and Lucy Carter and film by Siobhan Davies and Russell Maliphant.
At first, Sawhney wasn’t clear exactly why they should be ditching live performance. “To be honest, I couldn’t get my head around where it was coming from.” But, turning the idea over, he began to see it as a great opportunity to work in a new genre and communicate something of what the theater means to him. “I had the idea of an installation that would explore the history of the building—all the performers who’ve left their mark on the stage, all the heightened emotion that’s been contained here and is still imprinted on its walls.”
Working with the video artist Nick Hillel, Sawhney trawled through an archive of old photographs and playbills from the theater, piecing together a history that dates back to the early 1800s, when comedians like Joseph Grimaldi were its stars. This progresses to the 1930s, when Margot Fonteyn was its fledgling ballerina, before reaching the present day. Working with Hillel’s images, Sawhney composed his own impressionistic, aural recall of the theater’s history, which the audience will to listen to through headphones as they walk through the installation.
I wanted to create the feeling that the installation was rising from the depths of the past and up into the light.
The final crucial component of Indelible, as Sawhney has titled his creation, is the geography. Arranged over three floors, it will begin in the foyer and then move upstairs until it ends in a rehearsal room where, he promises, “there will be some kind of revelation.” This physical ascent is Sawhney’s way of referencing the wells around which the first theater on the site was built: “I wanted to create the feeling that the installation was rising from the depths of the past and up into the light.”
For his next dance project, another Sadler’s Wells coproduction, Sawhney is very much in the physical here and now. It’s a staged concert of his album Dystopian Dream that will feature the hip-hop/contemporary dance duo Wang and Ramirez. During the writing of Dystopian Dream, Sawhney says he had an almost cinematic narrative running through his head, and he imagined that at some point the album could be turned into a fully choreographed piece. He worked with Wang and Ramirez at the album’s launch, where they performed to the track “Redshift.” “They captured everything I was hoping for. This album has lots of layers, and they got that. They can work in ways that are symbolic but also deeply personal. They can go from something intimate to something quite epic.”
Sawhney talks of feeling a visceral thrill whenever he watches his music take on an independent physical life. “When I conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, that was wonderful. A month earlier, I’d been imagining this music in my head. Now all these people were performing it. Dance is such a human, such a full-bodied form of expression; it’s always going to draw you in.”
—Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Guardian on June 2, 2016.
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