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Down the Rabbit Hole

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Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor are mad lab scientists creating some of the most intriguing film scores of today. The composer duo in conversation with Suprateek Chatterjee

Naren Chandavarkar, 31, has bloodshot eyes and an unkempt beard. In a tiny Andheri (West) studio, with two doors leading to sound-treated booths, he’s seated at a table that already has, among other things, a laptop and a pair of high-end audio monitoring headphones. “I finally just got a pillow in here today, for the first time,” he says, with a sheepish grin, motioning vaguely towards a couch at the far end of the room. “I’ve been in denial all this while.”

The space is modest, a quality also shared by Chandavarkar and his composing partner Benedict Taylor, 35, who is in London and will soon join us via Skype. Taylor just played the viola as part of a 70-piece ensemble. The performance was in a castle in Zagreb, Croatia. This may not even be the fanciest gig he’s ever played—as a noted classical and avant-garde violist, he has performed with the likes of British singer-songwriter Donovan and former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The workplace he co-runs with his musical partner, in a small lane off industrial Veera Desai Road, with its overflowing gutters, is a diametrically opposite setting. In terms of musical infrastructure, however, it seems pretty solid. A black Ibanez AR-300 electric guitar lies on a rack, the first thing one sees upon entering. “John Scofield [acclaimed jazz guitarist] has almost the same guitar, except his is hollow-bodied and this one is solid-bodied,” Chandavarkar, himself a classical guitarist, tells me. A tiny lute-like instrument is brought in by one of two programmer-engineers who work under their direction, Mallar Sen. It looks like an oud, a Persian instrument the duo has used in Aamir Bashir’s Harud (2010). No, it’s a Chinese instrument called the liuqin, Sen informs me—essentially a four-stringed mandolin. “If you play it near the bridge, you get that bright, typically Chinese sound,” says Chandavarkar.

In the mixing room, later, he demonstrates some recently acquired modular synthesisers, part of an arsenal of gear he has assembled over several years. They’re attached to a metallic frame, propped up horizontally, a collection of lights, knobs, and brightly coloured wires connecting various components in a switchboard-like manner. One, called Clouds, bends and shapes the texture of any sound it receives as an input, granularising a looped simple synth lead beyond resemblance. Another, called Warps, combines two processing signals and allows the user to colour the sound and play around with its timbre in seemingly endless ways. “The amount of control you have over your sound is unbelievable,” he murmurs, pausing in the middle of an almost salesman-like monologue in which he rattled off the functions of every single knob on these gadgets.

Some of these synths were used in the score accompanying the promos of Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon, a moody, atmospheric crime thriller that hit theatres in early August. It is their seventh big-screen credit so far, although they’ve worked on quite a few more. Taylor and Chandavarkar are among a new breed of music composers working in Indian cinema who are quite agnostic when it comes to genre, language, and budget. Having debuted in 2010 with Anurag Kashyap’s indie That Girl in Yellow Boots, the duo has provided the soundtracks to some of the best Indian films of the past few years. In 2012, they attracted attention for their clutter-breaking, minimalist, and experimental score on Anand Gandhi’s much-awarded Ship of Theseus. Three years later, their sparse score accompanied some of the most joyous and cathartic moments in Avinash Arun’s Marathi-language feature Killa, a Crystal Bear winner at the previous year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Last year, they won appreciation as the background score composers of Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab, a relatively big-budget Bollywood offering starring Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Kareena Kapoor. Most recently, they scored Amit Masurkar’s Newton, a universally acclaimed political satire starring Rajkummar Rao that has been selected as India’s entry to the 89th Academy Awards. On the anvil are the supernatural horror film Ghoul directed by Patrick Graham, whose score utilises many of these synths; a documentary on celebrated Indian photographer Raghu Rai directed by his daughter Avani Rai, whose mix is currently giving Chandavarkar sleepless nights; and a Kannada film titled Balekempa (The Bangle Seller), the directorial debut of Ere Gowda, who wrote the Locarno-winning Thithi (2015).

Unlike most duos, they don’t even exclusively work together all the time. Taylor has scored music solo for the unreleased short Oysters (which incidentally stars his wife, actress Radhika Apte), and Bornila Chatterjee’s The Hungry, an Indian adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Chandavarkar has composed music for the unreleased feature Candyflip and has also worked on a Norwegian film titled What Will People Say? that premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, held last month, where The Hungry also made its worldwide debut.

It is an unusual arrangement for the industry they’re part of, but this fluidity works for the two. “Sharing work sometimes and working in your own space sometimes—it’s not an unhealthy thing at all,” says Taylor, over Skype from his home in London, rubbing his eyes and drinking coffee. His touring schedule can sometimes be quite taxing; recently, he’s been out of the country more often than in. A couple of days later, he’ll be in France working on a new album with fellow experimental music producer and sound artist Anton Mobin. This is just one of several projects he is part of.

Taylor, who hails from Kendal in England, trained at the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music and later studied ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths in London. Today, after years of performing Western classical music as well as modern music in various orchestras, ensembles, and duos, he is also a noted exponent of free improvisation and sound art, which involves playing instruments in wildly unorthodox ways to create strange, otherworldly sounds. By bowing on the strings at certain angles, or behind the bridge, or using other such techniques, he can make the viola creak, stutter, groan, and shudder. “Nothing seems weird enough anymore—as in, I don’t find any of this material weird because I’ve been involved in playing modern music since my early teens,” he says, shrugging matter-of-factly. “I’m not so much the synth guy—that’s Naren. But it’s the same thing: you’re deconstructing the physics of sound itself and using that as a medium of creative expression.”

Chandavarkar describes himself as the ‘mad lab scientist’—not that Taylor also isn’t, in his own way— who prefers to go down several “rabbit holes” simultaneously, not quite knowing where he'll end up. “Bened has a deep, intimate knowledge of Western Classical music; he can write an entire piece in his head while he’s running. I like spending 14 hours trying to create the perfect sound which I think is the coolest sound ever,” he says. “It isn’t a binary thing: Bened also sometimes likes to approach things in a tactile manner and I also write for acoustic ensembles. We approach things from very different angles sometimes but usually end up at the same place, which is a good thing.” His musical background is, as he puts it, diametrically opposite to Taylor’s. Growing up in Bangalore, the son of two architects, he was, at a very young age, exposed to private baithaks at his grandmother’s house, in which Indian classical stalwarts such as Kishori Amonkar and Kumar Gandharva would perform in her living room. He started learning piano at age nine but left it a couple of years later because he hated his teacher. Around age 14, he started learning the guitar, moving soon from playing ‘Don’t Cry’ by Guns ‘N Roses to attempting the works of Romantic-era Spanish composer Francisco Tárrega. A cousin who knew music production introduced him to the seemingly infinite capabilities of programming music on computers.

 Together, the two of them carry out several experiments, either in the studio, or over email. “I remember sitting in a friend’s apartment in Berlin with three hours to spare, recording and sending in parts for Udta Punjab,” says Taylor. With Ship of Theseus, for instance, the pair had a lot of time at their disposal. The film’s long editing process, which took nearly one and a half years after it had been edited a first time, gave them time to forge sounds using an ocarina, pots and pans; and a ‘bowed kadhai’ (yes, they ran a bow over a kitchen utensil and recorded the metallic resonance). They also attached bits of wool of varying thicknesses to strings on Chandavarkar’s upright piano, which Taylor bowed over to create a unique resonant sound that became a recurring motif in the score. They even created a custom sampler of Taylor playing viola—nearly 1800 parts, which could be recalled by the keyboard at will, enabling them to write in a different manner. “Elements like these were used all over the score in various forms,” says Chandavarkar. “None of it got wasted.”

Taylor insists that their process isn’t just all “blind experimentation”; there’s a lot of ideation and a lot of critical analysis of the script (which they insist on, especially if they’re involved the project early on) and its characters involved. For the latter, Chandavarkar’s background (he’s an English Literature graduate from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai) and experience in theatre (he has written, acted, and composed or selected the music for many plays) has come in handy. For Newton, the brief given by director Masurkar was to ‘explore anarchy’, even if subtly. So they did. “We mashed together things you wouldn’t normally put together, like clarinet, slightly out-of-tune recorders, a synth bass-line, a prepared and treated acoustic guitar, folk vocals, and whistling,” says Chandavarkar. “Under all of this was a very mathematical, electronic percussion, because Rajkummar’s character is a very mathematical and ordered sort of guy. As his naïve idealism starts to get exposed to brute reality, this precision starts to give way to more chaos [in terms of arrangements].”

It is important to remember that in Indian cinema, with the continued popularity of songs either as montages or choreographed numbers, background score composers seldom get much importance. They are usually glorified technicians, often getting as little as a fortnight to slap on a background score that simply emphasises the dominant emotion of each scene. Taylor and Chandavarkar are among a different strain of new composers who have largely worked on less conventional, largely song-less independent films, but that is changing. Aside from Udta Punjab, earlier this year they provided the score for Noor, which starred Sonakshi Sinha. “Even there we tried to work within an indie pop zone, by using mandolins, ukulele, and folk elements,” says Chandavarkar. “You get work based on the work you do. Most of the films we got for a long time weren’t the kinds that had songs.” It’s not something they’re against. Although the space they occupy seems esoteric in comparison to commercial film music, the two are quite clear that they are open to options.

“It’s just about how you do it,” he adds. “You could make a country song with an EDM bassline and a Carnatic violin, and if it works, it works.”