When we heard that composer/producer/musician Nitin Sawhney was going to be in Mumbai as a speaker at TEDxGateway we knew we had to score an interview with him because we’ve been fans of his work for a long long time. Mr. Sawhney to me is a kind of musical Renaissance Man. [Note: I decided to Google the term to make sure I was using it correctly in this context. Turns out I’m not the first person to have referred to him like that. Bah! Well, at least the usage is correct.] He composes for orchestras, works in electronica, produces for others artists, writes songs, plays the guitar and scores films and video games. His musical vocabulary is vast and we were really happy to have had the chance to have a quick conversation with him before he went off to prepare for his talk.

I’ve been told you can’t disclose the topic of your talk for TEDxGateway, that you can’t tell us anything about it…
[Surprised] Really? I can tell you everything that it’s about! [Laughs]

That was going to be my first question but then I was told it was a secret. Now I can ask you…
Oh that’s quite funny!

So could you tell us what you’ve got planned?
I’m talking about the fact that I work with lots of different media so as a composer I write music for films, for television, for albums, for kathak dances, for video games…you know, all kinds of things, theatre…
So in that respect I’m talking about how mathematics has actually helped me, and science and technology as well to some degree but mainly I’m focusing on principles of mathematics and comparing ways of looking at mathematics to ways of looking at music as well.
It’s not [just aimed at musicians]. I’m not trying to do something that’s inaccessible because I have quite nice video images and some examples of work that I’ve done with films and video games and different things like that and so it’s actually an illustrative thing. We’ll be performing some music live and actually just having a rhythmic conversation, things like that.

You’ve been making music for decades now – what about the process of making music has changed and what has stayed the same?
The way music is made has changed quite massively because for example when I was making music back in the ’90s, when I made my first few albums, really there weren’t many people using computers to make music. Now I use programs like Logic, a lot of people use Pro Tools and all kinds of programs like this. I think the way in which music is created is a much more precise science and the people who produce music like myself who are used to working with computer programs and computer technology have to marry and find ways of understanding how to bring together the best of musicianship and possibilities of whether it’s classical music from the West or the East, or jazz or hip-hop or drum and bass or whatever you’re doing. You have to be able to find the soul of that, whether that’s through technology or… There’s a beautiful quote from a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where he says ‘Buddha is not to be found just in the petals of a flower but also in the console of a computer’. I think this is the principle that I really like in music, that actually music can work in many different ways. It’s not actually just simply about doing things in a very obviously beautiful way. It’s actually about finding possibility within all kinds of technology and other ways of looking at things.

It has become very popular to say that music made using a computer is cold…
I think it’s how you approach things. Everything is natural. Even if something’s man-made, it’s come from man who is natural and we have abilities, so those abilities we can use or abuse or harness in productive ways. But my point is that with music it’s actually about finding the essence of what music is and music is in everything. Johannes Kepler talked about music of the spheres as did Pythagoras and many other very famous scientists so music can be in many different ways of thinking. If you didn’t have scientists looking into music in the first place we wouldn’t be able to play, we wouldn’t actually be able to create the music that we do, neither in the West or the East because we wouldn’t be able to build the kind of instruments that we have. Even the most fundamental of acoustic instruments needs basic science to actually know how to make them.

Could you tell us about working on the film Jungle Book Origins?
This film is directed by Andy Serkis and I’m doing the full score for it at the moment. We’re going to be recording next year at AIR studios in London with a full orchestra and I went to South Africa earlier this year to work with Andy and create some of the music already. So it’s feeling great. It has got Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Freida Pinto – it’s got a huge cast. There’s a song written that Freida Pinto actually sings within the film that worked beautifully so yeah, it’s going really well.

You’re extremely prolific. Do you ever experience fear at the much-dreaded blank page?
I think if you’ve been playing all your life, if you’ve been a musician and a composer all your life, which is really what’s happened with me… I’ve spent more time playing music than I have talking so you don’t fear anything to do with expressing yourself through music any more than you do having a conversation. So the thing is, whenever you have a conversation it’s always about updating where you are at that moment in time and music is the same way. Your vocabulary constantly develops dynamically and I think that’s always the case with a musician who is always in touch with what’s going on and I think that’s very important to me, to just stay in touch with not only what’s going on musically but also I feel you have a symbiotic relationship with society and things that go on and even the political world and all kinds of different ways of thinking about music so…

What is your advice for musicians on how to navigate a career in music?
I think if you want a career in music you have to really look at what is your ability and really work with that. You need to be yourself and you need to actually make the most of what you have so if you have a natural ability in a particular area I think it’s about developing that. Some people are naturally fantastic singers or songwriters, some people are great classical musicians or some people are great producers. It’s about really figuring out what you really want to do with music and where your strong points are. So I think it’s to do with identifying what you feel most empathy with in terms of the world of music and then working with that and then everything comes I think.

BONUS VIDEO: What is the key to a good collaboration?

Photo: Elvis D’Silva

Nitin Sawhney is a speaker at TEDx Gateway in Mumbai on the 5th of December, 2015.
Register here if you’d like to attend.

Related links:
Nitin Sawhney Official Site