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Nitin Sawhney: Mandela, Hitchcock and London

25 July 2012 | London Calling

Composer, producer and cultural icon Nitin Sawhney, on achieving a life’s ambition.

He's collaborated with everyone from Paul McCartney to Cirque du Soleil, written countless film and TV scores, including that for BBC's Human Planet, and is the only artist to be invited to play at both The Proms and The Electric Proms. It seems everything Nitin Sawhney touches turns to gold.

But for the London-based award-winning composer, musician and producer, getting the opportunity to work with Nelson Mandela on his Prophecy album will always stand out as the peak of his career.

“I was recording him talking about things he felt strongly about for the album, getting a feel for who he was personally,” Sawhney explains. “The single most exciting moment was when his PA and came in and said, ‘I have the [South African] President on the phone for you.’ Nelson Mandela turned to me and asked me how many more questions I had, and I said, ‘Two.’ So he told the PA, ‘Tell the president to call me back.’

“That left me speechless, I couldn’t quite fathom that Mandela had the good grace to honour my time with him. It was such an honour and privilege.”

Rochester raised Sawhney, 48, who’s just finished working on the score for the re-release of Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpiece, The Lodger, named ‘the four corners of the capital’ as his main inspiration for his 2008 album, London Undersound.

So where now does he consider his cultural muse for his work in the city now? “It depends what I’m after,” he explains. “It depends what mood I’m in.”

“Right now, I feel very inspired by some of the galleries in the city. There’s a wonderful Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican running until August I think, which is just fascinating. What’s great about the Barbican is it serves lots of different levels and styles to suit all tastes and minds, so it’s vitally important in a multicultural, multi-faceted place like London.

“There’s also really cool stuff at the Serpentine and the Tate and I love going to Sadler’s Wells; I find a visit there soothes me. But Bauhaus has been my arts highlight of the year so far - really amazing. I only saw that a few weeks ago and I recommend it to everyone; it’s not to be missed, and is on until August 12.”

“I get inspired by so much more though. The green spaces in London, a stroll in Kew Gardens, the sun setting on Hampstead Heath. It’s all around you.”

Over the years, Nitin has played some of London’s biggest, and most intimate venues. Which have left a lasting impression?

“We’ve had an amazing time playing at the Royal Albert Hall, it’s such a buzz, a childhood dream. I feel so excited playing there. But the Union Chapel is so gorgeous and much more intimate, and you can build up a great rapport with the audience. The acoustics are second to none too.

“And I’ve always enjoyed playing Shepherd’s Bush Empire (which is now the O2 Empire). It great to play there as it’s more of an upbeat venue than many I’d normally play at.

“For me, performance is more about the audience interaction, and it doesn’t get more playful and lovely than with a London crowd.”

Currently Sawhney is performing a delicate balancing act, between writing material for his new album, due next year, scoring Deepa Mehta’s film adaptation of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and planning a world tour. But working on the soundtrack for the British Film Institute’s re-issue of The Lodger, which has just had its world premiere at the Barbican, provided the artist with an immense sense of pride, particularly given that Hitchcock has always been a personal hero of his.

“I can’t quite believe I’m doing a Hitchcock film, as well as following in the footsteps of one of the greatest movie scorers of all time, Bernard Herrmann.

“I should feel intimidated but I don’t, strangely. For me it’s just a really great privilege. I grew up with Hitchcock’s movies and the scores left such an indelible impression on me. It would make me wonder if I could ever do anything similar, and now I’ve had that chance.

The Lodger was only his third film and it’s just marvellous to see how far ahead of his time Hitchcock was, and what a trail he blazed for those after him. These innovative cameras moves and angles, he is responsible for so much modern filmmaking as we know it.”

For a movie that came out in 1928, focusing on the hunt for famed serial killer Jack The Ripper, was Sawhney mindful of creative restrictions surrounding such a legendary classic, or was he given free rein to contemporise the soundtrack? “I tried  to find my own way into it. I’ve scored silent movies before and worked with orchestras from around the world, so it doesn’t feel like completely new territory for me.

“It’s such a melodramatic piece of work in lots of ways, and I tried to capture that without making it too cheesy. Trying to capture Hitchcock’s psychological depth, it’s an amazing process.”

 

‘The Lodger’ by Nitin Sawhney is now available to own, rrp £14.99.

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