We live in a time where now more than ever, we can get a deep insight into how people from around the world live their lives, meet their struggles, make their art. As a pianist and film, TV and games composer, this potential to take those influences and meld them into something new inspires me greatly. Lately, I’ve been particularly interested in what it would be like to take instruments from around the world that are steeped in a rich tradition and heritage dating back thousands of years, and use them out of their element. Would they still sound as we would expect them to? What about if they were used with a western orchestra? I intended to find out. Through creating the album Nature Of All Things, I learned some valuable lessons about working with musicians and traditions from a global perspective that I feel could be useful to you as you work on your own compositions and projects. In essence, this is a case study of the processes we went through, the challenges we faced, and takeways gained from the experience.
Nature Of All Things is an album that combines the ancient Indian hammered dulcimer (santoor) with piano and live orchestral ensemble. It is the culmination of 2 years of work and experimentation to try to answer the question of whether it’s possible to fuse instruments from around the world into a cohesive whole.
I was fortunate enough to meet Kunal Gunjal, an incredible santoor player and disciple of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, the pioneer of this instrument in Indian classical music. This beautiful, ancient 100 stringed dulcimer has it’s roots steeped in Persian/Indian tradition, originating from the region of Mesopotamia in 1600-911BC. As this type of dulcimer is very rarely used even in current popular Indian music, I knew I just had to see what it could do for western orchestral music.
He was looking to further move the instrument beyond the confines of a typical Indian classical repertoire, which is largely improvisational in nature, centered around one key for the duration of the performance. As one would imagine, this is quite a different approach to the rigid melodic structures and counterpoint found in most western classical/cinematic music, and it was a challenge that truly excited us.
The ultimate goal was to see how to blend this instrument with western cinematic “film score-y” music, without it sounding like a simple cut and paste job of Indian classical music juxtaposition against a typical cinematic score. We settled on featuring the piano and santoor throughout, as they both are percussive and melodic in nature, using hammers (or mallets) on strings.
As we are both very influenced by a diverse array of songwriters and composers like Howard Shore, Ludovico Einaudi and even The Beatles and Elton John, our compositions came out very melody-centric, keeping to the traditional western orchestral structure, while having a distinctive verse, pre-chorus, chorus as reminiscent with pop music. The santoor and piano played melodies in unison, and given the fact that both instruments are percussive in nature it added a weight and body to the themes that was very inspiring musically. We had the piano and santoor also take turns laying back and providing rhythm, allowing the other instrument to take over when needed.
We essentially wanted to make the blend of eastern and western cultures seamless and therefore nebulous, so that it would maintain cohesion and make people have to second-guess where the influences come from (we wanted to make people feel this was a new and different without making them immediately hear the “Indian” vibe to the music).
As we played, we saw just how well the two instruments complemented each other, and how little of a resemblance the santoor bore to it’s Indian classical heritage when out of it’s element. Though it still has the capability to be played to mimic the human voice (using microtones), Kunal adjusted his playing style to accommodate the piano’s heavy-handedness, alternating between fiery percussive playing and subtle textural nuances using glissandos.
Because even the tuning scales are different in traditional santoor playing, we had to adapt it to the standard tuning which posed challenges when trying to get the instrument to cooperate with the rest of the instruments. Often times, the santoor needed to be re-tuned between takes, using the piano’s tuning as a reference. The wood was very temperamental as well, so the instrument would sound different dependent on the weather conditions on recording days.
We originally had the idea of recording three compositions for an EP, but as we had booked the studio for three days, after each 12 hour day we were so inspired that we would go home and write more! By the end of the three days we had recorded piano and santoor on 7 total compositions, with the idea to record strings and percussion next.
We recorded on a Steinweg (a turn of the century early 1900’s Steinway) at a studio in Agoura Hills, with a pair of Neumann U87’s, and a Blue mic for the santoor, which captured it’s liquid metallic-like tone. I had to run the session myself, and would run from the piano to the control room between takes, which was no easy task (but great cardio).
Through a successful Kickstarter campaign, we were able to hire a string quintet to play the string parts I had orchestrated for the tracks. Due to the experimental and complex nature of trying to write big sounding parts with a small ensemble, I decided to scrap earlier efforts to mock up the parts, and just stuck with pencil and paper (with a little help from Sibelius). This was extremely helpful in making orchestration decisions with more thought, and to make sure I was writing to the instruments rather than the samples. With less emphasis on performance and programming, I felt truly free to write the string parts the way I heard them in my head, dynamics and all
(String Parts — Excerpt from title track, “Nature Of All Things”)
Led by Dave Eggar, a fantastic cellist and collaborator with diverse artists (Coldplay, Esperanza Spalding, and most recently Foreigner), we flew to New York for the session, held at Spin Recording Studios.
We had to record the entire 33 minutes of music, including overdubs and multiple tempo changes in one long day session, which was quite a daunting task, but the string players brought such passion and energy to the session that it left some room to experiment and see what would work tonally. We ended up recording 4-6 overdubs for each song, having the players switch positions between takes, as well as octave doublings by the first and second violins to beef up the sound. This helped solve some of the phasing issues typical of trying to have a small ensemble sound like a bigger one. It was necessary for the strings to be able to alternate from the more traditional classical style playing, while providing certain inflections common to Indian and Arabic music.
Luckily, the second violinist, Megan Gould had studied Carnatic violin (a traditional South Indian style of playing), and played an incredible solo on one of our Arabic-inspired tracks, “Agni” in just one take that showcases a true marriage between European and Middle-Eastern styles.
Now that we had our strings recorded, we rounded out the sound with some percussion from around the World, played by the talented David Myers, a drummer and percussionist who I’ve previously worked with who loves to experiment with different tones/textures.
We recorded the percussion in the same studio as the piano and santoor. This time, we were familiar with the room and knew how to run the session that much more efficiently. The studio owner is a percussionist, and just happened to collect rare percussion from around the world. Because it was another short day session to get all the parts recorded, we would survey the room and experiment with anything we could find. The final recordings included everything from traditional Nepalese bells, rain sticks, djembes, tablas, hang drums, cajon and even thigh slapping! We purposely asked David to play all the percussion the “wrong” or non-traditional way, as we didn’t want anything to sound as it typically would. This would mean he ended up playing the tabla as a bongo, the cajon with brushes, and his Pearl bass drums turned over on their sides with mallets!
Lastly, we added a few more percussion textures and a french horn via sample libraries, though we tried to keep this to a minimum, as we wanted to showcase the live instruments as much as possible throughout the album.
We were fortunate to get in contact with John Rodd, who had worked on a lot of our favorite sounding scores and soundtracks (Star Wars: Battlefront, Get Out, Breaking Bad, Elysium) and he agreed to mix and master the tracks. At his studio Clearstory Sound, he used his keen ear really helped make use of our limitations and maximize the sound and cohesiveness of all these different and disparate instruments.
This album started off as just a wacky experiment, but it is also proof that even in our busy composing lives there’s ALWAYS room to experiment, to learn and grow. The idea of using traditional things in a non-traditional way really opened up the sonic possibilities, not just in terms of combining instruments together, but adapting them in such a way that it feels like they belong together. A few takeaways I would recommend when working on your own projects/albums:
- EXPERIMENT WITH NON-TRADITIONAL METHODS OF COMPOSING AND RECORDING: A looming deadline makes it far too easy to resort to the tried and true, and use techniques (and sample libraries) that are well within our comfort zone. Using different instruments, recording techniques, and approaches with each project gives one the chance to create a sonic palette that no one has. Go to a toy store and buy something that makes a weird or unique sound — a cheap investment that you can now pitch shift, time stretch or otherwise manipulate to your hearts content. Ask a fellow musician to play their instrument the “wrong” way, creating further new sounds at your disposal. The possibilities are truly endless, and even the lack of a budget can be used as a tool to create things out of necessity.
- TIME IS MONEY: USE LIVE PLAYERS WHENEVER POSSIBLE. Often times the countless hours I have spent mocking up a convincing string legato part can easily be solved by adding a live player (with a few overdubs) to the mix. A good player can get this done in a very short amount of time, and any amount that you pay them is likely going to be much less than the time spent programming. There are also many ways to pay players for their time that don’t involve money if your budgets are small. If they are composer, you can offer to orchestrate or play on their next project (the barter system is very much real in this industry, and can save both time and money on a project that’s severely lacking in both)
- FOR RECORDING SMALL ENSEMBLES: If using more than one player, have them switch positions between overdubs to eliminate typical phasing issues that come from recording small ensembles and layering over and over again. I would also recommend doing extra octave doublings on the first and second violins, to beef up the melodies and have them sit above the rest of the strings.
- WHEN USING NON-TRADITIONAL INSTRUMENTS, the tendency is to write around the instrument, thereby featuring it. This gives us the traditional instrument sound which can be useful for when creating a vibe that evokes a particular place or region of the world. BUT, the instrument can also be used as a blending tool to color the orchestra or ensemble, accentuating an existing melody line or used as a textural element. This approach separates it from it’s traditional use and offers a world of possibility beyond limiting the sound to a particular place or culture.
I hope you enjoyed reading. The greatest gifts we can give ourselves as musicians is the freedom to explore, make mistakes, and try out wild ideas. I look forward to continuing to be inspired by all of you, and that we all keep pushing the envelope in our own compositions whether for media or for ourselves.
FULL ALBUM: http://bit.ly/natureofallthingsalbum
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Q&A w/Nikhil Koparkar — by Dale Crowley
Dale Crowley: Hi Nikhil, thank you so much for writing this article and sharing your beautiful music and recording techniques with us! Please tell me a bit more about your musical background and training?
Nikhil Koparkar: Thank you very much for having me as a guest on this wonderful and invaluable resource! I refer to it a lot myself, so it’s truly an honor.
I grew up studying classical piano — fell in love with Chopin and thought at first I wanted to be a classical pianist. Senior year of high school I took a music theory elective, and used Sibelius for the first time (back when it was Sibelius 1). Finishing assignments early, I often experimented with writing my own orchestrations, which gradually turned into an obsession as I kept orchestrating on Sibelius for fun throughout most of college. I got my degree in Economics and Math from UC Davis, but at this point, I already knew I wanted to compose for a living. I moved to LA shortly after college and gradually started working on indie shorts and then features, games and TV underscore while teaching myself and trying to learn and improve with each experience. It’s definitely not the straight path, but I’m thankful for the diverse experiences.
DC: What was your earliest memory of music, and when did you first know you wanted to be a musician?
NK: When I was 2, I first heard Vangelis, Chariots of Fire theme on an old cassette my dad had lying around. I would refer to the song as “blue” or “orange” as I would see a color associated with the sounds. From then on I was absolutely hooked.
DC: What was the inspiration for this album?
NK: Kunal (santoor player) and myself both come from different backgrounds. I have a working knowledge of traditional Indian music but came more from the western orchestral side, while he had the opposite (coming from deep Indian oral classical tradition, passed down from teacher to student for thousands of years). We both wanted to see how we could combine each other’s styles into a cohesive whole and the idea just kind of went from there. We were originally going to just make it a piano/santoor album, but our ideas just kept getting more out there, and we ended up recording strings and percussion to round out the sound.
DC: How long from inception to completion did it take?
NK: We started writing in March 2016, and recorded the piano/santoor parts that May. I orchestrated the strings in my time off between gigs for the several following months, and we did a Kickstarter campaign the following March (2017). We recorded the strings in May and the percussion in June. We got the final masters back by October. All in all, a year and a half between having the idea and printing CD’s for our backers.
DC: You also do video game music, what are some of your favorite video game scores?
NK: I’m a sucker for anything melodic, and knew I wanted to write for games since I first played Zelda: Ocarina Of Time in 1996 or so when it first came out. Currently my absolute favorite is Gareth Coker’s Ori And The Blind Forest score (something about fantasy and melody gets me every time and he blends folk from around the world so seamlessly in this way).
DC: Who are some of your favorite composers from any era?
NK: My interests are very diverse, but I would say some of my favorites are The Beatles (which really turned me on to the idea of experimentation of different styles and instruments), Chopin, and film composers like John Williams, Howard Shore and Alexandre Desplat.
DC: If you could work on any video game score, what game would that be?
NK: A pipe dream maybe, but the Zelda franchise is my absolute favorite, and being able to help be a small part of the process in creating that evocative sonic landscape that’s become synonymous with the series would be an absolute dream!
DC: How important is audio middleware in your work with games, and have you created any adaptive music scores for the projects you have worked on?
NK: It’s been a joy to work on projects that require adaptive scoring, and I’m truly excited to see the new frontiers that both middleware and proprietary adaptive systems will continue to do with serving the audio and the narrative of games. So far, my use of middleware has been minimal, as most of the developers I have worked for have had their own systems for implementing audio. Recently, I did sound design for a game called Clicker Heroes 2 by Playsaurus, which involved having a shared server to upload assets and compiling the game in Adobe Animate of all places, to test against the animation! Another project I created music/sound design for involved working with the programmers to create their own adaptive audio system for a binaural/3D audio meditation app! However, for smaller scale projects I have had the opportunity to experiment with WWISE for sound design and Elias for testing music implementation. On a personal level I love compartmentalizing the processes like this as for me I feel they are both work really intuitively well for those respective audio types. For future projects I would love to continue to use both of these more extensively, and hopefully help more dev see the power and ease of this approach.
DC: What advice do you have for other composers who are interested in working in the video game space?
NK: I would say, EXPERIMENT! There are so many musicians out there, and nothing beats live instrumentalists on your work. Even a couple of soloists can go a long way to adding depth and articulations that you can never find from a sample library. It’s crucial I think, to constantly strive to find one’s own voice within the context of a game score, both for helping the developer build the world they’re envisioning, as well as fulfilling one’s creative desires.
DC: What is next? Are you working on another album?
NK: I’m about to start a feature film I’ve very excited about that will be blending instruments from all over the world. I am excited to take the lessons learned from the making of Nature Of All Things, and bringing it to future projects. We also have another album in the works using piano and santoor, but expanding the sound to include textural and ambient elements as well I’m very much looking forward to. We are also planning on some live shows and a charity event in late 2018/early 2019, complete with a string quartet, percussionist and a keyboardist. Very excited about the prospect of bringing this sound to a live setting!
About the Author
Nikhil Koparkar creates compelling scores for Video Games, Film & TV. He is also lead composer/arranger for NATURE OF ALL THINGS, an orchestral album featuring folk instruments of India and the Far East.
He has been featured in The Huffington Post, Guitar World Magazine, Music Connection and AXS.com
Most recently, he was one of 12 selected for the inaugural SESAC SCORES Composing workshop, where he was mentored by Ant-Man composer Christophe Beck on technical and problem-solving aspects of composing.
His music can be found in feature-films, shows on Discovery Channel/TLC Network, trailers, web-series, and games.