Composing beyond Covid with Nainita Desai

Nainita Desai is a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit winner and one of the UK’s leading composers having scored countless bespoke TV series and film scores for all the major broadcasters from the BBC to HBO to ITV and C4.

As the composer behind For Sama, she received widespread acclaim for a score with real craft and subtlety, prompting the UK film critic Mark Kermode to remark: ‘it’s a credit to composer Nainita Desai that her score remains restrained and understated throughout, emphasising subtler themes of endurance and empathy, while gesturing gently toward the possibility of hope.’

In recent years, Nainita has shared her wisdom as part of our film and music projects in Ukraine and India, inspiring a new generation of composers to develop their skills.

Despite the Covid-19 crisis and the ensuing lockdown in the UK, Nainita sat down to answer these questions for us, on everything from ‘what now for the film and music industry’ and her perspectives from her travels around the world.

 

Meet Nainita Desai

Have you been able to stay busy during the lockdown or has professional life started to grind to a halt? Anything you're working on you can tell us about?

I’ve been incredibly fortunate as several of my film and TV projects are mid-edit, which has meant I can carry on working remotely from my home studio. Some of my projects have had filming delayed by several months and we don’t know when and how productions will pick up again – the uncertainty was a huge mental distraction for the first month and my creativity juices reached a worrying low.

I’ve just completed Bad Boy Billionaires, a four-part documentary series for Netflix and am scoring a true crime feature doc for Netflix constructed purely from archive. I’m also working on Enslaved – a six-part series presented by Samuel L Jackson about slavery, another six-part BBC Studios series for China about the history of tea, and a few other things are in the works. They are all projects where filming was completed before lockdown.

I’ve also just completed my first Covid-era score – Unprecedented, a BBC drama series of 14 shorts, all written and filmed in lockdown via Zoom with 50 of the UK’s top actors. It’s a pioneering series in every aspect and refreshing to see how we can push the boundaries of creativity in different ways.

 

You’ve mentioned that at a certain point in a film’s production cycle, work can continue online despite lockdown. Can you tell us how it works / is working in practice, and also if you think as a result there will be a point where the film industry, and composers for film, are hit even harder down the line?

Yes, once filming has completed, teams can just work remotely from their homes through the edit process. It took quite an adjustment for my film directors and editors because of the distractions and challenges of working from home, but we have got into a rhythm of working that is moving forward. As a composer, I am used to working remotely, so we can send files back and forth via broadband with ease. Audio dubs are now taking place remotely with film directors having to listen in and handle onlines and grades remotely which is challenging! It does mean having to rely and trust more on the creative judgement of post teams. 

Because of the shut-down of filming, we may see a hole in production over the next few months onwards. There is also the inevitable drop in advertising revenue, and this is where composers’ royalties will be affected. ASCAP in the US have already anticipated this by informing composers, though there is uncertainty as to what degree and how this will hit us over the next year or so. However, streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon have benefited from the demand for more content with huge rise in subscribers.

Many genres, however, have virtually stopped production, particularly advertising, dramas and narrative fiction and the industry has been hit very hard. Film companies are closing and various surveys show huge numbers of freelancers affected. Even though factual TV has been creative with newly commissioned lower budget shows all being filmed in lockdown, music budgets will inevitably be squeezed with a focus towards using more production music. The demand for content is still there – it’s a case of adapting to an accelerated change and evolution in the industry of new ways of working.

 

You've worked with us in India and Ukraine sharing your knowledge with young composers. What do you find are always your top tips that chime with people wherever you go?

It’s important to not be precious about your music. As a media composer you have to be part of a team as it’s a very collaborative medium. Ultimately you are serving the director’s vision and the needs of the film. So you have to be able to take criticism and take notes and not take things personally.

Developing your own individual voice is important. It’s something that comes after time and experience of writing and can come organically. Knowing your strengths and what makes you unique and stand out from the crowd of composers out there is invaluable.

Be unflappable! And be able to handle working under time pressures as well as long, irregular, unsocial working hours. You also need to be a good communicator, network and socialise and understand the workings of the film and TV industry.

Research and never stop learning – writing music involves life-long learning in many aspects of the craft. One of the most crucial skills involves not just writing music, but constantly learning new musical skills, whether it means learning musical instruments, theory, technical skills, mixing, engineering, mastering, learning software, and studying other musical cultures is important to one’s evolution as a composer and as a person.

Above: Workshop with Nainita Desai. Selector Pro India. February 2020

 

Do you find young composers' approaches and styles very different in these parts of the world or is there a lot of parroting of the big Hollywood sound around the world?

Yes, they are different in styles! I have found it very refreshing to see that young composers globally do NOT always want to emulate the Hollywood sound. Other musical cultures and tastes have a huge bearing on the development of emerging composers’ voices and conversely, those different unique voices actually influence the US and Western European talent as well. It’s very encouraging to hear distinctive voices coming out of other regions that keep the global palette fresh and exciting.

Composers from abroad who integrate traditional musical styles with western mainstream sounds inject a freshness into their music that we can learn so much from. I’m very much for cross fertilisation of creativity and ideas.

Emulating the Hollywood sound can create a homogenous incestuous sound that can lead to a stasis.

Streamers such as Netflix are now pushing the edges of creativity. Independent cinema is a great area for unique, more experimental music as lower budget productions can afford for more individuality and experimentation. 

Listening and embracing music from other musical cultures broadens the sound and harmonic palette and helps us to tell stories in different ways. There are many ways of climbing the same emotional mountain!

 

Bollywood is still a very big player in India, but did you see any ways in which the independent film sector is growing? Is the sector there very different compared to the UK / Europe / North America from what you've seen?

Netflix India is slowly trying to change the way things are done in India. It’s tough to work against the traditional Bollywood way of doing things, though it is inching forward.

There are numerous music production houses with 20-30 composers working under one roof churning out music for reality TV shows in a factor-like fashion. The US works like that but on a much smaller scale with the notable exception of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control.

Songs are very much the focus in Indian films compared to underscore and the indie film making sector, while small, is making an impact on world cinema.

 

Where did you study and what did you learn early on that you still hold essential to your practice? Be it technical or something more overarching to the way you approach your scores?

I don’t have a formal education in music. I have a degree in Mathematics! My love of numbers, order, logic and precision, attention to detail and accuracy, plus the discipline of studying such an ‘abstract’ subject has stayed with me… along with my organisation skills!

I also studied sound design at the NFTS (National Film & Television School). Sound was my first professional introduction into film and TV and the power of using sound as a story-telling device is incredibly powerful. It was a great grounding in the workings of the industry.

My first intro into the music industry was as Peter Gabriel’s assistant music engineer. It taught me a lot about interacting with musicians, how to communicate with them, and also capturing the magic of performance, how to get the best out of people through nurturing, being positive and supportive of creativity.

 

We’d heard you’d studied mathematics over concerns about 'getting a proper job' but changed lanes to music! – what role do you think families, peers, mentorship schemes, the state or other can play in ensuring more people choose music as a career?

There are untold pressures on young people attempting to forge a career in the music industry. The culture of mentoring, whether formal or informal, is more common in the US than in the UK. There are attempts to address this. Encouragement, patience, emotional and practical support are crucial to nurture and support young talent.

It took me a long time to realise my ambitions and role models play a huge part in that as well. Having industry and professionals going into educational establishments is incredibly inspiring, insightful and motivational for young people exploring ways of making a career in the arts.

 

Which of your awards means the most and why?

Writing music is the greatest gift and reward! If you are writing to get awards, then the rewards are quite meaningless. Someone did say though, ‘Awards mean nothing until you win one’.

It can be a lovely form of validation as I never thought I would win anything for my music so I am still bemused when I get nominated for anything. Much of my work until recently has been scoring documentaries, and music for docs are rarely acknowledged. So when I have won something, it’s a way to help open up doors to work on projects that excite me with new film makers.

For me the reward is when people you don’t know are listening to your work and connecting with it in some way. Receiving emails from viewers and listeners complimenting the music or effectiveness of the score in a show is the most rewarding moment.

 

Finally, during lockdown when movement and work may be limited, do you have any advice for composers on useful things they can be doing during these quieter times?

There are plenty of webinars and Zoom talks and interviews to attend that are inspirational and motivating.

Develop your musical and technical skills.

Write the album you have been putting off for years so you have something to release or promote once things go back to a new ‘normal’.

Just practice writing music.

Research the industry – connect with film makers, as they have the time to listen to music and are receptive to being ‘cold-called’, but don’t forget to also be sensitive to people’s situations and Covid-19.

Be mindful and use it as an opportunity to reflect and develop other non-musical hobbies. It’s okay to not be rushing around constantly planning your career or multi-tasking and working hard.

 

Tell us more about the Ivors Academy initiative for session musicians, your involvement and what you hope will be achieved?

Two days into lockdown I got offered a project for Netflix which was already in edit. The team requested live orchestral recordings and after a few phone calls to the major recording studios and orchestral fixers who all stated that business had literally closed overnight, I had to let them down saying a live score wouldn’t be possible.

I also started receiving emails from musicians saying they had lost all their work overnight.  Theatres, live gigs, everything had been cancelled and I felt powerless to help them.

It immediately dawned on me that I could bring these two needs together. I realised that the only way I was going to be able to deliver the score was to bring musicians on board who could remote record themselves.

I created a Google spreadsheet, put a call out for musicians on social media, and there was an incredible response from the community. Within four days I had over 300 entries. These were from top session players, who performed nightly in stage productions such as Hamilton or sessions on major film & TV productions including Phantom Thread and The Lord of the Rings through to engineers who have worked with Laura Mvula, Adele and Alicia Keys.

With the support of IT tech expert Stu Kennedy who built the website, we created a directory, and so The Remote Recording Directory was born out of the pandemic. The Ivors Academy are hosting the directory permanently on their website and we now have nearly 700 musicians from all over the world.

I can send rough mixes of my music, along with sheet music, for the musicians to play to. Using live video apps I can connect and communicate with them. Within hours recorded files start to be sent back to me, which I can then edit and mix into my score. It’s not without its teething problems as I have always preferred face to face contact with musicians. However, working within restraints always forces me to be creative in a different way. It’s a way for us all to still be together with music making and complete our project goals delivering high quality music to clients.

 

Do you think remote recording in this way will increasingly become the norm and studio sessions less common, or is this more of a workable alternative during challenging times?

Remote recording has actually been around for a while, but it’s suddenly going ‘mainstream’. Orchestras and smaller ensembles in other countries are now embracing it too. It’s made me appreciate even more how wonderful it is to collaborate with musicians. To have access to some of the best musicians from around the world from the comfort of our homes, utilising simple tech many musicians already possess, can bring us all together as a global community and we can find new ways of working together, something so vital in this current climate.

I do hope that once social distancing has come to pass, this way of working becomes more widely acceptable and not just a means to an end, so that it can sit alongside traditional recording sessions. How we experience live music, theatre, cinema in such a communal way may evolve using technologies, but nothing can beat a bunch of human beings creating in a room together.

 

 

Read more from UK composers

We’ve interviews and films with numerous other fantastic UK composers from Neil Brand to Anna Meredith to Michael Price:

 

Watch more from UK composers

Our films offer insight and tips from some of the UK’s very best composers:

 

Enrica Sciandrone

Nainita Desai

 

From Stage to Screen: Max Richter, Anna Meredith, Lustmord, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury