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Contender: Composer Nitin Sawhney – Breathe

November 10, 2017 | By
Photographed in Brixton, London 7th June 2017

Photographed in Brixton, London 7th June 2017

Nitin Sawhney has had a year that most artists only dream of: winning the Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award, having his latest CD turned into a fully choreographed production that will be touring globally, and scoring two films, Breathe, released October 13, and The Jungle Book, premiering in 2018. Both films were directed by long-time friend and colleague Andy Serkis. When asked how this year and these achievements impacted him and his career, he laughed, and then humbly said, “The Ivor Novello has more respect as an award than any other award, because it’s from composers and songwriters…There’s been like 30 lifetime achievement winners of the Ivor Novello, and they’re all household names, so for me to get that, I thought ‘Wow, that’s incredible!’, but at the same time, I’m like ‘I’m not dead yet!’…I think it’s exciting because you know it’s the first award that joins all the dots together of all the different things I do…I’m very excited because I haven’t really heard of an album being turned into a fully choregraphed show before. [My last album] Dystopian Dream, is now being produced by Sadler’s Wells and was choregraphed by Wang Ramirez. We did two shows and got two standing ovations and great reviews…so that’s something that I’m really proud of.”

Sawhney’s passion for creating a vocabulary of music for Breathe, the true story of Robin Cavendish, a man whom at the age of 29 developed Polio, and then went on to travel the world with his wife and son to pave the way for reform and awareness about the treatment of Polio and other disabilities. It caught my interest when Sawhney referred to the score as the “vocabulary” of the film, a term I had never heard used before in reference to music. “I think the challenge for any film, and for this one in particular is to try to find a timeless vocabulary that doesn’t sound anachronistic, but at the same time is very much coming from the world of the film. We’re moving from 1959 to 1981: 22 years of Robin’s life, so it’s important to build a vocabulary that doesn’t sound incongruous with any of the periods that we’re in, but also serves the psychology and emotional narrative of Robin’s journey.”

Sawhney and Serkis’ work history includes a video game in 2007, Heavenly Sword, and Serkis actually referred Sawhney as the composer even though they had never met before in person. “Funny enough, I mean, I didn’t know him, aside from him being in The Lord of the Rings, but he put me up to do the score for Heavenly Sword with Ninja Theory because he really liked one of my tracks. It was just a very fortunate situation where I got to work with him pretty easily and straight away.” Being a close friend and colleague, Serkis chose Sawhney to compose Breathe and The Jungle Book. However, Breathe is a very different project from what Sawhney has worked on with Serkis in the past. “Obviously with The Jungle Book, it’s very much in Andy’s wheelhouse. It’s something that a lot of people associate Andy with, and he’s doing it in an extremely beautiful way. But with Breathe, it was great because it was such a real departure from what people are normally used to from Andy. It was very exciting to go on such a different journey with him.”

Sawhney commented, “What we wanted to do was create almost a fairy tale romance, which is quite intricate. There’s a very bright opening to the film. Andy actually played a bit of saxophone, it was great! The whole point was to really heighten that hope for the optimistic fairy tale feeling. Then we fall when Robin contracted polio, so we’re drawn into a very dark and hopeless world for a short while. But then it’s about Robin fighting back and…I then brought back romantic and lighter motifs into this darker world. The soundtrack of the album is what I’m most happy with. It’s the narrative art of the album.” The score became a character itself in the film, almost revealing the alter ego of Robin’s situation; through the score, we got to see and feel the hope that lived in his heart and pushed him forward when all odds were against him.

For Breathe, Sawhney scored the bulk of the film after it was already assembled. “It was a rough assembly initially, and then they honed it and fine-tuned it, and that went along with what I did with the music. It’s always moving, changing, and dynamically shifting, so each of the scenes has its own flavor, and I’m constantly trying to respond to that and reciprocate Robin’s emotional journey.”

“Robin was a very optimistic man, and he always wanted to put a positive spin on things even when he couldn’t move his limbs. Jonathan said it was because he gave himself a lot to do, to truly be a pioneer for what they referred to at the time as respondent. The way they looked at the world was inspiring, although they couldn’t even breathe for themselves. I wanted to bring that sense of achievement through in the score. Robin wasn’t the kind of morbid, self-pitying sort of person, but he was someone who really wanted to help others and the world. And not only that, but also to experience his life in the most positive way possible.”

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