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In conversation with Ishaan Chhabra – Score Short Reads

Ishaan Chhabra is a highly esteemed composer and producer for film/visual media whose work transcends borders from the east to the west. His unique proposition, or rather, unique sound is essentially an amalgamation of western harmonic structures and indian melodic sensibilities. He already has many feathers under his cap, one of which includes an Oscar nominated feature documentary called ‘Writing With Fire’.

He frequently works with Academy Award-winning composer AR Rahman in addition to his work as an independent music composer. Till date, he has collaborated on around 30 odd projects with him. These include Million Dollar Arm, Dreamworks’ The Hundred Foot Journey, Majid Majidi’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God, Imagine Entertainment’s Pelé: Birth of a Legend, Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, and several Hindi and Tamil film projects including Highway, Mom, Kochadaiiyaan, OK Kanmani, Tamasha, and Mohenjo Daro.

He has also scored more than 20 projects independently, which includes mainstream feature films, Netflix serieses, prestigious commercials and of course the aforementioned Academy-nominated documentary.  

If I knew nothing about you or your work, how would you introduce yourself and what would be that one piece of work that you’d show me? 

He describes himself as a film score/composer and music producer who builds musical soundscape worlds for films. He has a very diverse portfolio with work spanning a myriad of genres incorporating a variety of technical elements. He believes that his work in Omreto, a 2017 thriller by Hansel Mehta and his work in Love Aaj Kal, an intense mainstream drama by Imtiaz Ali, really showcase his calibre and competency in the space.

They truly reflect his musicality and understanding of the context. Although both films are dramatically different in terms of overall soundscape, he very proficiently draws parallels between the two. The score for both films is composed such that there is an emphasis on characterization. He had to really delve deep into the character psyche and communicate that level of depth through score in both films. Essentially the score would be a manifestation of the character’s inner thought process, emotions etc. He alludes to an example of the break-up scene in Love Aaj Kal.

Now, there are two different characters investing different types of emotions in the scene and the score had to vividly communicate the different types of emotions. Thus, for the male character in the film, he created a score coded by snythpad to evoke tension. For the female character, he created a score coded by the harp melody to evoke pensiveness. He also had to embed a common underlying theme that would subtly surface throughout the scene. 

In conversation with Ishaan Chhabra - Score Short Reads

What do you think of the contemporary music landscape compared to the early 1990s ? How has your music evolved to adapt (or has it evolved agnostic of the industry) ?

At a tender and very early age, he was keen on music production. He credits the Dil Se album for fueling the flame within. He recalls how he used to dissect the various layers of the songs and score and reproduce the parts on his keyboard. He had an innate, or perhaps an acquired ability, to accurately reproduce melodies. Apart from being a child, he also took up formal keyboard lessons as well as training in Indian classical music. Production then, perhaps, leveraged slightly different tools than what production uses in contemporary times.

The inevitable evolution of production owing to upgrades in tools was accompanied by an evolution of sound as a whole. As the sound evolved, so did the overall musical taste amongst the audience and it was imperative to cater to that. These days, he reckons that there is more attention given towards and more investment directed towards production. There is more space to incorporate more detail. You don’t need external samplers or workstation keyboards anymore.

The software is more sophisticated and rather all-encompassing. You can now easily add more layers and elements to a song and make it more dense if need be. Further, there are more tools for automation – for example to ensure precision and accuracy in volume.  

Who or what inspired your music and how has that changed over time, if it has ?

Of course, unquestionably he takes this opportunity to give his accolades and appreciation to the omnipresent  AR sir. AR Sir’s work had inspired him to really understand the nuances of production.  It was also AR Sir who had advised him to consider studying music production at Berklee College of Music, which he eventually did! At the age of 10/11, he started to listen to John Williams and subsequently a lot of 20th century classical music.

Other pioneers in the field that had influenced him were Hans Zimmer, John Powell, Jerry Goldsmith, and MIchael Giacchino. He started programming at the age of 11 using the Cakewalk pro audio software. His interests then diversified and he started to indulge in more rock and jazz. He was inspired by the likes of Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree. He also went through a phase of listening to IDM. In fact, he had started a band along with his uncle (Mr. Chintan – a songwriter, producer as well as a founding member of one of the biggest rock bands in India (Parikrama)) called NePhunk.

He beautifully captures the essence of the band in his soundcloud bio as a band that was ‘strung together by nephew & uncle – a band built over many years of family-dinners, basement jams, Pink Floyd, and AR Rahman’. He refers to the content as genre defying, soulful, sublime and melodic soundscapes often grand in flavour. 

Do you make independent music? What is your perception of the indie music scene?

Ishaan is a huge advocate and fan of independent music. He strongly believes it should be a separate industry of and on its own. He definitely flirts with the idea of putting his own compositions out there and feels if he were to put out his independent music, it would be in a hybrid genre of electro-orchestral. 

You predominantly work on scores for all types of films. What type of scoring is the most difficult?

First and foremost, scoring is definitely more intense, more laborious compared to songs  and thus by default is vastly underrated. Creating that signature theme or cracking complicated concepts can take up to weeks! ‘It is analogous to a marathon as opposed to a short sprint’ he says. In fact creating scores for web serieses that span numerous weeks can be even more taxing. He believes that the most demanding score would be for comedy and animation projects.

He alludes to an interesting conundrum he normally faces when scoring for comedy films and that is ensuring that he scores with a serious tone.’You shouldn’t score in a rather ‘funny’ way’ he says. For example, during a comedic dialogue, the score should be subtle yet impactful. The score essentially should only be conspicuous by absence. 

Rapid Fire

  1. What is one most challenging piece of work that you’ve done? Mahveeryar (New and upcoming malayalam movie) owing to languages barriers
  2. Favourite note: Komal Re
  3. Favourite raag: Bhatiyar (Example song: Naina neer from Water) and Charukeshi  
  4. Your most underrated piece of work? Aside his own work, Beyond Rangoon (Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack) and with regards to his own collection, Love aaj Kal
  5. Current strength? Being able to read a film 
  6. Current weakness? Marketing himself 
  7. An aspiring genre to work on: A film focusing on the India-Pakistan partition    
  8. Something you want to see change in the industry? lScore getting full-fledged album releases 

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