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Composer Duo Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor Talk ‘Ray’ Score, Hybrid Sounds

The team have created the background music for films ranging from ‘Udta Punjab’ to ‘Ship of Theseus,’ as well as ‘Sherni’

Anurag Tagat Jul 19, 2021

Music composing duo Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor. Photos: Courtesy of the artist

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Legendary Indian auteur Satyajit Ray’s short stories inspired Netflix’s new series Ray, but it was more than just adapting literary texts to screen. As director Abhishek Chaubey noted about his work Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa — based off Ray’s 1972 tale Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment – even the music had to “evoke [his] style of score.”

Chaubey – known for his work in acclaimed films like Udta Punjab (2016) – called on past collaborators, composing duo Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor for the score to Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa. They had worked on the background music for Udta Punjab, but also previously served as composers for films like That Girl In Yellow Boots and Ship of Theseus. In addition to Ray, they were in charge of the sublime, spirited background for the film Sherni.

Coming together as a team in 2009 after a chance meeting, Chandavarkar – established as a guitarist – works out of Mumbai while Taylor – a violinist and viola player – is based in London. Chandavarkar says about their early collaborative works, “We weren’t very career minded in a commercial sense, and were more keen to work on independent films that excited us. Though that meant things grew quite slowly, it also allowed us to work on projects that were inspiring and allowed us a great deal of creative freedom. I think that helped us in finding our own sound, and getting it out there.”

In an email interview with Rolling Stone India, the duo take turns explaining their processes, building a rep in the composing world, Ray and instrumentation. Excerpts:

How different was your composing process for Ray? In terms of references you set for yourself, what did you end up using as a reference, if any?

Benedict Taylor: It didn’t feel particularly different. For me the film itself was a preferred jumping off / reference point. Like many films, there were references in place for the edit, but once we saw the final cut to write to, musically it gave us so much to play with. The directing, script, acting and edit were very rich for a scoring process, offering us a huge amount of bandwidth with which to compose.

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Naren Chandavarkar: It started with our conversations with Abhishek [Chaubey] about the film, after reading the script and later watching the first cut. We knew that there were a few things we wanted the music to reflect – the magic realist setting, whimsical humor, a nod to the world of the ghazal, a sense of nostalgia (in parts), and also, like the film, no fear of being on the nose in our approach. The latter led to taking on a ticking clock as a major percussive motif through the score, for example, and some sharp, very obvious cueing with the music.

The music composing world for screen, all over the globe, is often a tough space to break into, right? What do you feel worked in your favor?

Taylor: It’s hard to say specifically, but I feel that being a duo, across cultural and geographical boundaries has allowed for a favorable situation. Collaborating with a friend, can greatly open up the creative work you do. Sharing responsibility, encouraging each other, exciting each other and bouncing off a colleague at every turn, is very refreshing for your composing work. In particular, finding a friend with similar ideas and thoughts about music, cinema, art, life and so on, gives great freedom to take risks – if we feel an idea could be really interesting to take a project forward, we always have the other to bounce off, give a new perspective, ask for clarity and potentially take an idea further than expected.

You’ve been invited to conduct a masterclass once before. But where do you look out for technique, skill and new learnings?

Taylor: You have to keep studying and refining your skills through life. Personally, in music that comes through continued practicing of my instruments, performing and teaching them; further research into your own area – whether in an academic or private/personal setting; lots of listening to music – different recordings of the same works, all the different works you can find, hearing as many varied genres of music as possible, all with an open mind, trying everything once before deciding your tastes. The same goes for film – watching hours of different films. But also importantly for me, where you know there’s more to a film, going back and rewatching to study them further. It’s also essential to look outside your own working areas. Study other things, learn alien skills, expose yourself to as much as possible that’s different from your own life. I find that focusing outside of music and film, in an abstract way, gives me perspective on my own professional areas.

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Chandavarkar: I’ve learned a very large part of what I know about music from the Internet. From forums, to Skype lessons, to videos, diving through playlists, discovering new music. There are tremendous resources out there! Apart from spending an unhealthy amount of time doing that, I agree with Bened [Taylor] – it’s also (especially more recently) been very helpful to find perspective from things far away from music or film.

What’s been a favorite new instrument or even an amalgam of two instruments that you’ve liked to bring in to your scores recently?

Taylor: Using more violin has been exciting, though viola is still my principal area. Multilayering strings and guitars way too much so they sound completely warped has been a lot of fun; Lots of voice and voice recorded through a megaphone. Using the sampled sound of static from a broken guitar lead, as programmed percussion, and other ‘accidental’ recorded sound snipped up as sonic material. Also having fun with a waterphone at the moment.

Chandavarkar: I’ve been enjoying trying to find new ways to make instruments bleed electronically into each other and create new hybrid sounds that may not have been possible before. So more than any instrument, it’s been about finding techniques to combine them — like finding different ways of taking the spectral qualities of one and morphing it onto another, for example.

What else is coming up for you in 2021?

We’re very excited about three web series we’re involved with, in different stages of development, and a short film that we’ve finished with Abhishek Chaubey.

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