What do you turn to for inspiration when you’re tasked with composing for a movie that involves a wounded God in hiding, limitless treasure and inter-generational greed set in colonial India? If you’re BAFTA winner Jesper Kyd, your references are as diverse as a YouTube video of street drummers, the 1973 Danish slasher film The Sinful Dwarf and one of Laxmikant–Pyarelal’s songs in Ram Lakhan (1989).
Fantasy worlds have always been a large part of Kyd’s oeuvre, with his compositions appearing in popular video game series such as Assassin’s Creed, Borderlands and Hitman, which is where Tumbbad co-director Adesh Prasad first heard his distinct sound. The two connected over Skype and over the next eight months, Kyd wrote “almost three hours of music, as well as a lot of experimentation sessions” for the 104-minute-long film.
The Danish composer says he wasn’t fazed by the prospect of writing music for a film in Hindi, a language he isn’t familiar with. “Storytelling is a universal language. Also, since the filmmakers were not looking for anything Indian-sounding, I didn’t have to worry about that.” His approach helped him craft an alternately vibrant, pulsating score and one that evokes a sense of dread uncoiling in the pit of your stomach. Kyd spoke to us about finding a Danish connect to the film, what went into ensuring that each of its sections were sonically unique and the moment he knew he had nailed Tumbbad’s sound.
What was going through your mind the first time you saw the film?
I was amazed the first time I watched the movie. It was such an atmospheric film with very strong visuals and great performances by the cast. It was almost hypnotic. I remember when scoring, I would often just let the film roll on and go back to work on the scene I was scoring. I can’t recall another score I’ve worked on where this has happened. There is something almost magical about the way Tumbbad has been shot. The attention to detail is mind-blowing. Everything feels very realistic and organic. I also love all the rain and it helped give the movie a fairytale feel. For me, growing up in Denmark with stories by Hans Christian Andersen, the film reminded me a bit about my favourite fairytale of his called The Tinderbox.
What was your brief? Was there anything that was particularly difficult to translate into sound?
The filmmakers were not looking for anything Western or Indian. It had to be unique and with visuals as strong as these, I knew I had to write something that would fit the incredible experience on screen. That was a challenge. If the music didn’t match the visuals, they would simply take over. The visuals set the bar very high for all of us. So what Adesh told me was to experiment as much as possible in order to come up with something unique and “out there.” None of us knew what the movie should sound like when I started writing, we really had to start at the ground level. There was no temp music in the film and that made the experimentation even deeper. So I started to experiment and would bring back ideas I had written and we would discuss and move forward.
Was there a breakthrough moment? When you felt like you had nailed down exactly what the movie was going to sound like?
I think one breakthrough moment was when I wrote the score for the scene on the river. The argument (between the young Vinayak and his mother) that slowly builds…the whispering vocals and the way the music just roars as we see the river and transition into part 2. Also, the sound of The Womb was probably the most challenging part of the score to figure out. We tried different ideas in completely different styles before we settled on what’s there now.
Each of the three parts of the movie has a distinct sound. Could you talk about what you were going for in each part?
The first part of the film plays more like a period horror film and so the instruments we very realistic and part of the set in many ways. The focus was a musical style called musique concrète or found sound. So no beautifully crafted instruments here, it was objects made of wood, metal and clay that I would play and process in different ways. It gave the film a very organic and realistic atmosphere. Part 1 of the movie has a lot of instruments played in odd ways, such as cello bows playing guitars. I used a ton of different ethnic instruments and drums such as zithers, dulcimers, pre-paired piano and ran a lot of this through a big modular Eurorack syntheziser. Other anlaog synths used are Yahama CS80, Prophet 10 and the Roland VP330.
Part 2 was focused primarily on the mythology of Tumbbad with music pieces such as “The Birth of Hastar”, the Bulgarian choirs and the intense music on the river called “The Greed Manifests”. The music on the river I always called the ‘Battle Music’ and that one is includes motor guitars and intense live percussion. The Bulgarian choir track started out as a 9-minute-long cue. It was also recorded live and it was very cool to hear the 14-piece choir really take on this music. The cue that opens up the film with the kids in front of the house started out as an 18-minute-long track, part of an experimentation session where we were working towards finding the sound of the rain. That cue relied heavily on analog synths and cinematic EDM ambient-type music.
Part 3 features a more intimate style using solo instruments and a melodic writing approach. This music is used to help convey Vinayak’s actions and how they affect his family.
The score is full of live performances – from the celli and violin, to recordings of crickets in my backyard. This project never stopped challenging me.