Composer Ghibran has been busy during the lockdown. In a fun Zoom conversation with Vishal Menon, he speaks about trends in the world of music, and more. Edited excerpts.
Let’s begin with a question about the lockdown. Have you made peace with it and how much has it affected your work?
I’ve always been at peace. The lockdown has been very productive, if you ask me. I quickly adapted and, as you can see, I started with Arivum Anbum, and now I am in the process of releasing my spiritual series. A lot of work has been going on for my orchestral series as well. So I won’t complain.
When we look at the number of people who work behind the scenes for a film, is it fair to say it’s the music and the editing teams that have remained least affected by Covid?
I’m not sure about others, but I’ve spoken to a few editors myself and they’ve all been busy. I too have been doing a lot of music work. You’re probably right about that.
Comparing this period to regular times, has this been less distracting?
My routine has been the same. I start my day as early as possible and am done by 11 max. But one major difference was that film work was not happening. Directors and producers haven’t been checking on work. So, I used this time for a lot of learning and reading. I broke my record, and finished six books in one month.
All books related to music?
Zero books on music (laughs). I always wanted to learn a lot about business. I’ve been working on certain new projects, so I needed to learn certain things as a part of its design and practice. Apart from that, whatever was outside film music was keeping me busy.
You’ve just launched Ghibran’s Spiritual Series in which you’ll be releasing a freshly orchestrated spiritual song each week. How would you describe the timing of these songs?
I was working on this with Think Music for a long time. Whenever I’ve spoken about how music is going to change, I’ve maintained that film music is going to grow beyond films. With the help of the streaming industries, there isn’t a better time for this. Popular music is already growing on YouTube and on streaming.
But spiritual music, at least until 20 years ago, would see the participation of mainstream composers such as MSV and Ilaiyaraaja. That has totally gone now. Maybe, because the commercial value is very less. Even the great spiritual songs that have come from Rahman sir were part of film projects. I wanted that part of music to grow and move on. Also we need to become better people, and spirituality is something we surely need right now.
When we look back, devotional cassettes and CDs used have their own market. There were composers and singers who survived on devotional music alone. Why do you think this business slowly subsided?
I feel it’s just a change in perception. Back when I was a keyboard player, I used to be very busy playing for devotional albums. In one day, we would work on as many as 12 songs. And Ayyappan season was the busiest time for me back then. So, I’ve survived only on the music from this industry. But then, music exploded into electronic. And then, music shifted from CDs to MP3 and streaming. At this point, there was no need for audio labels or middlemen. The devotional genre was called the retirement industry where older singers and musicians would go to. Fresh composers coming in did not want to get into that zone. So, I feel it didn’t evolve. Someone needs to break this and change this perception.
What about the production of these devotional songs? Is your effort to produce it with the same effort and technical finesse of a new film song? Or, is the nature of the music that you have to maintain a certain old-world quality to it?
We didn’t have a target audience. The streaming industry is now used to a certain recording quality, so we don’t want to revisit the quality from 20 years ago. Even when I was a keyboardist, the spiritual music industry was used to using a certain set of sounds. So, if I chose a synth sound then, the music director would say, “All this won’t work for devotional. Keep it aside for when you become a composer.” Now, since I’m the decision maker, we’re not limiting ourselves. I don’t want people to look down upon these songs in terms of production quality.
Of the songs that you’ve reworked for the series, which one was the toughest to update?
One was Arunagirinathar’s Muththaitharu. As a child, I’ve sung that song in competitions. If you sung it properly, you could win any competition. It has a rhythmic quality that always sounded symphonic to me. So, as an arranging style, it was tougher for me, and we recorded it with the Budapest Philharmonic Symphony. Apart from that, I was a bit afraid to touch ‘Harivarasanam’. I was born Vijay and I’ve gone to Sabarimala too. No one can replace that song. We’re so used to Yesudas sir’s voice that the moment we hear the song, it’s his voice that comes to mind. Music director Sharreth sir has a unique voice, and I wanted to use that for this version. So, I feel safe now.
How is your state of mind when you’re working on something spiritual, as opposed to something like the soundtrack of Ratsasan, a film that is dark?
It’s not like I go into another state of mind and come back whenever I’m working on something like this. It’s a way of life. I’ve been talking a lot recently about suyadharma. I look at spirituality more like a disciplined life. But these songs do have their own magic. They’ve been around for so long that they’ve really fought time. So, working on those songs does have a positive effect. They do something to you.
So, in the same way, does working on a Ratsasan affect you in a negative way?
The more you get into a character in a film like Ratsasan, you became a psycho. It happened to me too. But I would still say that that experience was okay. What really affected me was the music of Saaho. When time is short and the song you want to produce needs a huge amount of work, that’s when everything goes for a toss. Now, I might sound calm, as though I’m enjoying my inner self, but when I was working on Saaho, I was a mad man. The last one month of Saaho was the toughest time.
What we’ve been seeing recently, at least when it comes to Hindi film music, is an album being divided among composers who work on either a song or two. Now, as an extension, we’re seeing some people becoming song specialists, while others specifically work on the background score, like you did for Saaho. How do you see this division of musical duties in a film?
Personally, I wanted it to happen. Around Vathikuchi time, I remember wanting for that separation between songs and the background score. It is like writers becoming directors. Only a few can do both. Even in the Tamil industry, we’ve faced that problem. Not a lot of people look at direction as a separate art form. I’ve studied background score in Singapore and I want this to happen. So, when people ask me for my background score, I’m happy to do it. See, we don’t expect songs from Hans Zimmer or John Williams, right? But their coming into the industry only made it bigger.
But, in most cases, does the work get doubled because you have to do both?
But, we’re used to it right? We’ve grown up understanding that we’ll have to learn to do both. But, as I see it, I feel this current generation of composers is the last that can both compose songs and background scores.
So, the future will have song specialists and background score specialists?
But, when you’re working on the score of a film like Saaho , where the songs are by other composers, do you still have the freedom to use parts of their songs to create a certain emotion in the score?
It’s a personal choice. Especially in Indian film music, it has been the norm that the background score guy doesn’t touch the songs of the other composers. It’s a bit of an ego thing or it’s like marking one’s territory. But when I come on board, I see it as the whole film. I see it as my film. And, if the film needs me to use the song composer’s tune for impact, I should have no problem doing it. As the one doing the background score, I have to become the director’s voice. I’m clear about my job description.
What about the opposite situation? Do you see a future where there will be multiple people working on a film’s background score alone?
I don’t think that will happen at a basic level. But, it may happen in the form of a collaboration, like when Hans Zimmer works with Blake or Junkie XL to create a sound. Ultimately, Zimmer is the one who decides what sound the film needs and that system can work for our films too.