Interview with Nitin Sawhney

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was the fifth film made by Alfred Hitchcock and his first major hit. Released in 1927, only a single version has survived which is housed at the BFI’s National Film Archive. It is now being released with a newly restored print and a new score written by Nitin Sawhney. TFR had a chat with the composer about his new project.

Nitin Sawhney is going underground

The story that takes place in the swirling London fog is about a man who takes a room in a family home while a serial killer strangles young blonde women across the city. This mysterious lodger becomes a suspect, but is he guilty or innocent? Although only 26-years-old at the time, Hitchcock already knew how to keep us guessing.

Sawhney’s new score is heavily influenced by the orchestral motifs of the famous Hitchcock-collaborator Bernard Hermann, but it also contains elements of 1920s ragtime and a couple of Sawhney’s own signature Indian love songs. The whole effect is to add tension, glamour, and even some humour and romance, to the story. The London Symphony Orchestra will perform the score alongside a screening of the newly restored film at The Barbican Centre on 21 July, 2012.

Both music and the Master of Suspense came early to Sawhney, who started learning the piano when he was five-years-old and discovered the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann soon after. He was only seven or eight when, late one night, he saw The Birds and “noticed the music was really, really creepy.” A few years later, aged 11, he caught Psycho on another late-night TV screening and it also made a deep impression. It wasn’t the orchestration or Hermann’s technical innovation that grabbed Sawhney at such a young age.

“Those films had so much mood and atmosphere, I think as a kid I was really connecting with music and film that had atmosphere. The first album I bought was Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis and the reason was it was just so atmospheric,” explains Sawhney. Further explaining his youthful sensitivity to atmosphere, he recalls that it was around this time that he was struck by the beauty of late night rain.

The new score for The Lodger is a part of BFI project to restore the surviving Hitchcock silent films known as the Hitchcock 9 and to give them new scores. Other musicians including Soweto Kinch, Mira Calix, Neil Brand and Daniel Patrick Cohen will be working on other of these early films. Sawhney was originally commissioned by Tim Beddows of Network Releasing who had seen his score for Yogoto No Yume, a 1933 Japanese silent movie, that also showed at the Barbican.

There was no instruction on how to score the film, so Sawhney was happy to find his own connection to the film. “If I work with a director, then I follow the director’s vision, but obviously Hitchcock’s not around, so I’m working to find my own way of looking at something,” he says. If there was an original score, he deliberately avoided researching it (it is now believed that generic scores were matched to situations in silent films). Instead, he explains, “I was trying to find my own way of representing that vocabulary and the points of melodrama, and really get across the characters and the narrative and the psychology of the film.” Being a film by Hitch, this process was heightened.

Nitin Sawhney - a musical anorak

“I was really excited to get involved scoring for a director who had probably the best-known relationship with a composer in history. So I wanted to find his perspective as well as I could. I just wanted to get into what he might be thinking and connect up with the themes more than anything.”

That famous creative relationship between Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann produced some of the most memorable scores in the movies, including those for Vertigo, North by Northwest and Marnie, as well as The Birds and Psycho. Hermann’s reputation has, if anything, grown since his death. New Yorker music journalist Alex Ross calls him “the greatest of all Hollywood film composers.” Sawhney would have to agree:

“I think that Bernard Hermann first of all was a psychological genius, as well as a musical one,” he says. “He really understood the idea of not only narrative, but also of creating motifs that stayed in your head and really drew you in to the psychology of the character.” Sawhney points out that the screeching theme for the stabbing in Psycho was not only an unnerving, violent stabbing sound, but also represented the squawking of birds because Norman Bates’ hobby was stuffing birds. This was powerful, but also a bold move in the face of the snobbery of the classical music community from which Hermann came. For Sawhney “the shower scene is incredible because it shows a real confidence in understanding psychology and the connection of music with psychology.”

Sawhney’s new score for The Lodger however doesn’t just bring out the characteristic creepiness and menace of the Hitchcock film, but also a certain poignancy. At one stage the lodger has a romantic game of chess with his landlord’s daughter and Sawhney overlays a tender, Indian-infused love song. One gets the feeling of a lonely man and his longing for companionship. “Exactly,” he warmly agrees. “I think it’s a romance as well. People think of Hitchcock as being ‘the master of suspense’, but it’s also about romance. He’s a very romantic director, so I wanted to bring that out as well.”

Tickets for The Lodger with Nitin Sawhney’s new score are on sale now.

The Lodger (2012 Restoration) Original Soundtrack is available at Amazon from Monday 23 July.

Read our review of Nitin Sawhney’s new score for The Lodger.

Win a copy of Nitin Sawhney’s new score for The Lodger here.

Nitin Sawhney's The Lodger CD cover

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