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Ones to watch
featuring Sai Natarajan

In this series ‘Ones to watch,’ we catch up with an up and coming composers to talk about their latest work, what drives them, and to find a bit more about them. Nina Lesperance from SOUNZ caught up with Sai Natarajan to learn about his work in the NZSM Composers’ Competition.

My name is Sai. I’m a composer for media, and I’m also an independent music producer. I strive to bring stories to life through my music.

Tell us about yourself and the music you write. (Instruments you play, special interests, how long you’ve been studying, what you hope to achieve with your work, influences, musical pet peeves, etc.)

I started my musical journey as a classically trained pianist from the age of six, picked up the violin during my high school years (although I don’t play very much anymore), and began messing around with composition at the age of eleven. I’ve always had an interest in film scores – when listening to my music, one might pick up on the presence of influences like Howard Shore, Joe Hisaishi, John Powell and Thomas Bergersen. These are all composers whose music I listened to extensively throughout high school.

In fact, I used to listen to film scores and orchestral music almost exclusively. I was quite an elitist during my high school years. Instead of the ‘boring mainstream genres’ (as I considered them to be at the time), my younger self tended towards the more ‘sophisticated’ and ‘complex’ timbres of the orchestra, as well as the emotional subtleties of instrumental music. I’m so glad that I grew out of that phase! Seeing people get judged on their musical preferences is easily my biggest pet peeve. In recent years, I’ve made an effort to diversify my own musical tastes, and coming to Wellington to study music has definitely helped with this quest. Hopefully this bleeds into my music more in the coming years.

I started my Bachelor of Music in Instrumental/Vocal Composition at the NZSM in 2019. While my interest still lies primarily in orchestral music (can’t forget your roots!), I’ve also expanded to writing ‘cinematic’ music that doesn’t always involve the orchestra – for instance, at the start of 2020, I released an EP that explored my own musical take on the ‘Cyberpunk’ subgenre of science fiction. Throughout 2020, I also collaborated with a friend of mine, Nathan Carter, on a cinematic electro-orchestral piece of music titled “Beyond.” Both of these projects really opened my eyes to a whole new world of mixing genres and blurring the lines between different styles of music. This is something I hope to keep exploring in future music projects.

Tell us about your work in this year’s NZSM Composers’ Competition.

For this year’s NZSM Composers’ Competition, I submitted a soundtrack suite from a video game that I scored. The game is titled Medievalien, and it tells the story of aliens invading a sleepy medieval/fantasy kingdom. From August 2020 to April 2021, I created around 53 minutes of music for the project. From this selection, I picked four of my favourite tracks and arranged them into a suite, which I then paired with some accompanying gameplay footage from the game.

Medievalien was developed by a startup Italian studio – it was their debut game, and funnily enough, it was also my own debut game soundtrack! While creating the music, I had the unique challenge of combining the lush orchestral ‘medieval/fantasy’ sound with more gritty sci-fi-esque electronic elements. It was the most enjoyable and rewarding project I’ve ever worked on, and I was honoured to be able to show it off at the finals of the NZSM Composers’ Competition.

How do you go about creating a new piece? Could you describe your process? Does it change with each new work?

My process tends to vary from piece to piece, but I generally start by assembling a collection of sounds in my DAW (especially when scoring music to fit a certain brief). For me, I find that experimenting with combinations of sounds and timbres is the most effective method of idea generation. After that, I’d describe my process as a kind of ‘guided improvisation’ occurring within the realm of the musical ideas that I began the composition with. If I’m creating orchestral music, I find it helpful to improvise continuations of musical material on the piano before fully orchestrating them.

What aspects of your piece are you particularly proud of?

This is a question I actually often struggle to answer. I’ve always grappled with the issue of sounding quite similar to the composers that I look up to. To an extent, this is unavoidable when scoring music for media… but it can be difficult to find things to be proud of as a result. I often subconsciously compare myself with my peers whose music I find to be a lot more original and ‘fresh.’

All that being said, something I do pride myself on is the fact that I’ve consistently been able to nail a brief, be it for an assignment or a commission. This was especially the case with my work on Medievalien – I managed to provide something that the developers were pleased with, every single time they needed a new piece of music. I was also quite happy with the way I wove the ‘fantasy,’ the ‘medieval’ and the ‘sci-fi’ aspects together. I thought my choices worked well, and the Medievalien players really liked what I’d done!

What projects do you have coming up?

Presently, I’m focusing on rounding up the last of my composition assignments, so I haven’t got anything immediately lined up. However, I’m attending the premiere of my first ever orchestral concert work on October the 30th, which will be performed by the Manawatu Youth Orchestra. This is really exciting for me, especially since I used to play in the MYO from 2015 to 2018! I’m also hoping to work on a short instrumental EP over the summer, and maybe remix a friend’s track. I guess we’ll see what happens!

Useful links:

All the projects I mentioned above can be heard here