An Interview with Imran Ahmad by John Mansell
Imran Ahmad is a British-Indian Film Composer and Music Producer based in London, U.K. His music has been broadcast on UK and international television (BBC, Channel 4) and commercially released worldwide (UK, USA & Japan). Imran recently composed the music to a zombie feature film set in West Africa – THE DEAD, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. It will have its theatrical world premiere in Autumn 2011. He has also composed music for several documentaries, notably multi-award winning Mayomi which is an intimate portrait of a young woman’s struggle in post-tsunami Sri Lanka. Imran is co-director and producer of 4Dio. A multimedia company creating “audio movies” – produced with full theatrical performance, film music and sound design.
One of your latest projects is the Zombie movie THE DEAD, how did you become involved with this movie?
I met the directors Jon and Howard J. Ford in London. Howard sent me a link to the initial trailer just before the film was going into post-production. I was so inspired by the images of the African landscape (shot on 35mm film). I composed a music demo that in my mind translated how I felt by watching the trailer. Howard and Jon were excited with the music and my ideas regarding the score and so I came onboard.
Did the directors of the movie have a hands on approach as far as the music was concerned, or were you given a free hand to create the score?
They wanted the movie to be original in every way possibly including the score. Apart from the obvious horror aspects they were very keen to convey the fragile sense of hope the main characters possessed. My initial demo was the impetus for exploring a more spiritual vibe to the music so thanks to the directors this led me to have free reign.
How many times did you see the movie before you began to get any fixed ideas about what type of music would be utilized and where it would be placed and how much time were you given to complete the score?
I watched the movie at least twice before I started to work out the broad strokes thematically. It was going to be very important to articulate the internal journey of the main characters as there was little verbal expression. I knew I wanted a strong melodic African flavour, yet universal sounding, for their inner emotions, and vocals and percussion for the outward journey and horror aspects.
The directors and I worked out the placement of music at the spotting session. The type of music for each cue and the overall musical arc was based on discussions of the story, internal motivations of each main character and the experience we were creating for the audience.
As the film was being prepared for screening to distributors there was some back and forth on the music development for some of the cues. In total it took me about 8 weeks to compose, mix and master the score. Some cues/segments that didn’t make the final cut are featured in the soundtrack release.
Did the directors of THE DEAD have a “Temp Track” installed on the movie when you first viewed the film and if so did you find this helpful or was it distracting ?
There was no temp track installed on the movie.
You created a very original and also a very earthy and percussive sounding score for THE DEAD, what did you set out to achieve when you began work on the movie, was there a certain sound that you wanted to create or did the sound evolve as the project progressed?
In one of my initial conversations with Howard, I described the intended music as arising from the landscape and turning the wilderness into a twisted and distorted reality. The film is shot mainly in daylight, there are bare and empty vistas and the hot sun is a huge burden causing mental and physical fatigue. It’s not just the zombies, it’s the environment and climate that will slow the main characters down and they must rely on their primal instincts in order to survive. So I really wanted the music to reflect this through percussion and vocals – two of the most primitive forms of music. Having said that, some of the vocals have an anguish and sorrowful sound to them. The main characters do not enjoy killing the zombies! The dead used to be human beings. The African soldier, Sgt. Daniel Dembele is emotionally distressed having to slay his own people.
When you begin a project, what do you use as a starting point, do you create a theme and build the remainder of the score around this, or do you begin with maybe sounds and small phrases and passages of music and then develop the work from there ?
I like to begin my initial musical ideas by working out the dramatic themes of the story. I then work chronologically as it feels natural to build up slowly so that the music’s language for the film can develop. I develop a palette of sounds that I feel will be suitable for the score and limit myself to this range. These sounds or musical colours are drawn from the film’s own reality. Also composing this way enables me to see if the musical arc is following the dramatic arc of the story.
The soundtrack album from THE DEAD is about to be released, what involvement did you have with the production of the compact disc?
So far the soundtrack has been released as a download via iTunes and Amazon. I’m really excited to be working with a record label to release a limited edition CD of the soundtrack that will be out later this year.
You are known as a composer and also a producer, but do you perform on any of your scores?
I performed some percussion such as darbuka on the score but at a basic level! Also a lot of the breath sounds are mine! I have also performed hammered dulcimer and Turkish baglama on my previous films. However, I really love working with musicians by experimenting and recording sounds that I use to assimilate into a score.
Was your family background linked to music, by this I mean were any of your family musical in any way and what musical education did you receive?
My family background has some roots in music and poetry. I do try and bring my Indian musical influences into the music I compose. For example, the live woodwind that is performed in the score are all played on Indian flutes in Indian modes.
The score for THE DEAD is a fusion of what sounds like orchestral elements, vocals and also synthetic or electronic sounds, what percentage of the score was performed by conventional instruments and where was the score recorded?
More than one-third of the score is performed by live musicians. Some of the electronic sounds were deliberately used especially the high octave sustained notes that you hear in a few of the cues. This was meant to be a musical homage to the long synth sounds from some of the Romero zombie movies such as DAWN OF THE DEAD. The directors really liked this idea.
The score was recorded at my home studio and at Spirit Studios – a professional recording studio in South London.
Staying with THE DEAD, when you began work on the score did you have the vocalists who performed on the soundtrack in mind and write for them in particular?
I wanted to work with Saba Tewelde who I had previously worked with on another project. She had the exact vocal dichotomy I was looking for to represent the natural world becoming corrupted. The lower end of her vocal range has a resonance conveying a heavy feeling of sorrow and foreboding. Conversely her upper vocal range is incredibly radiant and ethereal. Her vocal tones pursue the two soldiers throughout the film giving them no peace or chance of respite!
You scored the short film, TO UNWILL A HEART, which was set in Syria in 946 A.D. How much research did you do before you began work on this project?
This short film is a taster to help kickstart a feature film about the ancient English legend of Bevois of Hampton that is almost forgotten here in England. It is a beautiful and haunting story which involves the Kings from Three Nations with geographic settings from England to the Middle East – it’s on the scale of Gladiator! The music is atmospheric using certain key instruments from the regions such as the Turkish Baglama. I’m really looking forward to doing more research when it comes to working on the feature film.
What do you undertake musically away from film?
I am currently learning to play the sarod – this is an ancient Indian stringed instrument. Interest in this instrument has been revived internationally thanks to Soumik Datta who is a very talented classically trained sarod player. And I am grateful to have him as my teacher!
What for you are the main differences between scoring shorts and working on a feature length movie apart from the obvious being the duration of the films?
For me it’s exactly the same process. I have been fortunate to work with some great directors on the short films. These invaluable experiences cultivated my move into scoring for feature films.
What artists or composers would you identify as being influential upon you and maybe have inspired you in your involvement with music and film?
There are so many influences! The first film I went to see in the cinema was THE RETURN OF THE JEDI! So naturally I have always been inspired by the music of John Williams. I am also inspired by Bernard Herrmann and Maurice Jarre, and classical composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Rachmaninov. My other influences come from Indian classical music and indigenous folk songs.