Dan Carlin: Indian Musicians and Film Scoring

Lesley Mahoney
April 27, 2010
Press release
Dan Carlin, chair of the Film Scoring Department, in India.

Dan Carlin, chair of the Film Scoring Department, got a firsthand glimpse of the musical talent of India as well as the country's film industry while on an audition and interview trip to New Delhi and Mumbai in February. Carlin held a clinic on the state of the film scoring business and made a trip to Chennai to meet with A.R. Rahman, the Oscar and Grammy award–winning film composer of the international sensation Slumdog Millionaire, and tour his conservatory.  

The following is a condensed and edited account of a conversation with Carlin about his trip.


What were your impressions of the Indian musicians who auditioned?

We saw some students who were every bit as talented as some of the students I've auditioned in America. Some of these young musicians performed really wonderful stuff, both traditional as well as Western music, sometimes intermingling the two. They played jazz, blues, pop, spiritual, classic, and ethnic genres. We heard mostly guitarists and singers because so few of these young students have the opportunity to play in ensembles, so they teach themselves by singing or playing along to music from their CD players, iPods, or computers. The real drawback is that many of them are unable to read music because they either don't have access to formal training or they don't have funds for such study. For instance, we had some students come and audition from towns where there is no one to teach them.

How might this trip to India contribute to the already vibrant cultural exchange at Berklee?

Almost 25% of our student body is composed of international students—truly one of Berklee's great strengths. That not only makes it a more interesting cultural experience to come here, but it also impacts the artistry. We get students from Chicago and Bavaria whose compositions and performances clearly are influenced by Japanese or Korean music because that's what they hear from the kids they're hanging and playing with. And it's fantastic. I really love that part, and I think our students do, too. One of the reasons that musicians come out of Berklee with fresh, innovative music is that we're a cultural and artistic melting pot. We're a microcosm of America's traditional melting pot, only we do it musically, and it's absolutely fabulous. One of the reasons I want to get these Indian students here is because their music is really interesting. It's very provocative—both the percussion stuff you hear from the tabla and the quarter tones in their melodies.

How does this translate to film scoring?

Indian movies have an interesting style. First of all, their films tend to be longer in length. And when people go to see an Indian film they're also expecting a musical concert experience. They use a lot more songs in their movies. Slumdog Millionaire, with its big dance number at the end, is a good example. That's very typical of Indian films. As a person who loves film music, I think the Indian films are terrific. I'm hoping that some of these Indian students can bring those influences to Berklee. I'm not looking to revolutionize American films, but why not have some of our films take that sort of approach? I think it's really a provocative difference and it gives the audience a different experience. It makes it more than a film. Avatar is an astounding visual experience and sets a whole new bar for what you can do visually. So why not be innovative in terms of what you're doing musically as well? Today it's really the independent films that do most of the trendsetting. I'd like to see more of that kind of experimentation here. In India, where they make more movies than we do, the result is a lot more visually performed songs and a greater musical emphasis. It's more expensive to make movies that way, but I think it pays off artistically. Working on these types of films was a specialization of mine on such music-driven projects as Sister Act, The Bodyguard, What's Love Got To Do With It, The Preacher's Wife, Leap of Faith, and The Temptations miniseries.

What do you see as the draw of Berklee's Film Scoring Department to Indian students?

There's no other undergraduate program like this anywhere in world, let alone in India. They're turned on by what we do here. As I said earlier, India has a larger film industry than we do, and because music is a larger part of their films, there's great interest from students who want to study composition and orchestration for films. It would be terrific if some these students could capitalize on the opportunity to study and learn the skills here that they later can apply on both Indian and American films.

Tell me about the clinics you hosted.

I talked about the evolution of film music techniques, technology, and styles over the last 30 or 40 years, showing clips from several films, some of which I had worked on. I tried to show that the changes we have seen in musical styles also are mirrored in the stylistic changes in filmmaking. For instance, if you compare a movie like the Bourne Ultimatum to something like the Black Stallion or Last of the Mohicans, you see that the camera in Bourne Ultimatum never stops moving. It's jiggling, it's zooming in and out, and the editing is at a much faster pace, much more frenetic. The music complements that style. There's much more tension in the music. It's much less melodic and more electronic than in the past. I also talked about how we're dealing with those issues at Berklee by keeping up with both technological and stylistic changes in the entertainment industry, including the establishment of our new program focusing on music for video games. We're keeping our students up on what's happening so that when they leave here and go out and try to find jobs in the real world, they're not looking either old fashioned or too esoteric.

What were your impressions of the Indian film industry?

I visited a combination recording/mixing/dubbing studio at A.R. Rahman's KM Conservartory in Chennai, and when I walked into that room, I could have been standing in any room in L.A. or New York. It was a first-rate facility. The dubbing mixer was kind enough to interrupt his work and show a demo reel of some of Rahman's work, which is really impressive. He has what any good film scorer needs to have—that combination of artistry and craftwork that allows one to sense and know how to respond when a scene shift gears, whether to hit the cut or play through it, whether to lay back or add emphasis. It is more than knowing when to provide subtlety versus full-speed ahead. The best film composers—and Rahman is one of them—can interpret and complement nuances that the director is trying to convey. 

Read Carlin's dispatches from India on Berklee Blogs.