Name: Sid Acharya
Current release: Sid Acharya's new album What We Leave Behind is available directly from his bandcamp store. On bandcamp, you can also buy physical copies of his previous release, Stories from the Sky, which he talks about in more detail in this interview, and which fuses sensual electronics and cinematic orchestral passages to stunning effect.
Recommendations: Island Songs, an album by Olafur Arnalds, one of my favourite contemporary classical albums; Interstellar, a film by Christopher Nolan, one of my favourite films and soundtracks.
If you enjoyed this interview with Sid Acharya, visit his visually arresting website. He is also on Instagram, Soundcloud and the IMDB.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Although I started experimenting with music software quite young, I didn’t begin composing this classical style of music until I was around 18 years old.
I have always truly appreciated and loved film soundtracks and contemporary classical music, having grown up watching such influential scores by John Williams, Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer. There is something in music that lacks lyrics that gave me a space to think and reflect, which I find incredibly therapeutic, though I also love listening to lyrical songs too.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I think finding your own style as an artist is one of the most challenging things in the process of growth. It is easy to fall into a trap, especially in film/orchestral music where you would rather just be a sound-alike to an existing film composer because it may lead to more initial exposure or because it is easier to get work.
I think I am still finding my sound, and the journey will never end – the chase to find my sound is one of the things that is always evolving and excites me to keep creating, but the process has been a lot of experimentation, trial and error, and seeing what styles I enjoy creating and listening to.
In retrospect, I think my style is probably a fusion of all my favourite artists along with my own understanding of music.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I really try to compose my works as a memoir of my life, so who I am as a person plays into my creativity quite strongly. I often find myself most creative after an event has happened in my life, composing has always been a sort of vent and therapy for me and so I think my creativity is aligned with what’s going on in my life and my identity.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The first challenges were surely related to the quality of my sound. My first tracks were terrible – to a point where I had given up! Something within me drove me to persist until I was satisfied, something that still drives me today in all my projects (maybe perfectionism).
With practice and self-learning, I started to learn to improve production quality and challenges began shifting towards gaining exposure and listeners, and other music business related issues. I soon realised that to be a musician was also to take on a business mindset in terms of creating and promoting my works. The challenges never get easier, but I think they do change over time.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I think time really does play a huge role in the composition of a piece, it is as important as the melody or the tempo. A piece needs enough time to tell a story, to let the story sink into a listener and allow them to contemplate – especially in the genre of contemporary classical where there are no vocals to fill spaces.
But if a song is too long, it can feel dragged, like it is force-feeding a story that you don’t want to hear anymore. For it to deliver its message naturally, I think there is an optimal time for a piece and for composers, knowing this just comes instinctually. Some of my music is only a minute long, whereas others are several minutes.
I usually determine how long a piece needs to be from the story I am trying to tell and how well the story is told with the melody and instrumentation alone as factors.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
The amazing thing about instrumental music, I think, is that it forces us as musicians to be inventive with the sound of a piece to tell a story in a unique and evocative way, where usually vocals would take reign. I feel that sound is very closely linked with compositional aspects – changing the sound within one composition could completely change the way you are telling a story and the level and type of emotion you are conveying to a listener.
I try to pay close attention to detail to the tone of all the instruments within a piece to ensure I am telling the story how I envisioned. A sound in itself can surely take on its own compositional quality, but I think what makes it interesting and evocative to us is when it is layered within a bed and context of other sounds, all interacting with each other to become a full composition.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Wherever possible, I try to work with live/session musicians in my works. There is something magical that another musician can bring when they incorporate their own story and interpretation of a piece – the music often becomes multidimensional. Although I find composing a very personal and intimate task and prefer to do it alone, I absolutely love to collaborate with other musicians afterwards to view things from a different perspective and gain an outside look.
Also, as a film composer, collaboration is a big part of the job. A relationship with the director and a composer I think is one of the strongest on a film crew and it often starts very early and develops over time, along with the music department and engineering team.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I would say I am most certainly a nocturnal person! I am most productive and engaged at night, so most of my composing happens after dark (unless of course it is for a client, and I am approaching a deadline!). My composing process is very improvisational, I often write and record bits during improv. and edit these snippets to create a piece.
When it comes to composing, I tend not to follow a schedule. I often come up with ideas at completely random times during a day and immediately try to write it down or record a voicenote. In that respect, music and composing are a strong part of my life, because they are never separated into their own time. They happen ALL the time for me.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The work most special to me would be my 2020 album Stories from the Sky. Written over five months during one of the traumatic events in my life combined with the shock of the pandemic, this I think was a breakthrough for me in compositional quality and storytelling. It is also my most listened to album at this moment. In addition to being written during such a time in my life, it was also my first album pressed to vinyl – which was an incredibly special thing, to create something physical and tangible from a dream.
The album itself is written about the sky, and its majesty being a place to look at to contemplate about life and reflect. The sky is ever-changing, never the same on any two days. Similar to the sky, I tried to create 10 contemporary classical pieces that also provide a place to contemplate and reflect about one’s life.
A breakthrough event for me was the 2020 U.S. corps recruitment oath which was delivered by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station to NASA Space Centre Houston, where my music was played while the audience awaited uplink to the ISS.
The song itself was written about an astronaut in space, so this just felt like it was meant to be! My music continues to be played in the foyers of the Space Centre Museum.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I spent some time studying Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow Theory”, where one can enter a creative state when the task’s challenge and the artist’s skill level are both at an optimal state.
I always try to place myself “in the deep end” and challenge myself to enter this creative and problem-solving state. I think that the most incredible creative moments happen in a response to solving a problem, and in music there are hundreds of little problems that arise during a compositional process.
Distractions can be detrimental to this flow and chain of thought, but I think practice, determination and experience can offer tactics to blocking them out and help in focusing on one thing until it’s done to a standard.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I am a strong believer of music being a form of therapy. Vocal music can be powerful as it offers relatable lyrics, but instrumental/neoclassical music is something special – where there are no lyrics, and a listener must fill in the spaces with their own thoughts and reflections. I think part of the process of healing is to become hurt because it involves acceptance and understanding of what has happened, so music can be painful, but in the end it is all a part of a healing process.
Listening to neoclassical music and composing it has been very healing for me throughout my life and I always try to create music that can offer the same peace for listeners. There is a huge potential of the power of music as a healer in terms of mental health. Even the ancient Greeks knew music was powerful and essential as part of a healthy society and in boosting a community’s cohesiveness.
Music isn’t just a cocurricular activity, it’s an essential and healthy part of a balanced lifestyle.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think having a multicultural understanding and appreciation is so important in music. All cultures have such unique musical palettes and ideas. Care does need to be taken in copying to a point of something being cliché, especially in film music. Too often we see the classic desert scene with heavily Arabic influenced music in the background, or maybe an action comedy has a scene with ninjas, and they have decided to use some oriental styled music for the score. Not only is this cliché, but it is predictable and not innovative.
Being of Indian descent, I personally just roll my eyes whenever a film has used some sort of predictably generic Indian-styled music for a scene that maybe is set in India. I think it is mainly due to ignorance of how much variety a culture’s music can have.
I have always admired Hans Zimmer in this respect for his creativity in culturally related film scores, where he pays homage to a culture’s music but reinvents it into a context for the film – often adding his own Zimmer sound. Most notable in The Last Samurai, where he highlighted various Japanese instruments within an epic and ‘Zimmer-esque’ sound.
I think it will also be interesting to see his approach to composing Dune, where the novel clearly has an Arabic undertone and the predictable thing would be to compose Arabic music for the film. I have a strong feeling he will put a completely unique spin on it though, highlighting an Arabic instrumentation within his own famous Zimmer sound.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
What always amazes me, is that when you listen to a piece of music after a long time, you are instantly taken back to that first time you heard it. It is a sense of déjà vu, where you feel like you have been taken back in time. For me, this happens sometimes so strongly that my senses can even recall the sight, the smell, the feel of what I was doing when I first heard the music.
There could be a lot of research done into the role of music in our psychology. Maybe music is our sixth sense and interacts with our other senses in some way.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Music is definitely influential and has purpose in society because it is a storytelling tool. Lyrical music especially has the ability to evoke an emotion and convey a social or political statement. I think contemporary classical music may differ in this, because it cannot convey a specific political statement on its own because there are no words BUT it can definitely evoke an emotion in relation to a real-world event.
Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks is one of my favourite contemporary classical albums that was written in protest to the 2003 Iraq War.
It doesn’t specifically talk about the event itself, but Richter was able to convey his emotions about the event which transcended to the audience.
As a film composer, I can understand composing music for a scene, whether the scene is from a film or from a real-life event. Artists do have a responsibility as influencers to question and advance society’s choices.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
As an instrumental music composer, I see a magic in music that lacks words. For the spaces where lyrics are void, composers tend to compensate and innovate ways to tell a story with melodies and tones alone. Often because of this emptiness, a listener will fill in this space with their own ideas and thoughts.
I think life and death are concepts that are so incomprehensive to us that words can only attempt to portray such concepts. Sometimes for something we cannot understand, the only way to come to terms with it is to let ourselves feel that something - and I think music teaches us how to feel.