Sumeet Sarkar, originally from South Africa, grew up during a time of transition. He wanted to make music, and soon he focused on nothing else. He started out playing violin, and in fact became the first Indian musician in South Africa to play professionally in a symphony orchestra.
Sarkar quickly expanded his scope to writing, mastering composition through intense study and collaborations with other industry greats like Howard Shore, Jacob Collier, and Esperanza Spalding. He has since contributed musical scores to a number of films, including ‘Who is RGB’ and ‘Priceless,’ as well as composing all music for the independent video game ‘Hattrick’ for PS4.
During a press trip to NYC, Sarkar stopped by the LNGFRM offices to talk to us about his path to success, inspiring collaborations, and composing for film versus writing for video games.
Tell us more about growing up in South Africa. As a child, were you aware of major cultural issues like apartheid?
Growing up in South Africa, apartheid had ended a year after I was born, but this was a slow process and still is today. I was part of the first generation to have a real voice in my country and to be able to walk the streets or sit on a public bench without being arrested for the color of my skin. I was able to speak a language of my own choice and choose my own career path as well. At the end I had become the first South African Indian Violinist to play in a symphony orchestra, and at the age of 15 I performed as a soloist. I also ended up speaking five languages and used my opportunities to travel with my music. I studied at Berklee College of Music and Trinity College, London, as well as traveling to 25 countries as a composer and violinist, learning world music. A major hardship was not having the technology others had at the time. Playing the violin and holding a tape recorder by the piano were my only forms of entertainment in the beginning. Graduating Berklee College of Music, with Cum Laude honors, I had also been the first African with a Film Scoring and Video Game Scoring degree, and I really hope that in the future we can see many more.
What was it like working with Jacob Collier? Does he create an inventive atmosphere?
I remember meeting Jacob Collier for the first time during my studies at Berklee and the impact he made on my music and lifestyle as a humble soul in the industry. When I heard he was coming back, I had been in touch with MIT and aware of their ambition to innovate. I had challenged them to expand the ensemble and give me a week to give them something special for Collier, the one-man genius. Within five days I had put together and managed a 200-piece orchestra by myself with the trust of the MIT media center and director Fred Harris.
Working with Jacob and musicians from over 70 countries was the greatest honor. We performed a sold-out performance. Jacob and I have been good friends ever since, and every time we work together I feel like an inspired child with a dream to learn once again. Having this feeling work intuitively with our freedom to experiment with MIT has been our key to reimagining how we perceive music together. Admittedly, Jacob is an introvert and tech junkie like myself, which is what brought him so close to such talented individuals who wish to invent and innovate.
We here at LNGFRM love indie games. Can you tell us about your work for the game ‘Hattrick’?
While studying at Berklee, I was given the opportunity to collaborate with Kyle Vaidyanathan, a game developer from Los Angeles, and had the opportunity to put theory into play with what I had studied at Berklee College of Music in the Video Game Scoring Department. We had worked on an elemental battle game with various stimulations and levels based on elements which had played a role in the music I had composed and been implemented into the game. Inspired by Nintendo, where sound design plays a part in the score, I had created the approach of composing layers of music with random transitions to create a unique effect and the appearance of spontaneous composition. Thanks to my background in world music, I could make an organic score based on my real life travels as opposed to something generic. Having this in combination with heroic theme writing and recording an orchestra for the score had proven to be too much fun for my first video game composition experience, and once we finished our studio session with a full string orchestra, I took a deep breath and wondered if I would ever have this opportunity again. One of the advantages of working in the indie game industry is the freedom to experiment. The public often assumes indie means small or beta level. It is my job to prove them wrong and show that there is no limit to how colossal or minimal we can make the art of the game.
Have you noticed any major differences between composing for film versus composing for a video game?
In the game world, film composing is often referred to as ‘Linear Music.’ This had vexed me at first but I soon understood the dimensions of creating audio, not just music, for a video game. Composing for a video game therefore became interactive scoring as we implemented sounds in a 3D or 2D environment that are influenced by our actions.
Writing for film has proven to be only half of the creative audio process for the whole project. How we implement the music is the important part, and preparing to record the live orchestra in the studio has proven to be the real challenge in the past. I want to create a cinematic experience for the audience while also supporting the action. I therefore aim to compose my themes and have them recorded live in a scoring stage instead of making loop-based music, which would be much easier.
At the same time, I love talking to machines and want to program music that is continuous and spontaneous so the player feels as if they are painting their own picture with their actions and how they feel in the moment based on morality, emotions, actions, environment, or the emotional state they are in both off-screen and on-screen.
The creative aspect of writing music for video games has no boundaries, whereas in a film, our goal is to fit music to the context of what the director and the movie envisions. This gives us less freedom. In a video game, you could write a full orchestral score for a minimal game to make it epic, or the other way around. The basis is creativity, and by making the score interactive, the audience becomes the conductor, deciding what they want the character to feel.
Do you have any favorites when it comes to how certain games have incorporated music?
A major influence had been ‘Journey.’ It’s such a simple game in regards to imagery and minimalist style, but the sound design along with the art and the score of a solo cello performed by Tina Guo give it an organic element, letting me spend hours exploring. The cello melodies randomly fade into each other, affected by how I moved through the game. It was an ingenious process that forever inspired me to innovate with that idea of spontaneous composition.
I have always been inspired by the use of organic sound design and the ability to see the same situation from many angles. I always aim at achieving the same goal with my music.
Is there a certain game studio you would love to work with?
I personally want to stay with the independent industry and see the ideas of a creative developer grow along with mine. Bare McCreary from Sparks & Shadows who recently worked with Santa Monica Studios on the recent ‘God of War’ game has been a major influence for me with the way he has kept his music organic and in context. As a film composer he has multiple cultural backgrounds, orchestral writing experience, as well as being a violinist and Erhu player. I hope I can build on such a collaboration. But otherwise, I aim at running my own company to provide music for upcoming developers.
Are you a gamer yourself?
My first visit to the US when I was 8. My mother had given me a Gameboy which I kept with me for years when I returned to South Africa. I remember carrying it in my violin case and it being my only form of entertainment through those times. When visiting London, I had gotten a PlayStation as a souvenir and that console helped me get through many hard times in my life and helped distract me. I never had access to many games at home so I would play the same games on repeat, discovering new secrets each time. When ‘Crash Bandicoot’ had been remade for the PS4, I was in tears while playing, reminiscing about my childhood and how I am still that same ambitious child at heart who is making music at such an experienced point now as well as playing games on such an evolved console. I couldn’t be more grateful for the way Nintendo and Sony consoles have evolved. I certainly am a shoe maker who wears his own shoes in this case.
You’ve also collaborated with Howard Shore and Esperanza Spalding. How did those team-ups come about?
Through our network in Boston, I was on scholarship at Berklee and invited to play at the Boston Symphony Hall, performing the ‘Lord of the Rings Symphony’ by Howard Shore who had come all the way to Boston to help us rehearse and perform his works. With my experience as a film recording violinist, I played a big role in the rehearsals along with my colleagues, and though we are trained to sight read a score in a 20-minute to 3-hour session, practicing his works brought life to his music at the hall and I learned the difference between performing a concert version and the discipline of recording in a studio environment. His work helped me become a better musician.
This year I have had the honor of performing with Esperanza Spalding and her chamber works for string orchestra as a section leader. Esperanza had been one of my major influences for years, and having the opportunity to work with her was an honor. It is interesting mentioning those 2 artists as one involves a heavy orchestral section where we had to blend in together as an orchestra to fill up the hall. But when working with Esperanza in a jazz setting, our own tone as modern chamber musicians was crucial, and so maintaining our identities as individual string players was important. I have the utmost respect for both styles of playing, and switching between chamber and orchestral styles is something I would definitely recommend to other classical musicians who are still discovering their sound.
What is your favorite stage of the creative process?
There are two aspects that have forever married me to this industry.
The first is the moment when you show up to the studio after all those sleepless nights and last-minute edits, and raise the baton to a full live orchestral section to record your work and give their voice to what was once only on paper. I remember my first day sitting at the back of the violin section in a film orchestra, seeing a production come together for the first time. I knew then and there that I wanted to be the one waving the baton. Having the opportunity to do that both in Boston and Los Angeles with such talented musicians recording my works has been a blessing that I am truly grateful for.
The second would be my personal approach to creating an orchestral mockup to a score where we use sample libraries and sound design to emulate a real orchestra. I always overlay my string sections by recording on different violins and violas by myself 100 separate times and using my unique devices that I have innovated or modified, like my augmented reality controller with Leap Motion, to conduct my virtual orchestra, or playing the Roli Seaboard to have the ability to dig my fingers into the piano for more expression. I also do sample modeling whereby I emulate the physics of a wind instrument in real time and use a breath controller to create a solo clarinet, saxophone, or tuba for example.
With my ability to script with MIDI, I have been developing my own ways to turn any object with a weird sense of motion to control my sound FX library and create tension in the scores or an atmospheric environment. Through the use of programs like Lemur or Touch OSC, I have been creating my own controllers to navigate through the studio. I’m sometimes called the tech whisperer or Tony Stark in the production room. It’s still hard to believe that I only grew up with a violin and tape recorder in a third world country.