and the Sounds of Key Listener
Sai Natarajan is a master composer and the creator of all scores and sounds for
Key Listener Productions. With an ear for originality and a developing talent that carries his passion forward, Sai Natarajan is The Sound of Key Listener.
Below is our exclusive Q&A with Sai.
What sparked the dream of wanting to become a musician, specifically a composer?
The world of music has always appealed to me, ever since I was young. My parents tell me I often enjoyed banging on the pots and pans in our little kitchen, trying to nut out little musical rhythms. I started playing the piano at age six. Besides playing the songs that were given to me, I also loved improvising and figuring out various pieces of music by ear. When I was 12, a lot of things happened at around the same time: I started messing around with the GarageBand app on my school’s MacBooks. I began listening to a bunch of popular film music - John Williams's Harry Potter soundtracks, Klaus Badelt's Pirates of the Caribbean, Hans Zimmer's Inception, etc. My family also showed me an incredible musician and performer by the name of Yanni, whose music still inspires me. I think this period of time was a turning point for me. I was exposed to so much music, and I loved every minute of it. This was where I really knew I wanted to compose music like the big guys - Williams, Zimmer, Yanni, etc. So I started attempting to recreate my favourite film themes on GarageBand. Then I started writing little compositions, and in time they grew longer and longer. I saved up and bought Logic Pro at the age of 14, and it snowballed from there.
Who is your favourite composer? What about this composer inspires your work?
This is a tough one. I have so many favourite composers - John Powell (How to Train Your Dragon), Alexandre Desplat (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 & 2), Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), Joe Hisaishi (nearly all of Studio Ghibli's films), John Williams (if you haven't heard of him, you've literally been living under a rock).
My absolute favourite happens to be one of the most popular AND most polarizing film composers of today: Hans Zimmer. It's not only the man's music that captivates me - and I can talk about his music for hours on end. It's not only his ability to push sonic boundaries, and redefine film scoring as we know it. It's his attitude and philosophy towards his craft that truly inspires me. For example, Hans writes all of his music for a fictional character whom he calls Doris - quoting Hans, "She's from Bradford, she wears a raincoat, she has two horrible little kids that give her nothing but grief. The man left her a while back. And she trudges to work in the rain every day, and works extremely hard. When she plonks down her hard-earned money at the cinema in the weekend, I need to make sure that I give her an unforgettable experience." I think every media composer should think of Doris when they write a score - I know I certainly do!
Key Listener Productions has brought to life two original stories so far, both in which you've played a vital role. When Kyle first approached you to bring life to his stories with an original score, what were your first impressions on what Key Listener Productions had set out to do?
Well, let me start by saying I'm incredibly lucky that you ended up approaching me, Kyle. I knew from the beginning that the stories you write would grow into something special!
The first impression I got from Key Listener Productions was, "It's like a new Pixar." A company that would grow and produce stories to entertain and inspire kids from all around the world. It would perhaps start by making a hit with the local community in Bozeman MT, and then become a sensation across Montana, then the USA, then the world! But whatever happens, the point is that I fell in love with your vision, and I wanted in.
How did you go about figuring out "the sound" for The Legend of the Squiger? What instruments were used, what went into figuring out each character's motif, and which motif do you relate to the most?
Right, let's break this down, but before I do, spoiler alert for people who haven't yet listened to The Legend of the Squiger! At the heart of this story is a small character (a squirrel) with big dreams. His ambition is difficult to achieve, and the odds are definitely against him. He is scorned upon by the characters around him. But even when times are tough, he persists, and he never gives up on his dream. I could somewhat relate to a few aspects of these, and the Squirrel's persistence greatly inspires me.
So with these things in mind, I aimed to open the story with a slow but building melody, played by the French Horns, taken up later by the Trumpets, and backed by the strings. This opening melody (in music terms, known as a motif) would serve to represent the squirrel's dreams. I think of it almost as the theme that plays in his head when he imagines himself alongside his favourite baseball team. It's probably the motif I can relate the most to, for this very reason.
The Squirrel himself gets his own theme which features the Piccolo flute, the smallest instrument in the orchestra, but also one of the most powerful and piercing - it can almost always be heard over the rest of the orchestra, on account of its extremely high pitch. I believe it to be a fitting instrument to carry this particular theme because after all, who knew such a tiny little thing could pack so much power? The melody itself is driven forward by the Violins and Violas, to try and conjure a sense of daring.
The Squirrel's dream baseball team, The Tremendous Tigers, get a theme that sounds quite heroic. It's carried mainly by the Trumpets and the French Horns, and once again supported by the strings.
Finally, there's Righty Rabbit's theme, which happens to be my favourite motif from this story. To me, Righty Rabbit is another hero in this tale, because he's the one who gives the Squirrel a nudge in the right direction. In Kyle's words, he's the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of the story.” I wanted his theme to be slow and solemn (somewhat reflecting the Squiger's feelings), but also played on an instrument that's capable of more heroic-sounding melodies. So I chose a solo French Horn for Righty Rabbit's theme.
Patched, the company's second production that you scored, focused on the theme of friendship. How did you go about figuring out what this story should sound like?
To me, Patched was a much smaller-scale story than Squiger, in the sense that it had less characters, and was a lot more close/intimate. The score still makes use of the orchestra, but I rarely use all the instruments at the same time. I wanted it to have a simpler melody, and a simpler sound overall. It features the piano as its main instrument, and the orchestra more or less supports it for nearly all of the score.
How did you differentiate the motifs for Patch and Chase, while making their adventure "one?"
So Patch's motif is played on the piano at the beginning of the story. It's a simple, but cheerful melody. Chase's motif is also played on the piano, and occurs when he first appears riding his bike through the countryside. Over the course of the story, I play with both of these motifs, put them on different instruments and develop them - but to make their adventure "one," I actually combine these melodies into the same piece of music at several points along the score.
You can hear this in action when Patch and Chase are off on their adventures. Fragments of Patch's theme are taken up quickly on the piano and the strings, while the woodwinds answer with fragments of Chase's theme. In fact, this occurs in quite a few places along the score, for example the rescue scene. Sometimes the two melodies occur in close proximity rather than the same time, such as the scene where Chase and Patch are standing on top of a tall building, gazing at the sunset. The entire idea here is that the two characters are sharing moments and making memories together, even if one is quite reluctant about it. I wanted to bring that out in the music as much as possible.
If you could choose which type of musical style you'd like to explore next with Key Listener Productions, what would that style be?
There's a couple! For one, I'd love to do a western. That sort of thing is very much outside my comfort zone, but I love the sound of a western score. My favourite example would have to be Ennio Morricone's score to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Something along those lines would be pretty awesome, I think. At the same time, I'd also love to tackle something a bit more sci-fi. Some darker, more electronic sounds to compliment the orchestra…and percussion. Lots of percussion. So there you go Kyle - a couple of ideas for you to play around with!