It’s the great story of our time: Soumik Datta on making Songs of the Earth
London-based musician and composer Soumik Datta has collaborated with Beyonce, Jay-Z, Anoushka Shankar and Arijit Singh. In November, ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, he’ll present his animated film, Songs of the Earth, as part of a British Council commission. The sarod maestro worked on the film remotely, collaborating with animators in India. He credits the creative challenge with keeping him in good mental health through the pandemic. Excerpts from an interview.
Songs of the Earth will be viewed by international policymakers with an eye on the planet’s future. Did that weigh on you as you took on the project?
I’m no climate warrior. Most of us are still stuck figuring out the basics – recycling, sustainable shopping and forming ethical food habits. What is undeniable though, are the global voices urging us to adapt, wake up and not delay. There is a clear code red when it comes to our future. That’s what I want to be part of.
I’m collaborating with animators Sachin Bhatt and Anjali Kamat in India. The score engages singers and instrumentalists from the UK. Earth Day Network has brought in specialist researchers to enrich the story about deforestation, ocean pollution and the climate refugee crisis.
At the heart of the film is what I believe to be the greatest story of our time, that of a planet and its people. Beyond the smoke and fires, past the eroding shorelines and toxic rivers, I see an opportunity for us to let go of illusions of nationalism, break down borders and form a collective, international consciousness. We need to shed self-interest, reshape the culture of economic profit and protect our mental and environmental well-being through multidisciplinary action.
What is it like to collaborate with big names in music, and with new artists you’ve never met?
Collaborations with celebrities or cultural idols have an added glow of course! I’m especially enjoying working with Sachin Bhatt and Anjali Kamat.
But for me, the act of collaborating is almost spiritual. When it works, it allows those involved to create a new language unique to that team, to share inspiring and vulnerable sides with each other, to unburden tired shoulders from years of cultural conditioning.
You’ve also worked on Silent Spaces. How would you describe it?
Silent Spaces is a six-part YouTube series of new songs and performances filmed in empty concert halls, museums and nightclubs across the UK during the winter lockdown. With 40 musicians, dancers and filmmakers, we opened the doors to vacant spaces like the British Museum and the Royal Albert Hall, breaking their silence with new songs of hope.
The experience was nothing short of life affirming. Like many of us during that time, I had begun to experience a sense of loneliness and anxiety. The lockdown made me address my own mental health issues. In many ways, creativity saved me from darkness, pulling me back to making things – images, sounds and words – with others.
What do you want your music to be or do out in the world?
My music and art projects have always reflected the questions that have troubled me, be it issues of representation, injustice or the climate crisis. I’ve found the space of discomfort and confusion to be a deep source for creative dialogue. Our world is increasingly polarised, the outcries of the marginalised now amplified on social media. So the intention behind every project is to untangle the impossible – to catalogue chaos through creativity.