Karsh Kale: Up In The Air

Originally published on May 27, 2011 6:06 pm

Two floors above the bodegas of Sunset Park in Brooklyn, Karsh Kale walks me through his digital orchestra. The composer is known for his use of Indian instruments to create lush electronic music.

"Here we have staccato cello," he says. "Then there's this horn effect sound, just to add drama."

Kale has become a star of the New York club scene through his American music — the frenetic fusion of his tablas and drums with swirling electronics. Recently, though, he's also become one of India's top film composers. Right now, he's in the middle of some musical outsourcing, flurrying to finish a new score with his partners in Delhi for a big-budget Bollywood action movie. Kale says the transition to working in film was an easy one.

"My favorite songs would inevitably become movies in my head, and images in my head would inevitably inspire songs in my head. There's always a visual to what I'm doing," he says. "It always comes from a feeling, a color, a space, a landscape, something I was able to take in visually and then I could express."

Kale's latest album, Cinema, opens with an image of an island surrounded by an ocean. It's a fitting start for a record inspired by long, solitary flights to India.

"I tend to write a lot of stuff when I'm on planes," Kale says. "I'm into stuff when I'm traveling — I tend to take an idea and run with it."

But in spite of his jetset lifestyle, Kale says that all of his journeys eventually bring him back to New York.

"That's what's always keeping the music alive, that pendulum swing," he says. "I do find myself immersed in India, but there is that moment when I feel like it's time to go. I've got to go back to the bat cave, rethink some things and come back with some new ideas."

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The composer Karsh Kale creates lush electronic music, using traditional Indian instruments.

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NORRIS: And that's what inspired his latest album called "Cinema," as NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.

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BILAL QURESHI: Two floors above the bodegas of Sunset Park in Brooklyn, Karsh Kale walks me through his digital orchestra.

NORRIS: Here we have like staccato cellos, right?

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NORRIS: Then there's this horn effect sound, just to add drama.

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QURESHI: He's in the middle of some musical outsourcing, flurrying to finish a new score with his partners in Delhi for a big-budget Bollywood action film.

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NORRIS: Once I'm done with what I have to do over here, I send it to Delhi. And then we send it to Bombay, where they're mixing the dialogue and the sound.

QURESHI: Kale has become one of India's hottest film composers through the music he's written here, a frenetic fusion of his tablas and drums with swirling electronics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QURESHI: Kale says the transition to working in film was an easy one.

NORRIS: My favorite songs would inevitably become movies in my head, and images in my head would inevitably inspire songs that I would write.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: It always comes from a feeling, a color, a space, a landscape - something that I was able to take in visually and then I could express.

QURESHI: Kale's latest album opens with an image of an island surrounded by an ocean.

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QURESHI: It's also a fitting start for a record that Kale wrote while traveling alone in airport lounges, on long flights.

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NORRIS: I tend to write a lot of stuff out when I'm on planes. I make lists and I'm into stuff when I'm traveling, so I tend to take an idea and kind of run with it.

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QURESHI: These layered soundscapes begin as small ideas, often worked out worked out on his iPhone.

NORRIS: This is my iPhone, which has got a program called iTablaPro.

QURESHI: He also uses a guitar he's retuned to sound like a sitar.

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QURESHI: And so begins the title track from "Cinema."

NORRIS: I, you know, when I'm playing, I have no idea if it's going to go anywhere past this sound of the guitar, and maybe an instrument and maybe a tabla. And then, as I keep playing it, then I start to hear an orchestra. And I start to hear this female vocal. And I start to hear the flute line. And I can see it before even the session really starts.

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QURESHI: (Singing in foreign language)

QURESHI: Kale grew up in Long Island. He wanted to be a rock or jazz musician and taught himself how to play several instruments. He also fell in love with Indian classical music.

NORRIS: My music is definitely a reaction to growing up feeling alien, growing up feeling alienated.

QURESHI: Now, he says he doesn't have to make a choice about where he belongs. He's composing music that evokes what it's like to live in various worlds at the same time. For instance, one song on the album is inspired by car trips he'd take with his family on the New Jersey Turnpike, where the kids wanted to hear U2 and the parents wanted to hear this...

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NORRIS: The inspiration was the memory of driving around America, driving around hearing this music mix with the music of America, and then kind of creating something from that.

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QURESHI: Kale says that all of his journeys bring him back to New York.

NORRIS: That's what's always kind of keeping the music alive is that balance, that kind of pendulum swing that, you know, I do find myself immersed in India for a while. But there is that moment where I feel like it's time to go. You know, I have a little bit of a Batman thing going on in India now. And maybe I'm just like, okay, the end of the movie, I just going to hop in my car and get out of here now. Go back to the Batcave and rethink some things and then come back with some new ideas.

QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

NORRIS: You can hear full-length tracks from "Cinema" at NPRMusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.