By Michael Gallant
Amin Bhatia has created music for an astonishingly wide variety of films, ranging from a John Woo action movie to an IMAX documentary on Jane Goodall's chimpanzees. With a new solo album in the works, his career, already accomplished distinguished and diverse, seems to be growing faster than a supernova. The latest big news comes courtesy of a time warp: The work that put him on the map in 1987, the faux orchestral, sci-fi tinged monolith, the Interstellar Suite, long unavailable, is newly remastered and re-released.
Originally created with a powerful analog toolkit - Roland JX-10s, Yamaha TX416s, Oberheim Expanders, Minimoog, and a big pair of crash cymbals - the Suite is a monumental work of symphonic synth wizardry. It incorporates the rollicking storytelling qualities of Holst's The Planets and John Williams' epic soundtracks, the depth and darkness of Stravinsky and Debussy, even a noticeable touch of prog-rock attitude and harmony. The Suite is as accessible and entertaining as it is complex and challenging, a feat few composers have managed.
At the start of his career in the early '80s, Bhatia didn't have access to a full orchestra."I couldn't fit one in my basement," he deadpans. Instead, he turned to his battery of vintage synths to create walls of sound that would later become the Suite. Bhatia beganb the compositional process by sequencing rough musical raodmaps on a Roland MC-500 MicroCompressor recording them to 2-track tape, and then splicing until the piece took shape. With the scope of the Suite thus outlined, Bhatia used an Otari multi-track recorder, a Roland SBX-80 sync box, and his MC-500 to model each orchestral section with innumerable overdubs until he realized his symphony of analog goodness. Since it was then sequenced, it was easier to repeat the entire overdub process on a 24-track setup, where he added EQ and sound effects. The project took four months. And for the record, no samples were employed in the making of either the original master or the re-release; every sweeping violin and ominous French horn sound is as fresh as the day it was first oscillated.
"I didn't really expect it to take off like it did," says Bhatia of the Suite, originally completed for Capitol's Cinema label. "And ironically, because of all the problems Cinema had, it didn't take off the first time it came out. There were all these plans for planetarium tours and dinner with Jerry Goldsmith."
Cinema folded suddenly, and to Bhatia's deep disappointment, his work got lost in the wreckage. "The staff that had originally hired me had been fired and replaced by a whole bunch of people who didn't know what the Cinema label was," says Bhatia. "There was a limited run and absolutely no distribution. I was just shell-shocked by the whole thing. I was like, 'I never should have done this. I should go back to my basement and play with my Minimoog. I was happier then.'"
Capitol Records assumed all rights owned by the fallen Cinema, and though it seemed that the new company could care less about the future of the Suite, fans continued to contact Bhatia about it. "In the '90s, little pockets of people started sending messages on the Internet. I got pleading emails from people whose cassette copies had worn out. One guy's girlfriend ran over his only copy of it because he wouldn't take off his headphones to listen to her."
Jealous lovers were only the beginning. "Fan mail and campaigns have come from, of all places, marching bands in Atlanta and Indianapolis," he says. "Back in '89, someone dug up the Suite at Spirit of Atlanta, and built an arrangement for marching band. This year, I think there are two marching bands in competitions using the Suite as part of their competitive finals. A group in Georgia flew me and my family to see "76 trombones" performing what was originally written for analog synths. It was quite a treat. There are all these bizarre pockets of cultism that show up in highly unexpected places."
Such enthusiastic grassroots support emboldened Bhatia to tackle the intimidating task of re-releasing the Suite. "It's been years of legal battles with Capitol's lawyers," he laments. "They said, 'No, you can't have it back,' and 'what are you talking about, anyway? We can't even find it.' The Suite was stowed away in a Capitol vault; they couldn't even find the masters.
"Audio gurus David Greene, James Porteous and I ended up having to do things from safety masters. It took years and years of technical - and legal - wrangling to move the sleeping giant from squatting on something it didn't even know it had. Finally, thankfully, we got it re-released, and the response has been pretty cool. It's been nice to correct that little piece of history."
Keyboard played a minor role in the success of the Interstellar Suite. In 1981, Bhatia entered a baby version of the Suite, originally composed as soundtrack music to a never-performed radio play, in a Roland synthesizer competition he saw advertised in these very pages. He won and, as a result, met and began a professional relationship with Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro. The results of that collaboration later became the focus of an article, complete with a SoundPage (a bound-in vinyl recording format Keyboard featured for a number of years).
Bhatia cites Porcaro as a key mentor. "One day I'm noodling with my Minimoog," he says, "and the next moment I'm at recording sessions programming stuff for David Foster while Neil Diamond is having a temper tantrum. It was very intimidating, and it was Steve who set me straight." Porcaro also encouraged Bhatia to continue honing his space-age musical snippets. "He told me I should go full-tilt and turn this into an album."
In his current film scoring work, Bhatia uses Emagic Logic, Digidesign Pro Tools, and a variety of sample libraries, but he always keeps his analog gear handy. And despite his ever-diversifying résumé, he still considers the Interstellar Suite his defining work. "I was a lover of science-fiction, film music, and orchestral music," he says, "and Interstellar Suite is a fusion of all of that. It's very real and it's very passionate. It's just me."