Nitin Sawhney / LSO, Barbican, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Tonight's premiere of Nitin Sawhney's live score for the 1929 Indian film, Throw of the Dice, is a superb addition to the Barbican's Only Connect series. He combines the London Symphony Orchestra with vocals, Indian flute, acoustic guitar and tabla. Sawhney is seated at a grand piano, with Stephen Hussey conducting. Soloists include the singers Davinder Singh and Reena Bhardwaj, tabla player Aref Durvesh and flautist Ashwin Srinivasan.

As the story of rival kings and thwarted love unfolds, the shifting, all-acoustic timbres of the music range from dreamy ambience to jagged marches to turbulent atmospherics, with strong brass and percussion lines and lilting melody.

Throw of the Dice combines Sawhney's interest in Indian classical with the expressionistic dynamics of Shostakovich or Bernard Herrmann. The film itself is a sumptuous depiction of India in the age of the maharajasthat combines expressionistic camerawork with stories from Indian myths and legends.

Filmed in the mountains, forests and palaces of Rajasthan, it used 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses and 50 elephants from the royal houses. Its cinematography is stunning, from the royal procession through a thronged city to the forest idylls where the story's lovers snatch their bliss.

The scale is epic, but its detail is full of intimacy and surprise. Satyajit Ray would later say that Osten "filmed the wonderland of India like no one before". Eight decades on, it's the epic intimacy of the filming and setting that dominates, more than the drama itself.

The story, taken from the Mahabharata, is a tale of two rival kings, Ranjit and Sohat, who share a passion for reckless wagers and for Sunita, the daughter of a hermit. Ranjit and Sunita fall in love, but the night before their wedding Ranjit gambles away everything in a crooked dice game. All comes right in the end, of course, and Sohat's demise is swift, efficient and unwittingly hilarious.

But it's Ranjit's frailty as a gambler that elevates his character from mythic romantic hero to flawed human, and allows Sawhney to weave layers of subtext and emotional tension into his music.

The score amplifies rather than dominates the action that unfolds on the screen above the orchestra, and brings new life to a rare classic of silent film.

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