You can't help but feel you're on hallowed ground. The board reads ‘Firdaus Studio by AR Rahman’. And that’s around the time you know you’re someplace special.
Maybe it’s the enigma that goes before the man himself — the idiosyncrasies that make up his musical genius. You’ve heard about them from people who know and have worked with him: the late-night compositions, bursts of genius, zen-like work ethic and a resulting musical score that’s nothing short of magic.
However, all it takes is one step inside A R Rahman’s latest musical project, Firdaus Studio at the Expo 2020 site in Dubai, to feel like you could well be part of all this.
To your right, in impeccably maintained glass boxes are the twin Academy Awards and Grammys won by the Mozart of Madras for his music in Slumdog Millionaire. "They have been moved here temporarily until Expo 2020 ends," says an organizer, with a smile. You can’t blame them for noticing that visitors here are enamoured by it all.
Firdaus Studio is Rahman's latest musical project and "vision" that was inaugurated last year, at the start of the Dubai Expo. With state-of-the-art instruments, recording technology and premium performance spaces, it’s fair to say that the space goes all the way as a top-rung performance and recording venue.
"The main scoring area is used as a performing space for LIVE performances and for screening movies," says Nada Al Said, Senior Manager, Studio Tours, "We also do film scoring and record album music. AR (Rahman) would also like for it to be a cultural hub — to have artist talks, unplugged sessions, so on and so forth."
A walk down the studio’s reception area takes you down a long hallway where you get to a modestly sized green room and a deep-listening room on one side. On the other side is Rahman’s office space. Down the hallway is Firdaus’ Studio’s large scoring room where musical magic is made every other day, its centrepiece, a snow-white Steinway and Sons piano.
All around are mic sets, LED screens and windows from a recording room and the deep-listening room that overlook the scoring room. It doesn’t take long before the piano begins playing itself as if on auto-pilot, its keys go in and out as if an invisible force has begun taking over.
"It’s one of the rare models and it also plays itself," Nada explains referring to the Steinway, "AR plays it a lot, and we have musicians come in here, who also play it and absolutely love the sound it produces."
We soon learn that the purpose of the self-playing piano is to save time at recordings. "The piano records performances. So, for example, if AR wanted to play it and record something, he can do so and then we play it back, which helps aid in saving time,” she adds, "So, if we have a recording session and he (Rahman) isn’t here, but we want to use a piece that he recorded, we play it back and have one of the musicians practice to the sound of that comes out of it."
A quick exit leads to an access-controlled stairway that takes us upstairs to the recording room. Nada and a colleague sitting at a console to discuss music for Rahman and director Shekhar Kapur’s musical, ‘Why’ that has already become quite a rage at the Dubai Expo. The musical, performed to the finest laser show under the famous Al Wasl Dome at Expo 2020 narrates the story of a young girl and her grandfather who embark on a quest to find the purpose behind their existence.
"We’re still a young studio, we have done a lot of work with the Firdaus Orchestra, which another one of AR’s projects,” says Nada, “Some of their performances have been recorded here, music for ‘Why’ was also scored here, and we’ve had A-list international musicians record at the studio."
It comes as no surprise though that Rahman’s work ethic is the fuel that runs Firdaus. Those who work there couldn’t agree more. “He’s a very, very passionate person and life is music,” says Nada, “When he comes in, he goes straight to the zone. He’s very calm in his work, and very intuitive. He works on the spot and creates things on the spot."
Most recently, Rahman hosted musical maestro Illaiyaraaja at Firdaus Studio, with the latter accepting to kick-start a joint project at the performance venue. However, Firdaus Studio will do a lot more than play host to the best of music and musicians in the business.
"We look forward to the studio having a strong educational chapter as well,” says Nada, “So that means having workshops, courses in sound engineering, and collaborate with different cultural institutions and universities and schools."