Thursday, June 4, 2009

The film music rhythm innovation

As mentioned in the section of film music basics (Film Music Basics), Indian film music is structured in a particular way and this restricts any film music composer and Raja is no exception. To add to the challenge, Raja’s predecessors have already done quite a bit. So, let’s approach this challenge from the film song structural viewpoint. As usual, given the wide body of Raja’s work in at least 4 languages, it is impossible to classify all his work. Nor are the examples in any way the best examples in those categories – they are simply top of mind examples. I use about 1200 tracks of Raja from 4 languages as my basis of most research. Some of your favorite tracks not appearing in the classification could be a result of my limited candidates I use in my research (roughly 20% sample of the population). Here are a dozen things that you can do to set the bar higher than your predecessors:

  1. Set the charanams and pallavis to Indian rhythm and the interludes to Western rhythm – this is nothing new, as Raja’s predecessors have already done it. I will not even try to list examples, as it can run into hundreds.
  2. Set the pallavi to Indian rhythm and the charanam to Western rhythm and vice versa – Raja has done several of these and followed his predecessors. Let’s call this the rhythm follow up mode. Again, I will not bother to provide examples, as it easily runs into hundreds.
  3. How about structuring a song where one pallavi is set to Western and another is set to Indian rhythm? Let’s call this rhythm innovation stage 1. This is done to make the track more interesting. Given the fact that Raja composes popular music, most listeners follow the melody and not the rhythm and this certainly reflects the innovative mind of the composer, who wants to change something while conforming to the overall song’s structure.
  4. How about structuring a first pallavi and charanam in Western and follow it up with the second charanam and pallavi in Indian? That’s building on the earlier stage – let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 2. This takes the experimentation one notch up and show cases the mind of the composer who wants to raise the bar beyond stage 1.
  5. How about structuring a song with Indian and Western rhythm with a complex transition using both rhythms between the charanam and the pallavi?Let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 3. Transitions are hard to manage, when you have rhythm patterns that are Eastern and Western. You need to be very innovative to make the extra effort to work this transition and still not screw up the flow of the song. This again sets the bar higher then the previous stage (stage 2).
  6. How about creating an entire interlude with just rhythm and no string or wood wind sections? – Let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 4. This is serious experimentation as keeping the listener engaged for over 30 seconds with just rhythm is not an easy task. Very few composers attempt such experiments. Even with today’s rhythm machines and synthesized drum pads, it is rare to see such compositions.
  7. How about creating a prelude, interlude or postlude with more than one Indian rhythm instrument? – Let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 5. While drums and tabla are predominantly the rhythm instruments in Indian film music, listeners rarely pay attention to rhythm innovations by composers like Raja who make an attempt to bring several Indian rhythm instruments into mainstream film music. Particularly, Raja raises the bar by using multiple unusual rhythm instruments on the same time signature.
  8. How about creating a prelude, interlude or postlude with more than one Indian and Western rhythm instrument? – Let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 6. As film music preferences change, so should the composer’s work. The use of Western instruments does not mean replacement of Indian ones. They can innovatively coexist and Raja has experimented in several of his tracks.
  9. How about using the main melody to guide the rhythm pattern, thus creating a melody based rhythm? – Let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 7. This is an innovative rhythm style of Raja where he adjusts the pace of the rhythm based on the composed melody.
  10. How about creating a charanam or pallavi with parts of it in Indian and the remaining in Western rhythm? – Let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 8. Now, with this you can have several combinations and can get very interesting. This is an innovation that Raja introduced, as he has such solid understanding of rhythm. While other composers do attempt this experiment, I am yet to hear such pleasant transitions between both these systems from anyone other than Raja.
  11. How about creating preludes, interludes, pallavis, charanams using a percussion instrument (Western or Indian) and using claps, finger snaps on the same time signature? – Let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 9. Though his predecessors have use claps in songs, Raja raises the bar by using finger snaps and claps with unusual rhythm instruments.
  12. How about creating a charanam or pallavi with parts of it in two different Indian rhythm instruments? – Let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 10. This is walking on thin ice as you can screw up the melody if you do not manage the rhythm well. Raja has done so many of these experiments depending on the film situation that it is hard to say which two Indian rhythm instruments is easiest for him.
  13. How about using a single rhythm instrument, but using multiple patterns in a single track? – Let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 11. This requires a mastery over rhythm management. Several composers have tried 2 or 3 rhythm patterns within a single track. Raja raises above all of them.
  14. How about creating a track with no percussion rhythm? This technique uses strings to support the entire song – no Indian or Western percussion instruments – let’s call this rhythm innovation stage 12. When you have such strong fundamentals, it is easy to do without something that others consider impossible to do without. This is hard stuff as it may not pay off. Raja keeps raising his own bar on rhythm excellence.
  15. How about using a complex set of rhythm patterns with both Indian and Western rhythm throughout the track – all components of the track - – Let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 13. Alternating between Indian and Western rhythm is hard enough. If you throw even more patterns into the mix, you have a great probability of screwing up. Not with the incredibly talented– Raja has created music which runs for just the 4 minutes but comes out with more than 7 patterns between Indian and Western rhythm on a single track! I am not aware of any Indian composer who has attempted this, let alone so successfully!
  16. How about using only voices as rhythm for an entire track – let’s call it rhythm innovation stage 14. Doing without rhythm instruments is hard. However, you can use other instruments such as guitar/violins/cello to guide the rhythm. Using only voices – you must be nuts! Being a master of vocal harmony, even this challenge appears not insurmountable to the genius!
All these innovations are within the world of mono-rhythm. At any point in time, there is only one rhythm pattern playing. However, these stages demonstrate the increasing complexity and sophistication of the composer’s work from a rhythm perspective. Please note that though there are stages that demonstrate multiple rhythm instruments being used, they still fall under one time signature.

Raja’s journey with rhythms is a long one. Raja’s wide body of work takes advantage of Western, Indian and folk rhythm instruments. Raja’s work with rhythms is staggering that he has done a huge number of experiments with all these three systems. Next, we will expand on Raja’s rhythm innovation stages and explore with examples. Please note that some tracks may get repeated in several categorizations – by now, you’ll understand, that’s Raja!

I must thank Kamal for his extensive knowledge of rhythm instruments and his valuable input to several examples in the following sections.

Raja’s rhythm innovation stage 1

This requires structuring a song where one pallavi is set to Western and another is set to Indian rhythm.

Raja has done several of these in his career. Please note that in this classification, only one rhythm instrument is used at a point in time, regardless. . Siriya Paravai Siragai Virikka from Antha Oru Nimidam (1985) is an unusual composition consisting of three pallavis, three charanams and three interludes. Raja uses the Western rhythm for all the pallavis, charanam 1 and 3 and interlude 1 and 3. He uses Indian rhythm for interlude 2 and charanam 2. Unless you pay attention to it, it is easy not to catch it – Raja’s transitions are so smooth between different rhythms and are typical of his compositions.

Let's hear Siriya Paravai charanam 1, set to Western rhythm...


 Let's next hear Siriya Paravai charanam 2, set to Indian rhythm.

 Let's lastly hear Siriya Paravai charanam 3, set to Western rhythm again...


The flow of melody and the rhythm is so pleasing in this track and the experimentation is so elegantly done...

Shiva Kara Damaruka from Kochu Kochu Sandhoshangal (2001 Malayalam) is an amazing track from both melody and rhythm viewpoints. This track will feature in another section also. If you observe the pallavi of this song, it is played with the tabla the first and the second time. The third time around, the composer decides to have the singer sing it twice, but change the rhythm instrument to mirudhangam for the last time in the composition.

Let's hear Shiva Kara Damaruka pallavi 1...


 Let's hear Shiva Kara Damaruka pallavi 3...


 Possessing great talent is one thing. Presenting it elegantly is another. With Raja, even the most complex things somehow fit so simply in their respective places...

Let’s explore some more examples with other stages of Raja’s innovation with rhythms. Rhythm is more than just loud beats!