Sunday, August 1, 2010

Techno Baroque – a melody perspective

Raja has been very successful with melodies in the 21st century as he was in the previous century. Most listeners do not pay enough attention to his very nice synth work. In reality not much has changed from a melody perspective other than usage of fewer instruments due to the trend in the industry. Raja has been using synthesizers for a very long time. Most of the flute and violin ludes from the 80s and 90s were accompanied by their synth cousins. The traditional instruments have become cousins to the synth mainstream. Other than this switch, all is good in the melody world. He has experimented this all along the 90s and now has the right mix that makes his tracks so attractive and hard to replicate. There is an increased emphasis riding on his melody composition abilities. 

Let’s start with some examples. Oru Chiri Kandaal – Ponmudipuzhayorathu (2005 Malayalam) is an outstanding melody. The prelude is based on a synth violins. The rhythm is based on a simple techno 4/4. The pallavi is backed by synth violins. Observe the synth rhythms – it has the typical sustainance that is typical of techno (reverb). Observe the pallavi – apart from the usual Raja bass, there is also synth bass – another technique from the Techno world.

The first interlude – starts off with synth violins in counterpoint with bells. Nice synth violin work follows – the interlude is shorter than a 80s interlude. All regular strings are replaced with synth throughout the charanam. This is not just a mechanical 4/4 – it has all the Raja embellishments and the bass guitar is as prominent as ever. As with the pallavi, the bass guitar now has its synth cousin accompanying it. 

The second interlude starts off with a beautiful guitar and veena in counterpoint mode. Control is given back to the synth violins and flute – again a short interlude. The final transition to the charanam 2 is done beautifully by a synth flute. Raja chooses the real veena as opposed to the synth cousin that we hear constantly these days. The second charanam is orchestrated the same way as the first. This track is as good as any of Raja’s top 80s/90s melody track.

Let's hear this wonderful melody...

Shwashathin Thalam from Achuvinte Amma (2005 - Malayalam) is another outstanding melody.  The prelude is fully written with synthesized music. This would have been typically done with violins by the 80s Raja. The pallavi is backed by keyboard as well as synth violins. 
Observe the pallavi’s synth backing. Think for a moment that these are played by a string section of about 8 violins. You can hear clearly a lead violin and the sort of hiss that accompanies it to generate the feeling of many strings playing together. This is called ‘noise’ filter addition in the techno world. There are several forms of noise filters available with most VST (Virtual Studio Technology) software packages and they have to be used carefully. The techno artists use it to get some crazy funky effects with their heavy drum loops. Raja uses it for his purpose. Nothing goes thru the Raja shop and emerges the same way!

The interlude 1 is very interesting – it starts off with nice flute work in counter with synth violins. Reminds you of the Raja’s 80s. But he embellishes it further with keyboard!  This is followed by his signature synth violins. The track is fully backed by synth pad based rhythm. Pay attention to the synth pad rhythm closely. This is not played the same way as you hear in most TV shows. The rhythm is further enhanced with VST effects that sound like a bubble at the end of the beat cycle. 

The second interlude is starts off with keyboard work followed by a call and response arrangement between synth violins and keyboard. The final handoff to charanam 2 is done the Raja way – brief bursts of synth violins with brief rests. Throughout the track, the synthesizers create a hiss that was there with Cheeni Kum tracks as well. 

The charanams are backed by synth violin and some synth sounds that appear like the old wah wah pedal for the guitar. The synthpad rhythm is accompanied by finger snaps that are machine generated. Pay attention to the last 2 seconds of the charanam to the pallavi transition – this bass line cannot be played with a regular guitar – you get the sense of a note that is literally slipping rapidly down a valley – this is done by playing with delays and filtering – you hear these as funny slip beats in the techno world. Raja uses it for transition between a charanam and a pallavi – very innovative use of a VST technique for Indian music. He leaves his own stamp behind in his usual majestic way. This track was done in 2005. There are several Bollywood songs which are still using techno as such and they sound so foreign! 

Mandarapoo Mooli from Vinodha Yatra (2007 – Malayalam) is another outstanding melody (set to Kalyani) fully set to synth rhythm. The prelude is fully synth play with flute. The bass guitar work in this track is outstanding. Again observe the use of selective noise filters as in the ‘Swashanthin Thaalam’ song in the prelude.

The pallavi is backed by the synth rhythm along with the rhythm pad. Notice, that this is not the standard 4x4 of the techno world. Raja uses the time signature he requires for his Indian melody. 

The handoff from the pallavi to the interlude has the usual Raja stamp written all over it. He uses the synth rhytm to bridge both of them so seamlessly. I cannot think of a better application of the synth rhythm for Indian music – even some of his old tabla based melodies show deliberate transition management. The first interlude is starts off with synth and bells. This is followed by further synth work and followed by guitar. Briefly, you can notice that for about 3 seconds or so, Raja cuts out all synth rhythm to show how the synth pad alone would sound. 

The second interlude starts off with rhythm and flute. This is followed by flute and synth again and ends up with some further work with synth. In the 80s/90s all the synth was done with a whole bank of violins. This track can easily make it to Raja’s top 100 melodies.

Also, please note between 0:08 and 0:20 seconds, in the interlude clip, the flute and the synth playing in good old fugue mode – what else to call it other than Techno baroque?

Let's hear the ludes of Mandarapoo Mooli ...

The charanam is backed by synth fully. Notice the use of synth flanging – another techno trick - when Swetha hums   Notice the last bar when Swetha descends to the pallavi – Raja does not use his old techniques – 1) cut out all strings 2) Use of percussive time management or 3) use choir to back the falling notes. Instead, he uses beautiful synth notes with a big delay to ascend opposite to Swetha’s singing.  Even if this was a patch, it is very innovative application to an Indian melody.    

Let's hear the 1st charanam and second pallavi of Mandarapoo Mooli ...

Mella Oornthu Oornthu from Nandhalala (2010 - Tamil) uses a lot of guitar and keyboard throughout the track. The prelude starts off with some great guitar and keyboard work. The keyboard and guitar are used to back the pallavi also (no violins). Observe the use of a brush and the kick drum in the pallavi and has no synth bass accompaniment. He uses very nice female choir to back the pallavi – this is rare in his 21st century compositions.

Interlude 1 starts off with the keyboard and bass guitar followed by chorus. Notice that the synth cousin is playing along with the real bass guitar. Charanam 1 is backed by synth violins and keyboard. The only thing that is a bit ordinary is the use of synth violins to back Raja in the charanams – it definitely does not make you sit up and take notice.

Interlude 2 has some very nice guitar and keyboard counterpoint to start. This is followed by a short keyboard work before transferring control to the charanam 2.

This track is like the old guitar melodies of Raja such as Alli Thantha Vanam from Nandu (1981) or Poonthalir Aada from Paneer Pushpangal (1981). This time around, he keeps traditional violins out and gives importance to keyboard. This is perhaps the least techno track in this section!

Let's hear the ludes of Mella Oornthu Oornthu...

In the same film (Nandhalala), Raja has created another outstanding melody – Kai Veesi Nadakura. This track starts off with some nice keyboard prelude followed by nice flute work.  The pallavi is fully supported by keyboard. This is a different melody with several singers. Notice that the vocal melody rides on top of the synth melody which plays in a loop. Notice  the last two bars. There is an additional synth melody the composer throws on the left channel while the synth melody continues on the right channel. This is Raja – unlike his competitors who look for the multi-layered electronic music (more on this later) to create a single effect, Raja layers multiple melodies on top of each other to create a multi-effect musical experience. He finds ways within the electronic music world to create his musical imagery and not let the electronic world control him. Once you understand the musical imagery of Raja, you can appreciate any genre he touches – it is a kaleidoscope of ideas drawn from several musical schools, but the imagery is not coming out of a random shake but clearly designed pattern of ideas.

Interlude 1 is interesting. It has synth violins, flute and keyboard in total synth! This is followed by flutes that turn control over to the charanam. 

Interlude 2 is different. It starts off with synth flute. This is followed by the synchronized synth violins, keyboard and flute. The second charanam is orchestrated similar to the first one. 

Let's hear the ludes of Kai Veesi Nadakura...

The entire charanam is backed by the synchronized synth violins, flutes and keyboard. There are at least 4 synthesizers (or rack modules) in action in my guess. The first 4 bars are backed by a combo of synth violins. Flutes, bass and piano. The middle 4 bars have only the synth bass and keyboard. The last 4 bars are supported by two synth keyboards playing on the left and right channels. Notice that the melody played by the two synth keyboards (perhaps two rack modules) are different. Notice the pitch and tempo of both these melodies. Say hello to Bach in the background! Who will think of this, other than Raja? Who said Bach and baroque is forgotten in the Techno world?

Let's hear the first charanam and second pallavi of Kai Veesi Nadakura... Pay particular attention to the last 4 bars...

Thendralum Maruthu from Valmiki (2009 – Tamil) is another nice melody track fully set to synth rhythm. The prelude is a nice synth melody – throughout the track, there is very nice solo violin usage.

The pallavi is nicely backed by keyboard and flute. The bass guitar is in full play. Interlude 1 is interesting – a solo violin plays along with synth violins. A couple of bars is played with two solo violins taking turns so nicely (I call one as foreground and another as background) with the synth violins. Stunning work of real and electronic strings - 17th century and 21st century beautifully coexist!  (24 secs to 52 secs in the clip) The transition to the charanam is brilliant with very nice play of solo violin and the synth keyboard playing exactly the same melody. One of the finest interludes of 2009! The charanam is backed by synth bass and keyboard.

The second interlude starts off with keyboard work and some complex rhythm work. The second charanam is orchestrated the same way as the first.

Let's hear the ludes of Thendralum Maruthu...

Shrungara from Prem Kahani (2009 – Kannada) is another interesting melody. It starts off with some nice keyboard work and supported by synth rhythm. The synth rhythm that Raja uses in this track is becoming more common – there is a keyboard-like sound accompanying every beat on the synthpad. More on this in the next section. There is no need to back the main melody with any other instrument as a result. Did you observe that the first 18 seconds of this track is a wonderful cell phone ring tone, second to none?

The first interlude starts off with a synth followed by some nice synth violins in counterpoint with synth! The second interlude starts off with only the rhythm part followed by some synth work. Finally, the keyboard based veena play is interesting and some nice synth flute work.

Let's hear the ludes of Shrungara...

Let’s analyze the charanam next. With the exception of the bass guitar, no other instrument accompanies the singer which is typical of Raja tracks – no detailed string sections backing the melody. However, the bass guitar sings its own melody, as it with most Raja compositions! Notice the note at which the bass guitar leaves the charanam – does it not remind you of ‘Naan Yerikarai Melirukka’ from Chinna Thai?

Let's hear the first charanam and second pallavi of Shrungara... Pay attention to the transition with the synth bass...

All these demonstrate that Raja’s focus is more on his ability to compose melodies. The interludes are smaller than before and most of it is synthesized computer generated music. All the seven tracks discussed in this section are great melodies, and have heavy use of synthesizers and synthpads. Though interludes are smaller than before, but are still catchy. Baroque is not forgotten. There are several counterpoints, fugue techniques in only the tracks listed. This is not layered studio music created with Fruit Loop Studio. 

Please do not interpret my commentary and conclude that Raja has put away his traditional violins and other strings to the back burner. He is very selective about its usage. Here are two examples from the last 9 years, where he has extensively used real violins and cellos in his compositions: 1) Thoorigai Indri from Ajantha (2007) is a wonderful orchestration treat using real violins with the synthesized ones with cellos and double basses  2) Enge Nee Sendralum from Kannukkulle (2009) uses solo, regular violins, synth violins and cellos.

In essence, Raja sounds pleasantly different! His bass lines, his baroque is all intact (that’s the way the man is wired). His tabla has disappeared and he uses violins, double basses and cellos very selectively. His shehnai, veena, sitar have been replaced with the synthesizer.

In order to appreciate Techno music, it is important to get a good understanding of the world of electronic music technology. We will next take a deep dive to understand the components of electronic music technology. 

After that, we will return to analyzing the Raja’s rhythm shift in the Techno world.