Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Techno Baroque – a rhythm perspective

Raja has consciously crafted a genre for himself even from the arrangement perspective in the last 9 years or so and more importantly with the rhythm arrangement. He shines in his new armor. He takes the nice and convenient weapons such as drum machines, synthpads, synth flute, synth violins and other pleasant sounds from the Techno world and nicely marries them with his traditional arrangement. The result is a pleasant melody with a very modern arrangement without the jarring 140 bpm techno rhythm.

Enge Nee Sendralum from Kannukkulle (2009 Tamil) is a very nice melody with a lot of solo violin as the theme is around a violinist. The entire track has a nice synth drum pattern that only beautifies the track further. This track is also a new form of Raja percussion – remember melody based rhythm that we discussed when we discussed Raja’s rhythm innovation? This track is an example of where Raja uses synth rhythms on a melody basis. Also, Raja uses extensively real violins, flutes as the theme requires it. The melody is nicely guided by the bass lines. Also notice the use of cellos in this track in the charanams very aptly. The second interlude has a nice call and response between the background violins and the main solo violin – typical of the Baroque Raja.

Let's hear Enge Nee Sendralum interludes  here...

In 2009, Raja almost said goodbye to chorus arrangements. Some exceptions were still there. Swapnangal from Bhagyadevatha (2009 Malayalam) is a traditional Malayalam melody where Raja used his conventional arrangements. Violins, flutes and chorus. However, even in this track, Raja uses synth drums for his pallavi. Extensive use of traditional guitar also enhanced this tune in his 80s style. The entire charanams are a nice mixed rhythm of tabla and synth drums. In the same movie, the track Allipoove Mallipoove is a nice synth based track, where the entire track is guided by guitar, synth keyboard, and the synthpads. The guitar and bass, flute play in this song is a fantastic reminder of the old Raja. However, he throws in a modern layer on top of his traditional composition driving home a clear message. The guitar is pushed to a support role and the synthesizer is given the driver role.

Let's hear Allipoove Mallipoove interludes  here...

Unnai Patri Sonnal from Mathiya Chennai (2009 Tamil) uses simple synth beats (4/4) and uses synthesizer in all typical Raja modes – extensive bells, piano modes. This is a simple tune that is beautifully carved using the bass guitar, which is staple Raja instrument. Only the prominent synth beats and piano modes are new. This song has the vintage Raja melody driving it. All old basics are in place. The female voice is of course new.

Let's hear Unnai Patri Sonnal interludes  here...

Oda Thandil from Pazhassi Raja (2009 Malayalam) is a simple melody which Raja would have traditionally used tabla in the 80s. He seems to have nicely used the ethnic version (patch) of the synthpad which fits the melody so well. Also, the flute played at the end of the pallavi in my view is a synthesized flute. Raja’s bass lines are guiding the melody as usual. The charanam uses the synthpad for its rhythm support, but notice the different mode chosen! The second interlude is complete with different modes of the drum machine along with its brush effect!

Let's hear Oda Thandil interludes  here...

Naan Pirandha Nerama from Kannukkulle (2009 Tamil) is a pathos tune that has a rhythm arrangement that is very atypical of Raja. As ever, the bass lines are so prominent, and so pleasant. The rhythm is fully done with the synth pad, but the composer ensures that the melody and the pathos are not compromised. The solo violin sets the mood and the bass guitar with the piano play on the synth create the background melody for the entire track – another outstanding experiment with the techno/synth tools with the traditional melody complimenting the strengths of the composer.

Let's hear Naan Pirandha Nerama interludes  here...

Kogile Kooguvaa from Prem Kahani (2009 Kannada) is a very innovative melody by Raja. The track is nicely arranged on a nice bass and a great synth drum pattern. The solo violins and the flute backing Bhela make the track so pleasing. Reminds us of Oru Kili Urugudhu from Ananda Kummi (1982). The synth drum pattern in no way spoils the party! The interludes are nicely arranged with solo violins and flute. If you observe the charanam, it sounds like Raja’s traditional tabla arrangement – but nicely arranged with the synthpad still! The second interlude has some of whatI would expect a shehnai to play replaced nicely by a combination of the keyboard and flute. That’s one new replacement for shehnai in my view.

Let's hear Kogile Kooguvaa interludes  here...

Let's hear the first pallavi and charanam of the track next...

What about his traditional strength of folk based tunes? Raja showed the new version of it with Balegaara Balegaara in Bhagyadha Balegara (2009 Kannada). Having discussed this as part of Raja’s mixed rhythm in Kannada, let’s not repeat it here. This track is mentioned here to show that when required, he brings in the tabla into the mix. Even in this track, the western rhythm is played with the synthpad!

Kooda Varuviya from Vaalmiki (2009 Tamil) is a contender for the top hit of 2009 for Raja. This set to a nice poly rhythm (more on this subject later) of the tabla and the synth drums. The track’s melody is nicely supported by the keyboard and the bass guitar. The use of synth flute in this track is truly mesmerizing. As Raja uses real flutes also, it is almost impossible to guess where the real flute ends and where the synth one plays and where both play. This is typical of the techno genre and Raja has used this aspect of this genre so well. The last few lines of the charanam guiding Bela with the bass guitar is vintage Raja. The second interlude is filled with synth rhythm with synth flute. Synthesized music does not get any better.

Let's hear Kooda Varuviya interludes  here...

Prati dinam from Anumanaspandanam (2007 – Telugu) – notice the percussion uses the ethnic Indian mode of drumming with the synthpad. You get the impression that this is a drum/mirudhangam combination. In reality, this is a patch of the drum machine. The entire vocals use this patch. As usual the bass lines are nicely aiding the melody. In the first interlude, observe the use fade out while the synth sitar plays. You will notice this specially with Shreya’s humming in the second interlude. This track is a rehash of the 80s melody Mayanginen Solla Thayanginen from Naane Raja Naane Manthiri.

Let's hear Prati dinam interludes  and charanam 1 here...

Let’s step back a little back: Oru Porkaalam from Kasthurimaan (2006) uses synthetic drums very nicely in this melody. The interludes give more importance to the ethnic synth drums more than ever before. This is atypical of Raja whose melodies do not have drumming in prominence. Notice that the charanams use drumming the conventional way (uses the hi-hat).

Oru Thottavadi from Pachakuthira (2006 Malayalam) is a nice rhythm mix where Raja shows his mastery over several genres. Jazz, Techno, traditional – you name it. The initial prelude is a great play on the synth pads and synthesizer and trumpets. The pallavi is backed by synthpads. The first interlude is set to the synthesized violins, trumpet and with the synthpad for the rhythm. He throws in scat singing into the mix. The second interlude is another nice play of trumpets and here Raja throws in the mix of tabla, claps and shehnai and scat singing. This is one of the busiest interlude I heave heard from Raja in recent times. The mix is different this time – earlier it was full of violins, cellos, flute, traditional chorus, you now know the new mix.

Let's hear Oru Thottavadi interludes  here...

Akki Thokki from Vinodha Yatra (2007 Malayalam) has several Techno elements adapted nicely for an Indian song. The prelude is played on the synth with the trademark bass lines. Observe that Raja uses flanging effects in the initial prelude that is supported fully by the synthpad. Between 32 and 34 seconds, another software effect is overdubbed on the track (can’t tell exactly what this is). Between 50 and 45 seconds, another another software effect is overdubbed on the track twice. The time signature is a traditional 4/4. Between 46 and 57 seconds, however, two synth tracks playing different melodies (traditional baroque) is in play as part of the second interlude.

Let's hear Akki Thokki interludes  here...

Ishtakaari from Sooryan (2007 Malayalam) – This track has a traditional Indian melody and you can never expect a Techno treatment for such a melody. Raja uses extensive techno transformers – fade in fade out. I will try to describe the track as much as I can as there are too many things happening. In the track below, here is my impression of the heavily bass laden 4/4 synthpad driven song. For the first 20 seconds of the track, you have a simple synth melody playing in the foreground. Observe the background software overdubbed techno work – you get the idea of the music getting louder and softer by the second, that’s the fading of the sound by a software transformer. Between 21 and 35 seconds, the foreground melody changes and so does the background techno sound. This time, it does not fade, but plays a complimentary melody (software driven I suppose). My guess is that the foreground melody is played by a keyboardist and the techno effects are then added at the AWS. Between 36 sec and 1:13, there is a different fore/background melody in play. Observe something very unique in this section – between 49 and 53 seconds, there are two synthesizers playing with precise timing that you can figure out. They move to the background from 53 seconds to 1:13 and there is a third foreground melody that is added from 54 seconds onwards. 1:14 to 1:19 is a beautiful changeover from the techno world to the Indian melody world into the charanam. This is one of my favorite techno work of Raja.

Let's hear Ishtakaari  interludes  here...

Hodadavene from Prem Kahani (2009 Kannada) – techno rhythm to the core.
In summary, Raja chooses his rhythm arrangement very carefully. He is conscious about complimenting his baroque and melody strengths. He uses tabla, shehnai and chorus very selectively. A lot more is riding on his melody than ever before. The ride has been pretty good though we have only reviewed some tracks from the last 4 years!

Electronic Music Technology – How Raja uses it and composes music?

Warning: this is pure guesswork. I have no access to how Raja composes music with his VST tools. I am also not sure about any of the tools he uses.

Raja is known for his terrific speed in writing staff notations from his baroque days. He slowly started factoring in synthesizers and drum machines by either special notes on his notations or adding a bit of improvisation at the time of arranging a song.

These days, he also works off an audio workstation. He has a bank of MIDI inputs and integrates sound like most composers do. Here is my wild guess on how he is dealing with the new changed paradigm in composing music (I will leave out the main melody, teaching singers etc.) digitally:

  • He does his standard score sheet as before
  • He perhaps now adds more sections to take care of electronic tracks – even rhythm now needs to be defined as bass, keys, guitar
  • We did not cover another class of computer software called scorewriters. I have a strong suspicion that he uses them as they allow staff notation to be transcribed to a computer. Alternatively, programs such as SmartScore, or Sibelis allow optical character recognition – OCR, by which a hand written score sheet can be scanned and interpreted by the computer software. He mentioned about this process when he described how he did the background score of Pazhassi Raja (Malayalam 2009).
  • The base score is now ready and is printed out for the keyboardists to play and when the take is acceptable, the MIDI file is transferred to the AWS.
  • The click track for the rhythm and the MIDI inputs are stitched together with other inputs such as rhythm pads. Any special manual instruments (veena, violin etc) are played in appropriate bar lengths and the MIDI capability is used to have them transferred to the AWS for integration.
  • The special techno effects such as reverbs, delays, distortion is included. Any loops for short synth pieces are also included at this stage. The basic karaoke is now ready.
  • The melody is played with the keyboard for any voice over – sometimes you have another artist singing the track which will eventually get replaced by the assigned artist
  • Any choral parts are also assembled using digital technologies to be available as another separate track to the AWS.
  • Once the main artist has their track recorded that is acceptable to the composer, post production work has to take place.
  • Post production in the VST world is a very important activity. This requires not only a good technical sense, but also strong musical sense. It’s all about timing. Though you have several inputs and they can all be arranged as software tracks with software such as Cubase, the time signature and the appropriate alignment of musical bars is very important. The end product will sound very harsh if you do not take care of it. Given his precise timing in his music, it is all the more complicated. It is easy with these software packages to adjust the time signature for short parts to fit the music into the bar, but may not sound good to the ears.
  • Picture all the above when you hear songs such as ‘Aaro Padunna’ or ‘Kunnathe’. Integration of such work touches on every point listed here.
  • Feel free to correct me where I am wrong, if you know folks who are close to Raja’s working methods.
Recently, the Hindi flm Kites (2010), composed by Rajesh Roshan had a track called ‘Fire’ which was a complete techno track. It had all the fades, delays, echos, reverbs and some fast paced synth beats. Why am I talking about RR’s work here? You will never hear such a track from Raja. He will not use the Techno techniques in its native form. He did that with psychedelic, jazz, pop, disco, and rock – he has to add his stamp to it. Nothing goes through the Raja door and emerges in the same way out – there must be some Rajamation (Raja + transformation) to it.

That’s his integration capability that few composers in the world have. It’s about assimilating techniques, applying them with your own flavor and style – there is no pass through filter in the Raja world. He has carefully chosen his tools from the Techno world and applies very nicely to his strengths with Baroque (listen to Rangu Rangu from Prem Kahani – Kannada 2009) , Carnatic (listen to ‘Vasantha Nilavin’ from Sooryan – Mayalayam 2007), folk (listen to Balegaara Balegaara from Bhagyadha Balegara – Kannada 2009), Jazz, Broadway style (listen to Edaya Bagilu from Suryakanti – Kannada 2009), pop (listen to Swalpa Soundu from Suryakanti – Kannada 2009).

Few composers care for such handling of a new genre. It’s easy to go with the flow, but hard to swim upstream. We are lucky to listen to a great musician who just delivers his immense catch of fish to us by his upstream swim, and we are completely transparent to all the genre processing and handling he does in this process. Few generations will be lucky to receive such musical tender love and care.