Saturday, June 1, 2013

Summarizing again - why is he a genius

We have covered several topics on Raja's music so far in the past 100-odd posts. It is time to take a deep breathe, summarize what we have covered so far before moving further.

We covered in some depth, his ability to weave beautiful interludes in his music, when other composers consider composing an interlude as a burden, a filler activity. Part of his unique ability is to weave multiple simultaneous melodies in the form of counter melodies with various musical instruments. We also examined his various moods with interludes examining some of his lead instruments. Perhaps, Raja is the best interlude composer ever.

We examined how his creates his rhythms - mono and polyrhythms, both following traditions and deviating from them as well. Some of his rhythm arrangements have been copied and others remain unique to just him.  What stays unique is his ability to coalesce rhythms from different genres - a song such as 'Sandhu Pottu' (Devar Magan Tamil 1993) or Vanamellam Shenbagapoo (Nadodi Parukkaran Tamil 1999x) are some top of mind examples where folk, Carnatic and Western arrangements effortlessly coexist and mingle.

We examined his unique style of creating folk music for films called 'Cleverfolk'. Deviating from traditional South Indian folk music, we demonstrated how Raja's folk arrangements heavily borrow from both the Carnatic and Western idioms. In fact, even most common music listeners will easily identify a Raja folk arrangement from any other form of folk arrangement. While he has managed to drive the message of his Cleverfolk to even the most ordinary listener, his other faculties have not had such a reach.

We took a deep dive into his modern techno arrangements and showed how he continues to search for WCM even within that paradigm. Most composers can do one or the other. Raja tries to tame the beast of electronic music and bring a melodic meaning and life to EMT. Most electronic music have short shelf life and Raja has used his deep understanding of WCM, Jazz and has tried to create ever lasting melodies even in the world of electronic music. In his world of electronic music, melody takes the front seat and the whole composition relies heavily on the song's melody. Apart from a few exceptions, most of his electronic music is simple, driven by the low budget requirements of some films which cannot afford an elaborate orchestra. However, the melodies (example, Mandarapoo Mooli from Vinodayatra or Swashathin Thalam from Achivinte Amma) carry the song through and make them unforgettable.

We also took a very detailed look at his choir arrangements and showed how folk, harmony, Carnatic can all be used in different proportions in different tracks and sometimes in just one track to create a fantastic tune. Whether it is Ther Kondu (Raja rishi Tamil 198x) or Naan Porandhu Vandhadhu (Maya Bazaar Tamil 1995) or Keladhe Nima Geega (Geetha Kannada 1980) or Eriyile Elandha Maram (Karaiyellam Shenbagapoo Tamil 1980), one can easily see the mastery over this type of arrangement from all genres.

Now, comes the key question - what is Raja's legacy? There is no doubt that he will be remembered for his extraordinary compositions for hundreds of years. However, what makes him such a unique composer? 

  Let's approach it in another way. Will you stop listening to Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Chopin, Vivaldi and other WCM gurus because we found a Raja - in other words, does he rank in their order of WCM gurus - definitely not.

  Will you stop listening to Thiagaraja, Dikshatar, Purandaradasa because you have now started listening to Raja? This may sound a bit ridiculous, but definitely not. He does not rank anywhere close to these gurus of CCM.

 Or, will we stop listening to Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis, Miles Davis and others because we heard Raja. Again, the answer is perhaps not.

What is that Raja has done that these masters have not? What makes him the unique genius of the 20-21st century in music?

All those listed here just stuck to their favorite genre other than an occasional try with something even within their area. Example, Wynton has done tributes to Bach though he is a great trumpet player.

Raja not only easily plays with so many such genres but lets them do two things: a) allow them to co-exist without anybody realizing it and b) Coalesces them in such a way that you start wondering how such things can inter-mingle. He is a master blender.  

Time for some examples.

Will gold and glass stick to each other? Common sense tells us that it is not possible. Toss your ring into a glass jar and it does not stick to it in any way. However, the microchip industry has shown us that glass (silica) and gold (connectors of microchip inside the hermetic seal) can be made to stick each other and is one of the fundamental reason for microchips to work. Or else, the wizardry of electronics engineers will never be made useful to the real world. We go about every day life thinking that gold and glass cannot be stuck together.

Why all this talk about microchips? I consider Raja, the music-chip guy. In other words, the 'gold and glass guy'. Consider gold as one genre and glass as another. He will not only make them stick together, but will ensure that you never realize it! There are those glass guys (John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith etc) and the gold guys (Carnatic gurus, folk legends) but few can blend them without the listener realizing what's going on.

Here is a song of Raja, that exhibits the 'gold and glass' phenomenon.

 One of the songs that struck me as a very unusual arrangement was a song that goes, 'IniMael NaaLum' from December Pookal. If you listen to the charanam of this song, there are no violins, no flutes, no instruments other than the rhythm, but female voices. After I heard this song, I make it a point to go behind the voices of a Raja charanam. While voices backing a Raja charanam, is his unique composition style, I came across another song that simply blew me away recently.

The song goes 'Krishna Nuvvu' from Shiv Shankar (Telugu). What's different in this track? This is a routine melody and Raja would have composed a few thousand such. Try listening to the charanam a few times, and to my surprise, I realized, that an electric guitar is on rock mode behind the singers. You must be nuts to take an Indian melody and back it up with rock guitar! Raja does not go about bragging about such innovation. You do not feel the rock guitar out of place in any way and does not screw up the melody. Rock and traditional Indian melody working together beautifully - at least, this is the first time, I realized such things can coexist without anybody realizing it. That's the glass and gold guy!

The training that Raja went through is perhaps the standard one that most composers today go through. However, few have the audacity to experiment between genres like him. What we will consider next is about taking the best practice from one and applying it to another. This is risky business as often times it turns out to be a lemon. Several composers today are so scared of doing such things, I do not see such lemons any more.

Let's talk about some of these experiments - Raja would initially stay completely by the rulebook and create a native track. Example, the initial slokam used in 'Kadhal Oviyam' in Alaigal Oiyvathillai or 'Pattu cholli' from Azhagi. Unlike a normal composer, it's now time to deviate from the tradition. Hear the beginning of the song 'Kootu Kuyilai' from Manam Virumbudhe Unnai. Raja applies the rules of Western harmony for a traditional slokam. This time, the experiment works and it sounds truly harmonious. I am sure he has tried this in a few tracks where it may not have worked.

One of the songs where he has applied both Carnatic as well as Western harmony is the track 'Eriyile Elandha Maram' from Karaiyellam Shenbagapoo. This song is a masterpiece of sorts and only the mind of a genius can write a song of this type. The opposite is true when you listen to the song 'Veetukku Veetukku Vasapadi' from Kizhakku Vasal. When you hear the violins at the end of his performance in his Italy show, it is clearly an experiment of WCM in folk.

His experimentation between Carnatic and WCM is all over the 'How to Name it' album and a few hundred interludes.

I consider him a musical genius, not because of his abilities in any ONE genre but for being the first ever who could blend many in a single composition effortlessly. Sometimes, it is so effortless, that the listener never notices. There has never been anyone before and after him who is such a master blender. When I say this, it is not just in the IFM business. Most of his work is so well blended, it will take decades to separate the pineapples, the oranges and the strawberries from his recipe. At best, we are all folks who simply can call out a few traces of orange tinges in the final blend and claim that we have figured something and worked backwards (rightly or wrongly) to his recipe. It will be a case of hit and miss for anybody who does this (me included) and must be prepared to be proved wrong at some stage.

The blend that he does is much more complex than the fruit analogy. He literally makes pineapple taste like strawberries and vice versa.

He is beyond just being a specialist in any one genre. Future generations of composers will realize such an effortless composer lived during our times who could not be challenged by any musical genre, but navigated between them with his blender that no one noticed.

My view is that it will take centuries to get such a master blender anywhere - not just in IFM.


Vijay said...

Excellent and detail write-up on Maestro's ingeniousness. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Good that you have recorded his legacy. Thanks a lot!


Kavi said...

Great to read. Very few can give an in depth analysis like you.

Anonymous said...

Talking about using "rock guitar" fused in with carnatic genre check out this track from "How to name it?" - "Chamber Welcomes Thyagaraja" - from 2mins onwards. Don't miss the transition to luscious jazz/electro from thereon. Turn up the volume! Only Raja can!
Best fusion album EVER!

Anonymous said...

I have to say that Ilayaraja is the master of all kinds of music and his understanding and vast depth in music puts him at par with Batch.Beethoven,Thyagaraja or probably above them,in terms of fusing these forms of music,which no body could really achieve.Blending music requires a great knowledge in all these areas and his music does not have any barriers..Sheer Genius and most of his knowledge is acquired,god gifted rather than any formal education that one gets for music.

Gopalan Natarajan said...

Impressive write-up. A question that has been nagging me - why has he not been able to produce the same quality of music of late (and I mean the last decade). why has his music remained a symbol of 80s/90s ?

ravinat said...

Hi Gopalan

Not sure if you read just this post or all the other posts in this blog. If you did read the other posts starting from Aug 2008, you should not have such a question in mind.

If you did go through the blog from the beginning as I recommend, we can definitely discuss your question.

Let me know.


Ravi NAtarajan

Sathish said...


Thanks for writing this fantastic blog. I enjoyed every single page. I don't have theoretical music knowledge, your blog helped me to understand the depth of Raja's music.

Keep up your good work. God bless.

- sathish

Anonymous said...

though my school and college life was filled with raja music,

somehow I lost interest in raja
music during my middle age.

most of raja music listeners always talk on the preludes and interlude, guitar, violin etc

i felt raja music too clichéd and contributing more to the tunes and melodies and losing the essence(emotions) of the lyrics in this process

i personally feel the music should be judged by the heart than the head and raja music failed to fill my heart as per my musical expectations

i still appreciate your effort in analyzing raja music and presenting to us in a delightful way

ravinat said...

Hi anonymous

I appreciate your views. However, my views are different from yours.

I am afraid that Raja's music is one of the most misunderstood. Partly this is due to his huge volume and several gems are lying hidden even today.

On the 'touching the heart' side, I think Raja's music does better than most others. However, this blog is not about emotional appeal of Raja's music.

I am not sure about your intent to return to this site and read more. I am analyzing the C&R arrangement of Raja and at the end of that discussion, I plan to analyze why many listeners such as you get alienated from Raja. I think I have a technical answer for your (and several others like you) disconnection with Raja. I hope I am right.

Anonymous said...

disenchantment with raja's music was gradual process and happened over a period of time

previous to 1985, raja's music had his stamp of innovativeness / creativity both in tunes and scoring.

But after 1985,
It seems raja had found his success formula for his long career in film music and in fact succeeded.

Raja started working along with directors/producers with the guarantee that songs will be the selling point for the movie success.
Day by day,more and more movie creators were at the mercy of raja and in fact raja made sure he satisfies everybody.
the tagline illayaraja was the selling point in film ads.

it was during this period raja started dishing out many lifeless monotonous songs like mohan songs, karthick songs, ramarajan songs, rakiran songs etc

of course this brought in many new listeners for raja who were happy to hear the lilting melodies/amma songs/aatha songs etc.

raja who initially had more of urban fans expanded his musical reach to all nook and corners of tn.

but the old original fans had only disappointment whenever a new movie with raja music was released. The songs had a filmy feel , rehashed tunes ,
the bursting of violins replaced by more programmed sounds like koo koo kuk kuk koo etc and singers were just singing like school children doing routine homework.

In fact at one point i wished that someone take the mantle from raja to remove the boredom

As a matter of fact, i like to hear "poomela vesum poongatre" a lesser known song from a flopped movie and i dont want to hear a lilting melody "padu nilave" a popular raja song from a superhit movie.

Certainly a situation most unlikely to happen for any other MD or his fan.

I respect your admiration for raja music , but certainly want to put forward my view as you wished to know the reason for many fans alienting from raja's music

My views completely resonate with music critic shaji's blog Ilayaraja – Heights and Depths



ravinat said...

Hi Subbu

Thanks for your comment. Though I am not in agreement with your views, I do respect it.

To me, all the industry talk means nothing. I judge any composer only by one factor - the quality of the output. There is a large group of music listeners who opine that Raja's output till 1985 was the greatest and his quality has ever since suffered. I do not agree. Most of this group of listeners limit themselves by listening to Raja's output in Tamil and ignore his work in other languages. There is also a tendency to compartmentalize him beyond that into one pigeon hole or the other.

I view it in the reverse. Have you heard his output this year? Megha or OAK or CNC? Or NEPV/SRR last year, or Sneha Veedu in 2011 or Valmiki/Suryakanthi in 2009? If you hear all these albums, I am sure you will reevaluate your position.

I do not consider him as any music god. While he has done masterpieces, not everything from him can be considered one. Several of his experiments have failed, but he continues to do new experiments with the hope of new breakthroughs, like a committed researcher. He is the best that came through the IFM business and I do not still see anyone close. To be as creative as he is at this age is truly astounding. I do not care about his personal traits as that has nothing to do with his musical output.

I have been writing this blog since 2008 and have spent thousands of hours researching, analyzing and writing about his work. I would not invest such a huge amount of my personal time, if I think Raja's creativity has ended. Why am I doing this? There is no other composer who teaches with examples, musical ideas the way Raja does. He teaches, though he never literally does! As long as I find learning in his music, I plan to write.

Raja has risen, ruled, fallen, re-emerged - these are stereotypes I read a number of writers love to adopt in their writings. However, I do not approach his work on any other parameter other than his output quality. Like you, I have a number of rare songs that I like more than his popular hits. However, the learning he provides in his compositions are unparalleled.

I started seriously researching his work, only in 2007, after I heard the BGM of Cheeni Kum, well after your 1985 cutoff. No other composer can reinvent himself the way Raja demonstrated with this film. I only cover a small part of his work as it is impossible to have expertise in every area of music he composes. However, I ensure that I scan his work over the past 5 decades and all languages before deciding on any theme.

I recommend you to do yourself a favor - please listen to a number of posts that I have done on his 21st century work. Ignore my text and draw your own conclusions. Most listeners stuck with his 80s work, simply do not give themselves a chance to listen to post 80s Raja.

If you do this favor to yourself, I am convinced that there is a strong probability of your views changing.

Rama Manoharan said...

I feel people have alienated for various other reasons like, their taste for music changed, or his PR is not that good etc..
Though there a plenty..I'd say Valli's songs, Nan Kadavul's songs that are in 90s and 2000s are at a level of innovation, class that no one can meet today.
Shaji's blog looks like a biased opinion. Actually I lost the respect for Shaji after reading that blog.

Vasanth said...

Amazing series of blogs on Raja Music. God bless.
I want to add a point here. Yes, I agree that he is a master blender. But this blending is possible only for those who is in search of the ultimate truth in music. This constant search for the oneness in music is what he wants to find. In short, he is using music to reach god. What other motive would be there for a musical genius like raja?
Ilayaraja himself explains about this fact beautifully in this video.