Monday, July 7, 2014

Will there ever be another Ilayaraja? Part 1

The idea here, is not to discuss the answer, but why such an event is improbable in the next few decades.

The digital music revolution that is underway has changed the rules of the game significantly that music directors/composers have to now play to a different set of rules. I plan to go into detail with some of my thinking on the reasons contributing to this improbability. At a high level, here are some topics I plan to explore:

1. Music apprenticeship and preparation
2. Learning and understanding different musical systems
3. Commitment of promoters of a music composer
4. Ability to risk and experiment
5. Playing by the rules that suit one's best musical beliefs
6. Ability to span multiple languages
7. Ability to hone and develop instrument and singing talent
8. Ability to compose music to fit the emotional requirements of the medium

In short, the environment has changed significantly, that none of the above is entirely possible. Even if we have musical talent that is better than Raja (in theory), there is no way the musician can shine, given the environmental factors. All the above factors have contributed to Raja's towering personality and the environment allowed him to shine over the past 5 decades.  There is no composer who can score on all the above factors today and in the immediate future, no matter what their commercial success is.

In a way, we have been lucky to listen to the 'last' (in a way, first) composer who could span five decades and excel in a number of creative areas. Our future generations (at least a few) do not have a shot at this.

I will explore each of these topics with some examples from Raja's long 5 decades of work and methods. Feel free to comment and perhaps add anything I may have missed.

You will notice that I have not included the usual attributes such as speed of composing, number of films composed, or any such obvious items. The environment simply does not lend itself to such things, even if there is such talent.

Will there ever be another Ilayaraja? Part 2

#1 Music apprenticeship and preparation

Raja did about 150 films working as an assistant to GK Venkatesh (GKV). The fact was, GKV had a big orchestra to manage and he required an able assistant to conduct and work through the details. That was the trend with most composers from MSV to ARR. Raja continued that tradition and perhaps ARR and a few others are still holding on to that tradition.  Those 150 films, gave him the clear understanding of what not to do and how to change the paradigm of film music. How many new composers get those opportunities in the digital age? Most of today's composers go from playing on TV to films directly. The TV experience is useless as they rarely create new tunes. They play other composer's compositions. Improvisation is what they learn, not creativity. Raja got a number of opportunities to experiment his musical ideas during his apprenticeship.

Also, the small composers who do music today do all on their own - no assistants. At best, computer software serves as their assistant. There is simply no scope for a long apprenticeship. Today's digital environment creates a bunch of lone wolves who have flashes of brilliance and disappear like mayflies. They neither have the luxury of long apprenticeship, nor do they have the ability to explore music creation under several genres for different film situations. They also do not have the luxury of first hand observation of how new music is created. There is also pressure to perform on their own very early in life. With the exception of folks such as Bharadwaj or Deva (even they are from the 90s) , most of the recent composers are in their teens. Can you ever imagine a fully prepared music composer who will be able to productively compose from age 33 today? Not a chance. Even Bharadwaj and Deva were not wildly successful, though Deva had a run for some time. Today, the rule is to get out early, prepared or otherwise. Raja went to learn WCM from a formal setting, understand music arrangement from GKV and was fully operational when he sought out to be independent. I doubt even in the case of YSR - he was and is still not fully prepared and he is pushing his luck. It is like computer software, 'working is good enough' - the bugs can be sorted out later...

Raja, not only was single mindedly focused, he was arming himself for the long run for 8 years before throwing himself into the race.  He also found time to train himself formally with CCM after he had enough confidence with folk and WCM. Do not expect another Raja who will have such a luxury in the near future...

#2 Learning and understanding different musical systems

Most of the young composers today have some training on western music basics. Training is different from mastery. This type of keyboard based training gets them to play the keyboard well and understand basic scales and I am sure, some site reading. Several years ago, when I visited Chennai, I was trying to get a book of Indian songs to be played on a piano. When I brought that book home, I realized that all the notations were done for single handed playing - in other words, harmonium notes. I am sure, a number of folks get misguided in India and most of the young musicians get their initial euphoria when they are able to play a popular tune with their new toy (with one hand!). Now, that's how Western music get introduced, in my view, to most beginners. This is no doubt an exaggeration, but my point is, getting to understand western classical music is very different from going to keyboard classes. I doubt how many such keyboard shops teach real western music theory. Like it or not, one has to know western music theory if you want to call yourself a composer of some kind.

Contrast this with a young man from a village, who struggles and understands western music theory the hard way though his English is challenged. (I love his quote from one of his books - 'I am glad most of the WCM terms are in Italian'). To ensure that his friends are not disturbed at night, he learns to write sheet music to the level that he can do it faster than his pace with his native language.   And he does not stop there - he learns to write counterpoints, intricate harmonies staying up all night. It is this solid grounding on music theory that has kept him not just going, but constantly experimenting.

Most young musicians who are keyboard centric are very skilled at that. However, internalizing western music theory is beyond just being skilled. I am sure there is a parallel to all this with CCM as well. As I am no expert in that, I will stay away from it. Internalizing CCM is one thing, but moving to the next level of harmonizing ICM is another. Raja's music theory grounding and his CCM understanding is so strong that he is able to harmonize ICM very casually. He had shown this from the early 80s and has now become  second nature to him. He is a master tunesmith and so are several others. Tune is not the big deal, but just the foundation. When it came to orchestration, this huge mastery over both these systems is what separates him from the boys. Needless to say, he has extended this to folk as well.
 A few dare to experiment. I would like to single out Sharath among the younger composers in this regard. Unfortunately, he does not have other things going. His songs in 180 and Meghadootham are a testimony to his understanding of both the systems.

Even if we find someone like a Sharath or Ramesh Vinayagam, how many opportunities do they get to do a song that showcases their skill? They are forced to get into the 'kuthu' song mold.  Soon these guys are tempted to believe that this would take them somewhere.
Most of them try to focus on non-Indian music genres, as a result as their keyboard skills that easily lend them to learning genres such as R & B, retro or Latino music. Unfortunately, these genres have short shelf life, especially in India. You can't blame these guys. If the theme is very classical, chances are, the director will try to rope Raja or Vidyasagar and not Vijay Antony or Raghunathan. Vidyasagar has Swarabishekam, Raja has several and even Ousepachchan has 'Ore Kadal'. What do these young composers have for someone to risk them on a musical subject? It is a vicious circle where there are no opportunities and whatever little opportunities exist go to the one that have proved it already.

CCM in TFM will be used less and less in the coming years, as a result. Young composers will unfortunately not have the freedom that Raja had. They will have to go with what they have heard in some samples and be happy when some minor tweaks succeed commercially.