Friday, December 5, 2008

Genius Revisited - Part 1

In all my previous posts, I have tried to substantiate my claim that we have a genius in our midst that somehow we find it hard to recognize. I am writing this in dismay as India never honored such musical geniuses well. Raja once said ‘Being in film music is like meditating on Mint Street’. He does the meditation so well that there is not even a distant second contender in the last 3 decades.

There are two types of geniuses: clever and magical. The clever one finds a solution or a technique that no one is able to think of. But once the genius explains how he/she did what he/she did, it is easy for the talented ones to follow it to the tee. Examples from science include Edison or Michael Faraday. The magical genius is one who explains what he/she did and still no one is able to do that even if they are talented. Examples from science include Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman. In my view, Raja falls under the category of a magical genius.

In the music world, Raja uses garden variety tools. All the musical instruments he has are available to all his competitors. All his competitors are trained in the musical systems that he is exposed to. And yet, nobody is able to perform his magic! Let me illustrate, with three examples, how the talented is unable to recreate what the magical genius created::

Rosapoo Chinna Rosapoo from Suryavamsam (1998) was a raving hit and was composed by another MD. The melody line had very close resemblance to Rasathi Unnai Kanatha Nenju from Vaidehi Kaathirunthaal (1984). Ten years later, which tune do we remember? Why? It is not just the melody line that matters – it is the careful orchestration that went with the 1984 melody that has made it survive the test of time. Separating the melody line can buy you some popularity but the magical genius behind the orchestration is impossible to replicate! Hear the original Raja magic...

and now hear the imitation or 'inspiration' as film musicians call it....

Ilaya Nila Pozhikirathu from Payanangal Mudivathillai (1982) is perhaps one of the most popular tracks of Raja. It had wonderful jazz guitar play and one of the finest interludes of Raja. Nile Nile Ambar in Kalakaar (1983) was redone by Kalyanji Anandji on arrangement with Raja, according to a reliable source. Though it had some good strumming guitar work and Kishore kumar singing it, when you hear the two tracks, the genius behind the original is completely missing. Hear the original Raja magic...

and now hear the jazz composition being butchered, Bollywood style...

Enade Edo from the film Prema (Telugu – 1988) was a great Raja tune with his inimitable signature. The song had great orchestration and the interludes have some great counterpoints (the second interlude where the synth and flute in counterpoint mode is mesmerizing). Anand Milind, who made a living by stealing Raja tunes not only copied this tune in the Hindi film Love (1991) – Saathiya Tuune Kya Kiya, but also used the exact same two voices – SPB and Chitra. Once you start paying attention to the interludes, you will notice that the genius of the Telugu song is completely missing. You can try to reproduce the melody line, you even get the same voices, but not he magical genius of the interludes. Let's hear the original Raja Telugu track...

Let's now hear the Anand Milind attempt, with the interludes...

Many of today's music composers at best can only aspire to be like Raja, it has proved impossible for anyone in the last 3 plus decades to get even at an arms distance from this gifted genius.

Genius Revisited - Part 2

In his interview with the BBC some years ago, Raja quoted the example of his experience at the Calcutta Music Academy. It almost reflects the secret of his success. He speaks about a well performing student who is judged by a panel of luminaries from the music world. While the student does an outstanding performance, he is asked a question that takes him by total surprise – what’s your contribution? Raja seems to approach every form of music with the same approach – he adds his unique contribution to it. The garden variety tools of jazz, pop, WCM, CCM etc. is available to everyone – the genius in this man is how he adds his signature to each one of them. Example, jazz piano – if you hear the track Nee Paartha Paarvaikoru Nanri from Hey Ram (2000) or Niram Pirithu Paarthen from Time (1999) – both employ jazz techniques with the Raja signature.

As music researcher A.S. Paneerselvan puts it: Is Ilayaraja a classical Western musician? Or is he a folk musician? Is he just a successful film music director? Or is he an experimenter in Carnatic music? Is he a proponent of popular culture against elitist culture? Or is he simply a cult figure? The honest answer to each of the above questions is a simultaneous yes and no. A prolific and versatile composer, Ilayaraja has generated an impressive corpus of work: some 900 film scores, an album of Carnatic music, three of devotional songs, an album of Vedic renderings, two of instrumental music released internationally and, an hour-long symphony

Even the most knowledgeable music researchers stumble trying to typecast and categorize him. Nor is it easy for others to define his depth and breadth of musical experiments – something even Raja accepts is hard for himself to do! Technically, is he a music composer, a music arranger, a music conductor, a voice conductor, a percussion arranger or all of the above? The answer to this question is that he has done all of this for most of his compositions.

Like most geniuses, Raja maintains that he does not fully understand music and is still a student of music. He did not invent harmony, nor did he invent counterpoints, nor did he invent any of the ragas of Carnatic music that he uses, or the jazz, rock, piano work, or folk or the symphony that he composed. Nor was he the first to compose an oratorio. However, with this wide body of musical knowledge, he ensures that his compositions are original and also leaves behind his unique signature on every form of music he touches. With about 5,000 original compositions, it is easy to recycle without getting caught, if you apply cleverly some interlude variations to the main melody. Unless he is forced by circumstances, he has stayed clear of repetition in the last 3 decades. For the most part, he is able to make his contribution to every piece of music that he composes. He continues to experiment and update his technique to change with the times.

He has continued to achieve all this dealing with the limitation of the format that he had to operate with. Raja chose to be a commercial film music composer and he had to operate within the limitations of film music format. He does not have the freedom of Mozart or any other orchestral music composers of the West. He has made several attempts outside film music and though they have been critically acclaimed, they have not been commercially successful. As a super crossover musician who could easily fuse Western and Indian classical music, his contributions are astounding both in films and outside it. Few living musicians today have this unique ability to fuse two varied systems so easily – example Thiruvasagam in Symphony.

There are several million followers of his music who appreciate and enjoy his music without knowing anything about the techniques of such a creation. The end product stuns the listener who has a good taste for music – the design and development process is unimportant for most of his listeners. Unlike a standard product, every composition has a different design and development process and most of end results are very pleasing! It is impossible to predict the next creation of Raja at any point in time (he says he cannot do it himself!) and he refuses to go with any ‘industry trends’ – example, he does not do remixes, he sticks to his WCM/CCM/folk paradigms and works thru modernization of musical arrangements. Even in 2008, he does a full blown Carnatic classical based film music score – Uliyin Osai not worrying about its consequences. None of these qualities are found in any of the Indian music composers today. Is he just many times better than most Indian composers, or is he beyond that? In my view he is beyond what most Indian music composers can even aspire to be. He is ‘perspiration’ type (no Indian composer has worked so hard in the last 30 years) and the ‘inspiration’ type genius (no Indian composer has offered so much variety/originality and raised the listener’s bar in the last 3 decades).

As they say, genius is the fire that lights itself and everyone around can best wonder at the lights or comfort themselves in the heat!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Voice therapy

Chorus singing has been part of Indian film music for decades. Choral singers have been called ‘melody singers’ traditionally. Raja has used them in many of his compositions; it is one of his music signatures. In most of these situations a swaram is given to the melody singers (mostly female) for singing together. Example, Malargale Nadaswarangal from Kizhakke Pogum Rayil (1978). Another example is Thoothu Solvathaaradi from Singara Velan (1992). Manamagale Manamagale from Thevar Magan (1992) is entirely executed as a chorus song. However, he has tried to use the western concepts such as ‘sight reading’ and singing from a sheet (notice that we never use the term ‘singing from the same sheet’ as harmony is not part of our music culture!) and promoted the use of voice conductors and professional western choir type singing.

I consider this track as the height of his innovation in this area: Vaanam Thottu Pona from Thevar Magan (1992). The song’s melody line is similar to the other song in the movie – Potri Paadadi Penne. Observe the interludes – it has nothing to do with the folk lines – Raja uses western choral singing with a group of professional male singers to deliver the message of social grief. I have never heard anything like this before in Indian film music. A fitting use of a grand western technique for a situation in a village where the headman dies and everyone grieves. That’s genius! Hear the interlude...

In a different situation, Raja has very successfully used these techniques in his score for 'Guru' (Malayalam - 1997). I think Guru deserves a separate section, as in my view, this is Raja's finest orchestration work till date - the finest in Indian cinema.

A body of singers who perform together is called a choir or chorus. "Choir" has the secondary definition of a subset of an ensemble; thus one speaks of the "woodwind choir" of an orchestra, or different "choirs" of voices and/or instruments in a polychoral composition. Choirs are often led by a conductor or choirmaster. Most often choirs consist of four sections intended to sing in four part harmony, but there is no limit to the number of possible parts as long as there is a singer available to sing the part:

Choirs can be categorized by the voices they include:

  • Mixed choirs (i.e., with male and female voices). This is perhaps the most common type, usually consisting of soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices, often abbreviated as SATB. Often one or more voices is divided into two, e.g., SSAATTBB, where each voice is divided into two parts, and SATBSATB, where the choir is divided into two semi-independent four-part choirs. Occasionally baritone voice is also used (e.g., SATBarB), often sung by the higher basses. In smaller choirs with fewer men, SAB, or Soprano, Alto, and Baritone arrangements allow the few men to share the role of both the tenor and bass in a single part.
  • Male choirs, with the same SATB voicing as mixed choirs, but with boys singing the upper part (often called treble or boy soprano) and men singing alto (in falsetto), also known as countertenor.
  • Female choirs, usually consisting of soprano and alto voices, two parts in each, often abbreviated as SSAA, or as soprano, soprano II, and alto, abbreviated SSA
  • Men's choirs, usually consisting of two tenors, baritone, and bass, often abbreviated as TTBB (or ATBB if the upper part sings falsetto in alto range like barbershop music, even though this notation is not normally used in barbershop music). Occasionally, a men's choir will have Basso Profondo, the lowest of all male vocal ranges.

The point is, the chorus singing also needs to be written in a score sheet the same way all orchestration with instruments is written. Raja is very skilled in writing this according to his choral conductor Sebastian Joseph. Some outstanding choral tracks of Raja include: Ithu Oru Nila Kalam from Tik Tik Tik (1981), Devathai Ilam Devi from Aayiram Nilave Vaa (1983), Engiruntho Ilanguyilin from Brahma (1991). You will notice that all these three tracks mentioned have a male choir arrangement. All these songs use the same technique, but the choir arrangements are entirely different. Lastly, these are not the only songs with this type of arrangement.

Isai Vignani (Music scientist)

Raja, who has been the leading film musician for more than 3 decades, did a few gimmicks to get public attention – it was more aimed at demonstrating that he is different. He created a lot of hype with the Keladi Kanmani song where he got SPB to sing the entire charanam in one breath. Similarly, he used the heart beat as the rhythm for the song Om Namaha from Idhayathai Thirudathe. His Kalaivaniye song which was created as an arohanam only. These are popular examples of his experimentation. However, Raja’s music experiments are very varied and in this section, I would like to share some of the experiments that I am aware of. I plan to write more on this as I uncover more...

Why should all film songs follow the same structure?

In the ‘film music basics’ section, we saw how film music is structured for the most part. Raja, being creative and fully aware of the unwritten rules, experiments by breaking them occasionally. While Raja sticks to the Indian film music structure for the most part, he does a lot of experimentation within the structure. For example, the song Naan Onru Ketpen Tharuvaya from Ilaya Ragam (1995) uses no percussion and is fully supported by the synth and guitar throughout the first pallavi, first charanam and he introduces percussion only from the second interlude onwards.

Why should a single film song have an Indian or Western style orchestration only?

Most music composers stick to one style of orchestration as it gets easy to compose the ludes and synchronize the main melody. Raja experiments. Let me list three such experiments from a long list. 1) Siriya Paravai Siragai Virikka from Antha Oru Nimidam (1985) is a song that has three charanams. The middle charanam and the second interlude is composed in a Western style and the rest of the song is in Indian format. 2) Oh Vasantha Raaja from Neengal Kettavai (1985) – this takes the experiment up by one notch. The initial pallavi, the first interlude and the first charanam are all in Indian format – complete with mridangam, tabla and the works. The orchestration completely and seamlessly switches to Western drums and violins from the second interlude and the second charanam is also orchestrated in a western style. The transitions are perfect in both these examples and this can be done only by someone who has mastery over both these idioms – Indian and Western. 3) Another example of this technique is the song Then Mozhi from Solla Thudikuthu Manasu (1988). The first pallavi and charanam is orchestrated the western way and the second charanam is done the Indian way only to return to the final pallavi in the western fashion.

Why should WCM concepts such as counterpoint be used only with the Western orchestration?

Raja has used counterpoint techniques on several non-western type compositions. As I mentioned before, Metti Oli from Metti (1982) uses typical Carnatic swara singing between Raja and Janaki in counterpoint mode. Another example of Carnatic counterpoint is the song Aavesemantha aalapanene from the film Aalapana (Telugu), where Raja has recorded SPB singing two swaras in counterpoint - what a melody! Hear this wonderful Indian melodies in counterpoint - only a genius can think of this...

Another example of Raja using two unusual Western techniques in counterpoint mode is having a grand violin section playing a counter melody to a choir as heard in kottum kuzhal vizhi from Kalapani (1997). Hear this grand piece of orchestration...

Can CCM and WCM engage in a dialog?

Absolutely. Two examples that are worth mentioning: Nadham Ezhunthathadi from Gopura Vaasalile(1991). This is a light classical composition and if you observe the first interlude, for few seconds, the Western violins start off a dialog with the Indian style violin composition. Even in some heavy Carnatic compositions of Raja such as Poon Kadhave Thazh thiravai from Nizhalgal (1980), the interludes are composed as a dialog between CCM and WCM. In fact, this is the most common experiment that Raja does in countless compositions that he may not even view this as experimentation any more.

Can a transition between a charanam and a pallavi be done by percussion?

Raja has used percussion as a transition tool in several of his compositions – the best I have observed without any parallel is the song Radha AzhaikiraaL from Therkaththi KaLLan (1988) sang by Janaki. What I found striking was the use of the tabla for the charanam and Western orchestration for the pallavi and the interludes. What I found unique is the transition from Indian to Western at the end of the charanam to the Pallavi - that's a beautiful dialog between the Western drum and the Indian tabla in such rapid pace with the support of the bass guitar. I have not heard such a beautiful Indian to Western transition in such a short interval in any song by any MD so well executed.

Can a transition between a charanam and a pallavi be done with voices?

There are several songs that Raja has used chorus as a transition between the charanam and pallavi. However, one of the best use of voice for the transition is in the song Bhoopalam Isaikum from Thooral Ninnu Pochu (1982) where the transition is done using a humming beautifully.

Can Indian and western percussion engage in a dialog?

There are several Raja compositions that have a constant dialog between Indian and Western percussion. However, the one where the dialog itself is used as the interlude is the song Ila Nenje Vaa from Vanna Vanna PookaL (1991) - both the interludes are nothing but wonderful dialog between Indian and Western percussion. Hear the wonderful dialog...

Can folk and CCM engage in a dialog?

Another dimension to Raja’s folk is the song Aayiram Thamarai Motukkale from the film Alaigal Oiyvadhillai (1982). This song was based on a traditional kummi type folk song that Raja wanted to introduce. Raja turns this kummi into a CCM raga subhapanthuvarali and also introduces chorus and Western orchestration on top! No wonder Raja fans cannot just settle for just vannila flavor - they need a split banana ice cream with another two flavors thrown in!

Can folk and WCM engage in a dialog?

As we discussed in the folk section, a number of Raja’s folk compositions are so westernized that the entire composition is nothing but a dialog between folk and western. Let’s take an example - Samakozhi Koovuthamma from Ponnu Oorukku Pudhusu (1979) – observe the third interlude in this song – a perfect synthesizer and violin counterpoint and the song returns to the charanam that is back to its folk base.

Why can’t the string section in a charanam be replaced with a piano or chorus or other techniques?

Most Raja detractors complain about his constant use of violin string section in his charanams. There are several songs where Raja has used other techniques. Three examples that come to my mind immediately: Niram Pirithu Paarthen from Time (1999) uses keyboard to back up the entire charanam. Similarly, Intha Ulagil from Madhu (2005) is composed with entirely backed by piano (not sure if this is the electric piano – it does not sound like the synthesizer). Lastly, the song Inimael NaaLum from Iravu Pookal (1986) uses chorus instead of the string section to back the charanam.

Can a song be composed with no percussion?

Raja has tried this with the song Therke Veesum Thenral Katre from Kolangal (1995) where the entire song (exception: an initial tap on the tabla) has no use of any percussion. The entire song is supported by the synth and the base guitar.

Can chromaticism work for Indian film music?

The final pallavi of Oh Butterfly from Meera (1992) is a great example of how Raja handles chromaticism – pay attention to the violins and flutes as SPB and Asha sing the concluding pallavi.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Thaalagathi Vendum (you need the right beat pattern)

We cannot imagine any film music without a rhythm pattern. The rhythm pattern in film music is set using Indian percussion instruments such as tabla, mridangam, ghatam (example, Nitham Nitham Nellu Soru from Mullum Malarum - 1978), dholak or western instruments such as drums – there are several variations to this – cymbal, bongos (70s and earlier) or congo drums (remember RD Burman’s tunes?), and more recently with synthetic drums (example Ennai Thaalata Varuvalo from Kadhalukku Mariyadhai – 1997). In order to set the pace of the song, it is important to set the rhythm pattern or thaalagathi as it is known in film circles.

CCM has several thaalam definitions and film music has been selectively following these as some suit film music more than the others. Roopaka Thaalam which follows a 6/8 beat pattern is very popular. Also popular is the Adhi Taalam which follows an 8 beat pattern. Most film music can be easily categorized into these two beat patterns.

How do the film musicians measure beats? – they use a device called a metronome which generates a clock tick like sound. This device is used to ensure that precise timing is in place when the percussionist is playing and the instrumentalists and singers coordinate the bars of music being played. Raja is creative and uses the metronome itself as his beat in some songs – observe the pallavi, and the charanam’s of the song Malare Malare Ullasam from Un Kannil Neer Vazhinthaal (1985) – the entire song has no percussion when Janaki sings. It is just backed by the metronome!

Waltz is a dance rhythm pattern from the 17th century Europe used in princely dances. This is a 3-beat rhythm and is used rarely by (also known as Teesram) Indian music composers. Raja has used the Waltz rhythm in several compositions. Vandhal Vandhal Rajakumari from Oru Oorile Oru Raajakumari (1995) is a great example of the Waltz rhythm adopted so well for Indian film music. Hear the track which is done beautifully with the chorus...

Pootukkal Pottalum from Chatriyan (1990) is another great usage of the waltz rhythm. Devan Koil Deepam Onru from Naan Paadum Padal (1984) is also set to this rhythm.

In CCM, Kanda Chapu is a 5-beat rhythm and is rarely used even in CCM. Raja has done several songs with this rare 5-beat cycle. Pon Vaanam Paneer Thoovuthu from Indru Nee Naalai Naan (1983) is another example for the usage of this rhythm pattern. If you closely observe the second interlude, the 5 beat cycle is almost demonstrated with the strings completely cut out. Hear the track...

CCM has other patterns such as Misra Chapu which follows an unusual 7 beat cycle. Most common MDs stay away from such experiments. Manasu Mayangum from Sippikkul Muthu (1985) is set to this 7-beat rhythm. Aayiram Malarkale from Niram Maratha Pookal (1979) also uses this rhythm (although it uses it only for the Pallavi). Another example is Meedum Meendum Vaa from Vikram (1986). Kaathirunthen Thaniye from Rasa Magan (1994) has the complete song in Misra Chapu.With the exception of a few seconds, the entire song follows this pattern. Hear the track...

There are several songs of Raja that have been set to unusual 12-beat cycles and some even higher. Everything is synchronized to a musical bar and Raja keeps improvising the nadai as part of his arrangement of songs. If you notice the postlude of the song Megham Kottatum from Enakkul Oruvan (1984) the way the drums are being synchronized with mridangam is amazing and is an extremely complex beat cycle. (I am yet to figure this one).

Another percussion experiment, I enjoyed is the song Ila Nenje Vaa from Vanna Vanna Pookal (1991). With the exception of a few guitar strings, both the interludes are carried out only by drums and tabla – no string section or brass. The dialog between the tabla and the drums in the interlude is so captivating. What appears like a 6-8 rhythm is hard to time and measure. Hear the track...

It must be mentioned that Raja has some excellent percussion support – his assistant for 3 decades, Purushothaman is an expert percussionist and Prasad has the reputation of being one of the finest tabla players in the film music world in India.

Folk revisited

I had mentioned in the introductory sections that most of Raja's folk is Westernized folk. To be exact, most of his folk tunes are harmonized folk. Tall claim, huh? Let’s take a crack at it. This is like peeling the onion skin. You have to follow this methodology to analyze his folk based tunes:

  1. Train your ears to skip the lyric. Often times, some folksy words are used to camouflage the western composition. Example, try to forget terms like ‘rasathi’, ‘rosapoo’, ‘raasaa’, ‘rosa’ etc., commonly used to deflect your attention.
  2. Try to forget the visual as the song could be picturised in the country side.
  3. Try to imagine that the percussion exists but not the tabla or the dholak.
  4. Focus on the timing and the interludes
  5. Voila, you can see all the harmonization that is cleverly devised to make you think that it is folk!
Don't get me wrong – I am not saying that Raja does not do folk; all I am claiming is that most of his folk based tunes receive the same WCM treatment that most of his light, CCM tunes receive.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. Consider the song ‘Rasathi Unnai Kaanatha Nenju’ from Vaidehi Kathirunthaal (1984). Pay attention to the prelude and the interludes. The lyric is fully folk and so do not focus on it. The prelude starts with a call and response type arrangement with a relaxed 4-6 rhythm pattern. It turns into a counterpoint between violins before the song begins. The first interlude is a wonderful conversation between the violins and the flute – if you ignore the beats, this is like any other WCM composition. The second interlude also uses a beautiful combination of violin, guitar, bells, cellos and flutes. Throughout the song, the base guitar pattern follows strictly the meter. Clever arrangement, delivered with a great melody and camouflaged with a folk lyric – that’s vintage Raja. Hear the track...

Another example, Muthu Mani Maalai from Chinna Kounder (1992) – this uses the same technique but with a different melody and different arrangement. The 1st interlude is a great call and response arrangement between the flutes, synthesizer and the violins – just imagine that the tabla is absent – it is like another WCM piece. The prelude uses bells and a violin section in conversation followed by the flutes. The second interlude also uses beautiful arrangement of violins and flutes. Another song in the same movie – Koondukulle Enna Vechu – uses a similar arrangement with a different melody. Observe the bass guitar pattern in both the songs. Again, this is clever usage of WCM techniques to sugar coat a beautiful folk melody! Hear the track...

  • Uchi Vagundeduthu from Rosapoo Ravikaikari (1979)
  • Samakozhi Koovuthamma from Ponnu Oorukku Pudhusu (1979)
  • Megam Karukuthu from Ananda Ragam (1982)
  • Megam Karukkaiyile from Vaidehi Kaathirunthaal (1984)
  • Adi Aathadi Ilam Manasu from Mudhal Mariyadhai (1985)
  • Kulaloothum Kannanukku from Mella Thiranthathu Kadhavu (1986)
  • Kodiyile Maligapoo from Kadalora kavidhaigal (1986)
  • Pachaimalai Poovu from Kizhakku Vaasal (1990)
  • Thendral Vandhu Theendumpodhu from Avatharam (1995)
  • Ilam Kaathu Veesuthe from Pithamagan (2004)

  • Nobody has done as many westernized folks as Raja has in recent memory. He effortlessly handles a folk melody, harmonizes, adds lilting interludes and preludes and delivers a hit with ease. Most of the B-grade movies that Raja turns our like a production shop has all the careful steps that I described. Folk melodies are no different from light melodies or heavy CCM based tunes for Raja. There are perhaps over a thousand songs that fit this category.

    Another dimension to Raja’s folk is the song Aayiram Thamarai Motukkale from the film Alaigal Oiyvadhillai (1982). This song was based on a traditional kummi type song that Raja wanted to introduce. Raja turns this kummi into a CCM raga subhapanthuvarali and also introduces chorus and Western orchestration on top! We now have a 4 flavored offering which has all the same techniques of a typical Raja folk composition.

    The unique Raja experience

    In his long career of 3 plus decades, one of the striking possibilities is repetition of earlier successful tunes – Raja has carefully avoided them for the most part. However, there are several occasions, where there have been lyrics that have been repetitive. No other composer in Indian music has faced so much repetitive lyrics and come out with different tunes for them every time. Let me provide 10 examples from Raja’s career that I am aware of. I am sure that there are a lot more that I am not aware.

    1. Kaatrinile Varum Geetham has been one of the yester years super hit song sang by MS Subhalakshmi. No other composer ever managed to unseat the glory of this song till Raja arrived. Raja has three songs which have these three words with minor grammatical differences in three different tunes – all of them super hits! The first one was from the film Kaatrinile Varum Geetham - Kandaen Engum (1978) where Raja had both Janaki and Vani Jayaram sing the song . The highlight of the song is the phrase Kaatrinile Varum Geetham. In the film Johny(1979), Raja had Janaki sing Kaatril Enthan Geetham in a completely different tune than his earlier one. Later in the 90s, Raja had Hari, Shreya, Bhava, Sadhana and himself sing to the song Kaatril Varum Geethame from the film Oru NaaL Oru Kanavu (2005). You have to hear the three songs in sequence to see how they are each great but different melodies.
    2. Kuyile Kuyile from Aan Pavam (1985) is set to a particular tune. The same phrases from Kadhal Oviyam (1982) is set to a completely different tune full of pathos. Both these are duets. For the third time, the same phrases are set to another very happy tune in the film En Bommukutty Ammuvukku
    3. Unnai Thedi from En Mana Vaanil (2002) is set to a tune (sang by Hari and Raja separately). The same phrases are set to a different tune when Sadhana sings it in the film Konji Pesalam (2003). The third variation of this is another tune in the film Housefull (1999).
    4. Manadhil Uridhi Vendum is set to a particular tune in the film Sindhu Bhairavi (1986) and the same words are set to another tune in the film Manadhil Utithi Vendum (1987). Both are sang by Yesudas.
    5. Vaarthai Thavari Vittai are words set to tune in the film Ilamai Oonjaladukirathu (1978) as part of the famous song Ennadi Meenachi. The same words are set to another tune in the film Sethu (1999).
    6. Kadhal Oviyam from Kavikuyil 1979) is set to a particular tune (solo) and Kadhal Oviyam from Alaigal Oiyvathillai (1981) is set to another completely different tune sang by Raja and Jensi. Both turned out to be hit songs.
    7. Thom Thom from Sindhu Bhairavi (1986) is set to a particular tune and the same phrases are set to a completely different tune from the film Oorellam Un Paatuthaan (1991). Both are tracks sang by Yesudas.
    8. The song Vaaranam Aayiram from Keladi Kanmani (1990) is set to a tune and the same phrases are set to a completely different tune in the song Vaishnav Janato in Hey Ram (2001).
    9. Vaa Vaa Anbe from Eeramana Rojave (1991) is set to a tune and the same phrases are set to completely different tune in Agni Natchathiram (1988). Both are tracks sang by Yesudas and Janaki.
    10. Vaigai Nadhi from Rickhaw Mama (1992) is a duet of SPB and Janaki set to a particular tune. The same phrases are to a different tune when Hari sings it in Nilave Mugam Kaatu (1999).
    These are 10 examples from the wide body of work that demonstrate the innovative way in which Raja comes out with new tunes for the same phrases over and over again. There is absolutely no influence of an earlier tune in the later tune (s). Such is the work of a genius!

    Monday, September 1, 2008

    Counterpoint with other instruments

    Raja has used a huge variety of instruments in his compositions and his techniques have been applied uniformly across the board. If you take sitar, observe the use of it with violins in counterpoint in Hey Padal Onru from Priya (1978) in the interludes. Or, the use of voice (not chorus) in counterpoint with guitar – Meendum Meendum Vaa from Vikram (1986).

    He has used even shehnai in counterpoint with guitar and violins in Pothi Vachha Malligai Mottu from Manvasanai (1983). His keyboard and synth interludes are innumerable where he has used to play counterpoint with guitar, flute and violins.

    Here are some examples – Maha rajanodu from Sathi Leelavathi (1995), Innum Ennai from Singara Velan (1992), Guruvayoorappa from Puthu Puthu Arthangal (1989), Vaa Vaa Anbe Anbe in Agni Natchathiram (1988), Valai Osai from Sathya (1988)- what an amazing counterpoint composition! The first interlude alone has two great counterpoints - the first one with the keyboard and flute - notice the pace of the flute to the keyboard - the second with the violins with the keyboard. Specifically, pay attention tot he following parts: a) 0:05 to 0:10 secs, 1:00 to 1:05 secs and 1:47 to 1:52 secs - these are repeated sections where the synthesizer plays counter to another synthesizer (can be played by a single player) b) 0:15 to 0:24 secs - the synthesizer in counterpoint with the flute c) 0:41 to 0:49 secs - violin in counterpoint to the synthesizer and d) 1:28 to 1:37 secs - Violin in counterpoint with the synthesizer.   Hear the track...

    Raja had one of the most talented keyboard players – Viji Manuel, working with him for more than 2 decades and he has a big role in making Raja’s compositions come live.

    Raja has used saxophone extensively in this mode – Vaa Vennila from Mella Thiranthathu Kadavu (1986), Mandram vandha from Mouna Raagam (1988).

    In my view, the title track of Cheeni Kum (2007) deserves a chapter of analysis. This track goes beyond my little understanding with its astounding orchestration. Why can’t they replace airline music with the Cheeni Kum score? I am yet to see a lobby music produced by an Indian composer better than this. More of Raja’s piano work later when I cover his other forms of music.

    I recently listened to Samakozhi Koovuthamma from Ponnu Oorukku Puthusu and the track had all the usual Raja signatures in it, but when I was disappointed that the first and the second interlude did not have any counterpoints at all – very unlike Raja. The third interlude on the synthesizer and violins had exactly what I was looking for – a mind blowing counterpoint!

    There are several other songs where Raja has used unconventional use of Indian instruments in counterpoint mode. The second interlude of Punnai Vanathu Kuyile from Muthu KaaLai (Tamil 199x) uses the shehnai in counterpoint with a synthesizer!

    Another extremely unconventional use of counterpoint with Indian instruments is the song Kalise Prathi Sandhyalo from the film Aalapana (Telugu 1985). In the second interlude of this song, Raja uses two veenas in counterpoint!  Hear this track and notice how Raja cleverly introduces a counterpoint between 4 and 10 secs in an otherwise predominantly Carnatic instrumental piece...

    Bottom line, a great Raja interlude can be outdone only by another Raja interlude!

    So why can’t everybody do this with equal ease as Raja? Is creation of a counterpoint as simple as composing two pleasant melodies and playing them at the same time? Negative. There are strict WCM rules governing counterpoint compositions and do not get mislead about the complexity just because Raja makes it appear so easy!

    What's the fuss about harmony? - Part 1/4

    We need to get technical again to understand harmony. I have used terminology such as multi-part composition without explaining it. Time to get under the hood a little bit. Disclaimer: The information presented in this section is to get a general appreciation of the concepts. This is by no means complete or accurate.

    The Renaissance period (Europe) was a defining period for WCM and the seventeenth century was very important – this is called the baroque period. Several music making techniques were invented during this period which is followed to this day. Most musicians played in the church which also operated as a social meeting place. Forms such as the sonata, cantata and oratorio flourished. JS Bach was from this period – Raja considers him as his mental guru in ( WCM. According to Raja, ‘JS Bach is the most precise composer of WCM’ – now, you see where his own precision is coming from! This was followed by the classical period of WCM where techniques such as symphony which is characterized by several ‘movements’ were created. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven were all from the classical period.

    As mentioned before, every sound emerging out of an orchestra can be notated, thanks to some great work done during these periods. As most of these orchestras used several instruments simultaneously, there was a need to notate them in parallel. This resulted in music being notated in 4 parts known as S(Soprano), A (Alto), T (Tenor) and B (Bass). This is technically called SATB style of music writing – also known as 4-part score or baroque style score – all this mean the same. Raja writes all his music in the standard SATB short score format. When he writes for orchestras he has not worked with before, such as the Hungary Symphony Orchestra for Thiruvasagam project, he uses the full score format (written in 26 days! In a symphony situation, the constraints are even bigger – no electronics, no synthesizers). The whole range of musical sounds is divided into these four ranges. Typically, the melody line is represented by the ‘S’ line in the score. This is the line that the composer tries to play and get the director to approve. Adding the remaining A, T and B lines to the score is called harmonizing the tune. You create a 4-part harmony in the process.

    What's the fuss about harmony? - Part 2/4

    Take a deep breadth. We have not even started. There are two more things that you need to be aware of. Firstly, the concept of chords in a harmony context – for every note in the S-line (known as root note) , you need to fill in the corresponding A, T and B components – this has to be within the scale of the note that you started with – this is described now as chords of the S-note. There are hundreds of harmony rules for constraining how you can write this. Now visualize what side by side chord placement means – when you cleverly place them, honoring a whole bunch of rules, you have created a chord progression! Most of Raja’s great melodies are very clever chord progressions. He is able to do his lilting interludes due to his mastery over these harmony rules (outside the scope of this discussion).

    Secondly, WCM also has a whole bunch of rules around intervals –WCM has very strict rules on how the notes should be formed within a scale – in other words, the time interval between these notes. What Raja does is places intervals that appear awkward from a WCM perspective – he kind of follows and breaks the rules. Why does he do it? That’s how he accommodates CCM.

    Here is a summary of the major steps: 1) Select the scale for the melody and write the melody line one bar at a time 2) Write the chords for the melody following the WCM rules 3) Work through the chord progressions again following the rules 4) Play around with the intervals to accommodate CCM/HCM.

    What's the fuss about harmony? - Part 3/4

    Looks like a mechanical process, huh? Not so simple – mean mortals with several years of training, would take about 5 to 6 days of time to harmonize a typical Indian film song , with the hope that the end result is good. Of course, they would also attempt to try out their notes by playing some instrument as a validation tool. Very talented music composers can perhaps do this in 2 days or so, with a lot of trial and error allowed. Of course, none of these guys can mess around with CCM, without seriously breaking WCM rules as that is pretty hard stuff. Raja does all this magic in 45 minutes with no musical instrument. While some WCM trained professional music composer may find a few awkward intervals that they would stay away from, they cannot complain about any of the WCM harmony rules being broken (exception of intervals in heavily CCM based music). He keeps experimenting, but never stays away from documenting his music. Once his main tune is played back (the filmy style thathakaram) to him by his assistant, he starts writing his 4-part harmony after that – he simply says ‘music happens'. If you find everything that we have discussed in this topic way too technical, remember this – modulation and chord progression – Raja is the real king of this business.

    What we have discussed still will create homophony. Think of adding counterpoints to this mix, and you can imagine the complexity. It is like adding another melody line to the score. He does not take additional time because he has counterpoints in his compositions! In his score sheet, he even notates which key on a Korg synthesizer should be used in a particular phrase! As his voice conductor Joseph Sabastian said in an interview,’ we have not seen Mozart, but I will tell my grandchildren proudly that I worked with Ilayaraja’.

    It is important to understand that most MDs understand harmonization and chord progressions. Doing this is a matter of being a MD and does not make you a genius. How can you take up a CCM/HCM based tune and now start harmonizing it with the interludes being CCM/WCM or both? How can you do this so casually when others sweat over it? And while repeatedly doing it (honoring all harmony and CCM rules), how can one easily throw musically complex counterpoints to it and still come out with such pleasant melodious hits? There are several Raja songs where the counterpoint consists of more than two melodies, there are four at times! Think of imagining all this in your head before the first bow touched the string or the first breathe ever passed a flute. And finally, how can you do all this magic in 45 minutes and never go back to revise the composition? Here is a walking musicopedia who can easily write a score for a film song, an instrumental album such as How to Name it (this was written by Raja during lazy afternoon hours when he was supposed to take a break!) or a symphony or an oratorio (Thiruvasagam in Symphony). He says it’s all the same for him! He takes the flexibilities provided by both the systems (WCM and CCM) and does not worry too much about their constraints. He figured a set of unwritten rules for such a fusion and has been very successful in easily moving between both the systems, making some pundits from both the camps wonder at him and critics ridicule him at the same time – that’s perhaps a counterpoint of views! Fortunately, he documents his entire work – this should serve as research material for future generations. Going by the complexity of some of his compositions, it should take decades if not a century to figure out what he has already figured out!

    What's the fuss about harmony? - Part 4/4

    It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is...'counterpoint'

    Time for another example. I am not going to pick some of his songs from the 80s such as Etho Mogum (Kozhi Koovuthu - 1982) or Putham Puthu Kaalai (Alaigal Oiyvathillai - 1981) or En Vaazhvile (Thamibikku Entha Ooru - 1984). I am picking a 2007 composition to showcase that the Raja style is modern and in great shape for ever – Thoorigai Inri from Ajantha (2007). The prelude and interlude compositions use synthesizers and classical WCM string sections supported by a fantastic brass section. If you hear the gush of violins and synthesizers in the prelude, this is a new treatment to the technique that you can hear in several of Raja’s older compositions (such as the prelude of of Maalaiyil Yaaro from Kshathriyan(1992) or Sundari Kannal Oru Seithi from Dhalapathi (1991)). The prelude you hear has at least a string section consisting of (my guess) 4 or 5 cellos, 15 violins and a synthesizer – watch the scale variations and the pattern! Pay closer attention to the 2nd interlude where there is a grand violin and flute conversation and the lead up to that conversation. The notes are adjusted slowly to hit a pitch where it appropriate for the flute (Western) to take over and play a phrase only to leave the phrase back at a scale for the violins to continue and the alternating goes on for a few seconds. Just imagine harmonizing such a grand piece of music!.  Hear the track...

    Despite all this technical perfection, one thing you must remember – Raja is a minimalist of a composer. He does not bring in a grand orchestra to prove a point. He does whatever the situation demands within the constraints placed on him. If you observe the song Pottu Vaitha Oru Vatta Nila from Idhayam (1991), he uses almost no orchestra throughout the charanam and pallavi, and so are several of his other songs – Thene Thenpandi meene from Udhaya Geetham (1985), Nitham Nitham Nellu Soru from Mullum Malarum (1978). I have heard several Carnatic numbers with zero instruments such as Yentharo Mahanubhavudu sang by Chitra (from Ethanai Konam Ethanai Paarvai (1983)) for him. I bring this up to appreciate that harmony should not be mistaken as a whole bunch of wailing violins.

    Some more Raja myths...

    Raja’s best was in the 80s. His music sounds from the past when you hear it today.

    It is true that the 80s had some of Raja’s most prolific output. He has slowed down considerably. However, his music seems to get better with every passing day and it is hard not to notice it. The objective of this blog is to demonstrate that his creativity is still intact and his scores in 2008 are as good as his scores in the 80s. A few examples for the post 80s music – Oh butterfly from Meera (1992), Meetatha Oru Veenai from Poonthotam (1998), Nee Paartha Paarvai from Hey Ram (2000), the tracks of Konji Pesalam (2003),Ilan kaatru from Pithamagan (2004), the title track of Cheeni Kum (2007), the semi-classical tracks of Uliyin Osai (2008) and more recently the tracks of the telugu film Mallepoovu (2008). Most casual listeners somehow relate the Raja signature to his 80s output only. If one pays attention to the select tracks that I have listed, you can see the Raja signature intact and the modernization that his compositions have undergone.

    Raja’s use of synthesizers makes his music sound not as melodious as his 80s music.

    In my view, Raja spent a few years in the late 90s to readjust his musical style and still have his signature in the output. Some of his output from the 90s did sound out of place (to the ears used to his 80s music) as he was in transition to new techniques. Raja has used synthesizers all along in the 80s and his Punnagai Mannan (1986) score was to showcase his ability to handle new electronic sound – he is no stranger to electronics. I am sure some of the die hard Raja fans may disagree. But after 1999, he has settled down and his output now has all the modern and melodic aspects beautifully blended together – please take time to review his album of 2007 – Ajantha.

    Is Raja still doing music for films? I thought he has turned things over to his sons!

    He is doing very well. Yes, his son (Yuvan) seems to have taken the ‘prolific’ side of music creation, but Raja continues to produce great music in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. He has turned very selective and looks for new themes that will help him stay creative. While the big banners have deserted him, the industry is full of newcomers who grew up with Raja’s music. There are still lots of folks within the South Indian film industry who would do anything to get his acceptance to do music for their films.

    All the WCM stuff was fine when Raja was running the show unchallenged. In today’s world, you need to churn out hits at very short notice.

    Raja’s firm grounding on WCM, CCM and folk idioms have always stunned regular listeners and pundits alike. Armed with his modern approach, he still writes music faster than a network of Macs and pre-programmed loops. While he did accept that he uses some pre-programmed loops occasionally, he ensures that it does not interfere in his creative work. Computer based stuff must be better and faster than manually written scores, huh? Not when you compete with a genius.

    Raja’s interludes are very predictable. He simply uses flute and violins only.

    Let’s face it – flute and violins are important musical instruments used by all MDs. I wish everyone does interludes the way Raja does. If you observe closely Raja’s music in the last 18 years, it has gone a sea of change from his 80s style. Most of his interludes today are not just violins, base guitar and flute only – he throws a generous dosage of synthesizers, saxophones and the works. Still you find the right place for the cellos, cymbals, and instruments that Raja is famous for. He has done a jot of jazz work recently (Mumbai Xpress – 2005, Shiva – 2006, Cheeni Kum - 2007) and the arrangements are quite different from his 80s style.

    Bas(s)ically Raja

    Tabla is a standard percussion instrument that has been used in Indian film music for decades very successfully. However, Raja’s percussion always sounded very different from all his predecessors – I used to wonder what made him different. He always has a bass line (remember B in SATB) for every song of his and that made him so different from the others.

    Most film music used the bass guitar as an optional accompaniment till Raja arrived. Armed with his WCM knowledge, one of the key changes he brought into the music business is never to have a composition without a bass line. He made the bass guitar pronounced in different ways in his compositions . Some of his bass lines are so melodious that it can become a melody line by itself! Singing bass – that’s Raja style. While a vast majority of Raja’s compositions have the bass guitar supporting the melody, he has done several compositions where the bass guitar almost has its own rhythm pattern, but will still go along with the main song’s rhythm. There are some songs where Raja’s bass guitar almost becomes a counterpoint to the main instrument. If you start taking a counterpoint view of the bass guitar pattern and the main lead instrument (viz. flute, guitar, violin, synthesizer), it will become hard to figure out a Raja song which does not have a counterpoint. He has this god given ability to manage multiple patterns simultaneously that a bass guitar composition does not appear like a big deal to him. Other MDs do try some of these techniques, but Raja is so experimental in his approach that it deserves special mention.

    Let’s take some examples: Listen to the harmonica (called mouth organ in Indian circles) play in Nilavu Thoongum Neram from Kunkuma Chimizh (1985). Observe the bass guitar play a different melody with the harmonica – very uncommon technique in those days. Hear the harmonica playing with the singing bass guitar...

    Listen to the entire song Alli Thantha Bhoomi from Nandu (1981) – the bass guitar play is very pronounced and you cannot imagine this song without it. Or listen to some of his 90s music - Mazhai Varuthu Kudai Konduvaa from Raja Kaiya Vachha (1991) – the bass guitar is so pronounced in this track and the total effect on this song is simply outstanding. Kodiyile Maligapoo from Kadalora kavidhaikal (1986) is a great example of the importance that Raja gives for the bass guitar.

    If you observe the song Chinna Chinna from Mouna Ragam (1989), it is a duet. I am sure you will disagree. The main singer is Janaki, but the other singer is the bass guitar. The bass guitar has a completely different pattern but still goes perfectly with the main singer – vintage Raja. Listen to the singing bass guitar in all the prelude and interludes...

    Listen to Vaan Meedhile from Ragangal Maruvadhillai – the bass guitar in this fast paced song again competes with Janaki for its part very similar to the Chinna Chinna song. If you observe the prelude of Poonthalir Aada from Paneer Pushpangal (1981), the bass guitar pattern is completely different from the main guitar that is playing the melody, but goes on to sing its own melody! Pon Vaanam Paneer Thoovuthu from Indru Nee Naalai Naan (1983) is another great tune of Raja where the bass guitar sings along with the main singer, Janaki. This is another greatly orchestrated song – the synthesizer and the bass guitar creates a fantastic pattern that Raja has exploited in several songs.

    Pay attention to some of Raja’s dance numbers – he creates a swing effect using the bass guitar. Example, Vaan Megam Poo Poovai Thoovum from Punnagai Mannan (1986), Athadi Ammadi Thenmotu Thaan from Ithayathai Thirudaathe (1989), Anjali anjali from Anjali (1990), Vaanile Thenila from Kaaki Chattai (1985).

    If you observe some of his semi-classical tunes, his use of bass guitar to support it is outstanding. The basic song is set on the basis of a CCM raga, but the bass guitar arrangement is done in such a beautiful way that its WCM based notes glide around the main CCM tune. Example, Pani vizhum malarvanam from Ninaivellam Nithya (1982) – this song is set to the CCM raga Chaalanaatai. Notice the bass guitar pattern. Aagaya Vennilave from Arangetra Velai (1990) – set in CCM raga Dharbhari Kanada – observe the bass pattern. Isai Paadu Nee from Isai Paadum Thendral (1986) set to the CCM raga Jog – the bass pattern in this song is so pronounced.

    Some more examples on his light music numbers – Unnaiyum Ennaiyum from Aala Piranthavan (1987) – observe the bass guitar play throughout the pallavi and charanams. Nila Kayuthu from Sakala Kala Vallavan (1982) and the famous Illamai Itho Itho from the same movie – the bass guitar gives all the vibrancy to the song.

    There are several solo numbers of Janaki that can be easily recognized as Raja songs without much musical knowledge as you can identify a pattern that you cannot describe if you did not analyze it. I will provide you three of them which are very ably supported by fantastic bass guitar rhythm patterns – Vandhadhu Vandhadhu from Kili Petchu Ketkava(1993), Pagalile Oru Nilavinai Kandaen from Ninaive Oru Sangeetham (1987) and Poongatre Theendathe from Kunguma Chimizh(1985). The tabla pattern in all these songs is enhanced by the bass guitar with its own rhythm.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008

    First things first

    I thought of sharing some of my views on what makes Ilayaraja the true musical genius that he is. Some of us simply want to listen to his music and not worry about how he makes it happen - it's like enjoying the ride of a car without worrying about learning thermodynamics. I do not intend to discuss anything boigraphical as that is all over the place. My knowledge of music is limited but I have learned quite a bit listening to his music. For the first time, I am part of an internet fan club of Raja! I have never been a fan of anyone in that sense. It is very common in the movie business to call every little guy as a genius - in my view, this is the only living Indian musical person who deserves the term 'genius'. The content will be dumbed down to only showcase his genius and not get too deeply into becoming a musicology text.

    Most of the information that I have learned in the last several months is as a result of some selfless work of some of his die hard fans. He is one of two villagers who have left a deep impact on India - the other one was Dhirubhai Ambani.

    I would like to specially thank the efforts of the following ilayaraja fans who have helped me appreciate his music better:

    1) Dasarathy, through his broadcasts in the Bay Area Stanford Radio - archives are available at

    2) CS Ramasami through his great set of educational pages at his website on WCM - the Raja style -

    3) Vicky's blog -

    4) Suresh's blog - and last but not the least

    5) the Raja fan club - , which has been a great site of learning about Raja's music.

    Finally, this is more of a Raja for dummies and not an expert commentary. If you want to enjoy and learn about how Raja does his magic (with the view of enjoying the music), you are in the right place. If you want to build expertise on musical techniques, there are other sites that provide you with more precise information.


    Some definitions

    Before we start embarking on this journey of showcasing the musical genius of Ilayaraja, (will be referred as Raja from now on) let’s define what we mean by genius.

    What ordinary people cannot do is done by the skilled. What skilled people cannot do is done by the talented. What talented people cannot do is done by a genius.

    This definition of genius fits our context very well. There are many musicians who have enthralled us over the times and they have definitely been skilled and sometimes very talented. Once in a while, someone comes along and does things that even talented people never imagined. Indian film music has been blessed with very able and talented musicians all the time and ours is a country with rich musical traditions – Carnatic in the South, Hindustani in the North and West and Rabeendra Sangeet in the East. Not to mention the thousands of folk traditions that we have in our music. As they say, music has a close relationship with flowing rivers. Most composers have done fabulously well with the tools and techniques that they have come to learn traditionally from their gurus and the rules and constraints of their (local) musical systems. Very few have the ability to go outside of their traditional systems, let alone mix these with ease. Typically you get purists from both systems beating you up for breaking the rules. Musicians tend to stay away from such blatant experiments – unless you have the genius to withstand such onslaught. Raja is definitely one of them. As Kamal Hassan once said, he is ‘Isai Vignani’ and not just ‘Isaignani’.

    Some myths about Raja

    He is the god of music

    He is very human in what he does. He has his laundry list of screw ups and he has messed up with the leading lights of the movie business. If everything went right and he was truly God, he would not have the cyclical ups and downs in his career. He also will not encourage a whole bunch of ‘less talented’ singers for some of his otherwise good compositions.

    Every Raja composition is a masterpiece

    The word masterpiece is there for a reason – just because a piece comes from a master it does not become a masterpiece. Raja has several masterpieces, but not all his compositions qualify.

    Raja is folk composer fit for B-grade movies

    Very few Raja tunes are purely folk. He uses a lot of folk techniques, but he rarely renders them in their original format. Exceptions such as Vettalai Vettalai in Rosapoo Ravikkaikari do exist. For the most part, most of Raja’s folk tunes are Westernized (more on this later). In fact, some of Raja’s hidden gems are from B-grade movies that none of us watch, but Raja overrules everyone and comes out with winners. (Example Ennai Thodarnthathu from Mamiyar Veedu, or Vaana Mazhai from Idhu Namma Bhoomi – how many of us have heard about these movies?)

    Raja’s music is dated and is unable to compete in today’s rhythm based music business.

    It will be more apt to say that he is perhaps tired. Coupled with bad PR and his philosophical ranting, he does not win any more new friends. He has tried every form of music from Jazz, pop, acoustic guitar-propelled Western folk, rock and roll, psychedelia, funk, doo-wop, march, bossa nova, pathos, Tamil folk/traditional, Afro-tribal, Indian and Western classical. He has experimented quite a bit within the constraints of film music and film background score (I will cover this in detail) more than any Indian musician. The rhythm driven compositions and remixes of today (2008) do not have ability to sustain the test of time and it is good policy to stay away from it. Besides, he has very little to prove himself, unless a challenge is posed at him such as animation movies, period films, documentaries (yes, you read it right), or independent albums. If you pay close attention to Hey Ram (2000) and Cheeni Kum (2007), Ajantha (2007) and finally The Music Messiah (2007), he is miles ahead and modern than most of his competitors.

    Raja is a good Carnatic classical composer from a film music perspective.

    Raja is first a Western Classical Music (WCM) artiste – everything is after that. As someone who was familiar with only folk music till 25, it is still difficult to explain, how he became a WCM expert in such a short period of time (8 years). While he has also learned Carnatic Classical Music (CCM) after that and acquired as much if not greater expertise, he still approaches CCM from a WCM perspective. I will detail this later as most of the CCM criticism of his work is from purists who do not understand his approach. He is the one of the few (definitely the best) artists who can harmonize CCM using WCM rules.

    Raja - the institution

    • Today, Chennai is the best place in India to do any string section recording. It has the best string artists – several Hindi/other languages film string sections are recorded in Chennai.
    • Some of the best voice conductors in India are out of Chennai. They are trained Western voice conductors. (Note, not music conductors).
    • Some of the best recording studios for sound are Chennai based. While there is a lot of shortage for traditional instrumentalists, it still has the best players supply to instrument ratio. Bollywood is very Punjab influenced and the instruments are very limited. Most Western influenced music is based purely on keyboard and violin. LP used a lot of violins in their compositions, and lots of people mistook it to be Western!
    • While there are still keyboard scammers (sorry about the strong words) and recyclers in the music business, suddenly, a conservative city such as Chennai speaks about score sheets, strings, base, voice training, concertos, as though it is Vienna or Budapest. Why should Chennai worry about shortage of cellists (one who plays cello)? Why does AR Rahman want to start a music conservatory in Chennai?

    Once upon a time, Tamil/Telugu film music directors used to take pride in going to Bombay and getting their music recorded. Today, the tale has reversed. How did all this sudden explosion of Western musical talent and discipline come up in the last 30 odd years? The answer, Ilayaraja!

    Why is he a musical genius?

    What is that Raja has done that no other Indian musician has, to qualify for being called a genius? Here are top 10 reasons.

    1. No other Indian music composer has such a solid understanding of Music theory and especially Western Classical Music (WCM) theory.
    2. He is the first true and complete Indian music composer – he does melody composition (all MDs do that), he harmonizes the melody, arranges the instruments, orchestrates and finally mixes and records as well. He is a one-man show. Unlike Bollywood, where one person does melody composition, another does the arrangement, the third one does the orchestration (conducting). Next time when you watch a Bollywood movie, pay attention to the credits.
    3. He is the fastest background music composer in the world.
    4. He is the best interlude composer that I have ever heard in Indian cinema. While most Indian film composers consider an interlude as ‘filler’, he has developed it into a super fine art. I will discuss this later in greater detail with examples.
    5. He experiments with musical ideas from several forms of music all the time. Other composers do this too. However, Raja’s experiments are so varied, that no one qualifies to be even a distant second. I will cover some of his experiments in detail later with examples.
    6. He does not even hum his tune, or play it on a keyboard or piano – just writes his music! This is music by design, not trial and error.
    7. No Indian musician has delivered so much quality despite being so prolific. At his peak, he delivered music for about 51 films in a year – that’s about 250 songs or at the rate of 2 songs a day, work of 125 days. On an average of 3 days for per film BGM, you are already stacking another 150 days. This does not include discussions with directors to understand the script and story line. In that year, he had at least 125 hit songs. His success rate is definitely above 45% of the tunes he sets. Most MDs will be happy at 10%. And most composers can either get quality or quantity, not both. There is nothing called Raja’s top 10 – the best you can get is Raja’s top 200!
    8. He is the only living musician who understands WCM and CCM so well that can effortlessly move from one to the other, without the listener being aware, honoring all the rules of both the systems.
    9. As someone who started off in an industry that was dominated by CCM, musicians who were not score sheet driven, voices not trained in the formal Western way, a system unfamiliar with multi-part music composition, Raja changed it all within a few years. No sound is produced that is not written, even chorus is written and conducted, precision in timing is taken for granted today and singers just end up doing exactly what the composer is expecting. In other words this is a paradigm shift from a chaotic music production process to an orderly well oiled machine.
    10. Raja has given everybody the boldness to use any instrument for whatever the composer wants to create a ‘feel’ for. Shenai is no more for just pathos, veena is no more for just an auspicious situation, flute does not always signify a village, a sax is no more for youth, a guitar is no more for just romance, a violin is no more for just melancholy – he has changed every visualization that we have had about the musical instruments we hear in just less than 3 decades!

    Lastly, some of Raja’s counterpoints (do not worry, I will introduce counterpoints later), when separated can serve as great melody phrases themselves! And so are his bass tracks! In the future, there will be several MDs who will steal his melodies from his bass and counterpoint work, that’s for sure. In my view, if Raja was just homophonic (most Indian music is), he could have scored for another 200 movies by now!

    There are several other reasons for calling him a musical genius. As I do not want to repeat what others have already said, here is a great summary of his genius by Kavignar Vaali during the ‘Andrum Indrum Endrum’ show held in Oct 2005.

    CCM and WCM

    In order to appreciate Raja, you need to unfortunately get a bit technical about music. We will take a quick look at Classical Music at a 40,000 foot level. While Indian Classical music in general and Carnatic Classical Music (CCM) in particular has a great tradition and has a long and rich history, it does have a few characteristics that are undeniable. Most Indian classical music is an individualistic experience. It is seldom a team effort. Most instrumentation is merely to support the main vocalist/instrumentalist. We speak about Bhimsen Joshi or Balamuralikrishna and rarely speak about a group of musicians. As Raja once said, ‘Indian classical music is so lonely compared to Western Classical Music (WCM)’. In Carnatic music, there are sections of ‘thani avarthanam’ to demonstrate the skill of the instrumentalist. Beyond that, there is rarely a need for intense coordination. In fact, we use the term ‘accompaniment’, meaning that the support instrumentalists play along with the main artist! In other words, there is very little room for ‘harmony’ in Indian classical music. Most of our music is traditionally carried forward through the generations. There is limited documentation on our music and there is hardly a way in our music to notate everything.

    Western Classical Music (WCM) is team sport. For centuries, WCM had composers, conductors, arrangers and players who used notations developed it to the point that composers can work freely on musical ideas and get conductors to do the actual performance. This lends easily to exciting things – coordination of several players to contribute to smooth and melodious music (harmony). Even singing in the classical sense can be notated – there are choral conductors that conduct chorus singing in most WCM concerts. In other words, every sound emerging out of an orchestra can be pre-written, conducted and played. Very unlike CCM!

    There are several differences between WCM and CCM that it appears almost incompatible. Here are some:

    • In the world of WCM, everything is based on what is called as ‘scales’ – this is to select the tone. A scale consists of a pattern governed by strict rules but set on a tone. You can vary the tone of the scale, but you are not allowed to vary the pattern. In other words, you can transition from one scale to the next – you might have heard terms such as C-Major or E-Minor – these are naming conventions for scales. I do not want to go deep into WCM scales as this is not about musicology, but to understand Raja, you must be aware of WCM scales.
    • In the world of CCM, you have to fix the tone of the scale, but you are allowed to vary the pattern. If you closely observe any Cutcheri, before any song is rendered, we try to fix the tone (using a thumpura). (It has now become common place for a number of musicians to say, ‘this is in the mayamalavagowlai scale’ – nothing can be farther from the definition of scale – what they mean is the base pattern of the raga).
    • In the world of WCM, there is no room for microtones. Microtones are referred as ‘gamakams’ in Indian music. All our music is rich in microtones. In fact, the entire Raga pattern is dependent on gamakams. Microtones are essential parts of our music to enhance the raga. The raga itself is a pattern and the standard Indian notation (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ne) can be mapped to the Western keyboard. However, we have additional connotations beyond these basic notes, and so does the Western system. 'Solfege notation' in WCM is when they say notations. Example, when Raja narrates his 3-note song to the Italian audience, he uses the 'Solfege notation'. (The Music Journey of Ilayaraja). The C,D,E,F,G,A,B is a written Western notation.
    • In the world of WCM, there are two major methods of playing music with an orchestra – homophony and polyphony. Homophony involves the arrangement and playing of the various instruments and ensuring that there is overall melody in the resultant sound. Most Indian composers have a good grounding on this – this does not mean that it is easy. Polyphony involves several melodies at the same time being played and the resultant music must be pleasant to hear. There is nothing called polyphony in Indian music. There is a view that homophony is the horizontal part of WCM and polyphony is the vertical part. Raja is an expert in polyphonic music. More on this later.
    • WCM has just two patterns – Major and minor – CCM has millions! The CCM world is so mathematically precise, that the 72 main ragas (there are several derived ones – called janya ragas) in the Melakartha scheme have been even named mathematically. For example, the popular ragam Shankarabharanam is actually called Dhirashankarabharanam due to the mathematical nature of naming in the melakartha scheme. The melakartha scheme is similar to Mendeleev’s Periodic table for chemists and physicists. Those of you who want to wonder more at our ancestral mathematical genius are welcome to visit:
    • CCM enthusiasts cannot change the tone – abswaram. That’s supposed to be sin!
    • WCM enthusiast cannot understand mindless (don’t freak out – in their minds) pattern variations and cannot appreciate Indian music. They think ours is some freaky free form music – nothing can be farther from truth.
    • Shifting from one scale to the next is called ‘modulation’ in WCM. There are modulation rules, but nothing prohibits you from modulating. Now you can understand why Carnatic purists dislike Raja – he is full of abaswarams! To appreciate modulation, here are two examples you can try and understand – The first part of Hey Ram (2000) mini symphony, the prelude of Andhi Mazhai Pozhikiradhu (Raja Paarvai – 1980). These are also sometimes described as sliding scales.

    That’s a ton of boring music theory stuff, though we have hardly touched the tip of the iceberg. The idea is not to display my knowledge, but impress upon you the genius of Raja. You cannot appreciate Quantum mechanics, unless you appreciate Classical mechanics.

    In essence, we learned that both CCM and WCM are based on solid grounds but have conflicting rules that can almost end up with religious type wars! No system is the better of the two – they are just simply designed that way. What’s one system’s rigidity is another system’s flexibility! What if you can play with the flexibility and the rigidity of both these systems and come out with music that the world has never heard before? That’s Raja and his genius. He does not care about WCM or CCM gurus complaining. While they do, neither did we hear SPB singing in abhaswaram for Raja, nor have we seen an improperly harmonized song from Raja. This requires such solid grounding on music theory, he is deservedly a genius. While this is a rare gift and everyone who understands one or the other, or both systems keep wondering about this little villager, he calls his craft as just fraud!