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.