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.