Monday, May 4, 2009

Raja's rhythms

I am sure anyone who reads this blog is musically inclined and I do not want to bore you with the importance of rhythm for any music. Film music in India is popular music and tends to showcase our modernity in the cultural sense. So, what’s the central argument that we will work on in this section? My claim is that Raja not only raised the bar with rhythms above his predecessors, but also his own. Obviously, this means that his bar is higher than what his predecessors set. That’s a tall claim in a country where there are several languages, hundreds of composers and no lack of creative ideas. That’s the trouble with geniuses – you are truly your only competition! A little historic perspective will serve as a good background to help us navigate this complex topic. It may be worthwhile reading the section on film music basics (Film Music Basics) if you have not already read it, to appreciate this entire section.

As part of showcasing our modernity, music composers have used every possible opportunity to introduce new techniques locally as well from other parts of the world, especially the West. Let’s take some of Raja’s predecessors – SD Burman or MSV (Raja respects both of them immensely).

Waqt Ne Kiya from Kagaz Ki Phool (1959) sang by Geeta Bali for SD Burman - amazing orchestration for its time. The bass, the cellos, the violins – trademark of Dadha! For better audio clarity, I am including the link where Lata pays homage to Geeta…

I recently heard a couple of tracks that caught my attention to one of Raja’s predecessors - MSV - Manidhan Enbavan Deivamagalam from Sumai thaangi (1960). If you hear this track closely, the pallavis are orchestrated in Western rhythm and the charanams are done with Indian rhythm. This is way ahead of its time.

Another MSV track – Engeyum Eppodhum from Ninaithaale Inikkum (1979) is set fully to Western rhythm complete with electric guitar, chorus and the works. RD Burman has done some amazing rhythm work during and before the time of Raja.

So, how do you beat that and also become better than your own self?

In my view, Raja approached rhythms in a multi-faceted way:

  1. He does follow his predecessors and does better than them with their techniques
  2. He brought in new folk paradigms and explored rhythms that no one did before
  3. He explored new areas in rhythms and kept resetting his own bar higher that competition found it extremely hard to match it let alone beat it. This is due to his grasp of musical techniques – be it a drum kit, a synth pad, a tabla, a mirudhangam, udukku, urimi etc.

Music composers who came into the scene after Raja, I must admit, have done a good job with rhythms than any other area where Raja excels. In my view, they have still not caught up with the master!

Rhythm basics

Disclaimer: The information presented in this section is to get a general appreciation of the concepts. They are by no means complete or accurate.

This section is not meant to be a musicology type explanation, but simplified to appreciate rhythms that are used in film music so that one can appreciate Raja’s rhythms.

Timing is everything in music, more so with rhythms. Rhythms are expressed as time signatures and it typically is written like a fraction – example 3/4, 4/4 or 6/8.

What does this fraction mean?

The numerator shows you the number of beats in each measure

The denominator tells you which note gets one beat.

Now, what is a measure? A measure (sometimes called a bar) is any segment of written music.

So, what does 6/8 mean? In a measure (or bar), you can count 6 beats. That explains the numerator. What about the denominator? It means that one eight of a note gets one beat.

Similarly, in a 3/4 rhythm, you can count 3 beats in a bar. One fourth of a note gets one beat. Obviously, the 6/8 rhythm is faster than the 3/4 rhythm. In other words, the greater the denominator, the faster is the rhythm.

Time signatures such as 3/4 or 3/8, 4/4, 2/4 are considered simple time signatures.

4/4 is the Western time signature for Aadhi Thaalam.

3/4 in Western music is called the Waltz rhythm (we briefly covered some examples in the section Thaalagathi vendum). This is called theesram in Carnatic music.

2/4 is typically a March rhythm.

Time signatures such as 6/8, 9/8, 12/8 are considered compound time signatures. Note that the numerator is always divisible by 3 in these cases.

6/8 rhythm is the roopaka thaalam in Carnatic music.

9/8 rhythm is called Sangeernam in Carnatic music.

6/8 in the Western world is used in fast waltzes, 12/8 in 12-bar blues and doo-wop music.

The third type of time signature is called Asymmetric or complex or irregular time signatures and these include signatures such as 5/4, 5/8, 5/16.

There is a whole genre of western rock music called math rock that tries to use complex time signatures such as 7/8, 11/8, 13/8 and so on.

5/8 is widely used in Carnatic music (kanda chapu) and so is 7/8 (misra chapu) are considered complex by the Western world.

Also, another great resource on odd time signature that carries a great tutorial…

Odd Time Signatures

I am sure some of you are sweating with this heavy lifting music theory stuff. Rest assured, we will stay clear of such heavy topics for some time!