Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Techno Baroque - A Raja genre

There is an old joke with orchestration:

When ain’t baroque, don’t fix it.

The opposite is quite true with Raja. He brings in Baroque style composition regardless of the era he operates. Raja has been criticized by both his fans and detractors for his excessive use of synthesized music in the last 10 years or so. There have also been allegations that his music has become outdated and his new experiments are not working. In this blog, I have maintained that he is as modern as ever and have always provided examples from his entire career span.

If you look at the criticism on the surface, it may appear to make sense. A few scratches and the underlying reality shines. When the biggest banners and directors have deserted Raja, how is he able to survive with small time directors? In 2009, he completed about 18 films in all major Indian languages – Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi. This counts only films that were released. There is only so much your past reputation can buy. There must be some truth to what’s driving one of the most prolific composers of 2009 – few film music composers have such a track record to show after almost 34 years in the competitive film industry. The truth is he is indeed very modern and is set to compete with everyone including composers the age of his grandson!

As usual, we will argue about his new technique that is making him successful in a different way. Here is a musical genius who is reborn in his own lifetime. This series of discussions will speak to his new tools and approach to music making in the 21st century.

Raja in the 80s composed songs making Bach proud (he considers Bach as his mental guru). He started moving away from just guitar, violins and flute to the modern electronic sound with the Roland/Korg synthesizers. Without exception, his compositions between 1985 and 1995 feature a lot of synthesizer, bells. Despite all the modernity, he still wrote meticulously the bass lines and stuck to his short score format – it was four part nevertheless. He continued to make Bach and Hendel proud. Little would have Bach imagined that a villager from Asia will apply his ideas 300 years later using modern electronics six ways to Sunday.

After 1995, he started using a lot of synth drums and sequencers as part of his composition but still stuck to his baroque fundamentals. Slowly, as he replaced some of his violins, tabla, shehnai with his synth sounds, most listeners were unable to keep pace. The criticisms are very loud and were similar to the ridicule he went through in his early days as a composer. His earlier attempts with fusing CCM and WCM were criticized even more than his synth sounds of today. We did not hear the decibel levels of those noises, as the amplifier of noises – internet, was absent. At least, some of today’s critics blunt their criticism as they give his long career of success due credit. In the late 70s, he had no track record to defend as a composer – he faced fireworks from both the CCM and WCM world. Now, he sounds very Techno and jarring to the 90s and early 21 century listeners. Also, in this time period, assembling large string ensembles became hard as most musicians switched to the new electronic sound. This makes life difficult for someone who is used to writing scores for large string/brass/wind ensembles. Any other composer would have packed his bags and left. Raja seems to have experimented and found a new direction to his music. His experiments in Malayalam films with synth sound has turned out to be great and in the last nine years or so, (2001 onwards), he has settled into a new genre of music I call Techno Baroque.

How can you have Techno and Baroque together?

That must be a crazy concoction! There is no genre with that name, but I use it to describe what Raja has been doing in the last 9 years (as of 2010) or so with some of his music. We all understand the Baroque style of music composition and Raja has been doing this for a few decades. We have also described it in great detail in the section ‘What’s the fuss about harmony – Part 1’. Now, what’s this Techno genre of music?

Techno features an abundance of percussive, synthetic sounds, studio effects used as principal instrumentation, and, usually, a regular, 4/4 beat usually in the 130 - 140 bpm range, sometimes faster, but rarely slower. Some techno compositions have strong melodies and bass lines, but these features are not as essential to techno as they are to other dance genres, and it is not uncommon for techno compositions to deemphasize or omit them.

There are many ways to make techno, but a typical techno production is created using a compositional technique that developed to suit the genre's sequencer-driven, electronic instrumentation. While this technique is rooted in a Western music framework (as far as scales, rhythm and meter, and the general role played by each type of instrument), it does not typically employ traditional approaches to composition such as reliance on the playing of notes, the use of overt tonality and melody, or the generation of accompaniment for vocals. Some of the most effective techno music consists of little more than cleverly programmed drum patterns that interplay with different types of reverb and frequency filtering, mixed in such a way that it's not clear where the instrument's timbres end and the added effects begin.

We have a big problem – please note the two statements that can cause a lot of grief in this definition:
  • it does not typically employ traditional approaches to composition such as reliance on the playing of notes
  • a regular, 4/4 beat usually in the 130 - 140 bpm range

That does not cut it with Raja. He needs to have his Baroque style notes written for music at any time – so he will employ a traditional approach. The techno musicians were weak in writing score sheets – instead, they improvised, sticking to some convenient limitations. Rhythms – 4/4 is too simplistic for Raja – throw that out of the mix. 130-140 bpm range does not suit Indian film music that well as it can get monotonous and pretty hard with lyrics. And throw traditional melody composition on top of all this drawn from CCM, WCM and folk – now, you got the new genre – Techno Baroque.

Notice two more important ideas from the Techno world that has left most of his fans and detractors equally confused:
  • A little more than cleverly programmed drum patterns that interplay with different types of reverb and frequency filtering
  • It's not clear where the instrument's timbres end and the added effects begin

There is a lot of confusion about some of the rhythm patterns and instrument timbres that Raja uses recently (2009/10) as a result it gets very hard to take apart some of his recent compositions. It’s pretty hard to analyze tracks of Pazhassi Raja (2009) or Kadha Thodharunnu (2010). Analyzing some of the karaoke tracks of Kadha Thodarannu clearly shows how he is easily able to mix genres and blend them easily – the song ‘Aaro Padunnu’ has the rhythm set to techno, the keyboard set to modern electronic Jazz and the melody is still Indian! It takes a lot of experimentation to get to where Raja has got. In my view, he has not only taken a wild beast called Techno and domesticated it, but also trained it to coexist with his other farm animals! To put it otherwise, here is the new bar he has set for all Indian composers! Baroque style music by itself is quite boring beyond a point unless you embellish it with other melody elements such as CCM, folk techniques. Techno by itself is quite monotonous and not so pleasant to the average Indian film music listener. An appropriate mix of these two schools of music – one from the 17th century and another from the 20th century is something only an ultra modern musical genius can think of. Welcome to the new Raja!