As mentioned before, Indian music has a rich chorus tradition. Most bhajans are sung in groups. Even several Indian folk songs are sang in groups. For example, the South Indian folk music form, Kummi is a chorus tradition. Even in South Indian Carnatic tradition, the guru vandhana done for the creators of this music form is sang in chorus. The thivaiyaru homage to Thyagaraja is a good example.
In western musical tradition, the art of group singing has existed for several hundred years. Most of the dance musicals have had a chorus component always. Stage presentations of stories such as opera have a rich chorus culture. Like bhajans in an Indian setting, choirs have a rich religious setting originating from the church. An example would be Whitney Houston, the American pop singer who passed away recently, had her early training with vocals as a choir singer in the church.
In Indian group singing, we consider singing with the right shruthi and bhavam as very important traits. While these are equally important in Western group singing, there are several technical elements that went along with Western group singing. While ability to sing is important, in Western group singing ability to site read music is equally important. In Indian music, as long as the person has good ability to sing, understand the swaras, most of the other aspects are taught by the conductor on the job. In Western music, while all these abilities are very important, pitching is given a lot more importance and within a single piece of music, pitching is arranged differently for different singers and this is best understood only when someone understands musical site reading.
Choirs in the western world have always been associated with the church. This is part of the western culture. Before we jump into the technical aspects of Western harmony, let’s take a look at this flashmob youtube video, where the crowd sings a Christmas choir, uninitiated in a food court during a routine December afternoon…
Unfortunately, harmony singing is very misunderstood. There are several TV interviews where new Indian film singers use the term ‘harmony’ very loosely. Most of them state that they did ‘harmony singing’ at the beginning of their careers. What they mean is that they were part of ‘group singing’. So, what is harmony singing? In short, it is a way to decorate the main melody. The decoration obviously has rules. Let’s go back to the old article on harmony where we learned about Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. (Harmony basics). For the purposes of understanding harmony as applied to choirs, we can skip Bass. For example, if the melody is the Soprano voice, the harmonies will be stacked below in the Alto and Tenor intervals. If the melody is the Alto voice, the harmonies are stacked differently. The Soprano will be above the melody and the Tenor will be below. If Tenor is the melody, then both the harmonies will be stacked above it, one at Soprano and another at Alto intervals. This idea is very well demonstrated in this youtube video:
You can notice that this presents composers with several options once they have decided on the key of their main melody. Any slip in this arrangement of melodies to harmony will create a very unpleasant cacophony. It is important for any composer to understand important keys related rules for harmony (harmony should be either on the fifths or 3 keys apart from the melody), the harmony singers should also easily understand and latch on to the melody, but stay away from its pitch honoring the rules. It must be noted that the main melody can either be sung or be played with an instrument. If you hear the song Kottum Kuzalvizhi (Kaala Pani 1996 Malayalam), Raja uses voices in harmony around the main melody played by violins.
Time for some examples from the Western Classical Music world. Here is a clip from 1742, a composition by German composer Handel, called 'Hallelujah' (from 'Messiah'). Please note the brilliant use of choir in harmony using both male and female voices with the violins.
Here is another brilliant background score from the film Omen, by Jerry Goldsmith, using some spectacular choral harmony
Though our focus is to understand how Raja has used vocal harmony in his various chorus arrangements, let us also take a brief look at some of his work with vocal harmony in general. One of his earliest experiments with vocal harmony was the song ‘En Kanmani’ from the film Chittukuruvi (Tamil 1979) where he used the voices of Susheela and SPB alternating in Alto and Tenor. Following this, he also tried some parts of the song Kanmaniye Kadhal Enbadhu from the film Aarilirundhu Arubathu Varai (Tamil 1980) where he used a similar technique with SJ and SPB voices. In the early 80s, Raja has tried vocal harmony in several songs, but the one where he hit the ball out of the park was the song ‘Pon Oviyam’ from the film Kazhuku (Tamil 1981), where Raja did a mini festival with voices. Some parts of this song are a vocal counter melody and some others qualify as vocal harmony. The choir switches to all three parts, when IR or SJ sing in Soprano, the choir sings in Alto in counter melody. They also switch roles and the choir sings in Soprano when IR or SJ switch to Alto. Here is the youtube video of this song (ignore the bad picturisation):
Another track that uses vocal harmony very well in the early 80s is the song ‘Adi Athadi’ from Kadalora Kavidhaigal (1985 Tamil) where several parts have two female (SJ) or two male voices (IR) in Soprano and Tenor. Observe the lines “Ilam Manasonnu Rekkai Katti” or “Oru Alai Vandhu”, the way it is sang.
Around the same time, another very popular Raja track where vocal counter melodies are in full play is the Pagal Nilavu track Poo Malaiye (Tamil 1986), a duet from IR and SJ.
In this track, there are at least 16 counter melodies embedded. Not sure, if there is any Indian film song that can boast of this.
The list is endless with Raja and his work on vocal harmony. We will now get back to the world of Raja’s choir arrangements that are harmony centric.