Saturday, June 1, 2013

Summarizing again - why is he a genius

We have covered several topics on Raja's music so far in the past 100-odd posts. It is time to take a deep breathe, summarize what we have covered so far before moving further.

We covered in some depth, his ability to weave beautiful interludes in his music, when other composers consider composing an interlude as a burden, a filler activity. Part of his unique ability is to weave multiple simultaneous melodies in the form of counter melodies with various musical instruments. We also examined his various moods with interludes examining some of his lead instruments. Perhaps, Raja is the best interlude composer ever.

We examined how his creates his rhythms - mono and polyrhythms, both following traditions and deviating from them as well. Some of his rhythm arrangements have been copied and others remain unique to just him.  What stays unique is his ability to coalesce rhythms from different genres - a song such as 'Sandhu Pottu' (Devar Magan Tamil 1993) or Vanamellam Shenbagapoo (Nadodi Parukkaran Tamil 1999x) are some top of mind examples where folk, Carnatic and Western arrangements effortlessly coexist and mingle.

We examined his unique style of creating folk music for films called 'Cleverfolk'. Deviating from traditional South Indian folk music, we demonstrated how Raja's folk arrangements heavily borrow from both the Carnatic and Western idioms. In fact, even most common music listeners will easily identify a Raja folk arrangement from any other form of folk arrangement. While he has managed to drive the message of his Cleverfolk to even the most ordinary listener, his other faculties have not had such a reach.

We took a deep dive into his modern techno arrangements and showed how he continues to search for WCM even within that paradigm. Most composers can do one or the other. Raja tries to tame the beast of electronic music and bring a melodic meaning and life to EMT. Most electronic music have short shelf life and Raja has used his deep understanding of WCM, Jazz and has tried to create ever lasting melodies even in the world of electronic music. In his world of electronic music, melody takes the front seat and the whole composition relies heavily on the song's melody. Apart from a few exceptions, most of his electronic music is simple, driven by the low budget requirements of some films which cannot afford an elaborate orchestra. However, the melodies (example, Mandarapoo Mooli from Vinodayatra or Swashathin Thalam from Achivinte Amma) carry the song through and make them unforgettable.

We also took a very detailed look at his choir arrangements and showed how folk, harmony, Carnatic can all be used in different proportions in different tracks and sometimes in just one track to create a fantastic tune. Whether it is Ther Kondu (Raja rishi Tamil 198x) or Naan Porandhu Vandhadhu (Maya Bazaar Tamil 1995) or Keladhe Nima Geega (Geetha Kannada 1980) or Eriyile Elandha Maram (Karaiyellam Shenbagapoo Tamil 1980), one can easily see the mastery over this type of arrangement from all genres.

Now, comes the key question - what is Raja's legacy? There is no doubt that he will be remembered for his extraordinary compositions for hundreds of years. However, what makes him such a unique composer? 

  Let's approach it in another way. Will you stop listening to Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Chopin, Vivaldi and other WCM gurus because we found a Raja - in other words, does he rank in their order of WCM gurus - definitely not.

  Will you stop listening to Thiagaraja, Dikshatar, Purandaradasa because you have now started listening to Raja? This may sound a bit ridiculous, but definitely not. He does not rank anywhere close to these gurus of CCM.

 Or, will we stop listening to Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis, Miles Davis and others because we heard Raja. Again, the answer is perhaps not.

What is that Raja has done that these masters have not? What makes him the unique genius of the 20-21st century in music?

All those listed here just stuck to their favorite genre other than an occasional try with something even within their area. Example, Wynton has done tributes to Bach though he is a great trumpet player.

Raja not only easily plays with so many such genres but lets them do two things: a) allow them to co-exist without anybody realizing it and b) Coalesces them in such a way that you start wondering how such things can inter-mingle. He is a master blender.  

Time for some examples.

Will gold and glass stick to each other? Common sense tells us that it is not possible. Toss your ring into a glass jar and it does not stick to it in any way. However, the microchip industry has shown us that glass (silica) and gold (connectors of microchip inside the hermetic seal) can be made to stick each other and is one of the fundamental reason for microchips to work. Or else, the wizardry of electronics engineers will never be made useful to the real world. We go about every day life thinking that gold and glass cannot be stuck together.

Why all this talk about microchips? I consider Raja, the music-chip guy. In other words, the 'gold and glass guy'. Consider gold as one genre and glass as another. He will not only make them stick together, but will ensure that you never realize it! There are those glass guys (John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith etc) and the gold guys (Carnatic gurus, folk legends) but few can blend them without the listener realizing what's going on.

Here is a song of Raja, that exhibits the 'gold and glass' phenomenon.

 One of the songs that struck me as a very unusual arrangement was a song that goes, 'IniMael NaaLum' from December Pookal. If you listen to the charanam of this song, there are no violins, no flutes, no instruments other than the rhythm, but female voices. After I heard this song, I make it a point to go behind the voices of a Raja charanam. While voices backing a Raja charanam, is his unique composition style, I came across another song that simply blew me away recently.

The song goes 'Krishna Nuvvu' from Shiv Shankar (Telugu). What's different in this track? This is a routine melody and Raja would have composed a few thousand such. Try listening to the charanam a few times, and to my surprise, I realized, that an electric guitar is on rock mode behind the singers. You must be nuts to take an Indian melody and back it up with rock guitar! Raja does not go about bragging about such innovation. You do not feel the rock guitar out of place in any way and does not screw up the melody. Rock and traditional Indian melody working together beautifully - at least, this is the first time, I realized such things can coexist without anybody realizing it. That's the glass and gold guy!

The training that Raja went through is perhaps the standard one that most composers today go through. However, few have the audacity to experiment between genres like him. What we will consider next is about taking the best practice from one and applying it to another. This is risky business as often times it turns out to be a lemon. Several composers today are so scared of doing such things, I do not see such lemons any more.

Let's talk about some of these experiments - Raja would initially stay completely by the rulebook and create a native track. Example, the initial slokam used in 'Kadhal Oviyam' in Alaigal Oiyvathillai or 'Pattu cholli' from Azhagi. Unlike a normal composer, it's now time to deviate from the tradition. Hear the beginning of the song 'Kootu Kuyilai' from Manam Virumbudhe Unnai. Raja applies the rules of Western harmony for a traditional slokam. This time, the experiment works and it sounds truly harmonious. I am sure he has tried this in a few tracks where it may not have worked.

One of the songs where he has applied both Carnatic as well as Western harmony is the track 'Eriyile Elandha Maram' from Karaiyellam Shenbagapoo. This song is a masterpiece of sorts and only the mind of a genius can write a song of this type. The opposite is true when you listen to the song 'Veetukku Veetukku Vasapadi' from Kizhakku Vasal. When you hear the violins at the end of his performance in his Italy show, it is clearly an experiment of WCM in folk.

His experimentation between Carnatic and WCM is all over the 'How to Name it' album and a few hundred interludes.

I consider him a musical genius, not because of his abilities in any ONE genre but for being the first ever who could blend many in a single composition effortlessly. Sometimes, it is so effortless, that the listener never notices. There has never been anyone before and after him who is such a master blender. When I say this, it is not just in the IFM business. Most of his work is so well blended, it will take decades to separate the pineapples, the oranges and the strawberries from his recipe. At best, we are all folks who simply can call out a few traces of orange tinges in the final blend and claim that we have figured something and worked backwards (rightly or wrongly) to his recipe. It will be a case of hit and miss for anybody who does this (me included) and must be prepared to be proved wrong at some stage.

The blend that he does is much more complex than the fruit analogy. He literally makes pineapple taste like strawberries and vice versa.

He is beyond just being a specialist in any one genre. Future generations of composers will realize such an effortless composer lived during our times who could not be challenged by any musical genre, but navigated between them with his blender that no one noticed.

My view is that it will take centuries to get such a master blender anywhere - not just in IFM.