Monday, June 13, 2011

A Comprehensive Write-Up by Ravi Ananthanarayan on Raaja's Composing Style!

Making music-The ilaiyaraja way!

In Western classical world there are two distinct classifications of music. One is ‘program music’ and the other is ‘absolute music’.

The first one is the idea that music should describe stories and concepts. The other one is making music as it comes to your mind without any preset ideas. That is the belief that music should exist solely to express musical thoughts.

What Ilaiyaraaja does in films is basically ‘program music’ as he does them for a given situation or scene or emotions.

In films there are two classifications. Creating song music and creating background score for the completed feature film. In the industry parlance scoring for the background music is also called as Re-Recording (RR).

Song music

Tune Composing
Ilaiyaraaja has a sitting with the Director/Producer when the entire script is narrated to him. Then they explain the significant cues in the story where a song may fit in. Some times when they are confused and cannot decide a cue for a song, Ilaiyaraaja with his experience suggests appropriate slots in the story where a song can be used. Some times they may have two sessions-one to narrate the story and another session to compose tunes for the songs.

Now assume that they have identified five song situations in this film. Now they start the process of finalising a tune for each song.

Ilaiyaraaja sings aloud with his Harmonium various tunes for a given situation. Every thing is recorded on tape. Some times this session will go on with endless tunes from Ilaiyaraaja and finally the director/producer deciding on one. Some times the session will be over in less than 45 minutes as happened with Director P Vasu for Chinnathambi. Vasu says, "One by one as we went through the situations, Ilaiyaraaja started churning out tunes and then and there we decided very fast and every thing was over so soon".

When they agree on a particular tune for that song then that tune is recorded in a separate tape. A copy of which will go to the lyric writer. During this session itself they will decide the lyric writer for this song. During this composing session, Ilaiyaraaja will have only his assistant in-charge of vocal section Mr. Sundararajan. This old man is in-charge of maintaining the tune tapes library.

Once the tune is finalised then Sundararajan will write down the tune in the swara notation form. This will come in handy to him when he sits with the singers during the voice recording and also during the song recording with the orchestra.

As I said, the day of actual recording of this tune may be on the same day or quite some time from the time they had the composing session.

Composing the full score
On the day of recording when Ilaiyaraaja arrives at the studio at 7 am, Sundararajan is ready with the particular tune tape in Ilaiyaraaja’s room. The director is on hand to give him a gist of the situation again and also his idea of the song and the way in which he plans to picturise it.

For example, if the director says that while the heroine sings this song he is going to intercut the scene and going to show some approaching tragedy, then Ilaiyaraaja has to take care of this fact in his interlude music in the song.

Example is Paadava Un Paadalai song in Naan Paadum Paadal. When Ambika sings this beautiful melodic song at the studio, the director intercuts and shows the scene where Mohan rushing in his car which would eventually get into an accident and kill him. The interlude music will be appropriate to the scene.

There is another similar song involving Mohan and Ambika; in the song Yaar Veettu Roja Poo Poothatho in the film Idhaya Koil where Mohan sings the song in the studio while Ambika is shown in trouble. Of course, this song also has some memorable string passages.

Similarly, another good example is the beautiful song Vaanil Vedivelli…sung by Janaki/Mano in Honest Raj. The wife is singing the song, in a flash back sequence, and when Vijayakanth sings in the present, after the death of his wife, the rhythm changes totally. The whole song scenes will go back and forth from the present to the past. In the same way if the director says that he plans to use a big group of dancers for this duet, then Ilaiyaraaja has to use chorus voices positively and then he has to structure his orchestration in such a way.

With all this inputs in mind he listens to the tune once again (he has to, as in between the time of composing this tune and the day of recording, he must have composed many any other tunes and also heard many other stories and seen many other films for re-recording).

Normally the string players- Violin, Viola, Cellos, Double Bass, Brass section, etc. are not part of the regular orchestra for songs. So if he is going to use strings and any other special instruments like Sitar, Veena, Sarangi, Shehnai, etc. then he informs his Programme assistants Kalyanam and Subbiah. It is their responsibility to get the players in time for the rehearsals and recording.

Now he starts writing the entire song with orchestration in his bound pad.

Ilaiyaraaja’s musicality is more than a talent. The ideas that come to him are, in reality, completed in his mind and only have to be written down on paper. This is composing at the highest possible level. This is the gift that has won him honours as he has time and again demonstrated that he could provide embellishments or variations for a piece without prior notice or preparation. This is always evident when he makes on the spot corrections or modifications to the score for a song or background music as he takes the orchestra through the score for the final take. Contrary to popular belief that because he writes music and hence he is too theoretical in his music making, he is capable of making and does make mind boggling changes to the score at the last minute with out it affecting the over all control of the composition.

He says that once he sits with all these inputs in mind, the entire song comes to him as a flash at three distinct levels.

On one level the complete rhythm pattern of the entire song. The second is the entire orchestration. And the third is the entire vocal patterns needed.

His problem is the usual one-the mind is faster than his hand. So he says, "As I start writing, the entire pattern keeps changing dynamically. So what is finally turned out is not the one I got at the first instance. I don’t know whether the final one is better or the first one would have been the best combination." He used to ask jokingly, "Is there any equipment available that would get the entire score from my mind at one go when it strikes my mind at the first instance?”

As is his practice, the score sheet will contain the session time on the top-right hand corner-whether it is a 7 AM session or an afternoon 2 PM session.

Till 1989 Ilaiyaraaja used to record two songs per day. One in the morning and another one in the afternoon. Some times, he has even recorded four songs a day with two orchestras in adjoining studios. The top left-hand corner will have the singer name for this song. He also writes the production company name and the song name if it has been finalised already with the lyric writer.

Now it is 7.45-8 AM. The score is ready.

What Ilaiyaraaja writes is called Short-Score format in music parlance. That means it is not a full score yet; still there are a few things that he takes care during the rehearsals/recording. More over, because most of the players have been with him for many years and the chemistry is very strong, he can take the liberty of leaving certain things unsaid on the score, which the orchestra players will make out on their own or Ilaiyaraaja can verbally fill those missing pieces during the rehearsals.

The score will contain every thing. Including the chorus portions, the words or phrases for the chorus parts, male/female, solo/group, and every thing will be there. If he wants a double or treble flute or some other things like mixing of a solo violin in multiple tracks, every thing will be clearly written there.

Though he writes in western staff notation format, he marks some of the parts in swara notation form also in Tamil for the benefit of the players; this is in addition to the western notation

On the other hand what he wrote for his work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) was in full-score format. It was concert hall music. Once the score is published then any orchestra in the world could play that music in their programmes. Hence that score would contain every thing. What the conductors normally change is the tempi and other minor things in the score.

In a studio recording short-score format, for example, if a flute joins the violins in the middle of a passage and goes out, Ilaiyaraaja need not bother about writing every thing there. If he has written the melody that the flute player has to play, then the tempo and scale and pitch etc. he can verbally instruct during the take. And from his mixing console he can adjust the flute channel volume with reference to the volume of the violins so that he can decide which should be in the foreground and which should be in the background.

But in concert music full-score format, this balancing of various instruments has to be on the score-on paper. Added to this, writing for live instruments is not an easy task, as it requires deep knowledge about the range of each and every instrument and also the capability of the players available with you. You cannot write some thing for the violin and ask the sax player to play it (there is no electronics in a classical Symphony Orchestra, you remember).

On top of this, writing for concert hall music requires a very strong imagination. What do I mean?

Imagine, when the full brass section is playing a passage along with the string section and if I want to write this flute melody interlude, I should know the level at which to write the flute portion so that the flute will be heard amongst other instruments in that particular passage.

Do you understand the complexity of writing concert music for a classical symphony orchestra?

Rehearsal and Recording
The orchestra players have started arriving at the studio. They all wait to see the score as students wait outside the examination hall. Now, senior violinist Judi goes inside Ilaiyaraaja‘s room and comes out with the score. Judi’s is in-charge of copying and distribution of score sheets to everybody. He is also responsible to follow the on-the-spot corrections and adjustments that Ilaiyaraaja may make during the course of the rehearsal and recording and make sure that these corrections are made on the individual copies of the players. He has a look at the score and other members of the orchestra cuddle around him. If the score is a simple one then the players heave a sigh of relief. If it is a tough one, then they straight away start their practice to be ready before Ilaiyaraaja arrives for rehearsals. Now the score goes for xeroxing. Some 20 to 30 copies are made depending upon the number of players.

Ilaiyaraaja has his breakfast in the mean while and by 9 am he comes out of his room and proceeds to the studio hall. The full orchestra has assembled there and every one is seriously practicing their portions.

His first stop is with Puru (R Purushothaman), the man in-charge of the complete rhythm section.

Ilaiyaraaja explains to him the general rhythm scale of the song with the clapping of his hands. He explains the rhythm changes during the course of the whole song and the multiple rhythm patterns that he wants for this song. He also explains to Puru the kind of sounds he wants for each and every rhythm patterns. Puru plays some sections on his Octopad and gets himself clarified. He also plays sample rhythm sounds from his Samplers for Ilaiyaraaja to select. Once Puru is clear as to what Ilaiyaraaja wants then Ilaiyaraaja moves to the Indian rhythm section players (comprising Tabala, Dolak, etc.) if they are available and goes through the motions for their portions in their language as Nadai, Thala kattai, etc. Apart from his Rhythm areas, Puru will make himself clear about the whole song in general including the portions of all other groups.

Then he stops with his keyboard and electric guitar group comprising Viji Manuel (son of legendary Handel Manuel) and Bharani on the keyboards, Guitarist Sada (son of late music director Sudarsanam) and others.

Of course, the score contains every thing including the chords they have to play. The Keyboard/Synthesizer players will have their portions marked on the score sheet as SS, SS1, SS2, QX Prog, and SSVoice or in the name of some unavailable instruments like BagPipe, Santoor, Oboe, etc.

In some of the string and flute portions the keyboards would join the live instruments. And also whenever brass section is playing then also Viji and other keyboard players will join the live brass players to give a much richer and bigger sound. This is more so due to the non-availability of that many brass players in the field. Many a time the keyboard gang will be required to join the live chorus group with their synthesizer voices.

You must have noticed that in many of his songs the string portion is almost a mix of live strings with keyboard strings. In the same way the flute passages are mostly double or treble flutes with Neapolean (Arunmozhi, the singer) playing the live flute and Viji providing the support with his keyboards. Some times Neapolean will play it twice in different tracks so that the final output will look like as if three flute players were there.

One good example is the song Kaadal ….. by SPB/Chitra from the film Gopura Vaasalile. Or even the Povoma Oorkolam song from Chinnathambi has a beautiful double flute passage in the second background. Of course, the Gopura Vaasalile song has a beautiful orchestration with subtle things like SPB will start the Pallavi and Chitra will repeat it; but when SPB completes the pallavi, Chitra will join him for the last sentence and from then on start the pallavi all over again while SPB will withdraw; that is, the last word alone they will sing together. It was a beautiful little touch. In the same way the song Poo Malaye from Pagal Nilavu sung by Ilaiyaraaja and Janaki. It is a research material. Both of them will be singing different saranams in different octaves simultaneously.

Now he goes to the centre of the hall where a score stand with his original score pad is ready for him.

He first goes through the portions of the string players.

He puts them through their portions one by one from the various passages he has written in this song (he refers them as Backgrounds-1st, 2nd, 3rd, like that; if the song opens with music then it is 1st BGM, the music that comes after the Pallavi is 2nd BGM, like that it is classified). Corrects them in their dialogue play as well as group play as First Violin group and Second Violin group and also with the Cello group. He also makes sure that they understand clearly, in particular, the rests and pauses in their parts. Of course, abrupt rests and pauses in his scores are his hallmarks. So are the little things like interludes between the lines in the pallavi or saranam or some times even in between words.

Once the section wise rehearsals are through, Ilaiyaraaja puts the orchestra through the full song.

Now Sundararajan hums the vocal part of the song with the orchestra playing the full song. During this full song rehearsal, which is a sketchy one, Puru’s drum machine will just give a measured beat to accompany the orchestra because he has not programmed his sections yet.

During this phase, Ilaiyaraaja corrects the orchestra if there is any problem in exactly understanding his phrasing demands and also the portions involved in song-follow; that is the players including the string section who will have portions to be played during the song also. In many of his songs you can find that the orchestra is having a continuous dialogue play with the singers. An excellent example that immediately comes to my mind is the song Adho Andha Nadhiyoram…from the film Ezhai Jaathi sung by Janaki, in this song you can find the strings in constant and vibrant dialogue with the singer in both the saranams.

Some times, if he finds that the orchestra finds it difficult to play a particular phrase or passage, then he will either ask them to practice again and again and be ready for the take. Of course, during the take if he still finds them struggling with it, then he would make amendments to the score. After all, work has to go on.

When I talk about Ilaiyaraaja giving instructions, it is all very precise and to the point. For an on-looker, it will all look meaningless. In mono syllables or just some gestures. But there is an invisible communication channel between Ilaiyaraaja and his players.

Once this rehearsal session is over, Ilaiyaraaja retires to his room.

During this period Puru will be busy programming his sequencers and Viji, Sada and other electronics people with their programming work. Rest of the orchestra will be busy practicing their portions. This will take quite an amount of time.

During this period the Lyric writer arrives with the song and Ilaiyaraaja goes through the written song and checks whether it goes with the tune with out any hitch. At the end of this session the final song copy okayed by Ilaiyaraaja is ready for voice mixing. This is also the break period for Ilaiyaraaja to spend some time meeting visitors, reading or writing. In fact most of the pieces in his two albums How To Name It? and Nothing But Wind was written casually during such breaks.

At around 12.30 when his Rhythm section programming is complete and all others are ready with their parts, Puru gets into the Mixer Console Room and takes on the role of a Music Producer. (In the music parlance the one who sits on the Mixer Console and listens to the various channels and balances them to produce the desired results is called the Music Producer).

Now Puru goes through each and every section (key-boards, guitars, rhythms, strings-violins, cellos, double-bass, flute….) asking them to play their parts and balances their volume levels on the mixer. This becomes more complex with the electronic instruments as they are directly connected to the mixer and getting the right volume at the console in relation to their own individual volume settings becomes a little bit complex.

Once done, Judi or another senior violinist Prabakar take on the role of a conductor and puts the orchestra through the full song. The individual groups like live rhythm players, brass section, flute and others will be in their respective booths. Only the string section and the electronic gang will be in the main hall. And Sundararajan will be in the voice booth to hum the song or some times instead of this a violinist will play the song along with the orchestra to keep the cue for them.

With the orchestra playing the full song and listening from the Console, Puru tries to adjust the levels of various tracks and channels and arrives at a level, which he knows Ilaiyaraaja would accept.

Having been with Ilaiyaraaja from his college days, for almost two decades now, Puru should know better. Once this done, word is sent to Ilaiyaraaja that every thing is ready for the final take (that means, for the actual recording!).

Ilaiyaraaja listens to the full song from the Mixer Console and gives some finer corrections and adjustments. Some times, this last minute embellishments would tax the orchestra so much that they may require a few more practice runs before the take. Once Ilaiyaraaja is satisfied, they start the "take" process. Again and again this process continues till finally Ilaiyaraaja says it is through.

Some times, he may listen to the full song play from the console and leave instructions for corrections and adjustments if any and then leave the rest of the work of actually completing the take to Puru and others and retire for lunch. He has to write the score for the afternoon song, you see!

If the song is a complex one then they record a basic track first with the rhythm section and the vocal cue. Later on they will mix the strings, flute and other portions one by one in separate sessions.

All these works including the voice mixing sessions with the singers, Ilaiyaraaja used to do earlier. His able assistants have taken over those run of the mill tasks from Ilaiyaraaja. The team works like a well-oiled machine leaving Ilaiyaraaja to concentrate on the creative side.

Occasionally Ilaiyaraaja himself will be singing the voice track for the song instead of Sundararajan humming it or some other violinist playing it along with the orchestra during the take. For example the famous song Vaa Vaa Anbe from Eeramana Rojave. This is a two-voice song sung by Yesudas and Janaki. During the take Ilaiyaraaja sang both the parts effortlessly. Later Yesudas and Janaki mixed their tracks listening to Ilaiyaraaja’s track.

Some times the track version he sings becomes so good that it is retained in the CDs/tapes while another version by a regular singer is recorded for use in the film.

For example the famous song Idhayam Oru Koil from IdhayaKoil. Ilaiyaraaja originally had a version by himself and Janaki sung during the take. Later he had another version mixed by Balu and that was the one used in the film. In the same way he sang the voice track for the song Ennai Thaalatta Varuvalo from Kadulukku Mariyadhai. Later Hariharan listened to Ilaiyaraaja’s track and sung his version, which was used in the film. Fortunately they retained Ilaiyaraaja’s track also without overwriting it.

Later, depending upon their availability the singers will come and mix their voices. At that time Sundarrajan will be in-charge of the sessions to train them with the help of the tune tape, the swara notations he has made of the tune and also with the help of the score sheet which precisely tells you the entry and exit points. If Ilaiyaraaja is available or if he feels the song is a difficult one, then he will be there to personally mix the voices. In the same way, the chorus voices are mixed later in separate sessions.

Background Music (Re-recording)

Once the edited rough-cut version of the film is ready after the dubbing, a screening is arranged for Ilaiyaraaja. This print is called "double-positive" film in industry parlance. Because there are two positive films that will be run simultaneously. One will contain the visuals and the other will contain the dialogues. And during the re-recording sessions, the music will be recorded on another positive sound film. Of course, now days, if it is done in DTS/Dolby formats, then it is recorded on tapes/CDs. This projection will not contain the special effects sounds like opening of door or moving of a car or train or even the dishum dishum sounds of the fight sequences. Just visuals with dialogue.

Composing the Score
Once this screening is over, Ilaiyaraaja will start his sessions immediately. If he sees the film in evening then his sessions will start from 7 AM the next day. And normally the re-recording sessions are called 7 to 9 sessions; that is from 7 AM to 9 PM sessions with breaks for break-fast at 9 AM, lunch at 1 PM and evening snacks at 6 PM.

For this re-recording session, unlike a song recording, all members of the orchestra will be present. Because in a song he knows exactly the kind of instruments that will be needed. But in a re-recording session, you don’t know when you will require which instrument. Hence every one will be there. That is, apart from the regulars like the electronics group comprising key-boards, guitars, the rhythm players, flute, all the others like the violins, cellos, double-basses, the brass section comprising sax, trumpets, trombones and sitar will also be present during this re-recording sessions. Some times, special players for Brass, Saarangi, etc. will be called for these sessions from Bombay to add strength to the regular local players.

These RR sessions may take anywhere from 2.5 days to 6 days depending upon the complexity and load. If the film has more number of songs then Ilaiyaraaja’s load comes down that much. Instead, if it has more visuals than dialogues like in a Mani Ratnam or Bharathi Raaja film then his load goes up.

If the first reel has the credits running and it requires music, then it is kept aside as the last work of the project after finishing all other reels. Some times if it has a song, then he need not bother about this.

Now the projections at the studio will be reel by reel, each reel running for approximately 10 minutes. In some reels, if there is a song, then the rest of the reel should be seen for potential music inclusion.

The reel is projected. The whole orchestra, some 70 players, and the director, and all others in studio watch the film in the hall with Ilaiyaraaja. Ilaiyaraaja sits in the centre of the hall with his harmonium in front of him and resting his score pad on that. He is a picture of sphinx like concentration watching the reel and the happenings there. As I said, this version of the film does not contain special effects sounds. So Ilaiyaraaja has to take that also into consideration and there may be some shots where he may leave them blank without music to be filled up later with special effect sounds.

During the screening one can see Ilaiyaraaja making some short notes on his pad. Once the reel is over, the lights come on. Ilaiyaraaja waits for a few seconds, I think more to adjust his eyes to the light, than for any thing else.

He starts writing on his score pad. He does not hum any phrase or use his harmonium. When you see this scene, you may think that this man has seen this film many times to decide the cues for music and the compositions needed. But he is seeing the film only for the second time.

The whole theatre goes into silence mode and what you can hear is only the rustle of the paper and the scratch of pen.

Judi and Sada pull up a chair and sit on either side of Ilaiyaraaja with their notepads ready. Behind Ilaiyaraaja, other players start assembling with their notepads in hand. Oblivious of all these hustle and bustle, Ilaiyaraaja is seriously writing the score. And the players from different groups start copying their individual parts then there, if there is any thing for them in that reel. You see, there is no time to waste; to wait for him to complete the full score and then take xerox copies for every one and all other luxuries that you enjoy in a song recording.

You can notice one group calling the others who are chatting outside with their tea and smoke, "Brass is there, go in". You can see the brass players rushing inside to copy their parts. The sitar player who is sparingly used normally, and usually spends most of his time in rest during the entire re-recording session will get a call when he least expects it. He would have seen the reel with Ilaiyaraaja like all others and might have thought that this reel contains nothing that may demand a sitar and might have gone out again to relax till the next reel is projected. But then, with Ilaiyaraaja, you can never predict what he will do next. Suddenly the sitar man gets a call to come in and take his score.

Now Ilaiyaraaja has finished his writing. Players are settling in their seats. And Judi gets his clarifications and makes sure that all those who have copied their parts have done it right by checking the score of each and every group. Every one is ready on their seats. (Now days, some times, Ilaiyaraaja uses a key-board and he directly feeds some of the portions into it from his mind and the rest he writes down as usual. For Hey Ram the re-recording for which he plans to record in India and also in the Europe with a classical orchestra, he directly composed on the key-board and the attached computer with the score management software printed out the entire score. Once you input the score to this software then it becomes easy to separate the parts of the score instrument wise and print them separately and also a combined score for the conductor.)

Now the orchestra knows that there are six musical pieces in this reel and the instruments involved in each of these pieces and the length of the pieces. But nobody knows where this music pieces are to be fit in. Where they are going to begin, where to end.

Of course, they are not bothered about the ending. Because Ilaiyaraaja writes exactly for the time required for the sequence. With out using a stop watch or music editor, he normally writes music that exactly fits the required timing. May be, he has a mental clock that while deciding the start cue and end cue for a music bit, is also capable of calculating the exact footage and the required timing for that footage!

For example, I am taking a reel from the Mani Ratnam film Mouna Raagam, which I consider one of the best study materials on background scoring in film music.

The reel starts mid-way after the song Oho, Megam Vanthatho.

Revathi comes home thinking the boy who was to come and see her for marriage would have gone back. No, he was still waiting to talk with her. Her mother and others scold and get her ready. She is pushed into the room where Mohan is waiting.
This meeting with the boy is some thing she wanted to avoid but couldn’t. Now she enters the room with a lot of reservations and confusions. She starts talking to him hesitatingly to begin with. First she says she won't say sorry for keeping him waiting. Then she talks about herself, her character, her concept of marriage, etc, and why she feels she could not be a good wife to him, etc.
Finally when she asks Mohan to talk some thing, he says "I like you very much" and pushes off.
Every one is happily talking that the boy has agreed for the marriage and about the preparations to be done.
Nobody asks Revathi her opinion. Her sister-in-law reminds every one about this. Her father asks her opinion. She says no. Every one was very unhappy and asks her to give reasons. She says no again and again.
Her father stands up and talks about his middle class background and his responsibility of getting her other sisters married, etc.
Now Revathi asks her father whether he wants to sell her to some one to clear his responsibility.
Her father slaps her.
She walks out of the house, goes and sits on a roadside stone talking to herself, it is a moon lit night.
When Ilaiyaraaja completes the score for this reel, the orchestra has the following:

A short piece with Guitar and Keyboard
A single stroke bang on the mridangam
A small piece by Keyboard, sitar and Guitar
Guitar, Keyboard and Strings.
A flute piece starting with Guitar and later keyboards join to repeat what they did in # 4.
A piece beginning with violins and answered by the cellos. At the end the key-boards join giving some kind of night effect.
Ilaiyaraaja gets up and without even looking around to see whether all of them are ready (they are), starts putting them through the score for a short rehearsal. Piece by piece. Once he has put them through all the pieces in this reel, he signals the operator to start the reel screening again.

The reel starts running again. Now Ilaiyaraaja watches the movie in silence. And the orchestra is in a constant alert waiting for his signal. He looks like a man possessed, with total concentration on the screen. His hands ever ready to conduct the score.

When Revathi enters the house asking her mother whether they have left any thing for her to eat, she stops dumbstruck seeing Mohan and all others. When Revathi sees them, Ilaiyaraaja's hand signals the Keyboard and Guitar.
While getting dressed, Revathi hears that the boy is still waiting because he wants to talk to her some thing; his hand signals the rhythm man-for the single stroke bang on the mridangam. This player was waiting for this because he knew that his piece was the next one in this reel.
Revathi enters the room and sees Mohan. Now his hand signals the sitar player (he is sitting behind him and Ilaiyaraaja does not bother to see any body, his concentration totally on the screen only. Any way, the sitar man knew that it was his turn next). This piece is some kind of a broken piece with silence or as he calls in music parlance, with rests in between. This is to go with the emotions of the character that enters the room with a lot of reluctance and reservations.
Just before Revathi completes her initial intro saying "I am not going to say sorry for keeping you all waiting" this piece ends giving a bit of silence.
When she completes this sentence, Ilaiyaraaja signals the next piece by Guitar, Keyboards and strings.
The music on its own ends just a few seconds before Revathi completes her monologue and tells Mohan that she won’t be a good wife and asks his opinion. What was written fits exactly only that much that Ilaiyaraaja has planned. More over, the silence created before Revathi completes her monologue and waits for Mohan’s answer is intentional in creating a tension.
When Mohan says that he likes her very much, Ilaiyaraaja signals the Rhythm man again and then the Sitar man. This is some kind of a short dialogue between Rhythm and Sitar
The next piece starts when Revathi’s father starts talking about his middle class state, etc. Ilaiyaraaja signals the Guitar, flute and Keyboard. After the initial flute bit, the Keyboards repeat what they played in the earlier piece, that is, when Revathi was talking with Mohan.
Revathi starts replying her father…
Now Ilaiyaraaja signals the string section to be ready; once her father slaps Revathi, his hand moves like a flash, the Keyboards withdraw and a new piece starts with violins and they are answered vigorously by the cellos. This dialogue continues till Revathi comes out of the house and sits on a road side stone, talking to herself; when the moon is shown, Ilaiyaraaja signals the night effect key-boards to join.
This process is called "Synchronizing the music with the visuals".

When Ilaiyaraaja does this process, that is conducting the score while seeing the movie, Puru is busy marking the beginning cues of each and every piece and also where exactly it ends. The starting cues he also marks in the form of the reel counter that is running above the screen. Of course, Ilaiyaraaja also in between, when he is waiting for the next cue, gives Puru and other members involved in this reel some finer instructions about the other aspects. And if there are any pieces for chorus voices they are also ready with the orchestra. Normally when he sees the full film, he gets an idea about the reels in which he would be needing chorus voices, and accordingly they will be called. They won’t be present all the time like other members of the orchestra.

Once the reel is over, Ilaiyaraaja gets into the Mixer Console room and Puru takes on the role of the Conductor for the session. The reel is screened again with the speakers in the hall switched off and Puru with his headphone listens to the dialogue and watches the screen and conducts the orchestra for the different cues. Again individual groups play from the different mikes and booths.

They play once when Ilaiyaraaja listens from the console and balances the tracks. And the next time it is take. They record the pieces one by one. The whole process normally takes anywhere between 1 hour to 6 hours, depending up on the complexity.

Ilaiyaraaja says that the most important instrument in his armory is ‘silence’. All other things are just instruments to create that ‘silence’. He just uses other instruments to leave at the ‘silence’ point to create tension, excitement or melancholy. If you have keenly watched his background scores, you can notice, just at that moment when you feel tension, then you can notice that he has stopped his music, which is why you are feeling the tension or concentration. This he uses effectively even in fight sequences, when suddenly he stops the music and leaves only the effects to go on and that makes you attentive suddenly without your realising it.

Some times, the director may not have finalised his version of some of the scenes. In such cases, Ilaiyaraaja would record two or three version of music for that reel, one for a version with the particular scene and one with out that scene. He is always particular that if the director removes that scene later then the music should not appear to be stopping abruptly. Hence in such cases Ilaiyaraaja will give two or three versions for the director to choose later.

While seeing the full film, he gets an idea whether he is going to compose new theme music for this story or going to use one of the song tunes as the theme. And many times he has many themes for many characters or situations that get repeated throughout the movie in different variations to create different moods. When he takes up the music writing for credits (first reel or some times partly first reel and partly last reel) he weaves these themes in to that or uses the song themes. It all depends on what mood he wants to create.

In Thalapathi when he found out that the final film had more on mother-son sentiment than friendship sentiment as originally narrated to him during the composing sessions, he decided to use the Chinnathai song as the theme. He used that in different variations to build the emotional colour of the story as a mother-son story.

In Idhayathai Thirudathe, the credits come on only after some time when Nagarjuna gets into an accident and rushed to the hospital. If you notice, the music is nothing but the theme music of the film, which you will hear later many times, in many variations, throughout the film but now here it is like a slow movement, depicting tragedy.

In Mouna Raagam he has theme music with two variations. A fast paced one is for Karthik and a gentle, slow paced one for Mohan. And the first reel when the credits are on, you can hear both in that. In the same film when Karthik leaves his house for marriage, the police take him away. When he is traveling in the jeep, mid way through, the music starts. First a gentle beginning with keyboards and when he jumps from the jeep, drum strokes come on. When he starts running, a solo violin starts a tremolo, which is answered by other violins and cellos. Now this dialogue reaches its crescendo and suddenly when Karthik sees Revathi who is sitting on top of the steps on the other side of the road, the first violins burst out the theme music and they are answered by the second violins and cellos; it continues through the process of Karthik getting shot at and ends with Revathi completing her flash back story.

In Gopura Vaasalile, the first reel when the credits come on after the initial scene when the friends board the train to go to Ooty, the entire sequence is the train and the scenic hill track to Ooty. The music is a beautiful Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. With the solo flute taking on the theme of the film and later joined by the strings and other players and later the flute taking on the song themes from the film.

To quote from Thalapathy again, it has many interesting examples to show how a correct musical score can add a lot of depth and colour to a scene.

The scene where Mammooty suddenly asks Rajani to marry Bhanupriya and both of them are shocked. Very effective use of Strings and keyboards add weight to this scene. And when they are shown entering the Colony, he uses the melody of the unused song Putham Puthu Poo Poothatho… first as a solo humming and then with Shehnai/Saarangi to portray the true feelings of the characters and situation.
The scene where Jaishankar tells Rajani that he has a mother and Rajani refusing to believe that at first and then requesting Jai not to tell her that he is alive as she should not come to know that her son is such a bad element. See how effectively he has used chorus voices with keyboards and strings.
Again the scene where Bhanupria and her kid come to the clinic and leave the shawl of Rajani in which Srividhya had thrown him away many years back. Srividhya calls out the girl and gives the shawl. The girl narrates the story of the shawl. While Srividhya realises the enormity of the statement, the kid takes the shawl away and Srividhya helplessly looks at the shawl slipping away from her hands, as if it is her kid that is slipping away from her hands. The music here is marvelous with santoor effects from the keyboards.
The scene where Srividhya visits Rajani. Chorus voices with keyboards effectively create the build-up for this reunion scene.
When Rajani comes to meet Aravindswamy to request him to go out of that town on transfer- Rajani sees Shobana on the top of the steps. The moment they see each other, a solo violin in slow tempo, takes on from the Sundari song pallavi "Naan Unai Theendamatten.." and other strings give minimal support. The music stops just giving a few seconds of silence before Rajani starts talking, asking Shobana "Nalla erukkia".
Some times he has to do the filling up before or after a song. For example, in Chinnathambi, when Prabu and Kushboo come out of the house the song Povoma Oorkolam does not start immediately. There is a length of shots when Kushboo is seen enjoying the beauty of the nature, the green fields, the birds, the wind, etc. Now Ilaiyaraaja has to fill up this portion with a music which should effortlessly continue with the song that is to follow. If you watch again, please notice, how beautifully the strings and flute are used to create that.

In the same way, the stick fight and the song Santhu Pottu that follows that in Thevar Magan. Ilaiyaraaja is aware that this is not a serious fight scene, just a play kind of thing. So he decides to treat this differently. At first when the fight starts, the rhythm bangs are used to create tension. And as the fight slowly progresses, the individual rhythm play has become a full-fledged song kind of thing, some kind of dance music. You may even wonder whether the fight was picturised for the music or the other way round. It is so perfect. But it is some thing done during the re-recording. Finally when the song begins, it looks like the extension of the stick fight dance music.

In Apoorva Sakotharargal, during the initial scenes when Nagesh and gang poison Srividhya the violent music with strings and brass begin. And it is followed by a varied rhythm play when they try to escape through the fields and the gang chasing them. And the credits start after the killing of Kamal and suddenly the music changes to an eerie, mystery kind of thing with flutes, brass and rhythms. And when the scene changes to the river with the boat in which Srividhya tries to escape, a solo flute takes over with the theme of the story and strings answer it. And this theme we will hear many times in the story to follow.

Some times during the re-recording sessions, he may decide to fill-up a scene with a bit song or even a full song. Bit songs have happened many a time. But the most notable and popular full song done during the re-recording sessions was the famous Das, Das,Chinnappa Das song in Kadalora Kavithaigal.

When Ilaiyaraaja saw that reel he did not write any thing and took the next reels after that. Every one including the director was wondering why. And in the afternoon after lunch, when Ilaiyaraaja came to the session he was ready for a song recording, with the full score written during the lunch break. In the film, it appears as if the picturisation was done for a song, but in fact it was the other way round. The song will start with a Veda like hymn rendition Oru Kaalai Thookki… from the scene Satyaraj standing on one leg and goes on from there.

In the same way there was an incident during the re-recording of the Rajni film Panakkaran.

There was a scene of Rajni and his sister. They have an argument about how long can Rajni go inside the swimming pool water. Rajni goes inside and his sister starts counting. During this period the villain Charanraj comes and forcibly takes her away to a jungle. There is a length of scene where she was chased by Charanraj. The score here is a melancholic flute trills accompanied by tabla. You know who was the flutist for this piece? None other than the great Hari Prasad Chaurasia.

When Raja was doing the music for this reel during the morning pre-lunch session he stopped the work midway and took the next reel. The players did not know why he took the next reel without completing the earlier reel.

During the post lunch session Hari Prasad Chaurasia came to see Raja. After spending some time talking to him while doing the take of other reels, Raja asked the earlier incomplete to be taken up. Then he asked Chaurasia whether he is ready to do a small piece. Chaurasia said “Oh, that was a pleasant surprise Raja, would love to play your music any time”. Then Raja said “I kept this piece aside when I heard you are in town and coming to see me in the afternoon”.

Most of the directors feel that after his re-recording the whole film looks so different from what they conceived or expected it to be. It is much more than their imagination. And Ilaiyaraaja's main trait is that he does not do any thing to force himself-either in songs or in background scoring. He does just what is required for the scene, how to add value to that or how to support that or how to cover some flaws that can not be corrected now. And his concentration and sincerity is the same for all whether it is a Ramarajan film or a MR or BR film. Even in a third rate film, if you notice, his work would be of the highest order. Of course, if the film is so bad then even his music can not do much to revive that. Some times, if the director is around during the sessions, Ilaiyaraaja checks with them whether what he has composed is fine. But he has established such a great reputation to correctly gauge the mood of a film and write the appropriate musical treatment required enhancing it, most of the directors just leave every thing to him; that is the complete editorial freedom to decide the cues, the type instruments and the score.

Some times the directors kill his songs with their own ideas. A good example is the famous Sundari song from Thalapathy. It is a song depicting war. It has a powerful orchestration with a lot of strings and brass and chorus voices. But in the film the director killed the song with excessive use of horse running effects, did you notice?

There are many a time when Ilaiyaraaja has done RR for two films simultaneously. Thevar Magan was one such film. It was a typical Diwali release and it was one of those times when Ilaiyaraaja used to have at least half a dozen movies for simultaneous release. And every director will be working on the final edit version till the last minute and every one will be forcing to complete the RR some how to give them time to do the balance work and release the picture for Diwali.

In such a situation, Ilaiyaraaja will have two orchestras. In studio-A he will see a reel, write the score, sync the score with the film and give instructions to one of his assistants like Puru or somebody and they will record the pieces one by one.

While they do this, he will go to Studio-B and see a reel from the second film and do the same thing there-see that reel from where he left in the last session in that film, write the score, sync it with the film and record the pieces himself or leave that to the boys to complete the take while he goes back to Studio-A, where by now the recording of earlier reel would have been completed and he takes up the next reel for scoring.

Imagine the magnitude of mental pressure. Different stories, different situations demanding different kind of score, different threads and themes to follow, and our man effortlessly shuttling between the studios.

And he changes the schedule (seeing the film reel by reel, writing the music, synchronizing it with the visuals and recording the pieces) when he does work for a film that is to be recorded in DTS or DOLBY.

In such cases what he does is this. Sees the full film once as usual in a preview theatre. And starts seeing the reels one by one in the preview theatre (instead of his recording theatre). Writes the score for each and every reel. During these sessions he has his main assistants like Puru, Viji, Judi and some more people. Then and there his score will be copied section wise and extra copies made for the orchestra.

And when this is over for all the reels, the scene shifts to the recording theatre. He starts seeing reel by reel. Conducts the score with the orchestra, syncs it with the visuals and goes for recording.

He does this because the recording in DTS or other modern formats are directly done in CD or tapes in multiple tracks. The balancing and mixing becomes complex like a multi-track song recording and takes a long time than his normal recording sessions when the recording is actually done in sound films. Also, these special sessions will have a lot of new musicians who are new to his style. Hence it would be better if the full score is ready on hand for the sessions. That would save a lot of time.

His BGM tracks done in such latest formats can be easily converted into individual albums-for example Mahanadhi, Kaalapani, MyDearKuttichathan, Kaadhal Kavithai, etc.

But his other BGM works can not be done that way. Because normally the re-recording music is recorded directly on sound films. Hence they may have to be re-recorded again from the old scores if you want to get them to album quality.

You would be able to appreciate the amount of work he does with just a single viewing of the rough cut film when he is able to give such a good quality musical support to them. Without the aid of lists of music cues, a music editor or even a stopwatch, Ilaiyaraaja is able to compose accurately a piece for a particular film cue which fits exactly not only the required timing but also the mood and pace of the action on the screen, heightening the tension if it was a fight scene, or enhancing with beautiful lyrical melodies the romantic mood of a love scene, or just adding spontaneously joyous excitement rhythmically to a dance scene.

John Williams is another composer whom I admire very much. Like Ilaiyaraaja, he also writes every thing himself, without depending on arrangers/orchestrators like most of the MDs in Hollywood. But do you know the time he took for writing the score for Phantom Menace-Episode I? The rough cut version was given to him some time in October 1998. And he was ready to record the score with the London Symphony Orchestra in February 1999. And he himself admits he would have seen the film at least 50 times in the course of composing the score.

What kind of output will Ilaiyaraaja produce, if he gets that kind of time and resources?

Article Courtesy - Ravi Ananthanarayan (

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