Thursday, December 18, 2014

Guitar Prasanna on Ilaiyaraaja !

“Have you written invertible counterpoint up a tenth?” Raaja (I am taking the liberty to call him affectionately as “Raaja” since he is, after all, a “Raaja” in what he does!) has asked me this question a few times– a question I don’t encounter much, at least in India. In an age where most musicians (of course only in India!) spend their time reading the latest software manuals rather than reading books on harmony, counterpoint, orchestration or Carnatic ragas or whatever, Raaja is and has always been an anachronism. 

I have had several intellectually stimulating musical conversations with Raaja on principles of counterpoint, Bach, Tyagaraja, jazz harmony and much more. (Raajahas often asked me about jazz and I remember how excited Raaja was when I played him great jazz like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’).Raaja’s vast knowledge extends far beyond music. For instance, I have seen himquote passages from “Tirukkural” effortlessly in casual conversation.

In every field of activity, there are a chosen few that transcend their idiom. Let’s face it! Film music is not classical music. By itself, film music as a medium does not have the spiritual depth or artistic dimensions of say, a Tyagaraja pancharatna kriti or a Bach “Musical Offering”. It’s a medium of popular entertainment just the same way pop music is in the west. That DOES NOT however mean that it CANNOT be artistic. (I think readers will get this ‘distinction’ that I am making), it’s just that its scope and purpose is a little different. Raaja has transcended the idiom and brought elements of ‘higher art’ into it while still maintaining the ‘immediate appeal’ that characterizes (and should characterize) a mass medium like film music. It is doubtful if any musician in the world dealing with a popular musical medium (like pop, rock, film music etc) has ever brought in such an immense and breathtaking array of musical vocabulary and has internalized and reflected it in so personal a way. (What can we call Raaja’s music? – Tamil folk melodies meets Carnatic music meets Hindustani music meets 70’s disco music meets Bach meets electronic music meets ……….) What is amazing is that finally it bears a patent/trademark of homegrown Raaja. (It is not Bach, it is not Earth, Wind and Fire, it is not Carnatic music, it is Ilayaraaja.) In my personal opinion, Steely Dan and the later albums of Sting come closest to standing rock solid on musical and artistic sophistication, while still being couched in a ‘commercial’ medium.

I grew up with Raaja’s music and I can clearly see how I can revisit his old songs and find such technical virtuosity in his writing – his unmatched use ofchormaticism in ‘Indianish’ melodies, his extensive use of intricate counterpoint, his vast knowledge of Carnatic music, the ‘correctness’ of every chord in his songs and above all the speed with which he composes clearly show that the man is secure, knows exactly what he wants and delivers. Raaja has raised the standards of us, South Indian listeners so much, that there are many of us who never bothered to listen to Hindi songs for e.g.. (we never needed to, right?). He has raised the standards of musicianship to such a high level among studio musicians in Chennai (I realized the huge gulf, when I worked with string players in Bombay for e.g.) that many times I wonder how the musicians even played some of the parts that are there in his music.
I have never heard a guitar even remotely out of tune in Raaja’s songs for example (believe me, that’s very rare in general). I have to make a special mention of Raaja’s use of the electric bass guitar. I have never heard such meticulous written bass parts (its clearly written carefully), as it is in Raaja’s - song after song after song. Mention also to some brilliant acoustic drum work (a lost and ancient art in India) on Raaja’s songs.

I would like to end this article with what Raaja himself told me once (about the limitations of being in the film medium) “Enakku innum niraya ideas irukku. Ithule ellam panna mudiyathu. Ithu Mint Streetille okkanthu Jabam panra mathiri!” (translated as “I have lot more ideas. I may not be able to do all of them in this. It’s like sitting in the middle of Mint Street and meditating”). I am sure we’ll agree that he has meditated exceptionally well on Mint street!

Here are some of my personal favorites in no particular order (which just came up to me as I am writing) from a very 'technical’ perspective from certain chosen angles. Of course I feel these are great songs anyway to listen to without getting ‘technical’ about them.
Kanavil Mithakkum from Eera Vizhi Kaaviyangal (1982) - Everything. This is a total classic. 
Pazhaya Sogangal from Eera Vizhi Kaaviyangal (1982) - Listen to the beautiful classical guitar parts and the Rhodes piano. 
Poonthalir Aada from Panner Pushpangal (1981) - The use of counterpoint in this song is at a staggering level. I would like to analyze this song in detail in a later article. 
Aruna kirana from Guru (Malayalam) (1997) - The orchestration in this is great by any standards. 
Dilwale from Mahadev (Hindi) (1989) - Has anyone heard this song or have it?, Its so hip, an exceptional arrangement!. 
Vaan Meethile from Raagangal Maaruvathillai (1983) - Has anyone heard this?. The groove, the bass guitar. 
Vaanam Keezhe from Thoongathe Thambi Thoongathe (1983) - Everything. To me this song is a mini magnum opus in its arrangement. It is quite stunning. 
Etho Mogam from Kozhi Koovuthu (1982) - Chromaticism, harmonies, the pastoral feeling. 
Illamai Itho Itho from Sakalakalavallavan (1982) - Quintessential disco – with Raja’s sophistication though. Look for SPB’s Homer Simpson like ‘hoohoo’s. 
Vikram from Vikram (1986) - To me, this sounds really hip even today. Look for the three-voice counterpoint in S. Janaki’s ‘humming’, the guitar/ keyboard chords behind Kamal’s ‘rap’. 
Ninnukori Varnam from Agni Natchathiram (1988) - Well! ‘Hip’ is the word!. 
Oh Butterfly from Meera (1992) - Stunning chromatic string passages in the end. 
Ilam Pani from Aradhanai (1981) - Great song. 
Kathal Pannpadu from Eera Vizhi Kaaviyangal (1982) - Stunning arrangements, harmonic changes. Brilliant!. 
Ada Machamulla from Chinnaveedu (1985) - The funkiest use ofmridangam, horns. Another mini magnum opus. 
Devanin Kovil from Aruvadai Naal (1986) - Raja’s vocal harmony, bass guitar. 
Pattu Enge from Poovizhi Vasalile (1987) - Horn section arrangements, vocal arrangements. 
Paadivaa Thendrale from Mudivalla Arambam (1984) - Brilliant guitar parts. 
Illaya Nila from Payanangal Mudivathillai (1982) - Of course!. 
Naalum En Manam from Nilavu Suduvathillai (1984) - Guitar/ voice counterpoint. Great song. 
Vaa Vaa Pakkam Vaa from Thangamagan (1983) - Sophisticated Rhythm & Blues a-la Raja. This is super hip. 
Vaanengum Thanga from Moondram Pirai (1982) - Just the intro is enough!. 
Kaathal Oviyam from Alaigal Oivathillai (1981) - The song that taught me maj7 chords. 
Putham Puthu Kalai from Alaigal Oivathillai (1981) - Flute intro! The groove! Great song. 
Tholin Mele from Ninaivellam Nithya (1982) - Superb use of African rhythms that somehow transmogrifies into ‘raja’. Shall we say ‘Rajafrican?’. 
I want to tell you something from Anand (1987) - Stunning vocal harmonies and arrangements.

And so on and on and on…….I haven’t even touched the great Carnatic material yet!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Shrutibhedam In Ilayaraaja's Music - Article By Mr. Hari Govindan (@ the Raajangahm portal)

Shrutibhedam In Ilayaraaja's Music - Article By Mr. Hari Govindan (@ the Raajangahm portal)

At first blush, film music would hardly seem to be an ideal idiom for the practice of Shrutibhedam. Film songs are, essentially, words set to music. A composer can play on the listener's ambivalence about the tonic note, but that would seem to be extent of it. (For instance, to this day I hear the song Andhi Mazhai Pozhigirathu—from the movie Rajapaarvai, 1981—not in Vasantha, but in Ramani, its tonic-shift equivalent.) However, Ilaiyaraaja, in his typically inventive way, has elevated this ancient and time-honoured tradition to the level of an intellectual game. In this essay, I will try to give the reader a glimpse of his achievement on this front.

One of the earliest instances of Shrutibhedam in Raaja's work is the song Vaidehi Raman sung by S. Janaki in the movie Pagal Nilavu (1985). Here, he employs the technique in its canonical form. The song is a semi-classical one set to Kalyani. Raaja uses Eb as the tonic note: a puzzling choice, it would seem. The rationale for the key becomes clear towards the end of the first charanam, when he drops the Sa by a semitone, to D. The result is a change of the ragam to Hanumatodi (the 8th melakarta ragam). The swarams he assigns Janaki to sing in this ragam are truly wonderful. If you thought that was ingenious, wait, there is more to come. In the second interlude, there is a conversation in swaram form between the two ragams. Towards the end of this interlude, Janaki sings a set of swarams using the notes Sa Ga1 Pa Ni1, ending it on Ga1. It is immediately followed by a line in Mohanam! Raaja has effected another scale change: taking the Ga of Hanumatodi as the Sa yields Harikhambhoji (the parent ragam of Mohanam). The interlude concludes on the tarasthayi Sa (F) of Mohanam; the second Charanam, in Kalyani, starts at its tonic note, which is a tone lower at Eb. For Raaja, Vaidehi Raman must have been an etude in this art—indeed, he has seldom repeated this artifice. And an artifice it was, since shrutibhedam required the singer to call the listener's attention to a tonal shift through the articulation of swarams. Such constraints would straitjacket the technique exclusively to the genre of semi-classical music. Surely, there was more he could do... 

A profound aspect of Indian classical music is the fact that ragams are not a mere succession of "kosher" notes, i.e., they cannot be reduced to combinatorics. Each ragam has its own characteristics: among others, its vadi and samvadi notes, its vishesh prayogams and sancharams. These features provided Raaja with a fertile ground for his experiments, the first of which, in my experience, was the song Siriya Paravai from Andha Oru Nimidam (1985). Here is how the song proceeds. The prelude of the song is in A minor1. The pallavi, however, is in Charukesi with E as the tonic note. The first interlude is again in A minor, while the first charanam uses the minor scale without Dha. In the second interlude we revert to Charukesi, a fact brought to the fore by the swara-singing of the chorus. The charanam that follows is vintage Charukesi and uses a different structure from the first charanam. Raaja then employs a third charanam, which has the same structure as the first charanam. What is going on? Taking the Ma of Charukesi as the Sa yields Gowrimanohari. Thus the alternation between A minor and Charukesi in E amounts to modal shifts of tonic. The whole song has the structure of two alternating ragams —a third charanam in this song somehow provides a certain symmetry to the whole. To my knowledge, such maneuvers were unprecedented in film music. Wonderfully melodious as the end result was, it was the experiment of a brash young composer. Almost a decade later, when Raaja returned to this raga-pairing, it was in a much more somber setting. For the song Anbe Vaa Arugile in Kili Pechchu Ketkavaa (1993), he used an initial humming segment in Charukesi (E) and the whole song was now rendered in Gowrimanohari (A minor). 

Using the Dha of Shubhapantuvarali (45th melakarta) as the tonic note yields Chalanaattai (36th melakarta). Raaja has always been interested in these two ragas, albeit for different reasons. Apparently, songs in Dhenuka-Shubhapantuvarali were integral ragas in Tamil folk music, and were imbibed by him through, among others, his mother. The appeal is emotional—witness the songs Ayiram Thamarai Mottukkale from Alaigal Oyvathillai (1981), Koodap Porandha Selvame from Kizhakkum Merkkum (1998) and, more recently, Nethirundha Ulagam from Bharani 1999. The appeal of Chalanattai, on the other hand, must be cerebral and lie in its vivadhi nature: Raaja has shown a passion for dissonance. What was then more natural than that Raaja combine these ragas? So, we have an instance of such a pairing in the piece Don't compare in his non-film album How to Name it? (1984). A frenetic violin passage in Shubhapantuvarali (key: E) gets the number going. Seconds later, the motif appears, in the form of a Chalanattai gat in C. About 5 minutes of wonderful music in this delightfully dissonant ragam makes the listener forget the preamble; almost, for, having omitted some notes of the scale, we move to Suddhadhanyasi. He ends this little vignette on a foreign note, Ga2 (E). The reason: the solo violin begins playing, an octave lower, in Shubhapantuvarali in E. A somewhat more deliberate delineation of Shubhapantuvarli this time, before we get back to Chalanattai. For an unabashed admirer, like me, of dissonance and melancholy, this is mannah from heaven. 

In a piece entitled Composer's Breath in Nothing But Wind (1987) Raaja challenges our very perception of scales. The composition, a ragamalika performed by the flautist Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia accompanied by an orchestra, begins with a slow alap in Malkauns (Hindolam). Raaja uses Db as the tonic note. (On sheer statistical evidence, I am forced to anticipate pyrotechnics when he uses a sharpened or flattened key.) The gat, in Malkauns and set to adi talam, is a lovely little melody. The next ragam that Raaja chooses is Sohini (Hamsanandhi). Consider the two ragams: Malkauns is an audava-audava ragam (pentatonic scale) with the notes Sa Ga1 Ma1 Dha1 Ni1 Sa, while Sohini is a Shadava-Shadava Ragam (hexatonic scale) with the notes Sa Ri1 Ga2 Ma2 Dha2 Ni2 Sa. Clearly, they are not tonic-shift equivalents—indeed, they even have a different number of notes. To effect a change, therefore, one needs to make adjustments along two dimensions. First, and inevitably, an extra note needs to be added. Second, every note except Sa needs augmentation—much too much reworking from an efficiency viewpoint. Raaja provides a surprisingly simple and elegant resolution: he merely adds a note, C, and makes it the tonic note. Viewed on a sheet of paper, it is obvious that he gets what he wants. But, how does one convey this transition in an instrumental piece?2 Raaja accomplishes his goal in essentially two steps. In the first step, we hear the gat in Malkauns once, followed immediately by the same gat with C replacing Db. At this stage, Chaurasia plays the note Db in such a fleeting manner that unless one pays close attention to the music, one hears, as I always do, the pentatonic scale Sunadhavinodhini—I believe there is no Hindustani equivalent for this ragam—Sa Ga2 Ma2 Dha2 Ni2 Sa. Following a repetition of the gat in this scale, which serves the purpose of reorienting us to the new tonic note, the note Db is made prominent in its new role, Ri1. After a few bars in Sohini, there is even an alternation of the two scales that ends with the repetition of the notes C and Db. By this time, I hear them not as notes of Sohini but as two voices sounding tonic notes that are a semi-tone apart, blurring the fine line between melody and dissonance. (An appropriate example of the notion of "murcchana".) This composition is chock-full of twists and turns, and I have barely scratched the surface in this write-up.

An obscure 1988 movie called Illam features a delightful (but, sadly, overlooked) song Nandavanam Poothirukkuthu sung by SPB. It is an eminently hummable tune that surprised me by the choice of ragams involved. There is a janya ragam of Charukesi (26th melakarta) called Bhuvanaranjani, which is obtained by omitting Ri in both the arohanam and the avarohanam. The pallavi of the song is in this ragam (key: F). To my knowledge this is the first ever composition in this scale. The interludes are in Vakulabharanam (14th melakarta) with the second one featuring some wonderful horn work. (The 14th melakarta can also be thought of as the Janaka ragam of Bhuvanaranjani). Towards the end of the first interlude, we sense a change of scale, confirmed by the charanam, which employs the following scale: Sa Ri1 Ga1 Ma1 Dha2 Ni2 Sa. This ragam goes by the rather quaint name Bhagyasabari. (Some of you might know this ragam as the Hindustani Raag Paremeshwari, a name coined by Ravi Shankar, who must have been unware of its existence in Carnatic music.) Why did Raaja change the ragam so? The answer lies in shrutibhedam. The janaka ragam of Bhagyasabari is the 10th melakarta Natakapriya. Taking the Pa of Charukesi as the tonic note yields Natakapriya. One novel aspect of the song is that Raja does not change the tonic note—which remains F throughout—just the ragam. 

Taking the Pa of Kiravani (21st melakarta) as the Sa yields Vakulabharanam. Kiravani (the harmonic minor scale) is undisputedly a favorite of Raaja's. And, naturally, he has paired these ragas in his music. Consider the duet Chinna Poove from Kattumarakkaran (1995). The prelude to the song is in Kiravani (Db). The pallavi switches to Vakulabharanam in Ab. The Charanam is in Kiravani, but with a twist, for it starts out in C. The last line of the charanam is rendered in C, and repeated again in Db, so as to set up the possibility of going back to the pallavi to be rendered in Ab. 

One of the most misunderstood of Raaja's recent numbers is the song Nil Nil Nil from Paatu Padava (1995). I have seen it being variously described as a botched-up Vasantha or a Kalyani gone awry. Is it? Not by a long shot. There is a lot of method to this apparent madness. To begin with, Raaja has a prelude in Shankarabharanam (Db) starting on the note Ma1. Towards the end of this piece, Raaja lowers the scale by a semitone to C. When he starts singing, it is in Kalyani (key: F, and a tonic-shift equivalent of Shankarabharanam when rendered in C.) This part of the song prompts people to say the song is in Kalyani. The first interlude is in Pantuvarali and leads in to the charanam, which uses Ramani (it is easy to see why somebody would think this part is in Vasantha: tonic-shifts, again.) The third line of the song starts on Dha (Db), but it is on a scale lowered by a semi-tone. This line is rendered in Bhagyasabari (using E as the tonic note). The next line lowers the scale by a whole tone! The tonic is now D. We now have a couple of lines in what seems to be a derivative of Gowrimanohari (which is a tonic-shift equivalent of Natakapriya). When the charanam ends, Raaja raises the scale by a tone and a half to restore parity. 

The song Ival Yaaro from Raajavin Paarvail (1995) to me is a musical Mobius band3 of sorts. The song begins in Mohanam (tonic Db); by turns, a keyboard, a tar shehnai, and a flute show us the beauty of this ragam. The pallavi continues in Mohanam, using an added diminished sixth note as well (Dha1). The first interlude starts off in this ragam, but towards the end a flute plays what seems to be a combination of the notes Ga3 Pa Dha1 and Dha2. However, by now, I find it difficult to perceive it as this vivadhi scale. In particular, I begin to hear the Dha2 as Sa. What aids me in this reorientation is the fact that as the flute plays these notes, violins play a contrapuntal melody in Bb minor. We are being weaned away from Db Major. From this point, I hear the song in the Bb minor scale. The first two lines of the charanam are clearly in Brindavani (with Bb as the tonic note). By the time we get back to the pallavi, what used to be Mohanam is no longer so for me: the words Ival Yaaro in notes now translate to Ga1 Ma1 Pa Sa as opposed to Sa Ri2 Ga3 Dha2. To hear the pallavi in Mohanam I have to play the song from the beginning...

What has Raaja done of late? In the movie Kakkai Chiraginile (unreleased) we find a new feature emerging: modal shifts of tonic across songs. One of songs, Paadi Thirindha, is in Simmendramadhyamam (57th melakarta) and another, Ooroora Pogum, is in Mayamalavagowlai (15th melakarta). Taking the Pa of Simmendramadhyamam as the Sa yields Mayamalavagowlai. The first song employs G minor. Its mood is sad, but the sadness seems to have a subtext of hope. Its use of a flute and an acoustic guitar also textures the song to produce such an effect. The second song is in E minor and here the mood is sheer and unmitigated melancholy; Raaja uses Sverling (a close relative of the Saarangi) to underscore this aspect in the interludes.

Observe that to obtain true tonic-shift equivalence, the Mayamalavagowlai song should have been in D and not E. But, doing that would only give the listener a sense of dejavu. Hence the key change.

In the movie Sethu (2000), we have another pairing of songs, both of which are rendered by Raaja. The song Vaarthai Thavari Vittai is in Vakulabharanam (key: E, which seems to be Raaja's natural pitch) and the song Enge Sellum Indha Paadhai is in Kiravani (B minor). Like the previous case, here too there is a palpable difference in the coloring of sadness. 

The above list is merely exemplary, not exhaustive. Left out of the list, among others, are songs like Yaar thoorigai from Paaru Paaru Pattanam Paaru (1985) where Raaja seamlessly weaves Latangi in and out of the song, Vaa veliye from Paadu Nilave (1987), and Nethu Paathale from Kolangal (1995) which to me is made memorable by its use of Bilahari in a fusion jazz setting in the second interlude. In the final analysis, this much needs saying: mind games apart, all these songs are wonderful melodies and appeal to us at an emotional level.