Thursday, January 16, 2014

Guitar Prasanna about Ilaiyaraaja

Back in the late 90s, when the internet boom was picking up, there was a website for Ilaiyaraaja, in which there was a list of his discography, few articles and some sound samples. I have no clue who built it or maintained it, but it would have been good if they kept it up. Sadly, it no longer exists. It was the website which had some very interesting sound samples (back then, in an era when mp3 culture was still nascent) and I discovered some compositions there. Among the articles, there was one article by Guitar Prasanna, in which he tried to highlight some of the elements of Raaja's music and quoted some of his favourite compositions. It was quite an interesting read. Today, out of the blue, I remembered that article and felt like reading it again. Since the website no longer exists, I had to google up the article and found it in (only)two websites. I am not sure if those websites will also vanish some day and I thought I must have that article shared here on this blog, for some reference, some day. So I am copy-pasting the article here:


“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. (Raaja has 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 him quote 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 of chormaticism inIndianish’ 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 of mridangam, 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!

                                                                                                                 - Guitar Prasanna