Illayaraja – The Sensation – I


I have a lots to say about IR. I think it was some 15 years ago that I first had heard a song that he made. This was the time when VCRs were around, so one of my dad’s friends had given us a video tape that had the song “Nilavaee Vaa”  from the movie Mouna Ragam. I was barely in my teens then, didn’t know tamil, but as i heard this song, my mind was captured to the intricate style in which he orchestrated the song. The sequence, parts layout, harmonization,chord usage – everything was superb ( something  tha I”ve never heard before at all. I immediately wanted to get more and more songs from the same composer, but since my tamil knowledge was limited, and most of the students and friends I knew never had an interest for his music(they themselves were probably in the same boat as I was). Days and years passed by, still I didn’t have much on IR, but I used to hear songs from him frequently – not knowing  that those songs were again his compositions. My next reaction to getting his songs came from “Oliyum Oliyum”,  I had quite a hard time ‘judging;’ his music because my benchmark was a song like Nilaavae Vaa only. I was spellbound to later realise that he has surpassed so many laurels and composed for so many films.

There’s one particular incident that took me 6 yrs to get that song. This song was featured many times in Oliyum Oliyum, but since I didn’t know to read tamil, i couldn’t get the song. I used to faithfully check every broadcast of the programe. The strings arrangement on this was fantastic. IR’s knowledge and his dexterity to use strings (and wind percussion) remains unbeaten. I went to Malaysia as a part of my work and there found the name of the movie that the song was in and finally got the song. It is called “santhosham endra santhosham” sung by S.Janaki for the movie ” Manithanin Marrupakkam” . By this time i began to understand what to look for or to expect from an IR number, and i was getting used to his style of arranging/scoring. It really helped me because i was a great listener, and a growing musician. It’s  a different thing when you know  to sing a song and a totally different thing when you know to play that same song. It’s as if you are going through the same emotions and feelings that the composer had when he was creating that song. from then on, I slowly started to take interest in all his compositions. I even went to purchase VCDs of movies where his songs were hits, just with these songs the movies that had them were hits too. His improvisation knows no bounds..for example take the BGM of Mouna Ragam, this (in popular circles) is loosely connected to the soundtrack of the hit English movie – Flashdance. Giorigo Moroder did the original soundtrack for the movie. If you listen to the soundtrack of Flashdance and then listen to the BGM of Mouna Ragam, you can notice a common thread, but that’s all that you’ll notice. The common thread being the feel and the tempo of the music there.  IR composed something to that effect but a totally different chord progression and feel to it.

I am an 80s freak, I love both Tamil music and English music of the 80s. As my knowledge slowly started to increase about IR, i started a journey to collect his masterpieces (it’s still an ongoing process) and I discover that each of his songs have a story to tell, be it the simple – Kanae Kalaimaanae or the gusty Illamai Idho Idho…the way he composes, the way he arranges, the way he chooses what instrument for what part, the octave it should be played, the positioning of the same in the stereo field (instrument panning), how effects can be applied, and how much of it’s application help a song, what all instruments need effects and what effects to use (based on the feel of the song), to give a striking example, take the song “Panni vium malar vanam’ from the movie “Nineivellam Nithya”. This song has a fast feel to it and just after the introduction has been played and as the song starts off, there’s an electric guitar being played (strummed) that catches your ear. This guitar has a unit attached to it, this unit is called a Phaser and it modulates the clean electric guitar tone to make it sound as if it’s coming out of a rotating tube, more like how you see waves on a sea shore, couple that Phasesr to a compressor and a chorus, you get beautiful tone.  This effect was necessary to give that song a raunchy feel, if you play the song without that effect, there’s something missing – and the clever part here is that the frequency of these waves is matched to the tempo of the song. His knowledge on harmony is remains unbeaten, his 500th film Anjali is a treat for every musician. The intricate arrangements in  the title track Anajali is such a delight, he makes it look as if all the instruments ‘talk’ with each other as in , these instruments are correctly panned left/right and have different parts to play, so as one part is over, the next part starts up from the right and then left, sometimes together. (as heard in the II BGM of Anjai and II BGM of the song “Singalathu Chinna Kuyilae”  from Punnagai Mannan)

The way he arranges strings/violins makes you happy or sad, as in the songs – Sandhosham endra Sanshosham from the movie Manithanin marrupakkam, or Idhayamae (title track), the other point to be stressed is that wind percussion is probably one of the difficult parts to play as it’s played by humans. Unless you have proper breath control, proper wind pressure, you cannot play percussion, especially when it comes to fast notes at fast tempos also slow (long notes) where you have to hold. It’s also tough to get wind percussion play at any octave as these instruments depend on wind pressure to sound, so if there’s no adequate pressure from the player, trumpet hits wont have a punch. For every wind instrument, there are a variety of options that come along,..for ex: in trumpets you have bright trumpet/solo trumpet/jazz trumpet etc…each of these leave a particular signature on the song.  Another reason why most people get instantly latched on to songs that are made by him ( or by composers of his time) is the authenticity and naturality of the instruments used, to be more specific, the tones used. Before the advent of modern digital recording,everything was analog, which means for a recording you’d have 2 tabala players, some more percussion players veena’s, violins,guitars etc etc, when these instruments get recorded, the sound that the instruments produce, the dynamics introduced into the environment, the recording ambience, the natural warmth of the instrument are all captured by the microphones and these are recorded as analog signals ( basically a change in voltage). Now with digital technology, (though its very very beneficial), the actual process of the whole chain of recording revolves around bits/ 0s and 1s. Though clarity and depth of each instrument tone has been reproduced accurately, the sharp shrillness of the new age instruments/samples/rack boxes seem to take a toll on our ears. You can hardly listen to a song more than 5 times with today’s music, whereas if you put a song like Sangeetha Megam or Paatu Thalaivan or Nee Oru Kadhal Sangeetham – you can play it for a long time, as the sounds there don’t irritate you or hurt your ears at all.

He’s probably the only music director to use everything that was available to him, even guitar effect units were not spared. His level of understanding harmony and  the knack of mixing the correct notes to give 2/3/4 part harmony is outstanding – a perfect example – rajja raajathi rajan – from Agni Nakshathiram. He brought in the bass guitar, an instrument that was only used in Western music into tamil films. Song that feature a lot of bass guitars – Devanin Kovil – from the movie Aruvadai Naal, ( the bass guitar plays notes that’s related to the melody in the background), there are different styles of playing for a bass guitar
,  you have fretless bass, slap bass,picked bass,acoustic bass and many more, IR has used all of them, particularly in songs like Raja Raja Cholan from the movie Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (Slap Bass), Pattu Ingae – from the movie Annanagar Muthal Thiruvu, Thumbee Vaa from the Malayalam Movie Olangal. All these effects/ style of playings/differences in arranging /chord inversions/rhythm changes were all just getting developed and were never heard in Indian music till IR came along. Today we have everything available to us, music production is more like making fried rice where you just throw in all the components necessary to make a sequence, add some effects and then vocals, polish the vocals with a touch of compression/eq and your song is ready. It has become so affordable that anyone who has a net connection and a decent fast computer can make music in seconds. If IR could do all this and much much more, (when nothing of this even existed as theories) then he is the king of music.  His music gives life to every frame of a movie, and as much as he makes music, he also does know the power of silence too. Apart from his music, lyrics also played an important part in shaping a movie, you don’t get lyrics that make you think these days, it’s just pure commercial logic that exists today. Take for example Poonkodi than – the song from the movie idhayam, analyze the stanzas, or any good song, can you ever imagine to get lyrics like that today ? or take Sangeetha Megam  from the movie Uthaya Geetham.

It’s true that you can’t contain someone like IR in lines like these or by blogs/websites etc, his music is the universe in which all of us live. He has done so much and achieved so much in music, that today most of us take certain things in music for granted. He is instrumental in creating fades ( where the volume of the track reduces over time) stuff like fade in , fade out and cross fades, he is also instrumental in creating stuff like intro sequences for a hero, musically creating empathy,pathos, etc. His arrangements are all tight, with different variations to a common rhythm pattern. The differences in rhythm create different arrangement opportunities for a song, the result of which you see in film where a song is sung in a a happy mood and the same song is sung as a sad slow song. His chord progressions are fantastic, the use of diminisheds,major 7ths,minor 7ths, added 9th/5ths/ etc and when coupled with root inversions (for bass), creates /lifts the song, a simple example – the introduction for Vaa Vaa Paakam Vaa – from the movie Thanga Magan, his use of the human voice as an instrument is also a new thing – the shining example being Raja Raajathi rajan – from Agni Nakshathiram and also the starting part for the song Devanin Koyil.

More to follow…

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