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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Taare Zameen Par Background Score

The background score of ‘Taare Zameen Par’ is getting released along with the DVD of the movie. The soundtrack CD contains 22 background score pieces from the movie. And the ‘Making of TZP’ CD has some exclusive video of live background score recording sessions happened at Aamir’s residence in Panchgani. Sigh! Now I have to buy the whole DVD pack, if I want to have background score CD.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sound Effects Vs Music

For past six months, I have been listening to the complete recording music CD’s of Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The attached booklet that comes with this pack, analyze each piece in connection with the scenes in which it is used. And when I was reading the booklet of the score for ‘Return of the King’, I saw the lines that you can see in the below picture.

The Palantir – The Score

The Palantir – In the movie

The electronic sound effect does emphasize on something which the score doesn’t, it is the pull of the Palantir, it is the force with which the Palantir pulls the people who looks into it, close to evil’s eyes. So, who is the winner here - Sound effects or Music? Sound design is an art in itself and though it is widely known that it is not done by the background score composers, still there is some confusion about where exactly the line is drawn between sound effect and a background music score.

Recently I stumbled upon this interview of Satyajit Ray in which he speaks elaborately on Background music in films. He says,

In general, let's just say that whether you are going to use music or sound effects depends on the mood of a scene. If a specific sound effect is crucial, I don't even think of using music in its place. And when you are trying to control time, to maintain real or chronological time, I would say the less music there is, the better, though sound effects can help a lot in this instance. When time is broken up, by contrast, music helps to preserve a linear flow.

As Satyajit Ray is both a film director and a music composer, I don’t know under which hat he uttered those words. It sounded as if the composer is the one who chooses between sound effects and music for a scene. I think he must have told that sitting on a director’s seat as the director is the one who has control over all other departments and has the final say in anything and everything in the process of making the movie.

But when I think of sound effect as background score, a scene from ‘Mozhi’ came to my mind. In ‘Mozhi’ (one of those rare scenes in Indian Cinema in which they show composers doing background score for a movie), the character Viji, the keyboardist who plays in film recordings, says to his composer that he has special tone (not produced by any real musical instrument) to use in the scene exactly when the flower falls on the beggar’s plate. So, does a background score composer add little sound effects here and there like these in place of a background score? Is that what Satyajit Ray meant by Sound effects? Is sound effect is adding a sound byte in place of a background music which may not be actually an ambient sound needed in the scene?

While I was chewing this thought, I watched few movies in past few weeks which raised more questions on this topic.

‘Music as sound design’ – That is how Jim Emerson called the background score by Carter Burwell for ‘No Country for Old Men’. I initially got puzzled by reading this phrase in this review in Jim Emerson’s scanners blog, as I hadn't seen the movie. Much later I saw the movie on DVD and that phrase was not in my mind, and fortunately I had forgotten about it. As I was watching the movie, I was spellbound by the intriguing sequences coming one after the other – I was totally engrossed into the movie and not for a micro second I became aware of the absence of a musical background score. It is only when the music started to play in the end credits of the movie, I realised that the movie had no identifiable background score. And that brings me back to Satyajit Ray’s words from the same interview, he says

My belief is that, yes, a film should be able to dispense with music. But half the time we are using music because we are not confident that certain changes of mood will be understood by the audience — so we underline these changes with mood music. I would like to do without music if such a thing was possible, but I don't think I'll ever be able to do it. I will say that I have used very little music in my contemporary films and as much natural sound as possible.

So does it mean that Coen brother’s were so confident about their script and its execution, that made them to instruct Carter Burwell to not to use any music? Do they have achieved what Satyajit Ray thought as ‘if such a thing was possible’?

Carter Burwell says that he composed 15 minutes of music for background score of the movie, and he explains further about how they decided go for such an ambient score without any real music instruments or recognizable melody, here. (I think Carter Burwell should alteast have got an Oscar nomination in ‘Background Score’ category for achieving this rare-feet of giving no-music yet effective background score for ‘No Country for Old Men’. Infact, to everyone’s amazement, Gustavo Santa Olalla had won it for ‘Brokeback Mountain’ for his 15 minute score. But it is comparatively a more solid score with moody guitar strains sprinkled throughout the movie.)

No Country for Old Men – End Credits

No Country for Old Men – Jackpot

Back to Satyajit Ray’s words

Initially, I did feel that film needed music partly because long stretches of silence tend to bore the audience: It's as simple as that. With music, the scene becomes "shorter" automatically. And in certain types of films, music is a must unless you have a very rich natural soundtrack.

“A very rich natural soundtrack” and that brings me to Majid Majidi’s ‘Children of Heaven’. In this movie, though there is no score for most part, dramatic music score has been used for some of the key moments in the movie. Just as Satyajit Ray puts, the music score does break the long stretches of silence in this movie.

One of the most unforgettable scenes in the movie is the marathon running race in the climax. Ali runs in the race to come third in the race to win a new pair of shoes, which he can give to his little sister Zahra, whose shoes Ali feels guilty of having lost.

The marathon running race starts and for first few minutes, there are various shots of hundreds of boys running and shots of Ali slowly and steadily speeding up to the front. And at one point, suddenly when Ali looks forward, there is no one running beyond him and then he slows down and lets two boys to run ahead, so that he can be in the third position, but suddenly another boy who is so close, hits him and Ali falls down.

From now on, we don’t hear any music or other ambient sounds except for the panting of Ali and that is one of the most effective background score I heard in a movie. As the shots turns to slow motion, so does his panting sound. Then slowly the music starts to develop as we see that the four boys running closely to win over each other and nearing the winning post. Even after the music starts to play, the panting sound dominates like the main melody of the score.

Children of Heaven - Race

Is this sound design or background score? Is this what Satyajit Ray calls ‘A very rich natural soundtrack’? Whom should I give the credit for using the panting of Ali as dominant sound in that scene? Is it the music composer or the sound designer or the director?

Answer for Background Score - 37

This piece is from Azhaghiya Theeyae. Composer - Ramesh Vinayagam. It is used in opening credits of the movie. I am not sure about the exact genre of this piece, but many layers of vocals and instruments come togather to create a beautiful funphony.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Listening Guru

A.R.Rahman has won all possible Bollywood awards for his background score in Guru. Other movies of 2007 which had competent background scores are Cheeni Kum (Illayaraja), No Smoking (Hitesh Sonik and Clinton Cerejo), Blue Umbrella (Vishal Bharadwaj), Johnny Gaddar (Daniel B.George), Saawariya (Monty) and Taare Zameen Par (Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy). Being aware of the way these bollywood awards work, it is quite obvious and understandable why none of the other competent scores won in this category.

When accepting the Filmfare award for Best Background Score in Guru, Rahman said that background score is like an ornament which enhances the beauty of a film and he thanked Maniratnam for making such a beautiful film. And that is true in a sense that what made Guru to win over all other movies in this category is the visual material in Guru that provides ample space for the background music. Background score in Guru fills a deliberate void created by Maniratnam for Rahman to fill in wherever required. It is very evident from the very first scene of the movie, which opens with the older Gurukanth Desai talking about dreams and in which every line of his monologue is punctuated with the music of Rahman and poetry of Gulzar.

The preludes, interludes and the melody of the songs from the movie soundtrack are used in bits and pieces as a part of the background score. The coda of the song ‘mayya mayya’ is cleverly put as the background score of opening credits. The romance and union of Guru and Sujatha is aided with beautiful phrases of melody from the song ‘Ai hairathey yashiqi’ and slower version of ‘dham dhara’. A beautiful Shehnai piece that leads to this ‘dham dhara’ theme underlines the excitement of Sujatha when Guru agrees to take her along with him to Bombay. And the melody of ‘Barso re’ played so subtly with soft guitar strains, sounds so effective for the longing of Sujatha, when in the railway station, she requests Guru to take her to Bombay along with him.

The high decibel choir version of ‘Jaage hain’ is used when Guru goes to Turkey but I thought it should have been used when he returns to India, because that is when he actually starts dreaming big. Yet, cinematically, the spirited choir piece matches so well with the sudden relief, the freedom, and the liberty that young Guru feels at that moment and injects a fresh life into the visuals that makes a sudden shift from deep interior Indian village to Turkey. After the Turkey episode, ‘Jaage hain’ turns into a sort of a personal and emotional theme of Guru and aids to gain the audience’s sympathy for Guru. Jaage Hain (Flute), Jaage Hain (Piano), Jaage Hain (Kids).

Guru’s rebellious spirit, his business moves, his victories and confrontations with his enemies are enhanced by the energetic groove of ‘Gurubhai Gurubhai’ theme. The best usage of the theme is when Guru replies as ‘tha nahi, hey, aur rahegha, Gurukanth Desai’, when the contractor asks his name. The starting of the piece is precisely timed and so it immediately heightens the stature of Guru’s character in audience’s mind. Another scene where it is used in quite effectively is when Guru asks the people from justice department to come prepared for the inquiry. Lying in the bed, Guru slowly lifts his hand like saying a goodbye and the ‘Gurubhai gurubhai’ theme starts. Quite a formulaic timing but works big time in this scene.

Guru’s raise as a business tycoon has got a heroic trumpet theme. Though it appears first in the scene where Guru announces about opening a textile factory, it is played in its entirety when that shot zooms out to show Guru standing and looking at the building plan of his new factory in the middle of a vast landscape and it continues for the quick shots and photo shoots that follow to establish his enormous growth.

Meenu’s theme is cute, playful and beautiful. I am not talking about the additional song ‘Shaku hai’ here, which doesn’t work for me as Shyam and Meenu subplot itself didn’t gel quite well with the rest of the movie. By Meenu’s theme, I mean the staccato strings theme used to establish the relationship between Guru and Meenu. It appears first when Guru presents a saree to little Meenu. It is also used much later when Guru visits Meenu’s house and gets surprised by seeing Shyam in there as Meenu’s husband.
The Thapar commission inquiry scenes have synth and electronic sounds that matches with the urgency of Rajiv Menon’s camera. One thing I don’t like in Rahman’s background score is the use of Gregorian chants. It is used in the pre-interval scene where Shyam confronts and challenges Guru. While the concept and idea of starting with utmost subtlety and gradually increasing the volume level is good to underline the slowly tension between the two, the actual sound sounds alien.

Also there is one scene where Rahman misses timing, it isn’t big fault and most of us wouldn’t even notice it. It is in the scene in which the Contractor asks Guru to play golf. The funny part of the scene starts only when Guru picks the ball, walks and puts the ball in the hole, but the music starts even while Guru starts to think about how to put the ball in the hole. So it would have been much better if the music was put exactly when Guru picks the ball and starts to walk.

Though ‘Guru’ is not the best of Maniratnam-A.R.Rahman duo, Rahman has done enough justice to Maniratnam’s visual material with his background score.