Thursday, April 28, 2011

In Conversation with Composer K on Yudham Sei Score


“Right in the scripting stage, Yudham Sei was decided to be approached musically by the director” – says K, the score composer of Mysskin’s Yudham Sei. That is how Mysskin approaches every film of his. Though Mysskin’s films never had songs that are indispensable, the background score has always played a very vital role in his style of telling of a story. Yudham Sei, a crime thriller left the impact that it did, thanks to K’s strings-heavy orchestral score besides other aspects. I liked Yudham Sei background score for most part, but there were few problems and hence some questions. And I decided to ask those directly to the man himself.

*spoilers alert*

A Cue as a Clue

The cue titled “A tale (Dark)” on the CD is used in the opening scene of the film, in which the key incident in the story unfolds. It recurs again, when for the first time, Dr.Purushoththaman’s family is revealed. And, I felt that recurrence of the cue particularly when the family introduces, could be a spoiler; it is the major clue to the whodunit puzzle. The music in the background clearly tells that the girl we see in the Purush’s family could be the unconscious girl sitting in the Auto rickshaw in the opening scene of the film. The Tale (Dark) theme diligently recurs again when the flashback episode begins. But, K trashes all these extrapolated theories of mine and explains his reasons for using the cue in the above mentioned scenes. “The cue, a tale (dark) was specifically placed in the beginning of the movie to get the viewer prepared for the rest of the story. It gives you a sense of darkness mixed with sadness which essentially is what the movie is about. When the doctor's family is revealed we play the same thing, with a small flute piece on top. So that forms what you can call the family's theme. The flute was placed there for the sympathy aspect.”

Making of Themes

The score has very well defined themes for various recurring situations in the film. The Tale (Dark) Theme, the Purush’s family flute theme – it is played when the family is first revealed in the film and used extensively to evoke sympathy throughout the flashback episode, Thirisangu theme - it is heard for the first time when we come to know that ACP Thirisangu (Selva) is heading the villain gang, Box (Pandora) Theme that plays whenever a box is found in a public place, “Next Lead” theme – it is heard for the first time when JK informs Commissioner that Purushoththaman’s family case has to be reopened and again when JK informs Commissioner about the dirt in the Ashok Nagar Police Station, Revenge theme – the Arabic flavoured strings piece is heard when the Family prepares to take revenge on all those who are responsible for their daughter’s death and it recurs when in the climax Dr.Purush and his wife march to kill the villains, Mysterious Murderers Theme – it is heard for the first time when we see a unknown person climbs the stairs, picks an electric saw and cut the arms of a victim, JK’s Piano Theme – that plays in every scene in which JK is alone thinking about his lost sister. K explains the process by which he could pull off such a detailed thematic score for the film.

“Work on Yudham Sei started roughly some six months before the actual shooting. I was present at almost all the discussion sessions right from the beginning. When the director and the ADs sat down and discussed various scenes and shots, I would note down important ideas that I think would probably work. The next day or a few days later, I would return to the director with some rough ideas and he would either approve of them right away or suggest some changes. This carried on till the end of the shoot. Towards the end we would put the music over the visuals and make changes according to the length or whatever else. This way most of the music was already decided. After we had the complete visuals, we (with director and team) sat and composed the other portions. You could say the spotting/composing sessions happened for a week or so. As far as the instrumentation is concerned, it is but natural to use certain things for certain situations. For JK's theme piano seemed to be the most apt choice. Having done most of the rough tracks, both the director and me decided it would be best to use a live orchestra. Mysskin is a person who loves the sound of a live orchestra and we both knew and decided that Synth sounds just wouldn't do justice to the score. Hence, live orchestra! Recording it was absolutely awesome. The orchestra was conducted by Mr.Yensone. It was 36 piece strong and had most of the usual players of the madras cine musicians group.”

Sound Mixing

The “Box” Violin theme is a nice idea. The recurring short phrase on Violin instantly builds a sense of curiosity. But, I felt that the way it was mixed with the film could have been better. It appears all of a sudden in the soundtrack in full volume. Maybe a slow and gradual entry of the theme into the soundtrack could have served the purpose even better (for example, the way Chevaliers De Sangreal gradually reveals itself when Robert Langdon traces the path to the location of the real Holy Grail in the climax of “Da Vinci Code”). Also, in general, the volume of the score in the film makes the film sound more melodramatic than it actually is, especially in the final act. It gives an impression that the composer has over-scored the film.

“The box theme was specifically done for the various 'box' scenes (scenes where the cardboard boxes were displayed in various public places). I've not seen Da Vinci code, so I'm not familiar with the scene you're talking about. Anyway, somehow the box theme and some other themes seemed good to us back in the mixing stage. Maybe they would have had some other impact if we'd done it otherwise! As a composer, I was involved with the mix, but to be honest I didn't ask for any major changes to the work the sound engineer did.”

Over-Scoring

There is music in almost every other scene where there are no dialogues. Sometimes, the music plays for no particular reason or rather reasons that are hard to decipher. When JK and his colleagues inspect Purushoththaman’s sealed house, there is too much build up in music as if something is going to happen, but nothing happens. Also, I couldn’t understand the use of Violins or maybe Cellos, when JK inspects Moorthy’s Auto-rickshaw or the music for the scene in the Tennis Court.

“Right in the scripting stage, Yudham Sei was decided to be approached musically by the director. Hence there's a lot of music. I don't think there was music for no particular reason in any portion. In Dr.Purushoththaman's house scene, the music was set to go with the lighting, the burnt house setting and the general idea that something bad has happened there.” So, there it is. The freaky music played in this scene is for what had happened and not for what is going to happen. “Auto-rickshaw scene, JK senses that something is wrong. Tennis court scene, it's a sort of thing for the two lecherous old men.” Yes, it was quite obvious, what with the camera lingering a little too longer than necessary on those two old men while they sip water and curiously watch the two girls playing Tennis.

Scoring Moments

There are moments in the film in which the score is the vital reason for the impact they had on us. In that Basement-Car-Parking scene, the deliberate silence maintained in the natural soundtrack is amplified with sustained strings in the score, and when the jump-out-of-the-seat moment happens, you can’t help but jump out of your seat. The effect wouldn’t be the same, if there were some percussions or instruments playing music loud while JK gently drives around the area and inspects.

There is an interesting conversation that happens between Harp and Strings in that bridge action sequence, though both music and the visuals follow the pattern of a similar scene from Anjaathey. K agrees. “Yes the harp aspect makes it similar to Anjaathey”. When Mahesh Muthuswamy moves up in the escalator and disappears in the blinding white light, the Cello that rises is uplifting and leaves us with a sense of hope.

But, that Cello piece in the end credits music, or the Box theme for that matters seem to be heavily inspired by some foreign film scores.

Inspiration

K has not even heard the pieces that Box theme is allegedly inspired from. “Most international films have strings as their basic element. Such a script, I feel, simply cannot have any other kind of music. Can you imagine psycho without the violins! I don't know why some people keep saying that the box theme is a copy of some international piece (I think from some Japanese soundtrack). I can assure you that I've never heard of it before. All the pieces in the film were inspired by the script first of all. No creation I believe can happen without some inspiration. It might be on purpose or otherwise. I believe the music of Yudham Sei is inspired by a lot of western classical music. I don't remember completely, but I think Predator and King Kong were given to me as references and tracks from the same were used as temps.”

A Song Composer Vs A Score Composer

“I was absolutely delighted and slightly worried at the same time because it's my first feature film. To be honest, the fact that there were no songs in the film didn't bother me one bit, I mean that thought didn't cross my mind at all. I'm not sure why though! I don't think I prepared myself in any special way. I listened to a lot of music, watched some movies, that's about it!”

OST CD

“I don't think any Audio company in India would be ready and willing to release the entire soundtrack on CD. Guess it's the same case with Yudham Sei. As it is no one buys audio CDs anymore. I would love to have the entire thing released. I hope to work on it soon.”

We are waiting K.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In Conversation with A.R.Rahman


The questions that I would like to ask AR, if I ever get an opportunity to interview him.


Composing a film score requires a thorough understanding of the medium of Cinema and the relationship of sound and music with the visuals. If background-music scoring is making music to moving images, then the process of making music for commercials is not much different from that of a feature film. Is it not? You have always said in interviews that the experience of composing advertisement jingles helped you a great deal in becoming a film music (songs) composer. Did jingle-composing experience also help you in writing scores for full length feature films? (If Rahman says, yes) How? Leo Coffee may not be the first advertisement that A.R.Rahman composed music for, but it is the jingle that brought on him the spotlight so bright so that Maniratnam could not help but notice. In Leo Coffee Ad, music is perfectly in sync with the visuals. What came first, in Leo Coffee Ad - visuals or music? Do you remember any other commercial for which you composed music after it was shot? That exquisite Asian Paints Pongal Special Ad?

Before you became film composer, you must have well known that in Tamil Cinema, unlike in Hindi cinema, the song composer is also the score composer of the film. How were you preparing yourself to be a film score composer before Roja happened? Were you listening to Hollywood film scores? Were you a film buff? What was the kind of films you were fond of watching before you entered films? What are your favourite Tamil films that released before Roja? You also worked as a musician in Ilaiyaraaja’s orchestra in the most prolific phase of Ilaiyaraaja’s career. You must have certainly played in a lot of background score recording sessions for Ilaiyaraaja. Did any of those sessions help you in understanding the art of writing film score?

Roja has a thematic score that diligently follows all the rules in the book. How much of it was because of Maniratnam? Do you remember any conversation that you had with Maniratnam before you started composing background music for Roja? What were his requirements? How difficult or easy was composing background score for Roja? Was there anything that you felt that could have been better in Roja background score when you saw the complete film for the first time? What is it and why? What, according to you, are the qualities of a right background score?

Could you elaborate further on what is the process you follow when writing score for a film? How many times do you watch a film before writing the score? How do you prepare yourself before starting to write the score for a film? Do you listen to all the songs you composed for the film again to draw some inspiration? How do you decide on whether a character needs to be represented as a leitmotif in the score? Do you start to score the scenes in the order in which they play out in the film? Or do you pick the critical moments from the film to score first?

In Indian film scores, mostly, the orchestral versions of the melodies of the songs become the background score cues. But, you have always composed new material for background score. How do you decide between using the melody of the song and composing a new melody for a character’s theme or a situation? What is the kind of discussions you have about the background score with the directors of the film? Do all directors actively participate in background scoring sessions? How do you prefer it to be? Do Indian film makers also use temp music, like it always happens in Hollywood, to communicate effectively to you what they want? Do you like this method of using temp music that directors use to ease the communication with the composer, or do you think it is narrowing down the options one could otherwise explore? Do you fully surrender to director’s vision even if you do not totally agree with their idea? Have there been any conflicts or difference of opinions?

Composing songs or background score - which is more challenging and creatively satisfying? “Anything that goes out of this studio must be good”, you have said that many times. In case of songs, you get a lot of time to think about each and every instrument used in each layer of the song and tweak it many times before you are convinced about the song as a whole. Usually, background score is done in the last-minute rush, before the release of the film. Do you get enough time to go for as many iterations of review and re-tweak the background score composed for the film? (You told that you completed the complete Endhiran score in 10 days and slept only 2 hours a day). Does your creativity suffer when you work in such hectic schedules? What is the minimum time you ever took for doing a background score for a film and the maximum time and for which films and why? Have you ever had to compose for the background score for more than one film at a time?

On what basis, you decide on whether a particular scene needs no music? What do you think is the significance of a silence that is deliberately written into the score of a film? How do you decide whether it is going to be thematic score or ambient score? Is it possible to be as quirky as you are in your songs in background score too? Would not that distract the audience? What genre of film or a scene excites you most when writing background score?

As a composer, the film that you compose music for may not always turn out the way you initially expected it be while listening to the story. It is easy to compose background score for good films. You had the privilege of working with some of the best of Indian film makers and films, but you also have worked in lesser films. Where do you get inspiration from for such films when the visual telling is not exciting enough? They often say that background score can elevate even an average film. Do you believe that? Can a bad film be turned better with good background score? Is it in such situations, you delegate the job of background score to one of your assistants like Pravin Mani, which you have done quite a few times. You said that, after watching the film Rang De Basanti, you decided to compose the background score yourself, though you initially thought of delegating it to one of your assistants.

You have done many period films. How important it is to restrict oneself to the sound of the period in case of period films? Like, in Rang De Basanti, you took a totally opposite route and used rock guitars for the scenes of the past. How did that happen? Whose idea was it? Have you ever accepted a film having the challenge of background score for the film in mind? If you had to do only background score for the films in the future, would that be okay for you?

You used a professional Symphony orchestra for the first time to record the score of ‘Legend of Bhaghad Singh’. Using Symphony orchestra for the score - Whose Idea was it - Yours or Rajkumar Santoshi’s? I am asking this because, the film Rajkumar Santoshi made just before LOBS also had a symphonic background score. Otherwise, what in the film makes you go for a symphonic orchestra for the score? Mostly it has been for either period films or Super hero films? Even in Meenaxi, you used symphonic score only for the Prague episode. Would you ever use a symphonic orchestra for a contemporary film? For example, say, can you imagine a Slumdog Millionaire or a 127 Hours with a full length symphonic score?

When you are creating songs in your style, you have the flexibility to add or remove layers of the track, stretch or shrink the piece, and try various combinations any number of times you want, but with a symphonic orchestra, once you have recorded the piece, that is it. Isn’t it? So, how different is the process, when the score is going to be recorded with symphonic orchestra? What are the challenges, advantages and disadvantages when recording a score with a symphonic orchestra? Almost all of your symphonic scores were orchestrated by Matt Dunkley. What is the role of an orchestrator? What do you tell an orchestrator when you leave a creation of yours for further development to someone else? How do you preserve your stamp in the piece, when a piece of yours is orchestrated by someone else? Because, when not recorded with a symphony orchestra, mostly you arrange and orchestrate your scores – for example, the grand orchestral pieces in Lagaan or Bombay theme, some of the tracks you regularly pick to perform in every symphonic Concert of yours are entirely arranged by you. You have told in many of your interviews that you don’t compose pieces to match with cuts and shifts in the visuals. How does this method of making cues work when it is a symphonic orchestra? Finally, when A.R.Rahman is going to recording a full length symphonic score for a film with his own KM symphony orchestra in Chennai?

You have used a lot of tunes from your scratch-tunes bank as themes in background scores of many of your films, and some of these cues you later used for songs of other films. (The cue, which plays when Roja prays to Lord Ganesha for her Sister’s marriage, was later used in Telephone Manipol Sirippaval Ivalaaa song in Indian. The cue that plays when Roja speaks to her mother-in-law over the phone after Rishi is abducted, soon became the song Rakkoli Rendum Mulichirukku in the film Uzhavan.) And this has happened even in your recent films. Does this happen often because, you feel a good melody is unnoticed by many, when it becomes a part of the background score? Do you feel that there is a lack of recognition for background scores in India? Then, why not release these background score pieces as a part of the soundtrack CD? It happened for all your films this past year. Can we expect that to happen for all your films in the future?

There is a vast fan base out there, who would like to listen to your film scores in good quality. You can easily see that there are hundreds of sites where you can download the background score pieces ripped from the DVDs of the film. Do you have any plans of releasing a compilation of themes from your films on CD? Are there plans for a symphonic film score concerts (like the one you did in London) in India? Are you aware that National Awards committee has included a separate category for background scores? What are your thoughts on the institution of separate National award category for background scores?

In my site, www.backgroundscore.com, I conduct background score quizzes. I post audio clips of themes and cues from the films and the readers would guess the film by listening to the clip. Shall I conduct a small BGM quiz now for you, sir? It would be fun to witness how AR reacts to his music, while trying to guess the film. Just 5 cues.