Friday, September 7, 2012
Neethaane En Ponvasantham - Orchestration!
The heart and soul of Ilaiyaraaja’s music for Gautam Vasudev Menon’s Neethaane En Ponvasantham lies in the Orchestration. It is not just the preludes and interludes (as expected, interlude stands on its own as a mini symphony with its own motif and its variations); even the vocal portions are heavily supported by the orchestra with many layers of instruments parading one after and one over the other playing supporting and contrapuntal phrases. The immensity of details that Ilaiyaraaja plants in the orchestration of the song is mind boggling, and these details, even if a listener is not really conscious of its presence cannot escape from experiencing the resultant effect.
I am still wondering why Ilaiyaraaja chose to split the song Yennodu Vaa Vaa into two halves and treated each half differently; Raaja writes a symphonic orchestration for the first half, but strips off all that is acoustic from the second half and leaves it entirely to Synth. If it is to demonstrate the difference between lovers now and then as demanded by the script, it is interesting that Ilaiyaraaja explicitly says something by retaining the melody as it is and changing only the orchestration. Musically, I don’t know if it is a valid case to compare and discuss, because, in the first half, with a live orchestra, Raaja stuffs the song with multiple layers of instruments, but he practices a deliberate restraint when the song switches to Synth mode. The melody is allowed to play on its own with a very minimal Synth backing (just a Synth bass I guess) and a pounding electronic pad. I don’t really miss the symphonic orchestration in the second half, for it gives the melody a breathing space and a chance to flaunt its beauty on its own. Even if the entire song were set to Synth I would have hummed, whistled and played the song on loop in my mind as much as I do now.
However, now that I have heard the songs with all those accompanying acoustic orchestral layers, I cannot play just the melody of the song in my mind. The orchestration feels immensely innate to the main melody that when I try to play the song in my mind, all the orchestral layers almost always accompany the main melody, like that Guitar riff (not the main guitar riff) from Saindhu Saindhu that accompanies the lines en thaaiyai pola oru pennai Thedi or that stirringly subdued, brief rise and fall of a dense strings section when Karthik goes thalli thalli ponaalum unnai enni vazhum oru yezhai endhan nenjathai paaradi (that Oboe piece is jarring though) in Kaatrai Konjam.
The melodies of Mudhal Murai Paartha Nyaabagam and Sattru munbu depend a lot on the backing orchestration to evoke the basic mood and emotion of the respective songs. I am not sure if the melody of the line manadhinil yeno or baaram (from Mudhal Murai) can convey the heaviness of the heart the girl is screaming about without that orchestral backing where a hefty strings section aggressively ascend along with the melody. The mad rush created by the drums and strings in dramatic turn the song takes through veyila mazhaiya vazhiyaa sugamaa yedhu nee to hit the high before it breaks into Neethaane En Ponvasantham hook section - this song wouldn’t be as effective without the live orchestration.
Ilaiyaraaja seems to be cautiously introducing the changes in the orchestration in a regular interval in the songs, so that, even though the orchestration changes relentlessly throughout the song somehow listeners know when to expect the next twist or turn. This helps a great deal in not alienating a listener. The element of surprise is very important in orchestral music that could instantly intrigue a listener. Ilaiyaraaja quite effectively manages to give these orchestral surprises without alienating the listener.
I don’t know if it is to avoid sounding repetitious or to impart a new sound, but Ilaiyaraaja does seem to be deliberately avoiding flute and chooses other instruments of wood winds family in its place in most of the songs. So, in an interlude in Kaatrai Konjam, when a flute slowly emerges amidst other instruments, as if travelling a long distance to find its place in the overall scheme of orchestra, I was expecting it to blossom into a full-fledged piece, but Ilaiyaraaja doesn’t yield to the temptation and chops off the flute before it takes a definite shape and overpowers everything else. Emotionally too, this seems to be a moment of nostalgia that was long lost, that seems to have come back to haunt us again, but we are so busy dealing with the things of the present, before we could get entirely engulfed by it, we just forget and move on. Ilaiyaraaja deliberately creates a mystery, leaves it unresolved and keeps us waiting for something to happen that never comes by. I get immensely intrigued by such drama in the orchestral pieces.
There is a natural flow in the song, a sense of coherence and fluidity though the songs break into varied sections of vocal stanzas and instrumental interludes. All of it feels magically glued as one whole entity because of Ilaiyaraaja’s orchestral ideas.
In Saindhu Saindhu, after the first charanam, Yuvan reprises the pallavi and precisely when he is about to end, a Saxophone emerges playing a pleasing phrase and this leads us to the instrumental interlude. The flow is achieved by beginning the beginning of the next section just before the previous section ends, but the fascinating aspect here is that the connecting piece – like the Saxophone piece here – fits the ending of the end of the previous section with amazing musical precision and also naturally reprises in the following instrumental interlude as if it was born and always belonged here. I thought that Saxophone connector piece did its job well and I bid a goodbye, but it is heard as instrumental filler between the vocal lines in the pallavi when it reprises again towards the end of the song. Surprise! Again! The number of ideas that Ilaiyaraaja executes within what on surface sounds like a minimally orchestrated six-minute song is unbelievable.
The first instrumental interlude in Saindhu Saindhu ends with a new guitar riff (quite different from the main guitar motif of the song), and while we think it is part of interlude, Ilaiyaraaja continues to loop the guitar riff as a supporting instrumental layer in the continuing charanam as well. This way he never abruptly cuts off from one section and jumps to other section of the song, always creates a connector that could do its job both as a lead solo in one section and the supporting melody in the other. All of these techniques sound very simple and natural and quite obvious while listening because we got so accustomed to these techniques by listening to Ilaiyaraaja’s music all these years.
In Vaanam mella, Ilaiyaraaja plays a looping supporting melody on Harp underneath the main melody throughout the main stanza, not just for the first time but also whenever it appears in the course of the song, which, I guess is the key ingredient more than anything else that evokes a sense of sweet nostalgia that the boy and girl are singing about in the song. It is the Harp that adds a sense of movement in the song and makes it livelier. In the final reprise, when the song is about to end, Ilaiyaraaja prepares us by suddenly stopping the Harp layer. We sense, though not consciously, that something we were continuously hearing has ceased to be, and we expect a change in the course of the song, which in this case, happens to be the end.
Also, in Saindhu Saindhu, there is a sense of perfect sonic balance and symmetry in the way Ilaiyaraaja opens and closes musical parentheses in the course of the song. The first interlude begins with a soothing string section playing a simple melody (reminds me of that sublime Pournami theme from Guna) without any other instrumental disturbances, after which the piece expands and moves on to other instruments. And we realize that that was the opening of a musical section only when he closes it quite logically at the end of the second interlude where again just the strings section without any other accompaniments play similar melody.
Even the signature guitar riff with which the song begins is reprised at the very end on strings to bring the song to a comforting closure. The whole main stanza Saindhu Saindhu reprises at the end with a totally new orchestral backing instead of its native guitar riff accompaniment, and while I was wondering if the guitar riff was gone forever, there it reprises again on strings section, when the song was almost about to fade out and die, giving a fitting answer to my question and an exhilarating sense of closure to six minutes of musical joy.
Now, what does that symmetry mean to an average listener? A sense of satisfaction that we inherently feel while listening to a piece of orchestral music could also be because of us intuitively experiencing the innateness, the precision and the clarity in the ideas of the creator that comes through the composition. There are no random music fillers or ambiguous musical ideas. When every single layer of instrument in the given piece of orchestral music feel like it is there for a specific definitive purpose, which it is serving with utmost diligence, you can’t help but fall obsessively in love with the music and the composer.
I have the habit of editing the songs like this with just the instrumental preludes, interludes and postludes of a song and play it in the background when I am at work
I did that for Neethaane En Ponvasantham songs too
Yennodu Vaa Vaa