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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Maestro's Malleable Motifs

Maestro’s Malleable Motifs

Version 1 – With a melody on flute fluttering its way over a tense layer of strings, the theme breezily emerges on soft yet dense strings. No accompaniments or counter melodies. Ilaiyaraaja hints the love theme just for the literal mention of the word “Love”. But, don’t we Tamil film watchers know from the very beginning what the two would end up being?

Version 2 – A relaxed evening at a Sea shore, Love theme on Saxophone

Version 3 – Love theme on piano - the one with most romantic sound of all instruments

Version 4 – The romantic twang of a Guitar supported beautifully by tender tinkles on bells

Version 5 – Love theme on Strings, again, but with additional supporting layers this one is quite different from Version 1

Version 6 – Love theme on Strings, but with deeply emotional chords this one is again totally different from Version 1 and Version 5

Version 7 – The love theme is modified just to an adequate extent to make us sense the hideousness just like how their love is kept hidden from the lovers themselves in the film.

Version 8 – Tickling the romance on tinkling bells.

Version 9 – Just the first few bars of the theme stated on strings

Version 10 – Love is in the air. Theme on Slow strings. The theme is played in a tempo much slower than that of Version 1 and Version 5, and sound far breezier than the other two versions.

Version 11 – Contemplative version on Piano where every key is hit with deliberate hesitance

Version 12 – The theme gets an exhilarating prelude, and soothing beats join in with velvety strings to create the most enchanting version of the theme.

Version 13 – A playful version with theme playing taking on a totally shape and form on a Saxophone

Version 14 – The hyper energetic and ecstatic melody running on piano and soaring strings race to quickly hit and hint at just the opening bars of the main theme

Version 15 – Phrases of the main theme played with longer pauses in between. Love is stuck.

Version 16 - How can a film with Ilaiyaraaja’s background score be complete, without the theme getting its moment on a Solo violin?

Version 17 – A flute joins in like a healer to the pain evoked by the Solo violin in this version.

Version 18 – Love theme in its entirety on somber strings

Version 19 - Love is in danger, Ilaiyaraaja uses just the first four notes of the theme to suggest that

Version 20 – The love theme on breezy strings again, and they lived happily ever after.

Version 21? – I could sense traces of the main theme in this piece, but I am not sure. This piece appears as the background longue music played in the restaurant in the beginning of the film. Is this piece a Jazz version of the main love theme?

I have written different theories to defend the composers who choose the melodies of the songs of the film to create background score cues.

Theory 1: Songs - at least those that are composed by composers, who put film maker’s vision above everything else - are now an integral part of the film’s narrative. The composer completes half of the film’s background score when he completes composing the songs for the film. These are songs made specific to the given situation of a given film and they cannot be used in any other situation of any other film. Composer need not break his head to compose new themes while writing the background score.

Theory 2: In Indian films, during the background music scoring stage, a composer would already have written all the songs of the film and would exactly know where each song is placed in the film. He would now have a clearer idea about the context and function of all the songs in the film. One of the most common scoring methods is using the melodies of the songs in the background score for scenes before, or for the scenes that immediately follow the actual song. There is no harm in this technique, as the song itself was conceived and composed for that specific situation in the film.

Composers may sometimes decide to write totally new musical themes without using melodies from any of the songs that were already composed for the film. Composer would write distinct themes for principal characters, for recurring situations, place, action and emotion. These themes would undergo a lot of variations in its form and shape along with its subject, throughout the film.

A composer composes the songs for the film even before the film is made. Though the songs are composed based on the characters and the situations in the film, with the strict 6-songs model in place, there is not always enough room in a film to create and use songs for all the principal characters and pivotal situations. For example, villains get no songs in Indian films. If a composer wants to trace the emotions and characteristics of a villain, there is no song’s melody to fall back on instantly. The composer must create a new theme for the villain character, which he could hint, develop or modify along with the way the antagonist’s character progresses in the story of the film.

However, I was always bewildered by Ilaiyaraaja’s penchant for writing new themes when he already has songs that he composed for the characters and their emotions. Last week, I was listening to Ilaiyaraaja’s exquisitely romantic background score for a mediocre film that has at least twenty different versions of the main love theme, and it suddenly struck me. I think I know why for some films Ilaiyaraaja chooses melody of the songs of the film for the background score, and for some, writes entirely new music material.

He creates a new motif for the background score because the melodies of the song that Ilaiyaraaja composed for the film may not be malleable enough to create varied orchestral versions to use them throughout the film. Most of these new musical themes that Ilaiyaraaja writes are made of short phrases which could be shrunk, stretched, transposed between octaves, played at different speeds and easily played on wide variety of instruments. But, can’t any given melody be tampered with in any which way a composer wants, especially when the composer is Ilaiyaraaja? I am not sure. Ilaiyaraaja picks the melody of a song from the film when it in itself has this malleability; otherwise, he creates a fresh malleable motif that he could comfortably play with for the background of the film. Keeping the phrases short could also be because of the length of the shots on which these themes must be played throughout the film. The theme should be short enough to be hinted at in a shot running just for five seconds, and also have the scope to be extended or developed when the shots are longer. Even if the melody as a whole is longer, the first few bars should have the ability to reveal the theme’s identity and the key emotion. It cannot go on and on to reach its inflection point. It should be short, crisp and make its point quick. To me these decisions seem to be made more for the mathematical precision than the emotion, though the emotion is always taken care of.

Hence in Mouna Raagam, Ilaiyaraaja, instead of using melody of the songs “Nilaavae Vaa” or “Mandram Vandha” for all those moments between Mohan and Revathi, goes for a new musical theme. Also, the songs are composed for a specific mood of the moment, but the theme in the background score has to accompany the journey the characters embark on while their relationship evolves from Point A and reaches Point Z. The theme should be able to evoke all the varied emotions they go through in the midpoints of the journey. I don’t think the melodies of “Nilaavae Vaa” or “Mandram Vandha” is capable of doing that. Whereas in Kaadhalukku Mariyaadhai, which is a straight forward love story, where the relationship between the two in love remains the same throughout, Ilaiyaraaja sticks to the main melody of the key romantic song of the film. But, the love theme of Ninaivellam Nithya which too is a straight forward love story contradicts my theory about Kaadhalukku Mariyaadhai. Ilaiyaraaja composes three astounding melodies “Neethaanae enthan pon vasantham”, “Rojaavai”, “Pani Vizhum” and yet composes a totally new love theme for background score of the film. I guess, in Ninaivellam Nithya, Ilaiyaraaja wanted to differentiate the love story from other love stories by creating a theme emphasizing on the backdrop of the love story – the mountain village. The tribal folk rhythm creates a unique identity to the film and the love story though the story itself is terribly cliched. Like I always say, all of these are just my theories; the real reasons could be entirely different.


saturan said...

Suresh you just made my day. Again a fantastic depicture.

After long time i was just listening to kadhal kavidai and surfed the net.And I was wondering how come a such a beautiful album can be easily forgoten. I came across your tweet and opened the link suprisingly most of the themes are from kadhal kavithai. This is sheer bliss. The coincidence gives me goose bumps all over.

thank you Suresh

thank you suresh

Anonymous said...

My theory is that it depends on the situation of the film. If the situation the song is composed for repeats throughout the film or is the fulcrum of the movie, Maestro will modify the song's theme and play it throughout the movie.

If the situation the song is composed for is separate from the storyline, then he will compose a new theme to emphasize on the storyline.

There are also other factors like how powerful the emotions of love are expressed. If the original song isn't able to convey the emotions expressed in the movie itself, then he usually opts for a new theme as well.

In a way you could say the Maestro has very good analyzing skills when it comes to understanding the emotions expressed in the entire movie and the scene to scene transition.

Aakarsh said...

A wonderful example. I never knew ilaiyaraaja composed scores in which the pieces had so many variations of 1 piece. I heard piece where there were just 2-4 variations, but 20!!! This must be one amazing instance!

Good post Suresh!

Vivek said...


Thanks a lot.

To all his admirers and distractors,thanks for bringing him more and more close to me.

I am indebted to you all equally:)

Unknown said...

Nice compilation and nice captions Suresh. It is interesting how he comes up with so many variations. Other themes with so many variations: Kadhalukku Mariyathai love theme, Mouna raagam mohan theme, punnagai mannan theme, etc.

Anonymous said...

Hi Suresh,

I have a request for you.

Could you please write a post on Ilayaraja's Shiva (1989) BGM. I think
in Tamizh, the movie name is "Udayam".
It will be amazing to listen to your views on the BGM.

I personally believe the sound track could have been used for any Quintin Tarantino's movie.