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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

Kaatrai Konjam

Mudhal Murai

Pengal Yendral

Pudikkala Maamu

Saindhu Saindhu

Sattru Munbhu

Vaanam mella

Yennodu Vaa Vaa


Krubhakaran said...

was eagerly waiting for your review, Thank you. Will write more after reding it fully.

Krubhakaran said...

Very technical analytic review. great.

Shakthi said...

Good write up Suresh !

With so many layers of instruments and live orchestration, I just wish Illayaraja gets to work with the best sound engineers. I felt that the NEPV songs could have been mixed much better (especially the parts beneath the vocals), then the tracks would have sounded even more grand !

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Krubhakaran - Thank you :-)

Shakthi - I am sure he had better Engineers this time. Yes, it does sound quite dense. There wasn't enough space created between layers, but they might have done that deliberately. Everything sounds fine with mellow songs, but when we have guitars, drums along with the symphonic orchestra, there seems to be a problem.

Of course, all the songs sound perfect when I listen to them directly from CD on BOSE speakers. The sound is a problem only when I listen to the songs in compressed forms on smaller speakers or on Radio. I feel Mudhal Murai or Sattru Mundhu wouldn't sound really effective on Radio or laptop speakers. I don't know how they test the sound quality after the final mix. I am assuming that they would play it on best quality audio system available in the recording studios. They should also test it on Laptop speakers to see if there is any loss in the impact of the song when heard on lesser speakers. They should make sure it sounds fine and balanced on both low and high end speakers.

Unknown said...

Suresh, nice write up. You have good listening (and observing) skills.

BTW, I am not able to read your blog from my android phone. It displays the page rendered appropriately for mobile, but when I try to scroll, it goes to the previous post.

And regarding the edited interludes of the songs, good idea. But I felt it could have been edited better without missing the timing. I will send you one sample edited version.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Sripathy Ramesh - Thank you.

And I didn't realize the problem that site has when accessed from mobile. Will do something to resolve this issue.

I got your edited clip of Mudhal Murai. Understood the difference - the amount of pause between sections is the key.

Sunil Malhotra said...

Flawless analysis Suresh Ji and same pinch for the sixth paragraph down!

In relation to playing the mainstay melody without ignoring the background instrumentation/orchestration, I personally feel that in certain respects I'm more likely to recall pre-/interludes when playing a particular song in my mind. This is highly apt for the portion of “Kaatrai Konjam’s” second interlude where the saxophone is backed by that enchanting piano riff. When playing “Kaatrai Konjam” in my mind, the first thing to hit me is this piece. More so, I think it can be considered the interlude of the year.

However, with “Saayndhu Saayndhu” it’s a totally different ball game. May be because the song begins on an a cappella note. Melody is everything here and haunts more than the interludes and backing orchestration. On the other hand, “Pengal Yendral” completely belongs to the chorus so much so that the song doesn’t require verses or interludes and the chorus can be looped end on. The vocal and chord progression in the chorus could be moulded into any musical genre.

If I had to pick a number where both melody and orchestration go hand in hand, then no doubt “Sattru Munbu” and “Vaanam Mella” take due credits, although the latter delivers more melodiously than orchestral. The prelude of “Vaanam Mella” is the second most haunting portion of the album, just tailgating the saxophone/piano portion of “Kaatrai Konjam’s” second interlude very tightly.

Whatever the outcome of this album is among the masses? We are indebted to Raaja Saab for squeezing multiple interludes within interludes. A complete rarity in Film OSTs!

After expressing what I feel were the most haunting interludes of the melody, it’s only fair that I express which melody haunts most. By far it has to be the “Charanams” (Verses) of “Yennodu Vaa Vaa”. I see myself humming this and the chorus of “Saayndhu Saayndhu” more and more daily.

With regards to testing an audio on laptop speakers, I think it’s a very wise motive because 75% of the times you can hardly the bass and pads until you whack on a pair of noise isolating headphones.

Sunil Malhotra

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Sunil Malhotra - Thank You :-)

Yes, that Sax interlude in Kaatrai Konjam is easily the most memorable instrumental interlude of the soundtrack.

Saindhu Saindhu melody is tight and solid, rich with emotions. The orchestration hear does the job of creating the ambience - night, rainfall etc.,

Pengal Yendral - Chorus??? I thought it belonged to Guitars.

Scottish bagpipes is Vaanam Mella is a huge surprise for me. Didn't expect Ilaiyaraaja to use such instruments. Even the melody too has that scottish flavour. But, the singing is quite terrible in Vaanam Mella. The melody looses some of its charm because of the poor singing.

Vaanam Mella, Pudikkala Maamu and Kaatrai Konajm have amazing preludes.

Can't agree more on the Yennodu Vaa Vaa charanam. What a solid melody! And that is why it works amazingly well even when the song switches to Synth mode.

Sound mixing is quite a vast topic. Someday, I wish to write an elaborate post on this. I wonder how they mixed 80s Ilaiyaraaja songs most of them sound great (if the source is of decent quality) on all kind of speakers.

Unknown said...


I think Mastering department will take care of playing back the song in all kinds of speakers and headphones, stereo and mono, etc. So that will already been taken care is my assumption.

One thing I noticed is that recent songs sound bad on Radio because they compress it a lot to make it loud on radio (search for loudness war). So everything is amplified including the silence and the noice levels and it sounds noisy. But on the same radio, the 80's songs still sound good. Probably the compression doesn't affect those songs? Or compression is not needed at all for the songs recorded in those days?

Aakarsh said...

Good one, although a bit unstructured I felt. The discussion seems to be moving from song# 1 to song# 2 to back to Song# 1 kind of format :-)

I am surprised at the omission of "Pudkele Mamu" and "Pengal endraal" - the 1st interlude of both of the songs being a tad different from the philosophy used in other songs :-)

Orchestration-wise, I am floored by the following pieces:

1. All interludes of Sattru Munbu - Kickass
2. 1st interlude of Kaatre Konjum
3. The sonata like interludes in Saindhu Saindhu
4. 1st interlude of Pudikele maamu
5. 1st interlude of Ennodu Vaa Vaa.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Sripathy Ramesh - Oh! I always thought Radio folks do a round of sound processing before playing a song on AIR. I have heard people saying that they get to hear some of 80s Ilaiyaraaja songs on much better quality on FMs.

Also, there is this problem of over burdening a song with unending layers of loops, rhythms and instruments, which when compressed, can only become a loud noise.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Aakarsh - It is unstructured. Yes. I wasn't trying to review the entire album here. Just wanted to discuss about few aspects of Ilaiyaraaja's orchestration which makes it work as well as it does.

Yes. If I had reviewed the entire album, which I wanted to but didn't, I would have mentioned all the songs.

There is so much to write about NEPV music.

1. The Choice of Singers
2. Sound Quality
3. Live Music in Dhoni Vs Live Music in NEPV
4. Lyrics and its impact on music when they both don't gel well


There is a key remark you made about Pengal Yendral in your review. You said, if the vocal is replaced by a solo violin it would become an amazing instrumental piece. I can't agree more. But, I feel more than the immature voice and off-pitch singing, the problem I guess is the lyrics which just couldn't translate the emotional and musical ideas without loss.

Aakarsh said...


Since I dont understand tamil, I cannot comment on the lyrics. But yes, it would be interesting to see the differences between "Live Recordings" of Dhoni vs. NEPV. Since he used same method of song recording for both these films, any differences in quality, must be attributable to the quality of orchestra (assuming that other other things - like recording theatre quality etc are constant). I know that this will overlook many other considerations such as situation requirements, director's vision etc. Still, we can come somewhat close to understand why Raaja goes for Budapest orchestra.

Aakarsh said...

Sripathy or Ramesh,

can you send me the Mudhal Murai clip that is being shared here.

Madan said...

Suresh, nice to read your write up/review. I had been searching for it on ursmusically, forgetting that you post all the new writeups on backgroundscore.com. It would be interesting if you can analyze the Sattru Munbu melody. It can trip anybody who thinks the pallavi is simple and then gets to the last note and....?

Certainly, the presence of the Budapest orchestra AND the fact that it was recorded in London both made a huge difference to the recording. We have to infer from this, perhaps uncharitably, that whomsoever Ilayaraja employs to mix his records doesn't do a great job nor is that aspect a speciality of this otherwise frighteningly versatile composer. Sattru Munbu might be the most dynamic, detailed recording in the entire Raja canon and to think it has happened, what, 35 or more years into his career as composer.

Whatever, it's great to hear the king roaring again...though I think he has in any case been coming up with some great tunes every once in a while, irrespective of public reception. I agree with your review....Ilayaraja's trademark is to dazzle the listener with mindboggling details without creating an intrusive or irritating sound.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Aakarsh - Obviously, the music “sounds” better, rich and lush when recorded with a symphony orchestra, but what is puzzling is the techniques I talked about in this post is very much there in Dhoni songs too, which weren’t recorded with a symphony orchestra. Dhoni songs are not as densely as that of NEPV.

I don’t understand what Ilaiyaraaja means when he says that he gave this (NEPV) music (implying that it is superior) because Gautam Menon told allowed him to record the music anywhere he wanted. What does he mean by that? He will write such intricate orchestral parts only if he is given the freedom to record with musicians from London and Budapest. Come on, haven’t he written recorded far more complex songs and orchestral pieces which were performed and recorded by our local Chennai musicians?

I love NEPV music, but somehow I feel, few years down the line, I would go back to Vilayaatta Padagotti from Dhoni more than to any of the NEPV songs.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Madan - I am surprised to know that someone is still checking ursmusically blog.

Sattru Munbu has a very interesting song. It is an orchestral feast. It is arranged like a song made for a full-on musical. The overall contour of the song with all its unexpected twists and turns, up and down movement is dramatic and intriguing. The song reminded me Idhayamae Idhayamae from July Ganapathy.

I am curious to see how Gautam Vasudev Menon visualizes this song. After all, Gautam is the kind of director who simply made Simbu and Trisha go for a cool bike ride on East Coast road, when Mannippaya breaks into an operatic Thirukkural based interlude. I would be really surprised if Gautam’s visual reaction to the music in Sattru Munbu is any better than Reema Sen’s reaction when Abbas instead of Madhavan appears as Rajeev in front of her in Minnale.

Anonymous said...

Come on, haven’t he written recorded far more complex songs and orchestral pieces which were performed and recorded by our local Chennai musicians? - They could, but I am not sure if it would be as dynamic. There are some portions of the Sattru Munbu interludes that are ultra soft, coming right behind ultra bombastic portions at that. I have never heard anything like that before in Ilayaraja's music, not his previous orchestral feasts like Sangeetha Megam and not even Nothing But Wind. Ilayaraja observed in the 'interview' with Gautham Menon that those musicians understand this kind of music and have the discipline to play it exactly as he requires it. I have to agree.

Maybe because I also listen to a lot of Western music, I felt it much more strongly...but I am actually a bit disappointed Ilayaraja never tried anything like this all these years. To me, the Budapest orchestra really elevated the level of performance in the songs. Simple things like even the way the drummer plays on Muthal Murai. That syncopated groove is kickass, and yet he never plays it too hard, the feel is just right.

I would be really surprised if Gautam’s visual reaction to the music in Sattru Munbu is any better than Reema Sen’s reaction when Abbas instead of Madhavan appears as Rajeev in front of her in Minnale. - Hahahaha. Or, he might do to it what they did to Seer Kondu Vaa or Enathan Sugamo.

Madan said...

lol, my name is not appearing next to the comment above. Maybe I forgot to type it in the box, nevermind.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Madan - Yes. I understand the dynamics, especially, I can understand that with such musicians, you don't have to really much to do in Sound mixing stage. All the Sound engineer has to do is place the microphone for all the instruments correctly, record and mix without adjusting the volume levels of any of the instruments.

Maybe Ilaiyaraaja is talking about that. But, is it not the same Ilaiyaraaja who said, there is nothing called "collaboration" with a musician and that a musician just executes what he has written or created on paper.

I would like to hear more from Ilaiyaraaja about the difference that he talks about. I could not entirely understand. Does he writes differently - taking into the consideration the level of dynamics the foreign musicians can deliver - when he knows that the piece is going to recorded not with Chennai musicians.

Btw, where was Azhagarsamiyin Kudhirai title music recorded - Budapest or Chennai?

What is in or not in the paper when he writes for Chennai musician.

Madan said...

I doubt there is any collaboration with the musicians even when it comes to the Budapest set. But these are musicians who play the toughest classical compositions for demanding European audiences, so maybe Ilayaraja is better able to communicate his requirements to them through the score sheet. He mentioned something about how local musicians might say, "feel nalla illai saar" If that is true, it doesn't reflect well on our musicians, though it is not surprising because we don't necessarily place the composer on a supreme pedestal which is natural in the West. Such things wouldn't be countenanced abroad; the composer has written the score and the musicians play it. Whether they like the music they are playing or not is supposed to be irrelevant. You can argue over the merits or demerits of such an approach but as a composer, Ilayaraja obviously enjoys this approach more.

V said...


Interesting observations about "Sangeetha Megam", "Seer Kondu Vaa" and (Sweet surprise !!) "Enna Dhaan Sugamo" ! (Sweet surprise because I love this song - "Enna Dhaan Sugamo" - and feel this was an under-celebrated work of genius).


May be Raaja expressed his satisfaction in being able to use a full-fledged WCM orchestra to play with so many inter-twining tracks in this movie. If you may observe, the full WCM instrumentation is different from the classic 1980s Raaja instrumentation involving both Indian and Western instruments.

Vijay said...

The review of a true connoisseur.

I must say I was put off by the shift to synth pop in Ennodu Vaa. Now, I am trying to accept it. I am still not convinced. The live version was more interesting with distortion guitar.

Thanks for the nice catch of the Saxophone riff in Saindhu Saindhu. Any more catches?

The credit for the fresh sound of Saindhu Saindhu has to go to Gautham Vasudev Menon. One, for giving Raja new toys to play with. Two, guiding the orchestration and drawing the sonic boundaries by suggesting the use of guitar (even though this is a piano-heavy song.

Ilaiyaraja left to his own would probably have come up with a typical Raja song that is usually string-heavy like Kaatrai Konjam or Enna Solli Paduvatho with nostalgic instrumentation and not a minimalist masterpiece like Saindhu Saindhu.

Any more things you have noticed or have to say about the orchestration? Do a part 2 of the post if you need to.

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Vijay - Thank you.

Yeah, now you say that, I realize how easily the melody of Saindhu Saindhu and even the situation that it was made for demand for a Piano accompaniment.

There were some more observations I made but I tweeted about them, or added as comments.

I must put them all togather in another blog post. Will do when I get time.

Sarath Chandar said...

How was i not aware of this blog till now being a music fan? Great work Suresh. I can clearly relate to you!!!

P.S. Suresh Kumar said...

Thank you Sarath :-)

venkos said...

excellent review..but i am not able to listen to these scores, is it available some where else?