Neethane en ponvasantham: a masterclass in dynamics

I have been going through a strange phase in life, where I am getting back in touch with things that I had enjoyed not so long ago but forgotten for sometime.  Simple things like playing carrom, watching business news channels (not very appetizing, I know), picking up Reader’s Digest, etc.  In the same time, two superstars whose achievements I have followed for a long time enjoyed a resurgence.  One was Roger Federer, who ended his longest grand slam drought this year at Wimbledon.  The other, of course, is the return of the king, Ilayaraja, with the Neethane En Ponvasantham soundtrack.

It seems Gautham Menon wanted to bring back melody in film music when he approached Ilayaraja.  I had a different reason to look forward to a Raja OST for a big banner film – dynamics.   I listen to lots of rock and jazz and like it when the music is dynamic instead of all the notes played the same way again and again.   And if there is one person in Indian film music who does use dynamics very well, it is Ilayaraja.

Of course, Ilayaraja has not been inactive by any means and has come up with superb tunes every once in a while even in the last decade or so.  But I hoped that the budget that a big banner release could afford him would result in better recording quality, something which has plagued memorable tracks like Enakku Piditha Paadal (Julie Ganapathy), which in turn would hopefully capture dynamic contrast in sharp detail.

And from the moment the Sunidhi Chauhan-rendered Muthal Murai crashed out of the blocks, I knew my hopes would not be dashed.  It was like Sangeetha Meham all over again, with some riders.   One, there is a simmering tension in this track which is more reminiscent of Ananda Raagam.  Two, the recording quality is way better (especially if listened to on a good set of speakers at a hefty volume instead of any old crappy earphones).   Three, it’s never going to feel like the first time I heard Sangeetha Meham which was pure musical discovery, no matter how good it is.   But the crisp, clear and full sound did complete justice to the fabulous playing of the musicians.   An aspect which I had discounted or not been aware of, but Ilayaraja’s ‘friends’ from Hungary really raised the bar and the crackling drum fills were worlds apart from the rendering on songs from his hey day in the 80s.

This aspect is most evident in the dramatic Sattru Mumbu but it also lends that vital verve to a more pleasant, lighthearted track like Kaatrai Konjam.   The reason I attach a lot of importance to dynamics is more subconscious than anything:  I just like to feel the music, feel the sticks crashing on the drum skins, feel the vocal cords straining and relaxing, feel the bow over the violin strings and so on.   Ilayaraja’s music always had all of this and with this super duper recording, the effect is enhanced.   I would not consider this soundtrack a masterpiece but it still feels like an oasis given the state of things in the film music scene.  Which brings me to….

A news report on the NEP soundtrack mentioned a whopping 1 lakh advance copies sold and the audience’s enthusiastic reception of the soundtrack.  I quote, “After several years, people were really thrilled to listen to some soulful music away from electronic instruments”.

Hmmm, I am a bit circumspect about all this.  I sense a mania for real instruments, real feeling and more ‘real’ things lately.   The way critics raved about Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel is a case in point.  Oh yes, it was a beast of an album, a masterpiece to me (and many others).   But why the disenchantment with the synth stuff?

After raving about NEP, I was listening again to the Endhiran soundtrack. I feel A R Rahman captured the energy of the Indian/Jeans years again in this soundtrack and while it was out and out commercial, it was enjoyable at full blast on the speakers.  Not to be taken seriously, but entertaining.  Yeah….

So the reason I am cautious about this new wave of old school is around the time ARR had hit the bigtime, critics had written advance obituaries for the sake of the orchestra.   Composers claimed keyboards had advanced to the point where they could reproduce all kinds of instrumental sounds on it and wouldn’t need an orchestra anymore.   In less than two decades (and somewhat longer than that in the West), music seems to have come full circle.

It is an inflection point in the evolution of the music business.  The influence it exerted over mainstream culture has steadily, but vastly, diminished over the years.  I remember the Bombay/Dil Se years vividly.  I have never since seen music induce such emotions from a large section of the audience again.   When I watched the final part of the Nolan-Batman trilogy in theater, the audience got up and clapped at the end of the movie.  That kind of stuff… it’s gone.  Music is now just some stuff to play on the car stereo or restaurants for a lot of people.  It always was just that for lots of people, but up to the 90s it could capture the imagination of the youth, before they got jobs and got boring.  For better or worse, bands like Metallica and Linkin Park did.  The last band to do so was probably Slipknot.   I don’t like any of them, by the way, barring the early stuff of Metallica, but that’s not the point.

Searching for that level of engagement with the audience, musicians seem to be returning to old tricks in the hope of capturing an older demographic (maybe because they remember what old school music sounded like and it might whet their nostalgic yearning).   No problemo, but will it just be another passing cloud, like the synth obsession?  If so, what next after people get bored of instruments again?

Was it that we the listeners were not adventurous enough in embracing electronic sounds?  Or was it that too many musicians got a bit too enthusiastic and did not adequately humanize these electronic sounds (like Radiohead)?  Whatever it is, it is an interesting juncture in the journey of music.  For now, I will enjoy both worlds, happy that the old school is not dying out yet and happy also that it may take a bit more than just that to completely wipe out the new.


2 Responses to “Neethane en ponvasantham: a masterclass in dynamics”

  1. baskar Says:

    superb critics. you heard the title music of Virumaandi? Just do it.
    Raajaa Raajaadhaan.

  2. Madan Says:

    I have seen the film in theatre. 🙂

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