Man v/s machine in music

This write up builds on some discussions (or rather arguments, I should say) I was involved in with other Ilayaraja fans.  It deals with his gradual move away from live instruments to electronic sounds (especially in percussion but also eventually replacing or at least supplementing say string sections with synth-strings).

But before I get to Ilayaraja, I want to talk about a duo of song writers from New York who exerted a lot of influence on the rock scene of the 70s in spite of not performing tours after their second album.  The duo went by the names Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and their ‘band’ was called Steely Dan.  They were indefatigable perfectionists and wanted exactly what they had in mind from the musicians (some of the best sessions musicians that the greenback could buy).  Does that remind you of somebody?  Eventually tiring of having to make musicians perform the same part again and again till they got it right, they ventured into devising a percussion loop with computers (with a lot of difficulty, as technology was primitive in the 70s).  But the results of their labours was a rather stiff, sterile sounding album (though the song writing was still brilliant) –  Gaucho.  It was their last album before they went on a two decade hiatus, ostensibly sick of music making.  In their quest for perfection, they had sucked the life out of their music, a realisation which they half-jokingly allude to in the notes to the remaster of Gaucho.

Why this prelude about Gaucho?  Because the quest to get a perfect sound haunted many, if not most, pop wizards of the analog era.  In today’s retro-chic culture, we regard the imperfect hisses and scratches of analog recordings admiringly and remark favourably about their soul.  But back in the day, the composers themselves seemingly didn’t give a flying shit about all that and in fact coveted a smooth, ‘perfect’ sound.  Ilayaraja was no exception.

In his early days, Ilayaraja’s music, while already bearing his unmistakable and instantly recognisable stamp, often had a very loose and dreamy quality.  He was still exploring possibilities and this seemed to reflect in his work.  Take Engengo Sellum from Pattakathi Bhairavan:

The mathematical logic connecting every note of an Ilayaraja composition to the next is very much present here but not in an obvious way.  The song, especially the melody, seems to meander without rambling and losing you and there are gentle, delicate twists in the interlude.  Though the tempo is straightforward, it doesn’t feel so.  It’s as if he is pausing to take in the scenery.  It is perhaps gentle to a fault in that if you don’t crank it up and pay attention, the song might be over before you listen.  But that is also why it is so rewarding for the intrepid listener, transporting you into another world for its nearly 5 minute running length.

By 1984, some things have evidently changed…

Not much pausing in here.  The Raja juggernaut is on a roll now.  The almost frightening inventiveness is now channeled into a well oiled template.  You no longer have to guess that it’s a Raja song.  There are indicators galore, from the beat to the chorus, to the syncopated pattern in the second interlude.   Aesthetically, it is like much of his work from that period (mid-80s) and to that limited extent is interchangable (though the unique nuances of the orchestration aren’t).  This song lacks the enigma, the mystery of Engengo Sellum but on the other hand, it is far more infectious and grabs you by the collar.  It has more meat, in essence.  Makes sense, because by now he had already been the king for a few years.   He would mention in a later interview that he had a responsibility to deliver to filmmakers music that the audience would like.  At this stage, though, the template is still executed with acoustic instruments.

But by 1987, drum machines are well entrenched:

Again, no lack of inventiveness here, whether in the melody or the orchestration.  But as said above, this track uses drum machines and therefore feels even tighter than Pon Maane, with the corresponding merits and demerits.   By now, most of the pleasure is to be derived from the melodic and harmonic choices rather than an atmospheric, pristine beauty that timeless music can evoke.  As Engengo Sellum did (or most of the Nenjathai Killathe soundtrack for that matter).  Which, again, is not to say that it makes it inferior.  But it does make it different.

The last exhibit is from the 90s:

 

By now, synths are all over the place.  They do help Arun Mozhi’s delectable flute stand out even more than usual.  But aesthetically, there’s little that is particularly attractive about the song even though rhythmically it’s one of his most interesting, particularly the first interlude.  If you did not dig deep and pay attention to THAT part in the first interlude, you could confuse him with somebody else.

Don’t believe me?  So here’s the last exhibit (I cheated!):

Music director Adithyan, who had decent success in the 90s, does a pretty good job of imitating Ilayaraja.  And he wasn’t the only one.  Deva did so too.  Sirpi…well, he tried though he usually gave away the game.  But between them, they took away much of the rural film market from Ilayaraja.  Not by making better music than him but by simply making music that fit the purpose.

But would it have fit the purpose if it had required them to also paint soundscapes of untold beauty rather than just putting together a suitably baroque-like arrangement on the synth? Perhaps not.  And thus the irony of this quest to use machines to achieve perfection.  The closer Ilayaraja moved to his goal, the more he let go of qualities that made his work unique.  Not that he ever completely let go of everything that made and makes him unique, but let’s say that for the narrow requirements of film music, these differences became somewhat incidental.

Was he at some level aware of this risk?  I would imagine so, because he has been a vocal critic of the excessive use of technology in music.  But as the frontrunner in Tamil film music in the 80s, he had to stay one step ahead of the rest.  And what must have bothered him in this race but those little imperfectly played parts that we the lay listeners ignore and which however would stick out like sore thumbs to a composer.  Thus, he embraced the machine and for somebody who has done over a 1000 films, it hasn’t panned out too badly, has it?

To conclude, I only want to add that the alleged lack of perfection in Ilayaraja’s recordings is often contrasted with Rahman’s squeaky clean productions and cited as a primary factor contributing to his decline.  I submit that it is the opposite.  It was the quest to perfect and streamline his music into a well oiled machine that perhaps made the soul in his music a touch more elusive than it once was and thus a little easier for the audience to bid him goodbye.

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