Ilayaraja and scale modulation

Much is written about Ilayaraja’s unprecedented use of counterpoint (well, at least the frequency and complexity of his usage of it while not necessarily being the first to appropriate it in an Indian music context) or fugue or other Western classical compositional devices.   It’s all to the good.

But it only accounts for the ‘visible’ (or should I say audible) aspect of his complexity.  And it plays right into the ill framed Raja detractor (may or may not be Rahman fan!) critique of his work – that Raja simply dresses up melodies with too many instruments and makes it sound rather heavy going.  But if this was the case, he would not have been giving hit after hit – whether in rural based films, city films, art projects, mass star vehicles or, well, classical based sagas (Salangai Oli, Sindhu Bhairavi, Unnal Mudiyum Thambi).  Well aware of this argument, the anti-Raja side constructs an elaborate conspiracy theory based on how he punished anybody who dared against him and manipulated people into siding with him even when these songs that continue to find listeners on the internet were actually flops, ya know!  And yes, this is an actual argument against him from a Rahman fan, not making this up, this ain’t no strawman that I am assailing.

But what if the problem is the focus on ornate complexity is incomplete in terms of accounting for what makes his music compelling?  And I have long suspected that to be the case.  I have frequently pointed to songs like Mandram Vandha Thendralukku as counter-examples to demolish the violin-tabla man argument (the song has neither violin nor tabla).  But let’s take that a step further.  With or without counterpoint, ornate orchestration was not new in Indian film music by any means.  Yes, Ilayaraja used these techniques in a much more learned and trained way (he kind of had to be able to, given the speed at which he was writing music).  But that would not have moved the needle for the audience as a whole in the 80s.   What enticed them to listen to his songs is a deep but subtle subversiveness in his music.

It had to be a subtle; with our deep grounding in melodic traditions (as opposed to harmonic in the West), we Indians are very conservative in our music tastes.  Anything too chromatic would have been dismissed out of hand.  A prominent music blogger found the modulation in Kalvane (Megha) too hot to handle, for instance.  That’s just what it is; such listeners have been pushed by Ilayaraja to embrace more complexity than they otherwise would have been prepared to but sometimes it jars (for them, from their point of view).

But at the same time, Raja was not satisfied with the way things were in Indian films or their music, as much as he revered his illustrious predecessors in Hindi and Tamil.   He has often voiced his preference for indulging in monkey business, by explaining an unusual musical choice as being driven by a need to avoid boredom.  In short, he didn’t want to sound cliched.  Hence, the need for subversion.

For this post, let me focus on modulation.  Ilayaraja is extremely fond of modulation.  He has done it in the melody itself a few times (known as grahabedam) and it’s very noticeable to Indian ears.  But his attempts at harmonic modulation are a much more pervasive part of his music and less talked about.  Let’s take one song dating to the start of his 80s juggernaut – Perai Sollava from the S P Muthuraman film Guru (starring Kamal Hassan and Sridevi).  It’s the kind of soundtrack that Raja fans do like but would likely not rank it among his top 10 works (most definitely not top 5).

But even in a happy, romantic duet where Raja doesn’t have to do much to deliver a hit (voiced by SPB and S Janaki and pictured on Kamal and Sridevi), there is much going on that’s interesting. That is how he engages your attention.  Every interlude is interesting (as usual) but I will focus specifically on the second interlude starting at 2:08.

It starts off with a guitar figure in the F# major scale (F sharp).

This is followed by a trumpet and saxophone conversation that surreptitiously slips into Bb major (B flat).

As the saxophone winds this conversation to a close (with a rush of strings as the saxophone trails off), guitar comes back (with strings still in play) and we are back in F# major.  All this happens in around 20 seconds or so.  How is all this achieved, covering so much ground so quickly and yet not sounding cluttered at all?

It is because he uses common chord modulation but in an unusual light.

A quick note.  Scale in Western music roughly corresponds to raga in Carnatic/Hindustani music.  In India, we often mistakenly use scale when we actually mean the pitch, or the note that we are singing/playing in.  A scale has a collection of pitches/notes.

Look at the notes of F# major and Bb major.  Only A#/Bb in common, right?

Wrong! Look again.  Ah, you see it now!  And no worry if you don’t, for here is the explanation.

The quirk of F# major is its E# note is actually played on the F natural.  And the Bb major has an F natural too. So, he pivots on this note into the Bb major (rather on A# itself as you would normally expect to be where the modulation happens).  We as lay listeners realize immediately that something unusual is going on but can’t put our finger on it and before long, he has returned us to the charanam.

That’s not all.  As the interlude progresses, the saxophone abruptly sustains the A#.  This is a little jarring when you play the notes standalone on an instrument.  But in the total composition, of course, there is a group of violins rushing in which smoothens the transition (and also lends it a ‘major’ as opposed to a ‘minor’ quality).

Speaking of which, notice how mysterious most of the interlude sounds?  That’s because Raja intentionally avoids using adjacent notes which would emphasise the aforesaid major quality and instead drops at least every other note while hopping onto the next one.  The first consecutive sequence, which is the last guitar figure as the interlude ends, has a very major quality and ends on the note of F#.  Flight safely landed in turbulent weather by expert captain Isaignani!

This is but one slice of the many ways in which Ilayaraja defies our expectations of film music and makes his own work unpredictable, in spite of how much music he has turned out.

Update:  I have covered this and some other instances of modal interchange in Raja songs in my book Raga 2 Rock.  You can get it here.

5 Responses to “Ilayaraja and scale modulation”

  1. vivaciously_yours Says:

    As a huge Raja Fan- no Bhakthan, I enjoyed this post!

    • Madan Says:

      Thanks! I intended to write more such pieces but corona has separated me from my keyboard. 😦 Don’t know for how long, we’ll see.

  2. Anonymous Violin Says:

    Wonderful piece! I’ve heard this song several times but never picked up on it before.

    Reminds me of another example of Raja’s harmony that I really enjoy, from Kadhal Oviyam (though perhaps more straightforward than this)

    In the line “Anandham, perinbam, dheivigam”, the notes themselves are A A A#, A A A#, A A A# B.

    He uses D major and G minor chords the first couple of times (Anandham/perinbam) for the A, A#/B flat, but the third time around he suddenly switches to F sharp major after the D, and then resolves to the relative minor (B minor).

    • Madan Says:

      Thanks! I need to check that one out. I was separated from my keyboard from lockdown onwards. But now I should be able to look at many other such songs. Songs like Silence, Hey You Come (Anand) have amazing modulations.

    • Madan Says:

      Listening now. With the MAHA uploads gone, I can’t even hear what note exactly the bass is playing on Deivigam. I wish I could. Oh well…

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