Why film music – part 3 – What Makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja – Ninnu Kori

Part 3 of my series on why film music, which is a spin off to accompany my book Raga 2 Rock (https://www.amazon.in/dp/B09WYSNBBZ).

It took a long time to put together part 3 because I really couldn’t make up my mind on what I should talk about in the last instalment on Ilayaraja. Basically, I wanted to bring out what makes him different from pretty much every other film music composer. In other words, what makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja.

And then, I thought of the perfect song to break down what makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja. I am talking about the song Ninnu Kori Varnam from the film Agni Natchatram, which is one of his most successful albums. But to me, Ninnu Kori, more than any other track, exemplifies what makes his approach so different from the others.

So let’s look into a few signature hallmarks of Ilayaraja’s style that are very evident in this song. Firstly, the melody is so staccato. Every syllable the singer sings is perfectly punctuated by percussion strokes. And that’s the point. He builds in a very rhythmic quality to the song by making the singer and the musicians play it so, so staccato, so that every note has punch.

You can also observe how he uses this staccato element to create sections and divisions in this song, especially in the interludes. So rather than something like one piece of music continuously flowing through the interlude, you have almost discrete sections where he explores one idea and then he moves on to the other. And this is not how film music used to be done before his time. A sense of flow used to be very important to composers who came before Ilayaraja. But he replaced that flow with a highly punctuated staccato. Without that, he wouldn’t be able to get a varnam to rock.

Speaking of rock, notice the riff that opens this song, just the opening riff. Ilayaraja began to use riffs and guitar/keyboard chords to drive songs rather than to write a melody and to then devise accompaniments for the melody. This is also why it is difficult to sing his songs bare without the arrangements. It is not that his approach to writing melody is flawed, what it means is that he writes one integrated composition in which the melody, the chords, the percussion everything is tightly inter-linked. You can’t just subtract elements that you don’t like and add something else in its place.

Ilayaraja also often writes keyboard-and-guitar chords. That is, keyboard-AND-guitar chords rather than a keyboard based song or a guitar based song. Now that is something you can hear on, for instance, Steely Dan songs. But in film music, this level of complexity in chord writing was unthinkable before Ilayaraja. And I have to say it is not exactly commonplace post Ilayaraja either.

And a very notable aspect of this complexity is the basslines. These are independent basslines but which in turn are interlocked with the keyboard chords. But at the same time, it’s not like a random independent bassline. It is deeply connected to what the keyboard is playing. So Ilayaraja makes these basslines another part of this jigsaw puzzle that he has constructed. Except that he has already put together the puzzle for you, you don’t have to figure out anything. You just need to nod your head and enjoy!

But that, now that takes a lot, a lot of arranging skills and it remains a mystery as to how a man born to a poor family in a fishing village with no training in music before he came to Chennai looking for work acquired all this knowledge. I don’t know if HE knows and even if he does, he isn’t saying.

So…by taking his skills to not only write keyboard-guitar parts but also independent and interlocked basslines, he adopted an approach based on maximalism rather than minimalism. Let me explain. Traditionally, film music composers kept it simple. Even when they wrote parts for a large battalion of violins, they didn’t write too many layers. They tried to keep it simple and elegant to get the best possible effect without having to manage too much complexity.

On the other hand, Ilayaraja wrote as complex music as he could such that it would make sense. He had the skill to write multiple layers, independent basslines, counterpoints and bring it all together coherently. There is a deep sense of almost mathematical logic running through his music. He is not just trying to fit together parts that sound good, he is writing parts that fit each other like gloves.

And if you go back to the point I made earlier about uber staccato lines, that’s why he is able to get away with writing so staccato. Because everything makes sense in totality. He doesn’t need to depend on a sense of flow to make these parts fit together. They fit together in the way that two plus two makes four.

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