Between Reviews: Music from Beyond the Skies

Posted on January 23, 2010

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Picture courtesy: starboxoffice.com

MUSIC FROM BEYOND THE SKIES

AR Rahman proves, once again, that love his songs or loathe them, there’s no questioning the spirit of restless creation in them.

JAN 24, 2010 – WHATEVER THE OSCARS HAVE DONE FOR AR RAHMAN on a professional level, they certainly haven’t altered an iota of his person. Ascending the stage towards the close of the audio launch of Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaayaa, the musician came off less like someone celebrated across a series of global platforms than a bashful school-kid still unable to comprehend all this fuss. Gracious as ever, he confessed to harbouring doubts about matching the standards set by the hit combination of Gautham and Harris Jayaraj – and he probably wasn’t alone in these doubts. Whatever the reasons – the requirements of the market, the quality of the films, the guidance from the directors – Rahman in Hindi is quite a different beast from Rahman in Tamil, and at least some part of the houseful audience, that Tuesday evening in Chennai, was wondering if their idol’s penchant for multi-tangential experimentation would coalesce with their requirement for a soundtrack that was admirable yet accessible.

But even that old bugaboo about Rahman’s compositions needing time (not to mention a lot of petting and stroking and the lighting of heavily aromatic incense) to grow on you was dispelled the instant Alphons Joseph started to strum his guitar in preparation for Aaromale, the album’s standout track. Before getting to the song, however, can I note how thoroughly refreshing it was to witness a music release function that was actually about the music? No windbag speeches from the architects of other aspects of the film, no gratuitous bowing and scraping before political (and other petty) powers – it was just the musicians on stage, belting out unplugged versions of the songs they’d sung in the studio, accompanied simply by a piano, a couple of guitars and manmade effects like clicks and harmonies. Gautham would introduce a song with a sliver of context, and the singer would take off from there – no muss, no fuss.

This approach, in hindsight, was unexpectedly rewarding. Firstly, it ensured that the spotlight shone on the most deserving – namely, AR Rahman and his singers. But more importantly, it etched into the audience’s minds the barebones template of each song – something that may not be of much use with another music director, but absolutely worthwhile in the case of Rahman. His methods of creation are so unique – the skeleton of melody gradually layered with sinew and tissue and muscle and, finally, skin – that the full-bodied song often bears little resemblance to the outline that birthed it. And we were privileged, that evening, to listen to these outlines, which instilled in our minds a rudimentary map of the musical terrain that was going to be stalked. Rahman, who came on stage only after all the songs were thus unveiled, may only have been partly joking when he mused that his numbers sounded so much better this way.

I hadn’t heard any of these songs earlier, and when, for instance, Naresh Iyer began to spit out the phrases of Kannukkul kannai, I was instantly drawn to the end of the opening stretch, where vocals and guitar came together in a set of staccato steps with the synchronised heat of a tangoing duo. Listening to the album later, I was surprised that this portion was submerged under backing vocals (including whoops), strings and a furiously tapping percussion, and what had previously been the highlight of the song, for me, was now merely an organic part of the whole. How would I have responded to the song had I not heard the earlier, acoustic rendering, which isn’t unlike reading the screenplay before watching a movie? The tone and tempo and colour are the same, yet different – the core the same, yet the conclusion different. Perhaps, henceforth, all albums should be required to perform this double duty – giving the musically curious amongst us the opportunity to peel back the skin and slice right to the bone.

On the other hand, Benny Dayal’s Omana penne sounded better recorded than live, primarily due to its studio-crafted special effects – like the electronically tweaked contribution from Kalyani Menon, or the lush raga passages in Bilahari that bequeathed an air of piquancy to a tune that otherwise might have been dismissed as generically chirpy. In general, Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaayaa is one of Rahman’s stronger Tamil albums, bearing just enough outré envelope-pushing to sound different but still managing to appeal on first (or second) listens. The sole outright disappointment is Anbil avan (from Devan and Chinmayi), which holds little surprise (or interest) after a first listen. And with a couple of other tunes, such as Karthik’s soulful crooning of the title track and Rahman-Shreya Ghoshal’s Mannipaaya, everything looks perfect on the surface – from the patient and flavourful parsing of (lyricist) Thamarai’s phrases to the relatively unadorned musical flourishes – but something (I can’t put my finger on it yet) seems vaguely off. And yet, there’s always some sort of hook – a bluesy intonation here, iterative phrasings that spread out like ripples over there – that keeps drawing you back. Speaking of Thamarai, however, her staunch contribution to Gautham’s films certainly found a better showcase in Harris Jayaraj’s less-layered music, though even here, certain signature constructions announce themselves beautifully – like maru idhayam, a second heart to be offered the callous lover after she crushes the first one.

But Aaromale is everything you wish for – a dazzling boundary-pusher contained within the perimeter of a standard stanza-chorus construction, except that the stanzas aren’t quite stanzas in the way we usually know them, a block of music (comprising, say two individual lines of melody repeated twice, once by the male singer and once by the female counterpart). The non-chorus portions, here, are structured along the lines of blues-rock and country music (think Creedence Clearwater Revival’s recording of I put a spell on you layered onto an Ennio Morricone score for a spaghetti Western, and brushed lightly with the psychedelia of Pink Floyd) – and looping through the song’s lazy meanderings, you realise, once again, that Rahman’s legacy (in continuance with MS Viswanathan’s legacy of the “light music” melody line and Ilayaraja’s legacy of interstitial orchestration and arrangement) is not just the sound of his music, the clean, clear sound that’s the musical equivalent of a bracing breath of pure oxygen on a mountaintop, but also his systematic demolition of the constituents of a film song.

It isn’t that others, earlier, have always buckled down and conformed quietly to the prototype of the Opening (namely, pallavi/mukhda) followed by an Interlude that bridges to the Stanza (namely, charanam/antara) which, subsequently, loops back to the Opening – I can quickly think of RD Burman’s Logon na maaro ise from Anamika and Ilayaraja’s Thendralile thoranangal from Eera Vizhi Kaaviyangal (both with no Stanzas whatsoever), Harris Jayaraj’s Manjal veyyil maalayile from Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu (not invoking Stanza until after four iterations of Chorus and Opening), MS Viswanathan’s title track for Ninaithaale Inikkum and (its spiritual successor) Maragadhamani’s Nivedha in Nee Paadhi Naan Paadhi (both comprising merely swara/solfa passages and a single word/phrase) – but Rahman has displayed a remarkable consistency in chipping away at the taken-for-granted foundations of film music grammar. What, with those older composers constrained by their times, was a one-off (or two-off) experiment is for Rahman the undiluted norm.

Does this mean, then, that the Opening-Interlude-Stanza format is heaving its last gasps? I don’t think so, for I have yet to come out from under the spell of Anal mele panithuli from Vaaranam Aayiram, Gautham’s last (in the sense of both previous and final) soundtrack with Harris Jayaraj. The value of a strong tune yoked to a sensitive singer and sympathetic orchestration is still priceless, and it’s still the primary reason many of us listen to music. But Rahman’s peerless talent for painting soundscapes (as opposed to crafting soundtracks) ensures that the opportunity for boredom is minimised. With tunes and arrangements conforming to no particular pattern, and with there being no scheduled returns to a preordained base camp before successive ascents or descents, even the underwhelming stretches skip by without tedium. And as Rahman himself proves with Hosanna (sung by Vijay Prakash, Suzanne D’Mello and Blaaze), the best of composers, can, at times, induce fatigue – by the third iteration of the Stanza, we’ve had enough. (A third Stanza, in general, is never really a good idea unless your name is MS Viswanathan, who’d stave off predictability by adorning one of the Stanzas with an entirely different tune, as with the exquisite Mana medai from Gnana Oli.) And yet, the reggae-spiked sprightliness of Hosanna sneaks under your skin. That’s where Rahman wins – love his songs or loathe them, there’s no questioning the spirit of restless creation contained in them.

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