‘I call it the Raja genre’

Posted on June 16, 2012


The soundtrack of ‘Neethane En Ponvasantham’, which has been picked up for a record price, is due on July 1. Gautham Vasudev Menon talks to Baradwaj Rangan about working with Ilayaraja for the first time.

There’s something Quentin Tarantino told Entertainment Weekly magazine about Martin Scorsese. “If I say [his] movies are getting kind of geriatric and everything, he can say, ‘F— you, man! I’m doing what I want to do, I’m following my muse,’ and he’s 100 per cent right. I’m in my church praying to my god and he’s in his church praying to his. There was a time we were in the same church, and I miss that.” That’s regrettably how I feel about much of Ilayaraja’s music today, and I think I speak for a fair number of his fans who worshipped the great man in the 1970s through the early 1990s. The congregation has shrunk to a cult, with only a handful of dogged devotees still keeping the faith. So when I heard that Gautham Vasudev Menon was working with him, I sat up. This is easily the most interesting development in Tamil film music in a while, for we usually hear of directors moving on to newer composers – the way many filmmakers, even the old-faithfuls like Bharathiraja, left Ilayaraja behind and latched on to younger talents – but we rarely, if ever, hear of someone setting course in the opposite direction, a today’s-generation filmmaker seeking out a senior composer. It’s like Mani Ratnam choosing to work with MS Viswanathan on Agni Natchatiram, for instance, and my interest in meeting Menon was to investigate both the reason for this collaboration and the ensuing process. The complete transcript follows.

The obvious first question: Why Ilayaraja? I mean, why now? I’m not denying his talent or your regard for him. I’m just curious how this happened.

Like you, I’ve followed Raja sir extensively. I’m a big fan right from childhood. There was progressive rock at home. My sister was listening to a lot of English music. My father listened to a lot of old Hindi songs. But somewhere Ilayaraja’s music caught my ears. It grabbed my attention right from school till college, and in a college down south [Mookambigai College of Engineering] there’s a lot of discussion about music among the guys who come from all these smaller towns, about Annakili and all that. So you get into the history of all the songs. Somebody asked Harris [Jayaraj] a couple of weeks ago what he thought of me working with Raja sir. And he said he wasn’t surprised at all. He said that this is something I should have done long ago, because even while sitting with him for music sessions I used to keep talking about Raja sir’s music. Today, I think I’ve reached a certain stage in life because finally I got to meet the man who defined music for me at one point.

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Oh, you’d never met him…

Never. When Minnale happened, I thought he was too high up. I thought I’d never go to Raja sir. But when that film was appreciated for its music, I used to wonder if I could go to him. I used to think, “When I can meet Raja sir?” But I didn’t have the guts to do that. The first time I met him was to ask if he’d to this film. The heroine’s name is Nithya. When I started writing the dialogues, there was a scene where the hero, Varun, meets this girl after three years. He’s supposed to sing a song on stage. (He’s the singer for a band in college). And he launches into Neethane endhan ponvasantham from Ninaivellam Nithya. I got it recorded separately outside. I sang the song myself because I didn’t want anyone professional to sing it. I wanted it to sound very average and nice. All this we shot even before I thought of going to Raja sir.

You mean you began shooting the film without signing on a music director. That’s very strange. Aren’t you doing your films with AR Rahman these days?

Rahman signed on for Yohan – the Vijay film I’m doing next – before Neethane was even thought of. I had his dates from June onwards. I knew he was busy with his Hollywood films. I don’t like to push people. Even for Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, I never pushed Rahman. I would go whenever he called me. I pushed all my song shoots to the end, and would shoot whenever he’d give me a song. For this film, people in my team told me, “Let’s get a new guy…” I thought this was the best opportunity for me to go to Raja sir.

So you finally summoned up the “guts,” as you put it, to meet the man who defined music for you long ago. And in a sense, you did end up going to a “new guy” – “new” at least in the context of your production outfit.

I didn’t tell anybody in the unit – not my close friends, not my producers. I made a few phone calls, found out who his manager is. I texted his manager and asked if could get an appointment to meet him. I went on my own and met him. He spoke to me only in English. He said, “I wonder why Gautham would want to meet me.” I said I wanted him to make the music for this film and that fifty per cent of the shooting was already done. I was really upfront with him. I said, “Don’t ask me why I didn’t think of a music director before or whether I had the option to work with somebody else. At every point I wanted to meet you, but I never had the guts. I heard a lot of stuff about how tough you are, how strict you are, that it’s not easy to get across stuff to you.” He kept saying, “Really?” I said, “But now I had the guts thinking that you’d know about my work. Somewhere you would have heard that this guy has done a few films, so maybe you’ll give me some time to meet you and maybe give me some great music also.” He said, “I’m very open. You can ask me whatever you want. I’ve heard about your work and I would love to work with you. When do we start composing?” This is what he said. It was very easy. There was no talk of money. We just eased into work, and he made me feel really comfortable, and I realised why he is a legend. Only after we sat down for the first composing session did I announce to my unit that Raja sir is doing this film’s music.

Were there concerns? I don’t think anyone doubts that Ilayaraja is a genius. But whenever people talk of his genius, they reach for the older songs – the seventies, eighties, and a bit of the nineties. People either haven’t been listening to his newer output or they haven’t liked it very much. Besides, so much of today’s music is marketing-driven and dictated by prime-time FM radio channels, on which Ilayaraja isn’t exactly a hot fixture.

They were certainly surprised. I said, “I’ll make sure the expectations are there.” About the quality of the music, I thought I’d get whatever I like and see if the world likes it. That’s how I went for this. I felt there was a need to bring melody back into music. In every song, every interlude, there’s so much variation he’s given me. He said, “Namma sankalpam nalla irukku. Idhu continue aaguma-nu theriyala…” The album, by the way, has been bought by Sony Music for a record price. The expectations are huge and hence the price.

Let’s back up a little. So you signed him on. What happened next? Did you show him the footage you’d already shot?

Yeah, I showed him the edited footage. He said, “What kind of music do you want?” The film spans 1999 (when the hero and heroine meet in college) to the present, so I said there’s always the scope of going back a little bit in terms of sound. It’s a romantic film, about two people who meet each other at various points in life, and they are their own enemies. They fight, they break up, they move on, they meet again – that sort of thing. I told him, “Sir, I want a new sound from you, something different from what we’ve been hearing so far.” And he said, “Sure. Nobody’s given me an opportunity to work on moments like this.”

Did you outline to him the song situations or did you explain (explicitly) what kind of music you wanted in the songs?

I gave him a very detailed brief. I said we’d go with a rock style for the first song. And when the hero comes in, we can do a local song, with a folk kind of beat. Then there’s a love song. They are sitting in a car and talking and she says ‘I love you’ and there’s silence and he looks at her and the lyric unfolds. There’s no rhythm as yet. I asked him if we could have only a male voice at this point, after which the guitars slowly creep in, and then the rhythm is set by the percussion. He heard me out entirely. We just talked music for about a whole day, and then he said, “Come, we’ll start work.”

This must have been a very different experience for you, listening to outlines of tunes first, which is how Ilayaraja works.

We were at Prasad, in his small studio, where he sits on the floor with the harmonium, nothing else. I too sat down with him. There are no couches, just a thin mattress on the floor. It’s white. He’s also in white. There are a lot of old cassette tapes around, and lots of books. He’s got a small recorder into which he puts a tape, and if he likes a tune, he records that tune in his voice. I had given him a pretty visual description of my songs. He said, “Okay, we’ll start with the second song.” He puts his hand on the harmonium and there’s a tune that comes out. And the first tune that came out had a feel to it, had a rhythm to it – he’s singing in his voice and it hit me also. I said ‘I love it.’

He’s known for his speed. How was your experience of that?

The first tune came out just like that. The second tune also came out as he put his hand on the harmonium. It was amazing. If I hadn’t stopped him, I would have got all my eight songs on that day itself. It was like an onslaught of music for me. I told him I couldn’t handle more than this. He said, “Ille. When the flow is good, you have to go with the flow.” I said, “Please sir. You’ve given me three tunes. Let me move on. I’ll come back three days later.” He just smiled. He said, “You think I’ve done my homework and already got my tunes ready? It’s not like that. You don’t think so, right?” I said, “No. I know we talked a lot. We changed ideas. You said, ‘why don’t we do this?’ I said, ‘No. Why don’t we do that? So I know the tune is coming out as we speak.’ “ That was mind-blowing to me.

So you have a set of tunes (or melody lines) that you like. How did he add flesh and blood to these skeletal structures.

Like you said, I just hear a melody. There is no pattern. Then, in the studio, he gets a guitarist to sit in front of him and then he calls a drummer. He breaks the song into a guitar pattern, and then brings the percussion in. Now he records this melody properly, in his voice, and the tune is hard-core clear for me. This was done to actually give me an idea as to what the song will end up sounding like. Otherwise it’s just his voice and the harmonium and the melody with his voice in your head. Slowly he gave me exactly what I asked for.

This new sound you speak of – what is it exactly?

I can’t put my finger on it and say it is this particular genre, so I call it the Raja genre. This is Raja sir’s music. That brilliant melody is there. The sound that he’s given in these eight songs is not today’s sound, and it’s not the 1970s, 1980s sound he was known for. It’s a new genre in music – that much I’ll tell you. I told him, “Sir, I’ll take you somewhere abroad – not because there are no musicians here, but at least for that new sound.” His manager told me that he normally works in Budapest. I suggested we go to London instead. And when we went to London, he put this plan in place. He said, “I want this 108-piece orchestra for four or five days. On the other days I want this Budapest quartet, my friends – a lead guitarist, a bass guitarist, a drummer, and a pianist. Can you fly them down to London? They will do all the basic music for me for every song. Apart from this I need a harp, sax, bagpipes…” He gave us a pretty comprehensive list only based on what he had composed, without actually writing anything.

So you went to London with just the melody lines slightly fleshed out with guitars and drums, the stage at which you said the tune became “hard-core clear” for you.

No, he also recorded the voices here, with a click track. When you work with Rahman and Harris, by the time the singers come in to record, there’s comprehensive music prepared for the song – because, normally, singers need some sort of inspiration. They need some nice music around them. But Raja sir does the voice portions at the beginning. It’s just a voice with a click track, which is the beat of the song in the form of clicks, done on the computer.

The thaalam, basically.

Yes, the thaalam. We had the singers singing Muthukumar’s lyrics (which had to be approved by Raja sir, as he’s very particular that the meter makes it easy for the singer to sing) in a studio in Bombay. I told him that I needed script-oriented music, that the mood in the script needed to be there in the lyrics. He said, “Romba poetic-a irukka vendam.” I said it’s not poetry, but the script should at least come through. So we recorded with Karthik, with Yuvan, with Raja sir’s voice. And then he wanted one week’s time to write the music.

You mean the prelude, interludes and so forth.

Yes. He listens to this song (as rendered by the voice backed by the click track) and he writes his music. It’s simply amazing. There’s no conversation, nobody talks to him – he just writes and makes a fair copy of his written music, all notes written by him, and on Day 1 of the recording, he hands out these notes to everyone. There’s no speaking at all. These guys are professional musicians. They know to read music. They look at the notes, clarify doubts – and then the music just unfolds. There’s no rehearsal. It’s a take right away.

This sounds a little like how music was recorded in the days before multi-track recording, except that the singers aren’t there. But it’s odd that there’s no rehearsal. What if someone makes a mistake?

Then he’ll say something like the harp and the violins not being in sync, and they will go for another take. And in ten minutes, we have the whole background music for the song ready – prelude, interludes, everything. He sits with the Budapest quartet and sets the rhythm. The drummer comes first. He gives voice notations only to the drummer. He records the bass guitar, lead guitar and drums in one session. That is the only thing that takes some time. After that, the orchestra comes in, and in fifteen minutes max, the entire backing music of the song is done. It was amazing. I wanted to be on a certain wavelength with Raja sir, so I started picking up books about reading music and studying music. That’s what I’m doing right now. Not that I want to become a music director, pose with a guitar in my hand…

You’re saying that this was the first time in your career you were a spectator to (or participating in) the music being made.

Correct. I didn’t have to say anything to him (for changes etc.), because everything that I said I wanted, it was all there when we recorded the song. He remembered all that from that single-day session we had over the harmonium. And any skepticism I had about Raja sir’s modernity was washed away. He was telling the musicians exactly what I had in mind, the break beats, the jazz/blues stuff, everything. I kept shooting him on the iPhone throughout, because I wanted every single moment to be recorded. He asked why I was doing that. I said I need this for myself. It was just the most brilliant thing ever.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW, Menon offered to play for me one of the songs from the soundtrack, and I have to say the prospect of listening to it came commingled with curiosity and fear. Of course, I want (maybe even need) to listen to this – but, what if it doesn’t live up to Menon’s rhapsodic build-up? I put on headphones and listened to a track that went Kaatrai konjam nirka sonnen. The instantly interesting aspect was the sound of the saxophone. Songs about kaatru usually ally themselves with the flute, the most readily recognisable wind instrument. Think Ilankaathu veesuthe, or further back, the godly Yerikarai poongaathe, which, despite being sung by KJ Yesudas, is no solo but really a duet between the singer and the flute.

KJY: Yerikkarai poongaathe
(Flute: Yeah, you talkin’ to me?)

KJY: Nee pora vazhi thenkizhakko
(Flute: Perhaps. Why do you ask?)

KJY: Thenkizhakku vaasamalli
(Flute: What about it?)

KJY: Yenna thedi vara thoodhu sollu
(Flute: Hmm… lemme think about it…)

But in Kaatrai konjam, the mandatory wind-instrument duties are picked up by the saxophone (perhaps this is the song Menon referred to as the “the jazz/blues stuff”). The song skips along a 7-count beat, and even in this somewhat muddy recording (this wasn’t the final mix), it sounded so rich, so lush, that I lit up with a very broad smile. This richness, this lushness has a little to do with the formal symphonic quality that we’ve come to associate with Ilayaraja, but this is also more playful, a little more experimental. The stanzas end with some unresolved tension (and I hope this is not “corrected” in the final mix), and yet this ominousness is counterbalanced by a bouncy exuberance. If Kangal rendum sandham solla (Unakkaagave Vaazhgiren) and Naal thorum endhan kannil (Devadhai) snuck off and had a baby, it might answer to Kaatrai konjam nirka sonnen. Ilayaraja’s 1980s textures coursing through the mood of his music in the 1990s – perhaps Menon is right after all. Perhaps the only label that springs to mind is “the Raja genre.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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