Readers Write In #53: Muted Symphony

Posted on October 14, 2018

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2018 marks 25th anniversary of Ilaiyaraaja composing and recording a Symphony with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London. At that time he was the first Asian composer to do so. The Symphony was never released to the public and Ilaiyaraaja has largely remained silent about this work since then. This is a write up leading to celebrate Ilaiayaraaja’s achievement in composing a symphony and pondering if his path would have changed had he released the symphony.

Debut to Symphony (1976-1993):

It’s well known fact that Ilaiyaraaja made a spectacular debut in 1976 film Annakili. That marks the transition period not only in tamil film music, but overall filmmaking in tamil cinema. Tamil cinema which had origins from stage plays, was still dominated by theatrics in all aspects of cinema from dialogues, acting to even costumes. While yesteryear stalwarts like Shivaji, Jai Shankar were fading, Kamal Haasan was at the pinnacle of stardom and Rajinikanth had just made his debut a year earlier. At the same time emerged a new generation of directors like Barathi Raja (16 Vayadhinile 1977), Mahendran (MullumMalarum 1978), BaluMahendra (Tamil debut – AzhiyaadhaKolangal 1979), later joined by Mani Ratnam (PallaviAnuPallavi, 1983). These directors changed the course of tamil cinema by making films that were rooted on human emotions, instead of larger than life dramas which was the norm at that period. Invariably all of their films had scores by Ilaiyaraaja, which elevated their films to a different plane. But bear in mind that Ilaiayaraaja was scoring at a prolific speed (over 650 films between 1976-1993) and there were only a handful of directors giving some challenging work for Ilaiyaraaja. The era was dominated by sub par films, which are remembered today only by Ilaiyaraaja’s songs and background scores.

I personally, have always felt Ilaiyaraaja the genius composer who was singularly producing phenomenal work, as a victim of his generation. He not only gave excellent scores for hundreds of middling films for two decades, but he was also stuck with poor sound technology of that era. The recordings do no justification to the dense orchestral layers that Ilaiyaraaja adds to his songs and background scores. Even the vocals quality is so poor in some evergreen songs that we listen even today. I am yet to hear a decent audio quality of songs like Uravugalthodarkadhai or IlamaiEnnumPoongatru, which sound like the tape was dipped into water first and then used for recording.

As his musical prowess was hampered by the film industry, he briefly dabbled into producing independent instrumental albums (How to name it & Nothing but wind) which had shades of Indian and western classical music. Although these albums did not have the reach like his film songs, it must have given him some peace to compose music without restrictions. So in 1993 when Ilaiyaraaja was approached by a company to compose a symphony, he promptly lapped up the challenge. Reading this jubilant interview of Ilaiayaraaja (Link1) after recording the symphony, it does seem like he finally broke the chains that were holding him back and set out to conquer the West. There’s a childlike enthusiasm in his answers about the symphony he had just recorded.

So, did Ilaiyaraaja have bigger plans after releasing the symphony? It certainly seems possible, given that Ilaiyaraaja himself had stated in a later interview (early 2000s) that he wasted his career in tamil films (Interview in Kumudam – reference unavailable). But his course remained unchanged after the symphony. Why? Probably, because it was never released.

Ilaiyaraaja’s Symphony No. 1 was conducted by a famous English Composer John Scott. He speculates that Ilaiyaraaja was very hurt by the review of a music critic and decided not to release the symphony (Link 2,3). John Scott further lashes out at the critics and adds that, he and the musicians who recorded the symphony think the symphony should be released. For an artist whose mastery was curbed for nearly two decades not by his own limitations but by the circumstances he was caught in, it must have been agonizing to choose not to release his masterpiece.

There’s an ironic parallel between Ilaiyaraaja and Ludwig Van Beethoven, with regards to their magnum opus. Beethoven completed symphony 9 in 1824, the composition considered to be a towering achievement in western classical music. Beethoven had turned completely deaf by the time he finished composing this symphony, and when it was performed for the first time, Beethoven (who was conducting it off-note and had his back to the audience) could not hear the standing ovation by the audience and a musician had to turn him to face the audience and acknowledge the ovation. Till this date, his Symphony 9 stands as the most performed symphony, yet while the whole world could hear this symphony its composer could never hear it. Ironically in Ilaiyaraaja’s case, we have a symphony that the world awaits to hear which only the composer has heard so far. Let’s hope someday in our lifetime, Ilaiyaraaja will treat us to this Symphony.

Meanwhile, after the symphony experiment Ilaiyaraaja returned back home and continued his work in Tamil Cinema, which was not the same anymore. Remember this was in 1993, hardly a year after A.R.Rahman had made a sensational debut that changed Indian music industry forever. The pioneer directors of yesteryear were past their prime or retired and the ones who remained moved on to other composers. This meant,Ilaiyaraaja was not the most sought after composer by the spirited filmmakers of 1990s, with Kamal Haasan being the only exception. Ilaiyaraaja still went on to compose for another 350 plus films (more than life time work for most composers), occasionally giving soul stirring music, but bulk of his work in later days were not even noticed by large number of audience.

Now in 2018, we can only wonder when he hit the crossroads, what if Ilaiyaraaja had chosen the other way. Would he have quit film music and ventured into western classical/independent music? Or would he have scored in international films? Would he have got the international recognition he rightly deserves? These are some hard questions that we can never get an answer, but what we do know is within the realms of Tamil cinema what Ilaiyaraaja achieved will remain unparalleled. This quote from Beethoven’s eulogy fits perfectly for Ilaiyaraaja’s film career as well – “He who follows him cannot continue in his footsteps; He must begin anew, for his predecessor has finished his life’s work at the limits of art.”

(by Muthu, aka Heisenberg.)