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Song of the Day # 650

From: bb on:  Tue Jul 12, 2005 12:16 am

Song of the Day: puRRil vaazh from Thiruvasagam.

Listen to the song

- The SOTD is the sixth song from Thiruvasagam by Ilayaraja. Sung by IR himself.

- I received the album by mail from the TiS USA group last week. Considering all that they've gone through, I think Sankar Kumar and his folks need to be given a huge credit for being instrumental in bringing this album out. I've been following the effort right from the day Sridhar Seetharaman started the thread in tfmpage about this, and the efforts of these volunteers are just astounding. Sure, things could have been done better, but given that this is the first time such a project was being done, to get the album in hand itself was a culmination of all their efforts over such a long time.

I think in the media coverage back in India, and in the album cover itself, the US group didn't get the credit that it deserved.

It will be interesting to see their final financial charts and see how they fared. It will be interesting to see if they can sell 5K or 10K CDs in US alone.

- The album seems to have been produced well. The booklet that came with it was well designed. The handwritten lyrics (written by IR himself? ) helped me understand a few words that were unclear from listening to the album.

- Coming to the album itself, after listening to it many times, I got the feeling that it was really underwhelming. The album had lots of glimpses of IR's genius, and had musical moments that gave me goosebumps, but it left me unsatisfied.

- The masterpiece of the album is the second song, "pollaa vinaiyEn". It runs for about 20 minutes and is easily the piece in which IR brings out the essence of what he has to convey about Thiruvasagam. The juxtaposition of Thiruvasagam verses with English lyrics (which are simple or cheesy depending on your outlook) worked really well. The piece culminates with a crescendo that was a fitting end to this long song.

- I think the sixth song, "puRRil vaazh aravum" was designed by IR to be the first piece of the album, but somehow it ended as the last one. It starts off with IR saying "idhu thaan symphony orchestravaa?" with a naive tone that was very cheesy and annoying. I agree with Venkat that it was not in good taste. The sixth song is easily hummable and latches on quickly.

- The main downside of the album for me was IR's singing. I shake my head wondering why he decided to sing all these songs himself. Didn't he visualize anyone else singing? Didn't Father Gasper or anyone else point out that may be a better singer will add more value? He is off-key so many times that I lost count. He strains, sounds nasal and struggles to reach high pitch. My doubt is, did he think these are minor things that people won't notice? Doesn't good singing matter? I understand that IR brings a load of spiritual luggage with his voice, he sounds like a "believer", his voice portrays the emotion and so on, but again, doesn't good singing matter? Are there not singers who can do a much better job? If these things didn't matter, why bother with a pitch perfect orchestra and all that? That was all done for the musical value, right? Then why not have the singing match that?

- I expected more from the orchestra, but IR has used it predominantly as a melody follower to his singing. In his film songs, he has given us so many fascinating counterpoints and other gems of Western Classical music, but in this album, the orchestra doesn't give us much other than following the melody with its strings and flutes. There are no length instrumental pieces or memorable themes that the orchestra plays with aplomb. I felt that we were served with only "appaLam and oorukaai" where IR could have given us more.

- Bhavatharini manages to come through and delivers her song well. The fifth song, sung by a number of singers other that IR, has also come out well. It makes me wonder how the other songs would have sounded if they were sung by different singers.

- There is a lot more that I want to write on the album, but I will leave that for later.

Is this album worth listening? Absolutely.
Is this IR's best creative effort? Not at all.
Is this a pure Western classical crossover? No.
Is this album so unmarketable that it needed to be made in this tortuous fashion? No. If L.Subramaniam can come out with "Live in Moscow" with the Russian orchestra (Actually, I won't rate his effort to be any lower that IR's), IR could have easily made this album with a music label with much less hassle.
Is this something that an Indian orchestra couldn't have done? I doubt it. I think an Indian orchestra would have had no less an impact.
Has IR delivered his magnum opus? I think this is just a start. Since the feedback from all quarters is mostly positive, IR should do more of these.

- Sabarivasan writes:

However much one tries to have an open mind, when an album of this scale by a composer of this stature releases, it is impossible to not have any expectations built up. It definitely does not help when the composer himself makes a statement about the album (Water, anyone?). In this case, I believe Ilayaraja made a statement to the effect that every composer in his/her career comes across an opportunity to create music that he/she is destined for and he believes that Thiruvasagam was his.

I have talked about my expectations of the quality of music in this album. An added difficulty in this case was what type of music to expect. The title of the album is “Thiruvasagam in Symphony” but the release function had a big banner with the text “An Oratorio by Ilayaraja”.

Now a Symphony and an Oratorio are entirely different beasts. The latter came into being in the Baroque period and can be loosely defined as an opera based on a religious subject, usually Biblical, which leads us to a description of an opera. The opera became popular because the Baroque became fascinated by the theater. The opera combined poetry, musical, vocal virtuosity, dance into one and became popular. Handel’s Messiah is probably the most famous oratorio that is still being played today. Now, vocal virtuosity is exactly the element that is missing in this album. It is appalling indeed to see Ilayaraja singing himself. His voice does not sound as old as it has in recent times but for an album of this stature, why would he choose to render all the songs? He (and everyone in his family, I might add) has been making this mistake for a long time in Tamil movies. It would be interesting to know what goes through a composer’s head before deciding to use his/her voice for a song. I have seen Ilayaraja spoil many a brilliant song by choosing to sing it himself. This is the biggest blunder of Ilayaraja as far as Thiruvasagam goes. Even if he was worried by about Tamil pronunciation, there are so many people who could have replaced him effectively. The choice of the tenor to sing the English lyrics was also a disappointment in my opinion. There are so many tenors with more magnetic and majestic voices. The chorus, both Tamil and English, on the other hand, was very effective.

The Symphony is meant to be an impressive concert piece, displaying the variety and flexibility of sound that can be played by the various components of an orchestra. Thiruvasagam, once again, does not resemble a symphony. A symphony is a multi-movement piece of varied pace. However much I tried I could not find anything in the album that I could find to fit the definition of a symphony. I was trying to see if we could treat each piece as a single movement of a symphony (the first or the slow movement as the case may be) but none of them had a definite form like Sonata form. The musical themes of the pieces were different enough that one could not call them Exposition, Development and Recapitulation. Another form I tried was the classical variation form, with a theme followed by a series of variations, each of which different from one another. If you listen to the different verses, there is definitely not much different from one to another and there is no sequence or logical progression from one to the next.

So, I decided to view this album as religious verses set to music accompanied by a symphony orchestra and choir. If one were to look at the pieces with this perspective, one is definitely left with a lot of material to deal with. It seems also that Ilayaraja, for the most part was thinking of “tunes” in his head and trying to beautify with orchestral instruments. The last piece in the album (where Ilayaraja starts with “Idhudhaan Symphony Orchestra vaa?” also seems to bolster this argument). He finds a tune and tries to fit a Thiruvasagam verse to the tune. He discards one verse because the words do not seem to fit perfectly. Unfortunately this is how classical music is composed.

That said, I have tried to write my feelings down as I listen to the longest piece, intended to be its highlight. I have only listened to it 4 times, much less than the usual number before I write something about it.

Ilayaraja starts the piece with “Polla Vinayae”. Almost immediately, the strings take over.
At 0:45, you would hear strings playing a single note immediately followed by a bass drum, playing 3 notes. This is a neat thing that has been done several times in classical music (the one I remember off the top of my head is one of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies - 4th if I am not mistaken).
The soprano sings the English phrase (“I am just a man...”). Ilayaraja’s genius for orchestration starts showing as soon as 1:15, when the 2nd violins playing staccato and crescendo up to be accompanied by 1st violins playing a wonderful theme. It lasts only 10-12 seconds though. Somehow at this stage, I don’t like the English voice as much as Ilayaraja’s voice. “Gnanamagi...chudarae” is backed by wonderful flute and strings in the background. At this stage, the harp makes its first appearance. Male chorus follows suit at 2:45. A solo Indian violin (this is interesting. None of the violins in a traditional western orchestra sound Indian, so I am sure this instrument must have been brought from India. The question is, did an Indian play this or did a member of the original Budapest Symphony orchestra play this?) “yezhanchufies” at this stage to lead to the end of the 1st part of this piece, marked by the orchestra (and the strings) singing the same note in unison twice.
We are only 3:30 into the piece and already so much material has been packed already into it. (Please don’t tell me that Ilayaraja composed this extemporaneously like he does Tamil film music).

The 2nd part starts up being more lively and high paced. At 4:20, the harp makes its 2nd appearance followed by the oboe. The highlight of the 2nd part is that it is the 1st time the Indian and the western chorus merge together. There are 4 choruses in total, Indian (Tamil) male, Indian (Tamil) female, Western (English) male and Western (Tamil) female, in addition to Ilayaraja and the tenor’s voices. Ilayaraja uses all of them exceedingly well throughout the piece, whether to build up the momentum or slow down a crescendo created by the orchestra, or for pure melody. At no place during the entire piece are you surprised by or annoyed by any of them. I believe (and many agree) that Mozart’s music is extremely simple, it almost makes logical sense once you hear it or you see it on paper, but it is impossible for anyone to create something like it. I think this piece makes me feel the same way.

The 3rd part goes “Namasivaya vaazhga” and is very impressive backed by tamil and english chorus. In terms of orchestra, it is accompanied by several strings, flute from the woodwinds, bass drum and triangle from percusson section. Pity it lasts only 1.30.

Without an exception, all the transitions are very smooth, again to Ilayaraja’ credit, particularly in a long piece like this.

The part from 7:30 is where I lost a little bit of interest. I thought the orchestra, particularly the strings simply follow the voices without doing anything special.
The part from 10:15 is for the tenor to show his mettle. The 1st time piano is used for a limited time. But since the tenor’s voice is not impressive by any means, this part fails to make its mark.

Ilayaraja comes back for some more verses at 11:45 culminating at 12.50 for a series of verses with the Indian male chorus repeats last word of each of the verses rendered by Ilayaraja. This would have so much more impressive if someone else sang it. One more notable point in this part is that the orchestra does not play at all for almost 3 minutes.

At 14:45, another beautiful tune “Maasatra jothi..” is rendered by Ilayaraja and Tamil female chorus accompanied mostly by strings and woodwinds, bass drum playing a simple rhythm. This part is very beautiful albeit being completely Tamil (nothing western about it). Ilayaraja could have made some 5 songs in Tamil movies with the material in this 2:30 part.

To me, the ending of the piece is the best one hands down. The last 2:50 minutes of the song starting around 17:55 “Eesan adi potri” has all parts of the chorus playing alternately, each one handing over the baton to the other and everything works magically and seemlessly. For one example, listen to “Namasivaya vaazhga” sung by the female Indian chorus immediately followed by the female Western chorus, pure genius. All of them work towards the ending in a typical operatic crescendo.

Overall, this piece is definitely the pick of the album. Very moving indeed.

People say that they have a spiritual experience and they were brought to tears when they listened to this piece with their eyes closed. Well, I did not have one, nor did I cry. (I do give you the fact that I am not a very religious person but I did cry when I first heard the 1st movement from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Mozart’s 25th Symphony and Mozart’s Requiem.). I will say this much: I don’t think I have heard a piece like this before that blends Tamil lyrics and Tamil-style singing so well with western orchestration and operatic singing. In my opinion, saying anything beyond this would not be justice. Calling it a symphony or an oratorio is probably a little bit of a stretch. (Interestingly, just yesterday, my friends and I were listening to “Hazir” by Hariharan and discussing how he likes to call it (and other albums) a collection of authentic Ghazals. We can all be nice and help preserve the fiction.).

One big disappointment for me from this album is the absence of pure instrumentals or atleast instrument-dominated pieces. An overture to the album akin to an overture to an opera would have been lovely. Given Ilayaraja’s musical gift and for orchestration in particular, that would have been a very good idea.

The 2nd disappointment was that the all the elements of the orchestra were not used. The strings section was used well. In the woodwinds section, I remember the flute and oboe used sparingly but none of the others. The brass section was hardly used (I vaguely remember there being trombone on another piece).

Several times, I asked myself this question: Aren’t there Ilayaraja songs already that have out-of-the-world orchestration that are decades ahead of its time?. If I were to listen to the beginning of “Edho Mogam” from “Kozhi Koovudhu” played by the same orchestra, wouldn’t it have similar impact than this one? (Just imagine 50 violins playing the piece with the same crispness that we hear in the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.)
To answer this question, I picked up my “Devadhai” CD, loaded it into my player, closed my eyes and listened to “Oru Naal”. I must say it had a big impact. “Oru Naal” has almost the same elements as this one: lovely strings, female and male chorus, grandeur, etc. I am not sure how many people will agree with me on this point.

I am not sure if people noticed this but Unnikrishnan sings a single line (3 secs total). What’s up with that? I am not sure if Ilayaraja had a complete piece for Unnikrishnan which was later left out. Unnikrishnan was also apparently present in the CD release function.

I am very happy to see Ilayaraja finally looking at serious music much beyond Tamil film music. In my opinion, he should stop scoring music for movies and concentrate only on attempts like this one. Who knows, in five years, we might have a full-scale Tamil opera seria set to amazing music by our man. If he is not the first Indian to do it first, I am not sure who can.

- Review by MS: http://www.dhool.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=3057

Discussion Page in DhooL on this Song