A Very Special Talent from Madras – Interview by Mr.Michael N Townend
December 17, 2013 by RaajaMusic
While searching for information about the symphony project of Raja sir, recorded in the year 1993, I found this somewhere in internet (Source Unknown); an interview by Michael N Townend who was an Orchestration Adviser and Music Producer for the Symphony project with the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra.
If still there is someone who thinks that Ilaiyaraaja has done something wrong with symphony (or even if he or she thinks that it wasn’t a symphony at all) as it was his first experiment, please read this interview by someone who had seen many other symphony writers in his career has told about our own Indian music director, Dr.Ilaiyaraaja.
It is worth reading the full article.
Here it goes…
MICHAEL N TOWNEND was the Orchestration Adviser and Music Producer for the Symphony project with the RPO. An eminent composer, orchestrator and arranger, he works in a wide spectrum of music from Jazz, Pop, and Classical to films and TV serials. As music co-ordinator for this project, he first visited Madras in February 1993 for initial discussions with Ilaiyaraaja. He shares his experience in this article which was published in the 1993 Autumn News Letter of the Association of Professional Composers (APC), London.
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to visit Madras as the guest of an Indian composer who is known-very well known as I later discovered- simply as ILAIYARAAJA. The reason for my visit was that enquiries had been made on the Maestro’s behalf to various bodies, organisations, orchestral management and associations (including our own APC) to investigate the possibility of arranging a recording here in Britain of a new work that he was intending to write. He wished, in fact, to extend his already prodigious output in a more positively artistic and perhaps, intellectually demanding manner by composing and recording a Symphony, in the hope that in this way, his considerable musical talents would reach a wider and more international audience.
In the event, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had been selected to record his symphony, and my involvement as that of adviser on matters such as modern conventions in orchestration and recording procedures since I had been working closely with the RPO for some time previously. The Maestro wished me to advise him on matters such as the various strengths or weaknesses of the orchestra, and how best to write for such combinations, and in what form he should write to achieve the best results. It transpired that he had an incredibly busy schedule, which was why he requested that I visit him, rather than he visit us here in the UK.
Now, before the beginning of this year I had not, I have to confess, heard of neither Maestro Ilaiyaraaja nor any of his music. So it was with considerable curiosity (and perhaps even a mild degree of skeptical disbelief) that I listened to the CD titled “How To Name It?” which was handed to me by way of preparation for my visit to Madras.
My initial impressions on hearing this album were that the composer was clearly both talented, and well versed in many different musical traditions from all ends of the musical spectrum. There were strong influences from Bach particularly, and Mozart, and other composers from both Baroque and Classical periods of Western music, but also, quite properly as one would expect, influences from his own rich musical heritage with many complex and interesting rhythmic patterns and the use of ethnic scales, modes, stylistic devices, ornamentations and inflexions. This diversity and his fluency in using and combining such influences was very obviously one of his major strengths.
Thus prepared, I went to Madras with considerable respect for this man, but still retaining a degree of skepticism for what I suspected were the more extravagant claims for the magnitude of his output. Although I was aware of the scale of the film industry in India, I was still unprepared for the scene in Madras – particularly when compared to the sad decline of our own film industry here in Britain.
Meeting the Maestro at the film studious AVM where he has worked for many years with enormous successes, I was greeted by this quiet, gentle and kind man, who, with good reason, is held in semi-reverence by those around him, yet who was prepared to take time out from his busy schedule scoring for films to meet me and consult with me about matters relating to the planning and necessary preparations for the writing and recording of his first symphony.
The first eye-opener for me was learning that this particular composer was so popular with the film-going audiences in Southern India (whose enthusiastic appetite for the cinema equals only their love of cricket) that his photograph appears on the posters, billboards and advertising for the film – as large as the photos of the actors whose popularity and status he rivals. Apparently, his name attached to a film (and his picture on the publicity) guarantees the film producer at least five additional weeks retention in the cinemas. The public adores him, and as such, producers are constantly beating a path to his door; he can and does command as high a fee as he considers a film producer’s budget can stand – and he gets it.
I tried to describe for him the difference in the situation over here or in America; how many of the general public know or even care who wrote the music for most of our films, let alone would recognize and appreciate the composer’s picture on the billboards? I would imagine quite a few people would have heard of John Williams, but would they know what he looks like?
Naturally this pre-eminence in the industry allows Ilaiyaraaja great freedom, both artistically, in terms of the style of music and the instrumentation that he may choose to employ and the artists, but also editorially. What do I mean? Well this was my next eye-opener; the producer or director doesn’t tell the Maestro which music cues he will require, nor does he decide where they will begin or end, or what mood he wishes the music to help create or reinforce – the Maestro tells him!
This revolutionary approach certainly has one very positive effect, which is easily and instantly appreciated; there is much less time wasted in the early stages of planning and pre-production, and less hassle for the composer, who is not therefore subjected to delays while re-shoots or re-cut versions are prepared, nor made to suffer the criticisms and indecision of a “committee” of opinions.
My latent skepticism on being told that Ilaiyaraaja had scored the music for 700 films in 17 years all but vanished when I arrived at the film studios to observe him working on a new film from the outset.
My awe and admiration for him increased when I realised that without the aid of lists of music cues, a music editor or even a stopwatch, the Maestro was able to compose accurately a piece for a particular film cue which fitted exactly not only the required timing but also the mood and pace of the action on the screen, heightening the tension if it was a fight scene, or enhancing with beautiful lyrical melodies the romantic mood of a love scene, or just adding spontaneously joyous excitement rhythmically to a dance scene.
Having written this piece in a form of short score – part Western notation and part Tamil – with full instructions for the orchestration, the players clustered round him proceeded to write their own parts out, and immediately sit down to record this piece.
This practice itself accounts for the speed at which a film score can be completed (just two and a half days was his record) but this in no way diminishes the achievements of the composer, who brings such natural and intuitive talent to his work.
Although he says of himself that the music comes from God and he is merely the conduit for its transmission, it must be said that without his incredible ability to absorb influences and use them to such good effect, combined with his innate musical skills and finely-tuned ear, God might perhaps have sought a different channel of musical communication.
As it is, all of India, not merely the South, must feel very proud of its native composer who has achieved so much for films and now in the wider sphere of recorded music.
The recordings with the RPO were extremely successful. The music contained so many beautiful melodies and exciting moments, and was found to be quite challenging by the orchestra, who were naturally unfamiliar with the Maestro’s style at first, but who soon became adept at its interpretation.
Many were expecting the music to display a more obviously “Indian” flavor, but since I was aware that Ilaiyaraaja had set himself the task of reaching the widest possible international audience and did not wish his work to be heard in the context of a “novelty item” or a fusion of East and West in ways which have already been explored, I was not surprised by the accessibility of the music to Western ears. Nevertheless, Indian influences there are in abundance in the way in which he has used rhythms, and certain stylistic and ornamentational devices, and I am glad that these are present in this, his first symphony.
It is truly a very accessible piece of music and one, which I hope, will be played and enjoyed throughout the world. I was very proud to have been involved both as an orchestration adviser, and as music producer to this project from the very beginning; from the moment that I first heard the exciting music of Maestro Ilaiyaraaja back in January 93. I hope our association will continue long into the future.
Following is the article from “THE HINDU – International Edition” September 4, 1993
Q: How did you get the offer to write a symphony?
Pyramid International, a recording company based in London, asked me whether I would be interested in writing a symphony. Writing a symphony needs much concentration. I said, “If I agree to write a symphony, how do you propose to market it? The people there who listen to classical music do not know about me. How do you make it possible for them to hear my music?” They said, You leave that part to us.” Only then I agree to it. That made them get in touch with several orchestras and eventually they chose the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), considered the best in the world, which plays only great Western classical composers. The RPO people said that they did not know about me. They said that I might be a very good composer, but what about my caliber in Western classical music? So complete details about me were sent to them. My two discs, ‘Nothing but Wind’ and ‘How to name it,’ were sent. That convinced them of my capability to write a symphony.
Q: So you started writing the symphony?
No. I asked for a co-ordinator. They sent Michael Townsend. He can conduct, arrange. He is a one-man army as far as music is concerned. He came and saw me work in films. He said, ‘When you were writing the score, you did not struggle for any ideas. You did not take your pen off the script before finishing it. I have never seen such a composer before. Your dedication is remarkable.’ When he saw the re-recorded film, he was moved. He was really stunned to by the synchronisation of the music with the film. He told the RPO that this time they were going to record the work of a composer who was different.
Q: So you agreed to write the symphony for the RPO?
Yes. They laid certain conditions. The foremost was that I must send the score at least three months in advance. I accepted, but my film commitments made me give the score only a month before the recording. In fact, I gave the last piece only 12 days before the recording. But when the recording was over in London, all the musicians broke into a standing ovation. They started tapping the floor with their feet. I was thrilled and thanked the Almighty for giving me this opportunity to write a symphony and have it recorded.
Q: What exactly is a symphony?
It is a form of orchestration. We have in our system of music different elements — geetam, swarajathi, varnam, keerthanam. Film music is also a form, something like keerathanam with pallavi, anupallavi, and charanam. Symphony, which has three main elements, is a form too. What I do in films is also a kind of symphony. For a full-fledged orchestra, symphony is the mainstay.
Q: How did you feel when every member of the RPO congratulated you?
He (God) made it happen. It was unbelievable. There are thousands of people who are practising or composing music. But who got the chance? Who selected me? I did not do anything. He (God) selected me. I prayed to God in gratitude that He made me do it.
Q: What do you think of the computer music coming up in a big way in films?
Conductor John Scott also asked me about computer music. He has a computer and I too have one. Scott and I went to a bookstall and bought some books. To total the prices of the books, the store staff started searching for the calculator. But I calculated the total and told them before the calculator could do it. They asked me how I was able to do it. If you do not know arithmetical calculations, then you need a calculator. This is how I explain computer music. Anybody can buy a computer and make it play ‘C’ major. Anyone can compose music easily with a computer. But this is for the laymen. If you have the skill you do not need a computer … In computer music, after a few songs, one gets fed up because the computer can give only certain variations as programmed. You will never get anything new in moods or emotions.
Q: What are your ‘bests’ in films?
The moment I can say that this is my best song or best music in films, I will stop giving music. I still do not know what music really is and I am trying hard to comprehend it. Once I know it, I will have my fulfilment and I will stop doing what I am doing now.
Q: Six hundred and fifty films in 17 years, 3500-odd songs. If you still say you have not done anything, then …
For you, I am Ilayaraja. But for me, “Who am I?” I have not even started tuning my instrument properly. Then I must synchronise the tampura with the sruti, next practice it, and last comes the singing.
Q: How many days did you take to write the symphony?
One month. Some eminent composers have taken three to 14 years. Some others just three days.
Q: It seems that Pandit Ravishanker and L. Subramanyam have also done a symphony and that was also recorded in London.
I do not know whether they have recorded a symphony or not. But the RPO’s programme executive, Ian Maclay, wrote to me mentioning that I was the first composer from whole of Asia to write a symphony.
Q: Have you named the symphony?
No. Scott told me that he could name it ‘Fantasy.’ I said it was not fantasy. I have a couple of names in mind, but I have not decided on it.
Q: Did any of the Carnatic music exponents congratulate you on your achievement?
T. V. Gopalakrishnan, Mandolin Srinivas were there to receive me at the airport. The ‘Bhishma’ of Carnatic music, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, came to my place twice to congratulate me.
Q: What do you plan to do after this?
Nothing is in my hands. We plan so many things. But can anyone predict what will happen? So I do not plan. Whatever comes, take it in your stride. If you aim at something and do not get it, you feel dejected … He (God) is planning in His own way.
Q: Does the Carnatic base help you in your chosen field?
Carnatic music and Western classical music are two different cultures, though the sounds are the same. The difference between the two systems is: one is like living with the people and the other like living alone. Carnatic music is like living in solitude and doing meditation like our sages. Western music needs harmony, counterpoints and many accompaniments. It is like living with people.
Q: From Pannaipuram to films — do you think you have achieved what you wanted?
No. I do not think of anything as my achievement. Today’s record may be bettered tomorrow.
John Scott's ColumnAs time permits, John Scott will answer your questions and have the answer posted here. This question comes from Anbu Ramasamy:
I think you are one of the best composers around & my mission now is to go out and get all your CDs. Please keep composing & keep releasing your music.
The question I have is somewhat involving you and another person. I was thrilled when I heard that you were going to conduct the symphony for Mr. Ilayaraja from India when he was commissioned to write a symphony. Mr. Ilayaraja is my favorite Indian composer & I couldn't believe my ears when I came to know another one of my favorite composers (you!) was going to conduct it. There was a huge celebration for him in India with all the top personality & you honoring Mr. Ilayaraja. This was shown in the tele & I was ecstatic to see you on stage. As you were being garlanded on stage, I also happened have your CD 'John Scott's Favorites' gracing my glass cupboard with you in front. I so excitingly pointed out to my family members 'there that's him' & they really couldn't believe as well.
But till now, this symphony has not been released & there hasn't any news about it. I hope you can enlighten about its release & the work of Mr. Ilayaraja.
Dear Anbu (Singapore),
Thank you for your very kind comments. I am a very lucky person because I spend my life doing what I like, which is composing music.
It was very interesting to hear that you witnessed the Ilayaraja honoring ceremony on TV. I was flown from London to Madras specially for it. It was an incredible experience and I shall never forget it. Ilayaraja and I became very close friends and I have tried to encourage him to get his symphony released. I believe he was hurt by a critics review, and this is the reason it has not been released. I had the privilege of conducting the recording sessions with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in London, and we all believe it deserves to be released. The trouble is that critics are capable of destroying sensitive artists and have done it throughout the history of music. The more one knows a piece of music the more one loves it, and the stupid critics are incapable of judging anything they have never heard before. They have seldom been right. There is a wonderful book by Nicolas Slonimsky entitled LEXICON OF MUSICAL INVECTIVE. It is a history of musical criticism since Beethoven's time. It shows how the critics have crucified every great composer without exception! I will contact Illayaraja and tell him about your kind remarks and that he owes it to us all to make his symphony available.
I send you my best wishes,
Last Updated: 12/12/2006 12:38:18
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