The other day on CH, I was listening in on a room. It was a technical analysis of one of Ilayaraaja’s composition by Satish Raghunathan, who happens to be a good friend of Swathi and me. This is not my first time hearing Satish go bonkers over this man’s music, but, it’s a joy to hear it everytime. The next day, it spawned a discussion with Swathi & me on one aspect of the discussion which I felt was universally applicable. Before we move to it, for the readers – I’m a Gnanasoonyam when it comes to music. All the musical nuances of that CH discussion went way above my head, and, I could (only) connect with that discussion on a meta aspect.

So, the meta aspect is this – how do people who are considered incredibly good at their field end up doing stuff that feels otherworldly or divine (depending on what your leanings are) ?

Back to this particular case, Satish was breaking down the technical genius that was intrinsic in a particular composition Nil Nil Nil… . The essence of the discussion went something like this…

  • Almost each verse of the song was transitioning between different scales
  • Finding the right points to transition between the verses isn’t easy
  • There’s the idea of Swara/Graha bedham but being able to do it so seamlessly so often and yet preserving the integrity of the whole composition is immaculate
  • Also, it’s not just one transition and back. There are multiple transitions, chaining them together and coming back to the original scale needs a completely different level of expertise
  • Now, this is not only between lines - it extends through the song between pallavi and charanams too
  • Also, the composer has to find a way to come back to the starting scale in a sensible fashion
  • Apparently, the transitions were all possible because the composer had developed a deep understanding of classical music (both western and indian)

Here’s the fun part, the experience as listeners of the composition is this:

  • You get a seamless experience and you don’t even notice these shifts/transitions apart from the mood trip the song might give you

As a musician, you start to wonder how this is possible:

  • Did Raaja really plan this out – identifying the points of transitions, the places to return and so on ?
  • Is this not really what’s happening and are we as musicians over-analyzing ?
  • Or, is Raaja handling music in a completely different way ?

All three are equally possible, if you did not know much about Ilayaraaja. There’s a saying - “Once is chance, twice is coincidence, third time is a pattern”. Apparently, Ilayaraaja’s compositions are fraught with such instances of amazing, seamless, technically correct transitions. This leaves us with exploring the third possibility - he’s probably handling music in a completely different way.

Satish during the discussion on CH admitted that according to him – This is a completely elevated level of thinking/processing by the composer and this does not seem to be a “planned set of transitions”.

This entire observation is relatable for me. In my field of work, when we solve problems - we are constantly solving by keeping in mind various dimensions - operations, scale, maintainability, readability and so on. And, people who are extremely good at this, they end up arriving at solutions/method/process that attains a very fine balance between the various dimensions. Constant practices allows you to get good at it. You start deeply internalizing the pros/cons of each step as part of the solution across these various dimensions and after enough practice, you reach a place where these are already pre-computed by your brain and “cached”.

I was sharing this possibility with my wife and we ended up chatting with Satish on this. Our rambling took various twists and turns and as is always the case with us - we ended up getting to existential aspects. Does he have his own language of music ? Does he not have a choice about what music comes out of him ? Is he one with music ?

It made us appreciate the capabilities of the brain and our level of expertise or capability wrt handling our brain. We both felt that there has to be a method (conceivable or inconceivable) to this “madness” that Raaja and his music is, but, with our limited understanding we are left with very less choices – call him a “thani piravi / mystic” or accept that we don’t know what is going on with him ?

Is he a Mystic or a Maestro ? Either way, you have no choice but to drown in his music, once you listen to him!

PS: This was written listening to Nil, Nil Nil and Nee Paartha Paarvaikoru nandri