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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Musical musings – 5- Composing, singing and creativity and problems

It is often recommended that people, especially singers, be creative and develop their own style of singing. This gives them an identity. There are many pro singers with distinct style. SPB, KJY, Janaki, Asha, Kishore, Rafi, Hariaharan. The rookies like me tend to get excited by the songs of these people and re-sing them in an effort to hone their voices. Well, even the pros have their idols from which they imbibed the technicalities.

Creativity in singing can be best visualized by the multiple ways a singer can sing a line with his innovative improvisations. Taskmasters like MSV who were excellent singers themselves, do not give much room for even giants like SPB and extract from hem exactly what modulations and expression they want. Sriram Lakshman (SL) once told me how the song "nilave ennidam" was composed at 3:30 am. PBS is supposed to have told SL: "MSV started composing only at 3:30 am. And then just for one line, he sang around a 100 variations for 1 hour. After that, he asked me to chose one and sing. I told him to pick one all by himself and give it to me, since I could not remember most of the stuff that he sang in that time of night".

Unlike MSV, K. V. Mahadevan - affectionately remembered as Mama - is supposed to have given a lot of freedom for the singers. Check the audio interview of SPB in for the details. In spite of him being a superb singer himself, he gave quite a room to the singers thus ensuring that the output from them is not sub-par.

In SPB's words, ARR is supposed to be the most flexible. Understandably so, with his limited vocal abilities, I would believe, he lays the base vocal track which is taken and embellished by singers of the highest quality like SPB and Hariharan. Thus a composer comes up with a song and puts it across through the pro-singer's voice.

What do the rookies like me do? They try to learn the song and replicate. How well you replicate, makes you just as well a stage singer. Some of these pro-singers have songs in their profile (like the list for SPB) which become extremely tough to sing. The rookie patiently listens to it and tries to learn it. After preparation he is ready to deliver.

Now at this stage he has two options:

(1) Sing the song exactly the way it was sung
(2) Add his/her improvisations and sing.

It is here that I tend to question improvisations. The improvisations must NEVER be convenient approximations for the original. Such a compromise leads only to a collective result of improper listening and wrong delivery. A decent rookie may manage to mask the errors cleverly, but if he wishes to learn, he needs to rectify and not hide his errors.

I would say there are two faces to creativity/ improvisation/innovation:

(1) Real creativity (RC) - where you create something after knowing the original.
(2) False creativity (FC) - where you render something in the name of improvisation since you cannot perform/understand the original.

FC brings along with it a lot of indiscipline along with an egotistical backing. It is only the rookie performer who knows that he is wrong. Those people who have strong music background will be able to find out too. But the lay crowd usually does not recognize the approximations. If the rookie is happier to get lauded for his simplified versions of the original he will NEVER improve. Such an attitude will never add to the music knowledge one has. It just fans the ego and comes with a bag of incurable indiscipline.

OTOH, RC is that when the rookie as a singer-composer creates absolutely new structures in improvisations, after being able to understand and deliver the original. Thus it becomes essential to learn the song properly (as is form the guru or any other proper source) and then plunge into it with innovation.

The second step may require that we pretty much copy the original singer's song but deliver in our style. A question as to whether we are being copy cats comes then. Yes we are. But, we are NOT going to restrict ourselves by copying one singer alone. We shall listen to multiple singers, genres and attempt to fuse all these knowledge into one genre / style which will be unique. This style will evolve slowly but certainly. It needs a lot of contemplation. A “sing and forget" attitude will not help in progress. Essentially what the rookie singer tries to do is pool all the musical information, understand it thoroughly and then process it in such a way to derive an amalgamated approach coupled with some new thoughts of his own.

A realization of this sort came into my mind when I dabbled with composing (3 yrs back I think). When I started composing, I did it plainly by singing and not referring to the keyboard (I still compose the same way for almost 90 % of my songs). But at one point of time, I realized I need more structures and hence I taught myself the Carnatic notation and swaras. Since I was already a half baked keybaord player, it was not very difficult to understand the swaras. When I started dabbling with unusual swara phrase constructs by deliberately playing them in the keyboard, I started getting unusual melody progressions.

I was asking myself - Am I composing or fooling around? For example, let us take the case of a semi-classical song - most of the run of mill semi-classical songs have trite meter and fail to register a mark in our memory. Only some leave an indelible impact. When I composed a song on Krishna in hindholam, I wanted a very different way of splitting the swaras. So I wrote the timing of swaras first arbitrarily:

2+5+2+5+4+4+3+3+4+4 = 32 = one adi talam

then I came up with:

Sa Sndmg ni ndmgs nSGS sgm gmd mdan SGSn

Wow! I got a complicated set of swaras with a difficult timing ! A new thing! Well, just writing the swaras and singing them without soul is something only a keyboard will do. This is where the human element comes to iron out.

I just keep singing the swaras over and over and guess what I finally find a smooth way to sing them and make them appear as if they have been carved out naturally!!!! The mechanical construction process supplemented with the human rendition process finally gives a nice set of swarajathi which is unheard till now! But is this composing?

It is. This is the way to learn if there is no guru. Keep hitting at the notes and form songs by hook or crook means - and keep on singing - you will see songs coming out of you automatically. But this can become a boring process - and sometimes your mind says - put it to rest and do something that you would like - guess what ? Out of the blue your mind will give you a tune for which you do not have to construct swaras or do anything! But this happens only if you keep on thinking about music.

IsainaadiyE, which is in the same ragam, happened just out of the blue including the swaras. They just rolled out of my mind and voice and I captured them in audio. Later I coded them for future reference. The main idea of composing seems to be to just dabbling. This will ensure that we get something someday!

Well, with almost 3 yrs of composing experience (tunes only); I have come to terms with he fact that composing is not entirely a process borne out of mind. When there is a support instrument like a keyboard or synthesizer, the amateurs make a good use of them also. This is the way music is !

I started to play around with swaras and I understood there were so many ways I could construct a particular line and I liked more than one of them. I just arbitrarily picked the appropriate improvisations and fixed the songs. But as days went by and my listening arena expanding, I have been able to imbibe many good elements from the Stalwarts and I see various influences in my composing and singing. I hope I finally reach my destination which is to craft a style of my own!


These stmts are just reflections of my thought processes. They are neither authoritative nor redundant. They must be considered merely as reflective. I am an amateur and some of the stmts may not make real sense.

My other musical musings may be found here:

  1. Mandram vandha and CECRI
  2. Mandram vandha
  3. nalamvaaza
  4. ennavaLE