- How to Name It?, and: Nothing but Wind
Ilaiyaraaja is a prolific South Indian film composer (5000 songs and more than 840 films), who, according to his website, was also the "first" Asian to compose a symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London. These two albums repre sent the pinnacle so far of his attempts to create a dialogue between Carnatic and Western classical musics. The results are interesting, although sometimes unsuccessful, and it is clear from the occasional track deriving its impetus from a filmi aesthetic that Ilaiyaraaja must be a film composer of considerable talent, a master of Western popular styles, and clearly deserving of the film-related awards heaped upon him by various Indian institutions. Perhaps, however, he should stick with the milieu he knows best.
Ilaiyaraaja is clearly a devoted fan of Bach, Mozart, and the baroque and classical styles in general, with titles like "I Met Bach In My House" and "Mozart I [End Page 153] Love You" clearly indicating the highly specific directions of his inspiration. Of the two albums, How to Name It? is the more accomplished and consistent. The title track superimposes Indian solo instruments (violin, sitar) playing Carnatic ragams over baroque harmonies and structure played by a string orchestra with occasional Carnatic percussion, a combination that produces an often effective synthesis of baroque and Carnatic styles, and which is repre sentative of most tracks on the album. A few tracks have a more obviously filmi quality such as "Chamber Welcomes Thiagaraja" and "Mad Mod Mood Fugue," which is not, in fact, an Indian-inflected baroque fugue, but combines Carnatic violin with funk in a style reminiscent of the highly successful fusion achieved on the 2004 film soundtrack Morning Raga. Perhaps the best track on the album is "(I Met Bach in My House) And We Had a Talk" in which a violinist playing a Carnatic ragam (beginning with a stunning alapanam) duets with another violinist playing the famous Prelude from the Bach E Major Partita, a dialogue one could imagine might even have occurred had those two great composers, Bach and Thyagaraja, ever met.
Nothing but Wind is an altogether patchier affair. It seems to be held together stylistically by little more than the fact that the flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia plays on all the tracks. The first two tracks, "Singing Self" and "Mozart I Love You," both non-ironic homages to baroque and classical style, are almost impossible to review objectively. If one judges them according to the standards of Western art music, at their most coherent, they roughly achieve the level of an undergraduate composition exercise, and elsewhere are marred by basic errors in harmonization and clunky transitions between sections. If, however, one judges them as an attempt by a cultural outsider to master a foreign tradition, place his original stamp on it, and synthesize it with his own, "Singing Self " and "Mozart I Love You" are considerably more sophisticated and convincing than many Western composers' and artists' attempts in reverse. Unfortunately, Ilaiyaraaja's efforts here are sullied by some truly bad orchestral string playing: out of tune, rhythmically inaccurate, with poor ensemble, and a fuzzy, muffled tone-quality that may be due to poor-quality instruments. The absolute low point of the album, the third track "Song of Soul," is Indian restaurant muzak of the worst possible kind, complete with ghastly passages of synthesized male falsetto, hurling the listener unwillingly into a world of flock wallpaper, plastic plants, and synthetic-red chicken tikka masala with chips. "Composers Breath" is an improvement, with some accomplished and melodic solo work by Chaurasia, but it nonetheless only occasionally rises above the kind of New Age blandness that should be banished to alternative bookshops. The best one can say of the fi nal track, "Nothing but Wind," an unintentionally hilarious collage of electronic noises and synthesized Bach pastiche, is that unlike the rest of the album, it is at least stylistically consistent with "Song...