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The First World Musician of Note, Pandit Ravi Shankar Passes

11:04 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Composer, scholar, teacher and worldwide performer, Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away Tuesday at the Scripps Hospital, in La Jolla, near San Diego, California.  He had been admitted on December 6th with breathing difficulties.  Shankar was 92.

An elderly Ravi Shankar with his sitar

Ravi Shankar in 2009

Perhaps more than any other artist of the 20th century, his performances around the world gained global acceptance for Hindustani music.  His collaborations with non-Indian musicians, spanning over half a century, made him an early crossover figure.  Shankar was one of the first musicians of the foremost rank whose role in emerging post World War II culture not only created what became known as “world music,” it helped make that label a powerful one.

Shankar first became a celebrity in the late 1960s, when Beatle George Harrison studied Hindustani music with the master in London, Kashmir and India.  Harrison had earlier used a sitar, retuned to typical Western tuning, in his song, Norwegian Wood.  After studying with Shankar, Harrison wrote Within You, Without You, for the Sgt. Pepper album.

Though the master’s collaboration with Harrison was his most famous, he worked with many of the world’s finest musicians:

[Shankar] became a de facto tutor for Westerners fascinated by India’s musical traditions.

He gave lessons to [John] Coltrane, who named his son Ravi in Shankar’s honor, and became close friends with [Yehudi] Menuhin, recording the acclaimed “West Meets East” album with him. He also collaborated with flutist Jean Pierre Rampal, composer Philip Glass and conductors Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta.

“Any player on any instrument with any ears would be deeply moved by Ravi Shankar. If you love music, it would be impossible not to be,” singer David Crosby, whose band The Byrds was inspired by Shankar’s music, said in the book “The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi.”

A man with a long, complex love life, he fathered both Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar, winners of almost a score of Grammies.

He inspired one of the first mega-benefit concerts in modern music history, the August, 1971 Concerts for Bangla Desh.  Here is a shortened version of the opening set of the concert, which later also featured Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, and the band Badfinger.  In this segment, the musicians are Ravi Shankar on sitar, Ali Akbhar Khan on Sarod, Kamala Chakravarty on tamboura, and Alla Rakha on tablas:

At the time of the concerts for Bagladesh, I was a music director and producer at a Seattle radio station, KRAB FM, that played more music from around the world than any other in the United States, and studying sitar with Dr. Robert Jangaard, who had been taught by Ali Akbar Khan, at the latter’s school in San Rafael, California.  On the air, we not only played chamber works of north Indian music that Khan’s and Shankar’s so fully exemplified, we had a large collection of the latter’s music from his many film scores.

It was through doing research on Shankar’s film music that I first came into contact with the name of Philip Glass, who had yet to become discovered, let alone famous.  Glass, in a 1972 interview for KRAB radio conducted by Michael Wiater with the minimalist composer, stated that his work with Shankar on a film score while studying in Paris in 1966 changed his life in a profound way.  Wikipedia relates the transformation:

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Saturday Art: Thoughts on Dmitri Shostakovich’s Babi Yar Symphony and Occupy Wall Street

1:10 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Yevgeny  Yevtushenko (photo: Igor Palmin, flickr)

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (photo: Igor Palmin, flickr)

A remarkable performance from August 2006 showed up on Youtube late last month. It is a rendition of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, by the Maryinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus, with bass Mikhail Petrenko, conducted by the great Valery Gergiev. The presentation was on August 19, 2006, at Royal Albert Hall, as part of the BBC Proms series. The recording, in high definition video, and with superb sound, has subtitles. It is a stunning document.

I’ve written a little about the Occupy Wall Street movement and the fine arts here, covering, for instance, the Occupy Lincoln Center protests after the final performance by the Metropolitan opera of Philip Glass’ opera about pacifism and civil disobedience, Satyagraha.  I wrote then:

I would like to see more artists involved in OWS in 2012 than has been the case this year.  It is certainly true that a lot of artists are involved, but they are mostly popular artists, with only a sprinkling of personalities or top names from the fine arts.

The reality that among the first victims of funding cuts in education and government agencies are fine arts programs and classes, and that this has been going on for decades, hasn’t been covered as much as it should have been.  Arts programs all over the country were the prototypes for moves designed to lower taxes on the 1%.

I’ve written a fair number of works that protest injustice, violence and environmental degradation. In America, protest music is generally associated with the realms of the blues, jazz, rock, rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop.  Classical composers who have joined in social protests through their works have been few and far between.  The modern American composer who suffered most for his political activities was the iconic populist artist, Aaron Copland.  He had the audacity to stiff Sen. Joe McCarthy’s juggernaut.  When called to testify in front of McCarthy, here was part of the exchange:

[A]fter composer Aaron Copland denied ever having been a communist, McCarthy hectored the composer, “You have what appears to be one of the longest communist-front records of anyone we have had here.”

Copland replied, “I spend my days writing symphonies, concertos, ballads, and I am not a political thinker.”

Copland was never called to appear at a public hearing.

He was blacklisted from the film industry and other important venues.  A performance of his Lincoln Portrait for President Eisenhower’s inaugural events was cancelled.

My own work, The Skies Are Weeping, got me denounced by Alaska Rep. Bob Lynn in front of a joint session of the Alaska Legislature.  Unlike Copland, I’ve still got my job.

But compared to the ordeals of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and thousands of Soviet artists from 1935 well into the 1960s, we were lucky, to say the least. Read the rest of this entry →

Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed Speak at Occupy Lincoln Center

6:15 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

The human microphone resonated loudly outside of Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera House last Thursday night.  31 years after its premiere in Rotterdam, one of the finest American operas, Philip Glass’ epic Satyagraha, finally had its Metropolitan Opera debut last month.  Thursday night was its final performance.  Composer Glass had been asked by Occupy Lincoln Center and Occupy Opera to address hundreds of demonstrators outside the house.  He agreed.

Between the final curtain of the opera and Glass’ speech, NYPD barricades were erected between opera goers and demonstrators.  People upstairs at the Met could see the hundreds of demonstrators and police outside through the building’s windows.

Writing at The Awl, Seth Colter Walls, who was there, described the scene, comparing the police scenes in the opera itself to those outside:

At one juncture, the shadows of acrobats who are miming, in slow motion, the violence of police against Civil Rights protestors are visible through windows scrimmed with newspapers. Meantime, projections of documentary videos showing similar truth-forces play around the borders of those same windows. When the shock troops break the historical fourth wall, slicing the newspapers into ribbons as they move from the deep American south into the forward-stage world of Gandhi’s compatriots, the viewer’s response may be to object on the basis of some temporal-spacial order. Police can’t just do that, can they? They can’t magically cross continents and decades in order to tamp down any social movement they choose, right?

The constricts that power itself is obliged to observe are actually amorphous, at least from the outside; it’s hard to know exactly where they really lie, or when, or to what degree, they may ever be changing. This accounts not just for what we may now commonly describe as Kafkaesque machinations of legal systems, but also citizens’ wariness regarding nascent social movements. (Are they “really” doing something important? Are they “good” at whatever it is? Are they “likely” to succeed regarding issues “coherently” expressed?) Read the rest of this entry →