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Brief Prose Alap, Remembering Ravi Shankar

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When I was a first-year undergraduate at Western, I didn’t have many friends and I didn’t really try all that hard to make any. I spent much of my time between classes the same way I spent my evenings at home, sitting at a stereo with a pair of headphones on, listening to music. The university’s music library had maybe twenty listening carrels, surrounded by shelf loads of records, mostly classical, but there were no restrictions preventing non-music students from using the collection, so when I had a free hour I would walk down the snow-covered hill from the arts building to the music faculty, and sit through a couple sides of whatever interesting lps I could find. It was here that I first heard the great Bill Evans Trio (with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian) at the Village Vanguard in 1961; the library owned a twofer compiling most of the tracks (except “Porgy,” I think) from the two albums, and I remember being blown away by the surging, elastic rhythms of their version of “Milestones,” needle again and again. I can’t say how many times over I played the first side of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert; those gospel-tinged, life-affirming cadences have been incised into my aural memory, as they have been for so many people – although, for me, those sounds are also marked indelibly by the context of their first hearing, at a turntable in one of those carrels. I also found a copy of John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, which I didn’t own at the time, and could give “Chasin’ the Trane” the sustained close attention its deserves. I tried new music – they had a complete set of Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen – and found some rarities (a great set by Anita Ellis, elegantly accompanied by Ellis Larkins, which I’ve never seen again or since; an amazing Elvin Jones-Richard Davis duo on “Summertime,” which was long out of print at that point, though it’s since been re-issued). There was a pile of Smithsonian recordings of American folk: my ears were opened, my aural horizons maxed.


         There was one other record I found myself coming back to, a 1981 Deutsche Grammophon release called Homage to Mahatma Gandhi by Ravi Shankar, which combined two side-long sessions with the sitarist and tabla master Alla Rakha. With Ravi Shankar’s death a week or so ago, I started to remember hearing this music, and to think about its impact on me – immature, solitary, arty – a quarter of a century ago. I came to this music via my enthusiasm for Coltrane’s “India,” a sort of minor-modal adaptation to Western ears of Indian idioms. I knew and I know next to nothing about the technicalities of form and structure in Indian classical music, but I do know something about what I thought I heard and can still hear in Ravi Shankar’s recording. He apparently composed Rāga Mohan Kauns, the four-part raga that takes up the first side, extemporaneously and live, at the request of a radio producer in Bombay in 1948, a handful of days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. (The note-sequence that acts as a modal basis for the raga, Ga Ni Dha, is based on Gandhi’s name, a musical code from which Shankar’s extended improvisations gradually take flight.) The first section of the raga is an alap, a slowly building encounter with the basic melodic materials for the piece in non-metered time, without percussion. What I take away from Shankar’s recorded performance – with its tensile, wobbling tones, his languorously whelming, softly metallic attack coupled to a strangely inverted and resilient decay – is a stretching and even a suspension of time. In the encounter with mortality, in a public act of musical mourning, of grief, Ravi Shankar finds for me a pathos, a held poignancy that recalls both the resistance to and the inevitability of death. Rhythm, as he feels his way fingertip by fingertip into his notes, emerges not as virtuosic dominion but as a vibrant elasticity, an opening of the self that bears tactile witness to its calmly passionate refusal of extinction.


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