Rock music in the 1960s was celebrated for its wackiness, but the single that charted in the UK in September 1969 out-wacked them all. Recorded in EMI's famed Abbey Road Studios by members of the Radha Krsna Temple, produced by George Harrison (see photo below) and released on the Beatle's Apple Records, Hare Krishna Mantra reached number twelve in the charts and made two appearances on the BBC TV's iconic Top of the Pops programme. In early 1970 a second single from the Radha Krsna Temple charted and in May 1971 the LP seen above was released on the Apple label.
The Radha Krishna Temple is the London headquarters of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. For many the Krisna Consciousness movement means sandals, saffron-dyed sheets, tambourines and the Hare Krishna Mantra in Oxford Street. But the Krishna Consciousness movement, although only dating from 1966, uses the 5000 year old Bhagavad Gītā as a primary source to offer a refreshingly comprehensible monotheistic alternative to the notoriously opaque polytheism of orthodox Hinduism. The Hare Krishna earworm that started breeding in 1969 is in fact is a sixteen-word Hindu mantra that was adopted by the Bhakti movement in the 15th century and today Bhakti yoga is a cornerstone of the Krishna Consciousness movement. At which point we leave the Radha Krsna Temple in London and follow the path to the IRCAM centre for science and music in Paris.
In 1980 Pierre Boulez invited Jonathan Harvey to work at the IRCAM centre in Paris. One of the first products of this collaboration was Harvey's 1982 Bhakti which was commissioned by IRCAM and builds on the lineage of Messiaen and Stockhausen. Although scored for chamber orchestra and quadraphonic tape without voices, eleven of the twelve movements have quotations from the Sanskrit Rig Veda hymns appended in the score. Unlike Harvey's later works such as his String Quartet No. 4 there is no real-time electronic sound transformation in Bhakti. However the pre-recorded tape is created using computers to transform the sound of the instrumental ensemble. This blends with the live instruments to create a sound world that Jonathan Harvey describes as "reaching beyond the instrumental scale to a more universal dimension" which evokes the transcedent consciousness of the Rig Veda hymns.
Spiritual consciousness is the link between the Hare Krishna Mantra and Bhakti. George Harrison's Radha Krsna Temple production was a surprise chart hit and Jonathan Harvey is one of a group of composers, which also includes Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener and Philip Glass, who, despite differing styles, share a fascination with the spiritual that resonates with contemporary audiences. That great innovator John Cage was influenced by the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai whose definition of the purpose of music is so often forgotten in the current stampede to find new audiences:
The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.The spiritual dimension is also found in many of the masterpieces of classical music, from Bach's B minor Mass to Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. At which point mammon rears its ugly head, because we must conclude that there is a link between spirituality and the box office. Yet, despite this self-evident link, classical music's marketeers insist that entertainment and not enlightenment is the way to reach new audiences. Which is puzzling because there are powerful commercial arguments for tapping into the enlightenment market. For example, the mind, body and spirit market in America, which includes CDs, books, seminars and yoga courses, is worth $10.63 billion. By comparison the value of the US market for classical albums has declined to less than $200 million. Which means the American mind, body and spirit market is fifty times larger than that for recorded classical music.
It is not just the numbers that are attractive. There are already important overlaps between the two markets in areas such as music therapy and epigenetics, while Sufi and gnawa music are rooted in healing rituals. Katharine Le Mée's excellent little book on the origins, practice and healing power of Gregorian chant was featured here recently. This book was inspired by the album of Gregorian chant by the monks of the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain that reached number 3 in the Bilboard rock chart in 1994 and went on to sell five million copies worldwide.
It is clear that the currently fashionable strategy of using a mix of celebrity and new media to promote classical music as an entertainment medium is failing to attract new audiences, and PR stunts such as yesterday's How Nintendo fans could save classical music story smack of desperation. Some will doubtless conclude that leveraging the mind, body and spirit market is as wacky as the Hare Krishna Mantra. But tantric massages in the Albert Hall to the soundtrack of Siegfried's Dawn and Rhine Journey are not part of the plan. Rather, it is proposed that classical music stops trying to reposition itself in the already overcrowded entertainment sector and starts, with some cues from the flourishing well-being industry, selling itself as the kind of unique life enriching experience that none other than Tom Service was exposed to recently:
Something weird happened last week at the Royal Festival Hall. At the end of Claudio Abbado's performance of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, what I experienced – along with thousands of others in the hall, and thousands more listening on Radio 3 – felt like a vision of infinity, a collapsing of time and space into a single point of brilliance and intensity.There are not too many $11 billion market opportunities around, so perhaps it is time for classical music to stop talking entertainment and start talking enlightenment. Can Saint Gregory, Bach, Mahler, George Harrison, Jonathan Harvey and Tom Service all be wrong?
* The Radha Krsna Temple album was remastered as a CD in 2010 and released with two bonus tracks and additional documentation. Well worth seeking out, George Harrison's production is superb and the CD delivers a surprisingly powerful musical and spiritual punch. The recording of Jonathan Harvey's Bhakti made by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne conducted by Lorraine Vaillancourt at the time of the work's 1992 premiere is now deleted but copies can be found. An alternative recording on the NMC label is available as a CD and download. Jonathan Harvey's Vers, which was written for Pierre Boulez's seventy-fifth birthday, quotes from Bhakti and is one of the works on an excellent new album of Harvey's chamber music titled Run Before Lightning recorded by the Dynamis Ensemble and Javier Torres Maldonado. My interview with Jonathan Harvey can be heard here.
* Today (Oct 26) is Dwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
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