Thursday, September 13, 2018

I'm picking up good vibrations


There is no doubt that classical concerts are becoming noisier. Concert recordings from the past, e.g. Sir Adrian Boult's Elgar First Symphony at a 1976 Prom - which I attended - or Bruno Maderna's 1971 Festival Hall Mahler Nine - I was at his subsequent Proms performance - with their quiescent audiences provide a stark contrast to the BBC Radio 3 relays of this year's Proms. Not only do we now have the the mindless dribbles of applause between movements, but coughing and other noises off have become de rigeur during the music as well as between it. Not to mention the frantic outbursts by Radio 3's talking heads immediately before and after the music. And on occasions, there are even contributions from mobile phones.

A useful perspective on the balance between the music and the audience is provided in the French Canadian sitar player and teacher Michel Guay's memoir Devenir Invincible. As recounted in my post Are you addicted? Ravi Shankar had strong views on the abuse of drugs. In the 1970s, Indian classical music was being popularised in North America, and it was not mobile phones but joints and chillums that appeared during concerts. So as Michel Guay recounts, Pandit Shankar prefaced a concert in Montreal with the following request:

Those who want to smoke should please go outside. Because for us the music is sacred and this concert is a moment of prayer. Thank you.
Today a 'pick and mix' attitude towards cultural diversity prevails. So we pick the morsels from different cultures that we feel comfortable with, and leave the less appetising morsels untouched. Which means that in our doggedly secular age, the Indian belief derived from Vedanta that music is a sacred bridge between the temporal and transcedent is firmly rejected. But the Serbian tabla player Srdjan Beronja, who studied in Ravi Shankar's birthplace Varanasi, has a different viewpoint. Here is an extract from his invaluable book The Art of the Indian Tabla:
In its basic purpose, music was always considered as a means to reach the Divine. Generally speaking, the purpose of music is not to entertain, accumulate material wealth, be an establishment tool of comply with politics or some other ideas. Its purpose is to comply with the laws of the universe as music is based on these laws. With music it is possible to achieve spiritual development, what is called atma-vidya or 'soul knowledge' in Sanskrit. A person needs to develop music in his atma (soul) and to achieve nada-vidya or'sound knowledge'.
Jazz producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt expands on the concept of music being based on the laws of the universe in his book The World in Sound: Nada Brahma. In it he explains that the only certain thing we know about fundamental matter is that it vibrates. Since all vibrations have a frequency they are therefore sound; so it can be proposed that the universe is music and should be perceived as such. Other visionaries, from the great Sufi musician and teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan to the avant-garde composer Jonathan Harvey also accepted that Western realism and Eastern mysticism could be creatively combined. One of the many things that makes India so fascinating in the 21st century is this incongruous but effective juxtaposition of realism and mysticism. Just one example is the sales success of the books by Ruzbeh N. Bharucha, who is a devotee of the mystic Sai Baba of Shirdi. In the first book of Ruzbeh N. Bharucha's the Fakir trilogy the central character gives advice that may have its roots in the ancient Rig Veda, but which remains perennially relevant even in an age when analogue vibrations are rudely truncated into binary digits:
Every time you do something right, you help tilt the balance in favour of truth and that contribution affects the vibrations within the cosmos. Each one of us sending out the right vibrations can then help change the mindset of more and more people until the world throbs with positive vibrations and right actions. Each of us matters to providence and has a say in creation and evolution.
The header graphic is provided by the recent release Ravi Shankar in Hollywood, 1971. This, like his anti-drug theatre piece 'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch', comes from the the official label of the Ravi Shankar Foundation label East Meets West Music. It captures a morning concert at Pandit Shankar's home on Highland Avenue in Hollywood in June 1971, and the recording has never previously been released as the tapes were only recently discovered buried in the Shankar archive. The double CD captures the sitar master at the peak of his performing powers, but it also has a unique historic importance. The private concert took place as the tragic plight of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was emerging following the Bangladesh Liberation War-related genocide. Ravi Shankar is heard empathising with the Bangladeshi refugees, and George Harrison was in the audience. So Ravi Shankar in Hollywood, 1971 can truthfully be billed as the first and previously unreleased concert for Bangladesh. The music affected the vibrations in the cosmos,and the rest, as they say, is history.

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