Music that goes around comes around
In the 1970s CBS put a lot of promotional clout behind their SQ four channel sound system. Although there were a number of classical releases, notably Bernstein's Rite of Spring which famously placed the listener in the middle of the orchestra, quadraphonic sound was viewed primarily as a rock format. Carlos Santana was one of CBS' top-selling acts and he was the label's most prolific advocate of surround sound. Between 1969 and 1977 when the SQ format was abandoned, all twelve Santana releases were available in four channel sound, and these mixes are viewed as among the best examples from the pioneering years of multi-channel sound.
One of Carlos Santana's quad releases is seen above in remastered CD format. Santana was a follower of the controversial Indian mystic Sri Chimnoy, and this allegiance led him to cut with John McLaughlin - another Chimnoy devotee - the album Love, Devotion, Surrender inspired by John Coltrane's Love Supreme. This led to the collaboration between John Coltrane's widow Alice and Santana that produced the 1974 album Illuminations. Musically it is an important project; but commercially it was a failure and became the first Santana album that failed to go gold. Which is not difficult to understand as Santana fans wooed by his legendary Woodstock set must have been fazed by the juxtaposition of tracks backed by a string section led by Murray Adler, who worked with, among others Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and the Simpsons, with the Angel of Sunlight track on which Santana's free jazz attempts to outdo John Coltran's infamous Ascension jam session. But nevertheless Illuminations is truly a cult album. Because the first track is a solo by Sri Chimnoy chanting one of his aphorisms.
Illuminations has been re-released by the enterprising Dutton Vocalion label in CD format. This has been remastered by Michael Dutton from the original tapes and the disc includes SACD and four channel layers. With many of our leading cultural commentators enjoying the patronage of Universal Music, the invaluable work of enterprising independent labels such as Dutton is being overlooked. The label's re-releases of non-classical music are noteworthy. As is their work in the classical field: among the Dutton output featured On An Overgrown Path in the past has been music by John Joubert, E.J. Moeran, Edmund Rubbra, David Matthews and Richard Arnell. Among the label's achievements is their work-in-progress project of recording all 32 of Havergal Brian's symphonies.
Specific mention should also be made of the exemplary essay by David Zimmerman* that accompanies Illuminations; this provides a welcome contrast to the self-indulgent sleeve notes penned by too many classical critics today. But it is Dutton's commitment to high resolution sound with its SACD and multi-channel releases that sets them apart in an age when recorded sound quality is the digital Cinderella. And the immersive power of this sound may just be the key to engage new audiences for art music.
In Vedanta nada Brahma - sound is god, and Illuminations is steeped in Indian mysticism. The album is, above all, a spiritual statement by its creators: Carlos Santana was a devotee of Sri Chimnoy and Alice Coltrane was a follower of Swami Satchidananda who delivered the 1969 Woodstock festival's opening address. It is, of course, very easy to dismiss this album as New Age whimsy. But that denies the primordial and mystical power of sound to transform, and it is elitist and myopic to contend that this transformative power is the exclusive property of the masterworks of the Western classical music.
* David Zimmerman has, at my request, supplied the biographical notes published in the comment below. No review samples used in this post. I do not have social media accounts. But new Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).