Monday, September 30, 2019

We have lost the vital experience of discovery and connection


In 1994 the vinyl albums Karuna Supreme and Rainbow were bundled together in the two CD box seen above. Both featured sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan - son of the legendary teacher Allauddin Khan whose pupils included Ravi Shankar - and the African American saxophonist John Handy. Karuna Supreme was first released in 1976 and also featured Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Yogish S. Sahota (tampura). Rainbow followed five years later with the two lead players supplemented by Dr. L. Subrahamiam (violon), Shyam Kane (tabla), and Mary Johnson (tampura).

Ali Akbar Khan and John Handy first worked together at the Monterey and Berlin Jazz Festivals in the early 1970s. Ali Akbar Khan firmly believed in music as a spiritual art, and John Handy studied at the Ali Akbar College of Music in California and practised meditation. Both albums were recorded for the MPS label in Germany and produced by Joachim-Ernst Berendt who was one of the label's founders. Berendt was the author of two influential books, 'The World is Sound - Nada Brahma' and 'The Third Ear - On Listening to the World', and was fascinated by how the art of improvisation was central to both Indian classical music and jazz. Writing in ''The Third Ear' he ranks Karuna Supreme alongside Stockhausen's Licht, Messiaen's Turangalila, Coltrane's Love Supreme, and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms as a definitive example of music as a song of praise.

In 'The World is Sound', which was first published in 1983, Joachim-Ernst Berendt quotes Collin Walcott - sitarist and multi-percussionist, Buddhist, luminary of pioneering ensembles Condona and Oregon, and tragic victim of a fatal tour bus crash in 1984 - as suggesting that the transcultural musicians of this era were early exemplars of the mindset needed across the globe if humanity is to survive on an increasingly crowded and threatened planet. Alas there is no evidence of that transcultural mindset emerging in art music, yet alone across society. In fact World Music, a genre of which Collin Walcott is credited as being a pioneer, has degenerated into what transcultural musician Ross Daly describes as "an offshoot of the pop music industry with an emphasis on party music”.

Today's digitally-empowered audiences flock to hear Ed Sheeran, while in the 1960s and early '70s the same cohort flocked to hear Ali Akbar Khan, James Handy, and Ravi Shankar. Joe Boyd produced and nurtured the careers of Fairthorpe Convention, the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, and played a pivotal role in launching Pink Floyd into the stratosphere. His memoir 'White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s' was published in 2005 before social media became the recreational drug of choice and before streaming delivered any music anywhere, anytime. In it Joe Boyd is pessimistic about the digital age. This extract, which I offer as a conclusion, provides much food for thought:
The atmosphere in which music flourished [in the late 1960s/early 70s] had a lot to do with economics. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity. People are supposedly wealthier now, yet most feel they haven't enough money and time is at an even greater premium. The prediction that our biggest dilemma in the new millennium would be how to use endless hours of leisure time freed up by computers has proved to be futurology's least amusing joke. In the sixties, we had surpluses of both time and money...

History today seems more like a postmodern collage; we are surrounded by two-dimensional representations of our heritage. Access via amazon.com or iPod to all those boxed sets of old blues singers - or Nick Drake, for that matter - doesn't equate with the sense of discovery and connection we experienced. The very existence of such a wealth of information creates an overload that can drown out vivid moments of revelation.
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