On our Independence Day 15 August 2017, an extra-ordinary late-night BBC Prom concert featured at London’s Royal Albert Hall: the complete, almost hour-long performance of “Passages”, the 1964 collaborative concept album of American minimalist composer Philip Glass (b. 1937-) and the great sitar virtuoso-composer Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920-2012). It was billed as the “first complete live performance” of the work, so not surprisingly the venue was packed for this historic concert.
The other draw would certainly have been the fact that Shankar’s own daughter and pupil Anoushka Shankar would be at the sitar. The other musicians were Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar and vocalist), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri and vocals), Ameen Ali Khan (sarod), Sanju Sahai (tabla), Prashanna Thevaraja (ghatam, kanjira, morsing and vocals), M. Balachander (mridangam), Nick Abel (tanpura), Alexa Mason (soprano), Cathy Bell (alto), Peter Harris (tenor), Oliver Hunt (bass) and the Britten Sinfonia was conducted by Karen Kamensek.
“Passages” is a work I remember well from the heady days when I had joined the salaried workforce and made my monthly raids on VP Sinari near the Secretariat every pay-day directly after having cash in hand. I began to listen much more to Pt. Shankar after that introduction.
About fifteen years later, I got an opportunity to meet the maestro at this same venue, the Royal Albert Hall, through sheer chance. I had won an opportunity to participate in a BBC Proms music quiz, to be recorded there for later TV broadcast. I had heard through the music grapevine that Pandit Ravi Shankar would be coming to a concert that day, and persuaded the staff to let me meet with him. I was taken by an usher through a backstage service elevator to meet with him very briefly. He was extremely polite, and when he heard I was from Goa, he told me how much he loved visiting our land, and to my surprise, even exchanged a few pleasantries in halting Konkani with me.
“Passages has always been one of my favourite examples of collaboration, said Anoushka Shankar in a BBC interview. “This concert for me is a real treat. It’s a premiere of an album that people have loved, for nearly thirty years.” She remembers Passages being recorded when she was about 9 years old, and being fascinated by the way her father and Philip Glass each came up with themes and allowed the other to write music around them. Looking back, she feels it was ahead of its time, and probably a major influence of the way she is able to work between musical cultures, authentically, and with respect, which, to her, “Passages” is all about.
She revisited the album when she herself began composing music, and that was when the genius of the album was brought home to her. “It celebrates and sort of explores the separateness and togetherness of western and Indian classical instruments, in a way that only my dad and Philip Glass could have done.”
In 1964, Glass, having studied at Juilliard, received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris with the eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. It was life-changing, not just on account of her influence, but also the exciting, stimulating milieu that Paris offered, from music to film and theatre.
In 1965, he was hired to transcribe the music of Ravi Shankar into western musical notation for a film. This experience changed his approach to composing in general, encouraging him to “drop the bar lines”, as he put it, “making all of the notes equal”.
In contrast to the Western approach to composing music, “which slices time in the same way one slices bread”, Indian music is created by a stringing together a succession of small units or beats.
Glass began studying with Shankar, and at some point in their friendship, they decided to work on a piece together, and ‘Passages’ was the result. According to Anoushka Shankar, each composer gave the other three pieces of music, and the collaboration began on the six pieces in the album: 1. “Offering” (Shankar); 2. “Sadhanipa” (Glass); 3. “Channels and Winds” (Glass); 4. “Ragas in Minor Scale” (Glass); 5. “Meetings Along The Edge” (Shankar); and 6. “Prashanti” (Shankar). The “seed of my dad’s brain” is found in the Glass pieces, and the other way around as well
Conductor Karen Kamensek has a lifelong attachment with ‘Passages’, saying it ‘blew her mind’ when it was first released. She began working with Glass at around the same time, in the 1990s, and secretly hoped that someday, she could perform the work. “This album has been in my life for so long that I’ve forgotten where the actual click came. It changed my world immediately. I think I was at university, and I said ‘I want to conduct this piece with Ravi Shankar.’ That was always a goal. And of course he passed away five years ago, and the honour is just as great to do it with Anoushka.”
With the help of Philip Glass and the Indian musicians, Kamensek prepared a performing score for ‘Passages’. She describes it as a “labour of love.” Ironically, to make the work playable for the musicians of the Britten Sinfonia, the bar lines had to be re-introduced.
“My score doesn’t look like their (the Indian musicians’) score, but you have to kind of have enough that means we can communicate with each other.”
The concert is now up on YouTube for those interested. The differences between the Indian and western musicians come through quit visibly: the orchestral musicians are slaves to their written score and to the conductor’s beat, while the Indian musicians are much more at ease, and have no need for playing from a score. But all of them seem to feel and revel in the music.
The Vedic prayer in the last segment “Prashanti” (Shankar) has a timeless message that seems ever more relevant in our own time: “Oh, Lord. Be benevolent to us. Drive the darkness away. Shed upon us the light of wisdom. Take the jealousy, envy, greed and anger from us, and fill our hearts with love and peace.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 24 September 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)