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Minimalist Mythmaking

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Pandit Pran Nath

Midnight/Raga Malkauns

(Just Dreams)

Early on in The Concert for Bangladesh, the sound of Ravi Shankar's group tuning up is received with applause from the Western audience, which has mistaken it for the actual music. Three decades later, it's still not such a small world after all. The sitar craze of the 60s and 70s gets held up as a milestone in cross-cultural communication, but your average music fan in the West has no deeper understanding of Indian classical music now than he did in 1972.

The focus on the sitar may have been part of the problem, as the music of India is at heart a vocal music. In the 90s a new wave of ancient music with Indian origins hit our shores--the qawwali style, sung most famously by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan--and it had more soul than instrumental sitar ragas. Developed in 13th-century Delhi alongside Hindustani music, qawwali is today associated with Muslim Pakistan, but it demarcates the most upbeat extreme of Indian music, with its strong hand-clapped backbeat and extroverted, emotional vocals. Tibetan Buddhist chant and Tuvan throat singing have also sparked Western interest, because both require almost superhuman control of pitch and overtones. But nowhere has this control been taken to as high an art as in the singing of Indian ragas.

A particularly thrilling example of this beauty and control is Midnight/Raga Malkauns, a newly released set of recordings of the late Pandit Pran Nath singing Raga Malkauns in San Francisco in '71 and SoHo in '76. (Ragas typically specify the time of day they are to be performed and heard, and Malkauns is a raga to be sung at midnight.) The singer lingers long in the alap--the long, unmetered opening section--his dark mahogany voice shivering with overtones. Roland Barthes wrote about "the grain of the voice," something "brought by one and the same movement to your ear from the depth of the body's cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilage...as if a single skin lined the performer's inner flesh and the music he sings." Over the course of these two performances, which last 40 and 60 minutes, Nath carefully unfolds from his resonant cavities yards and yards of gorgeous marbled music so thin it's translucent.

But Midnight isn't simply a sublime example of Hindustani singing. It represents one of the more symbiotic meetings of Eastern and Western classical musics in recent times. Among the players backing Nath on tabla and tamboura are Terry Riley and La Monte Young, two of the major figures of the American mimimalist movement.

Indian classical music has been in a state of crisis since the 1950s, when, after independence, the aristocratic patronage system went into decline. Since then artists have had to depend upon the support of broader Indian audiences or find new patrons in the West. Bhimsen Joshi is the most popular doyen of the Kirana school of Hindustani singing, of which Nath was also a master; his recordings have gone platinum in India. He's expanded the Kirana style, absorbing elements from all over India, which may account for his widespread success. Nath preferred a more austere, traditional approach and wasn't interested in commercially exploiting his talents. The financial state this put him in was probably one of the factors that persuaded him to accept Young's invitation to come to the U.S. in 1970.

Of course classical artists in this country succumb to economic pressures too. Though several of the major minimalist composers--Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich--have supported themselves largely through record sales, Young has almost completely sidestepped this option in favor of the modern version of a patronage system, setting up a foundation and seeking grants and donations. In fact, he's notorious for the large number of significant recordings he's kept to himself in a private archive, the most famous being tapes of the Theatre of Eternal Music, a group he and his wife, Marian Zazeela, formed in the mid-60s with John Cale, Tony Conrad, and Angus MacLise. Until last year he'd kept Nath's Raga Malkauns recordings likewise squirreled away.

In the late 60s Young and Riley were already well-established composers with major works under their belts. But upon hearing a recording of Nath in 1967, Young felt his control of tone was so impressive and so in line with what he was working on that he had to persuade the man to come to New York and teach him. Nath also tutored Riley and a host of other minimalist composers including Jon Hassell, Henry Flynt, Arnold Dreyblatt, and Charlemagne Palestine, essentially recalibrating the entire movement. Of course getting yourself a guru was then endemic among musicians in rock, jazz, and fusion circles, but the Nath setup was unique in the specifically musical knowledge being imparted and the degree to which the students have expressed what they learned in their own work. Hassell and Flynt in particular practically constitute a subgenre you could call Pran Nath minimalism.

There's something very appealing in the idea that Indian knowledge so perfectly completed an American thought process. But if you've been waiting for cultural imperialism to rear its ugly head and blow some steam into this fairy tale, you won't be disappointed. In "Remembering Guruji," a tribute Terry Riley wrote after Nath died in 1996, he observes that "Pran Nath is the last of the great masters of Kirana...which was a style that began 600 years ago." An unbylined obit on Otherminds.org, where Riley's piece is archived, gets more specific: "Pran Nath was the last in a long line of classical Indian singers originating in the 13th century court of Allauddin Khilji, a Mughul ruler of the Yadava dynasty."

It's temptingly romantic to assert that an expatriate purist like Nath was the last of his kind--but it's completely untrue. Kirana is still one of the most popular forms of Hindustani singing in India today. And although its other practitioners, like the aforementioned Joshi, may not practice it in a way that fulfills our needs, this doesn't give us the right to turn a living musical tradition into some exotic secret society.

The liner notes to the new CD state that Nath "studied for twenty years as a disciple of Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, the foremost master of the Kirana gharana, which descends from Gopal Nayak (ca. 1300), and is also known as the style of Krishna." There's nothing strictly untrue about this statement--it's only dishonest by omission. It fails to mention that Abdul Karim Khan (the cousin of Nath's teacher) single-handedly revived or possibly even invented this style in the early 20th century--the origins of the Kirana school are controversial. But given a choice, the writer (probably either Young or Zazeela, who run the label, though the notes are unsigned) chose the most romantic and exotic image of its origin.

Performances by Abdul Karim Khan were recorded in 1908 and in the early 1930s. In the time between the two, the style of this pivotal figure changed, becoming more mellow, more lyrical and precise in pitch. In other words he did what Western musicians and composers do--he developed and perfected his chosen style. He didn't simply act as a conduit of ancient oriental wisdom.

The mythology around Nath's presence in New York is most explicitly given voice by Marcus Boon in "Pandit Pran Nath: Infinity's Pathfinder," a version of which ran in the Wire in September 2001. To read this piece, you'd think that when Nath left India it was like Elvis left the building. "No Indian music sounds like Young's 1970's recordings of Pran Nath," writes Boon. "The droning tamburas are located high in the mix, as loud, rich and powerful as vintage Theater of Eternal Music.... The tabla playing is simple but tough." It's clearly implied by Boon's reverent tone that if no Indian music sounds like this, that can't be good for Indian music.

Such a resounding dismissal demands a response. Arthur Henry Fox-Strangways, an early-20th-century scholar of Hindustani music, said it best when he wrote that "India has had time to forget more melodies than Europe has had time to learn." Pran Nath represents the rich heritage of Indian music, but he did not singularly embody it.

The elder Dagar Brothers, some of the most famous 20th-century practitioners of the ancient Hindustani devotional form dhrupad, made several recordings for the Unesco label in the 50s, some of which have been reissued on CD. In the opening section of Asavari, their microtonal precision is every bit as breathtaking as Nath's. At first it upset my minimalist's love of the static drone when they moved from there into a rocking, upbeat, rhythmic ending, but then I read this description of their singing: "He is awakening God through gentle music, then he bathes and dresses Him with alankars and puts Him on a swing and rocks Him back and forth." Who am I to argue with that?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Cliett, copyright Marian Zazeela.

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