THEIR MASTER’S VOICE: the impact of Pandit Pran Nath on Western minimalists, by Peter Lavezzoli (Arthur, 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 22 (May 2006)

Terry Riley and Pandit Pran Nath relaxing at the Houston Astrodome, 1981. Photo courtesy Marcus Boon.

MASTER OF BREATH

The life, work and astounding impact of North Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, guru to Western minimalists La Monte Young and Terry Riley.

By Peter Lavezzoli

Excerpted from  The Dawn of Indian Music in the West by Peter Lavezzoli by permission of the Continuum International Publishing Group.


On Sunday, July 13, 2003, an intimate audience congregated at the Community Music Center in Portland, Oregon, to hear a vocal recital of North Indian ragas on a full-moon night. On the riser were a pair of tablas, two tambouras, and a sarangi, situated around a cushion reserved for the vocalist. When the audience was seated, Terry Riley, father of repetitive electronic music, entered in full Indian dress, followed by his accompanists. After making their bows to the audience, the musicians were seated. Riley announced that it was the evening of Guru Purnima, a sacred holiday celebrated in India and throughout the world. Every year on the full moon of July, students and disciples pay homage to their respective gurus and celebrate the spirit of the ancient guru Vyasa, the Indian saint who edited the Vedas and authored the Puranas and Upanishads. It is a day of gratitude for the teacher’s guidance along the spiritual path. Although a disciple gives thanks to his or her guru throughout the year, Guru Purnima is a special observance of all gurus past, present and future.

This performance concluded several days in Portland, where Riley gave a series of vocal classes. Tonight, Riley would sing in honor of Pandit Pran Nath, who brought North Indian vocal music to the West. A month earlier, two of Riley’s longtime friends and fellow disciples of Pran Nath, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, gave a similar vocal recital in their New York City loft: an annual memorial concert held every June in honor of Pran Nath, who passed away seven years earlier on June 13, 1996.

Riley resurrected his guru with a performance of evening ragas, his sonorant voice resonating throughout the hall. The meticulous manner in which Riley manifests each raga stems from his training with Pran Nath; at the same time, it is pure Terry Riley. Riley’s raga is a natural extension of his definitive minimalist composition In C, his extended keyboard improvisations such as A Rainbow in Curved Air, or his string quartets such as Salome Dances for Peace. On a fundamental level, each of these works reflects the same spirit of creating magic through sound, transporting the listener out of linear time and into a realm of transcendent beauty. In tonight’s case, Riley was working with the oldest and most intimate instrument in music: the human voice.

It is no coincidence that Riley and La Monte Young committed 26 years to the study of North Indian vocal music with Pran Nath. The music that became known in the West as minimalism often shared the aims of Indian classical music: a cyclical approach to rhythm and melody; a sense that both performer and audience are involved in a transformative ritual that induces trance; an emphasis on purity of tone and precision of tuning; and an investigation into the nature of sound itself. For Young and Riley, the arrival of Pran Nath was a confirmation of principles already evident in their work, but Pran Nath also guided them to the next step.

Pandit Pran Nath was born November 3, 1918, in Lahore, India, which is now in Pakistan. Lahore was the hub of musical activity in Punjab at the time, and many Hindustani masters had settled there, including Alla Rakha’s guru, Kader Baksh, and the great khyal vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. As is still the case today in North India, Hindu and Muslim musicians were always seen practicing and performing together around Lahore, sharing compositions and discussing variousaspects of music theory.

Pran Nath’s parents were wealthy landowners, and although he grew up hearing professional musicians perform in his home, his parents had no intention of allowing their son to become a lowly musician himself. But Pran Nath felt a strong need to begin singing at the age of six, and decided that he would practice music in spite of his family’s objections. At the age of thirteen, his mother gave him an ultimatum: respect her wishes and study law; or, if he wanted to study music, leave home immediately with no personal belongings. For Pran Nath, there was no doubt. He left that day with only the clothes on his back, a tinker in search of a teacher. After wandering the streets of Lahore, he heard Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, master of the Kirana vocal style, singing in a music conference. Pran Nath immediately recognized Khan as his guru. Abdul Wahid Khan had a vast knowledge of raga, and sangin a deep voice and measured pace that emphasized the meditative alap segment of a raga. Khan normally practiced only two ragas: Todi in the morning, and Darbari in the evening. He once said that if Raga Todi could last all day and night, he would drop Darbari and only practice Todi, such was his thirst for mining the essence of one raga.

Pran Nath attached himself to Khan as a servant, although it would be several years before he would be accepted as a disciple. Pran Nath chose his teacher well; the Kirana gharana is one of the oldest and most advanced vocal styles in Indian classical music. Among all Indian vocal traditions, the Kirana gharana places unusually strong emphasis on accuracy of pitch, and perfection of intonation, while other gharanas focus more on vocal ornamentation and rhythmic flair. As La Monte Young would often describe, if one were to place all Indian vocal gharanas on a graph between the two extremes of either pitch or rhythm, the Kirana gharana would be furthest on the side that emphasizes perfect pitch.

The Kirana style was founded by a thirteenth-century dhrupadiya, or master of dhrupad music, named Gopal Nayak, who lived in Kirana, a small village located approximately fifty-five miles north of Delhi. Gopal Nayak was a Hindu court musician who worshiped Krishna, but also embraced Islam after encountering the teachings of Sufism. In the process, Nayak assimilated the Muslim style of khyal singing, which would give the Kirana gharana a foothold in both the dhrupad and khyal vocal traditions. Pran Nath himself would often go back and forth between the two, singing the fixed lyrics of a dhrupad verse, or the more open and flamboyant style of khyal. And like his teacher Abdul Wahid Khan, Pran Nath almost always spent the most time focusing on the serene alap that opens a raga. Nath would then treat the slow tempo (vilambit) compositions as a continuation of the alap, followed by medium tempo (madhya) singing—which would sometimes conclude the performance, unless he continued onto a fast tempo (drut) composition. Although Pran Nath favored the alap, he could always perform a lightning-fast drut composition while still keeping the pitches and mood of the raga intact, while many other vocalists would abandon the purity of the raga in such segments. For Pran Nath, fast-tempo singing was not merely for entertainment, and he was able to maintain the devotional attitude of a raga even while singing in drut.

AbdulWahid Khan was a spiritual and private man who rarely gave performances except for an audience of holy men and saints, and took few disciples. But Pran Nath gradually became one of the most advanced, by virtue of his unflagging practice and devotion. From the time Pran Nath first met his teacher, until Khan’s passing in 1949, as noted, Nath worked as a servant, performing household duties while waiting patiently for a lesson. Students could never practice in front of the guru, but only on their own time. Rather than sleep, Pran Nath chose to practice outside in the jungle during much of the night. He would lie down whenever his guru did, but was always ready to jump at any moment to serve. After years of demonstrated commitment, Khan finally accepted Nath as a disciple in 1937.

Almost immediately, Khan granted Pran Nath permission to audition for AIR in Delhi, and at eighteen Nath became a renowned vocalist. Quickly gaining respect as a technician who adhered to the strict principles of raga, famous singers like the Ali Brothers and Bhimsen Joshi would come to him for guidance. But Pran Nath was never drawn to commercial success as a musician. After a few years as a radio artist, Nath retreated to Tapkeshwar, a remote temple dedicated to Shiva, with a large, naturally formed Shiva lingum in the cave, situated on a river—perhaps the most famous Shiva cave in India, drawing pilgrims from all over North India. In the quiet of this cave temple, and while walking around the surrounding areas, Nathwould live as an ascetic, singing only to God.

Pran Nath remained Abdul Wahid Khan’s disciple throughout this process, including when Nath was living in seclusion at Tapkeshwar. One day in 1949, Khan came to Pran Nath and told him that he must forsake the contemplative life, get married, raise a family, and spread the teachings of the Kirana gharana to the rest of the world. Perhaps Khan had a sense of his imminent departure, for he died shortly after. Pran Nath could not disobey his late guru’s orders, and followed Khan’s instructions. But after finding a wife and starting a family, he eventually became a nomad, and would never remain settled in one place. Pran Nath knewthat he was charged with the responsibility of one day carrying his guru’s music to the West; he was not destined to be a family man.

Before coming to the West, Pran Nath continued gaining prominence in India. One famous incident occurred in 1953 at the All India Music Conference in Delhi. Before an audience of five thousand, Nath sang the rainy-season raga Mian Ki Malhar, and as soon as the raga ended, a torrential downpour began, such was the legendary power of Pran Nath’s voice. Between 1960 and 1970, Nath taught Kirana vocal at Delhi University, but his students were usually so awestruck by the power of Nath’s singing, that most of them were unable to imitate what he was doing.

By the late 1960s, many Westerners had already been looking to the East, and India in particular, for musical and spiritual guidance. Terry Riley had seen Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha in concert, and La Monte Young had been listening to Indian classical music ever since he heard Ali Akbar Khan’s Music of India LP in the late 1950s. In 1967, Young and Marian Zazeela were given a tape of Pran Nath by Shyam Bhatnagar, one of Nath’s students who was now running a yoga ashram just outside New York City in New Jersey. They were stunned at what they heard. Young told others—including Terry Riley, who was living in New York at the time—that Pran Nath’s singing was the most perfectly in tune that Young had ever heard. Coming from Young, who had an exceptional ear, this was significant. 

In the spring of 1970, Young, Zazeela, and Bhatnagar arranged for Pran Nath’s first visit to the U.S. When Young and Zazeela met Nath upon his arrival in New York, they were drawn to him ‘‘like iron filings to a magnet,’’ as Young describes. They became his disciples, housed him in their downtown loft, and found him a job teaching Indian vocal music at the New School for Social Research. In a May1970 Village Voice article, Young wrote an article about Pran Nath entitled ‘‘The Sound Is God,’’ the English translation of Nada Brahma, a phrase that Nath wouldoften quote to describe the divine origin of music.

That same month, Nath went to California to meet with Terry Riley, who had recently returned there with his family. Having already heard Nath’s voice on tape, Riley was deeply affected by their first meeting, and recognized Pran Nath as an old soul. Unable to comprehend what Pran Nath was doing in his singing, Riley was simply mesmerized by the sound of the voice. Nath felt an immediate connection with Riley, and insisted that he become a disciple. Since that time, Riley, Young, and Zazeela became like a family, spending as much time with Pran Nath as their collective lives would allow. As he recalls in our interview, Riley dropped everything in 1970 and went with Nath to India for six months of intensive training. Blessed with a supportive wife and daughter, Ann and Colleen Riley also ventured to India for the second half of this period.

For both Riley and Young, Pran Nath was a living confirmation of much of the work they had already done—between Young’s emphasis on sustained tones and Just Intonation, and Riley’s use of repetition and gradual melodic development. For most of his time in the West, Pran Nath took up residence at Young and Zazeela’s loft, and with Nath now dictating every aspect of their lives, Young and Zazeela became his servants, attending to his needs while waiting for their next lesson—very much the same scenario as when Nath performed chores for his own guru, Abdul Wahid Khan. This was also the case whenever Nath stayed with Terry Riley. Young and Riley had become the first established Western musicians to become full-time disciples of an Indian master, living in the guru-shishya tradition.

By all accounts, Pran Nath easily inspired this level of devotion, making every student feel as though he or she were the master’s favorite. But Nath demanded nothing less than full commitment to a rigorous daily practice regimen that began in the pre-dawn hours of the morning. According to Young and Zazeela, Pran Nath also encouraged his students not to be strict vegetarians, but to eat chicken and fish, in order to sing with the power of Muslim vocalists. Nath believed that Muslims had stronger voices due to their meat-eating diet—although Nath still avoided beef and pork, which are forbidden to Hindus and Muslims respectively.

In 1971, Pran Nath gave the first vocal performance of morning ragas in the United States with a recital at Town Hall in New York City. Like Ravi Shankar, Nath became known for demanding a sense of decorum from the audience. He would ask people not to applaud before, during, or even after the performance, in order to preserve the mood of the music. He would not speak before the music began, not even to announce the name of the raga—partly because he did not know which raga he would sing until he sat down to feel the vibrations of the moment, but also because he did not want to make his choice of raga an intellectual curiosity for the audience. After the concert, people could find out which ragas were sung by asking the ushers, who were given that information at the end of the performance. Furthermore, Nath would remain silent within 24 hours of any performance, as he felt it necessary to focus his energies on the upcoming recital.

Above all else, Pran Nath brought greater recognition to the Kirana style of singing. The Kirana gharana is extremely meticulous in the way that it distinguishes between each raga. The differences even between ragas like Jaunpuri and Darbari, which both have the same scale, would be made exceptionally clear, and performers from the Kirana gharana have always been very careful to preserve a raga’s specific nuances. Pran Nath took this concept so seriously that he became notorious for giving just as many morning and afternoon concerts as evening ones—not a common practice among classical musicians of the modern era. But Nath insisted on separating the ragas by their proper performance time. After all, certain ragas were designated as morning or evening ragas for a reason, based on an awareness of nature, and how the changing light throughout the day influences one’s mood.

As his reputation spread, Pran Nath attracted a group of Western students, mostly in the jazz and new music community. After Young and Riley, Nath began teaching Jon Hassell, who would learn to apply Indian vocal techniques to the trumpet, discovering ways to make trumpet more mellifluous, with specific manipulations of his lips on the mouthpiece. Having previously worked with Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music as well as Riley’s 1968 Columbia recording of In C, Hassell would apply Pran Nath’s teaching to a style that he would call ‘‘Fourth World Music.’’ Hassell would collaborate with the ubiquitous ambient musician, Brian Eno, in this vein. Innovative jazz trumpeter Don Cherry also took vocal lessons with Nath. Other informal students included jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, and Jon Gibson, who was now a member of the Philip Glass Ensemble.

With the help of Young and Zazeela, Pran Nath opened the Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music in New York in 1972. In the same year, he also established a base at Mills College in Oakland, teaching there from 1972 to 1981, with Terry Riley’s assistance. Nath also returned to India every winter, primarily to Delhi, often accompanied by Young, Zazeela, and Riley. Like many other gurus, Pran Nath kept his training methods a secret, unavailable for public consumption. Nath believed that his tradition must be revealed only to initiates, not mass produced in books. This is because the training process not only involved the transmission of knowledge, but an intimate and personal bond as well.


L to R: Terry Riley (tabla), La Monte Young (tamboura), Pandit Pran Nath (vocal), and Marian Zazeela (tamboura) at Rothko Chapel, Houston, 1981. Photographer unknown.

Although he only recorded sporadically, Nath released an LP in 1986 for the Gramavision label (the same label who released La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano the following year in 1987) entitled Ragas of Morning and Night. The album, currently out of print, featured Todi and Darbari, the two ragas practiced incessantly by his guru, Abdul Wahid Khan. In 1993, Pran Nath was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet (who had begun performing works by Terry Riley) to compose a short piece for voice and string quartet. Nath agreed and recorded ‘‘Aba Kee Tak Hamaree (It Is My Turn, O Lord)’’ with the Kronos Quartet, included as one of the tracks on their Short Stories cd for Elektra/Nonesuch Records.

La Monte Young once stated in an interview, ‘‘I really consider Pandit Pran Nath the greatest living musician of our time. He has an extraordinary sense of intonation and an ability to differentiate and delineate the subtle intricacies of the structure of raga. Raga is a vast science.’’ Pran Nath certainly influenced Young’s Well-Tuned Piano in the way the piece gradually develops like the alap that begins a raga. Just as the notes of a raga unfold organically, the massive structure of Young’s Well-Tuned Piano would slowly evolve out of the very first notes. As Young says in his liner notes to the Gramavision recording of the piece: ‘‘Although Pandit Pran Nath taught in the strict traditional way—never offering a comment about how to compose or perform my music—I attribute much of the amazing transformation that took place in The Well-Tuned Piano and in my ability to perform it, to the all-encompassing scope of the body of knowledge he represented, and the level on which he was imparting it to me.’’

Young certainly has reasons to feel this way. Each raga, if performed correctly, captures a mood or rasa; and each time it is heard, those same feelings are evoked. Young feels that sound and vibration is the highest form of perception that attunes us to universal structure. Sound registers in the brain in a way that enables us to understand the nature of rhythm and vibration, more clearly than through any other medium. Consequently, the practice of sacred music is Nada Yoga, the Yoga of Sound. When a singer like Pran Nath sings a note that is perfectly in tune, the vibration takes the listener out of their normal physical reality, and puts him or her in direct contact with God. Specific sounds and intervallic relationships achieve specific results, which is not only the science of raga, but of Just Intonation as well. This is what Young absorbed from Pran Nath as he was refining his material for The Well-Tuned Piano.

In 1978, Pran Nath suffered a heart attack and soon developed Parkinson’s disease, after which time his health gradually began to decline. He helped inaugurate Young and Zazeela’s newest installation of Dream House in November 1993 with a series of concerts in the New York loft, and gave his final performance there on May 17, 1996. He then went to Berkeley, taught his final lessons to Terry Riley and other West Coast students, and died there of heart failure and Parkinson’s disease on June 13. Young and Zazeela were both devastated, and could not sing or hear Nath’s music for a year. Then Young and Zazeela began giving two annual concerts dedicated to Pran Nath at Dream House, marking his birth and death each November and June, a practice they have continued to the present.

Pran Nath named Young and Zazeela the executors of his estate and archive, and as with their own projects, they have exercised full control over every aspect of what is released. Young and Zazeela established the MELA Foundation as an official entity through which they could operate in the music industry, and MELA has been painstakingly slow in releasing Pran Nath material. At the time of this writing, there is only a two-cd set available entitled Midnight, featuring two different performances of the midnight raga, Malkauns: one recorded August 4, 1971, in San Francisco, with Terry Riley on tabla and Ann Riley providing drone on tamboura; the other recorded August 21, 1976, in New York, with Young and Zazeela both on tamboura.

MELA has also released a short documentary on Pran Nath, directed in 1986 by William Farley, called In Between the Notes. This lovely film runs under one hour, features Pran Nath in performance, and captures him teaching a group of students, visiting his old cave haunt at Tapkeshwar, and walking along the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi, where he would often practice singing to the sound of birds. Along with Nath’s own words, which are incredibly insightful, there are interviews with Riley, Young, and Zazeela, as well as New York Times music critic Robert Palmer. Narayana Menon, director of the Sangeet Natak Academy (a music, dance, and drama academy in Delhi), notes that Pran Nath was one of the rare artists who perfected his craft without regard for money. In this regard, Menon compares Nath to Johann Sebastian Bach and South Indian dancer Bala Saraswati.

There are many highlights in the film, including a segment where Pran Nath himself is speaking into the camera, defining ragas as ‘‘living souls’’ that follow the time cycle of day and night. Nath then goes on to explain how the essence of any raga is found ‘‘in between the notes,’’ in the same way as a person breathing. He compares the human body to the notes used in the scale of the raga, while the raga itself is akin to the breath that moves through the body, giving the raga its crucial microtonal inflections. Another memorable sequence is when Pran Nath returns to the cave at Tapkeshwar with Terry Riley and sitarist Krishna Bhatt. There, they meet with Nath’s old friend, a Swami referred to in the film as Bengali Baba. While sitting in Baba’s room with the other musicians, Pran Nath asserts (in his thick Indian accent, which requires subtitles) that musicians must seek out spiritual guidance, or their music will have no genuine effect. To underscore the point that music is a devotional practice, Nath then quotes a passage from the Bhagavad Gita where Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: ‘‘One who sings my name fervently . . . completely possesses me.’’ Pran Nath then points outside a window to a running stream where he used to sit and practice his singing, saying that in those days the sound of the stream was his only tamboura. In another scene, Pran Nath stands at the bank of the Yamuna River in Delhi, where he also used to practice, and points out the various birds in the vicinity. Without looking up, Nath instantly recognizes the sound of a nightingale or crow, explaining how they change their tone in accordance with the seasons, and how this helped him with his own practice, in terms of learning how to differentiate clearly the ragas by their mood, season, and time of day.

It is significant that Pran Nath spent a great deal of time practicing near bodies of water. Nath refers to the outdoors as ‘‘the Lord’s house, nobody’s house.’’ Perhaps the reason for this is simply that Nath’s spirit was too restless to remain indoors. It is also clear that Pran Nath enjoyed singing to the sounds of nature: the rippling of a stream, the chirping of birds. Perhaps this was yet another confirmation for La Monte Young, who spent his childhood captivated by the hum of telephone poles, the wind blowing through the cracks of his log cabin, the incessant chirping of crickets, and other ‘‘drones’’ found in the real world.

What becomes most evident about Pran Nath in the film is his profound sense of inner peace. As he walks along the river or through a cave, his steps are slow and deliberate, his posture upright and his eyes down, as he moves with the poise and grace of a holy man. He breathes into each step, just as he breathes into each note. The name Pran Nath, after all, means ‘‘master of breath”; as Terry Riley has pointed out, it is ironic that Nath was given this name at birth. Perhaps his parents, even while dreading their son’s pursuit of music, knew on a subconscious level that their child was destined to become a great yogi.

People tell stories of when Pran Nath was living in New York City with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, and how Nath could occasionally be seen walking down Fifth Avenue in the heart of the shopping district: a bearded sage walking with absolute presence of mind while chaos swirled around him. One could sense that Nath was completely grounded and sure of himself in every situation. He knew who he was and where he was going. And whenever he opened his mouth, whether to sing or speak, his voice came from a deep place where there is no uncertainty.


Special thanks to Marcus Boon for his guidance and assistance. 

Categories: Arthur No. 22 (May 2006) | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock

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