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.


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.

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“THE NORTH AND SOUTH OF YOU: An Erotic Worldview” by JON HASSELL (Arthur, 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 18/Sept. 2005

An Erotic Worldview

by Jon Hassell

“I love the East, West, North and the South of you…”
— Cole Porter, “All of You” 

A tale of two equators—one around the planet, another at the waistline—and how the present global imbalance between a “developed” (technological) North dominating an “underdeveloped” (but culturally rich) South is a projection of the imbalance between the “north of you” (head, intellect, abstraction) and the “south of you” (hips, sensuality, emotion).

Could the story be as simple as the difference in how people turn out after centuries of evolution in a cold, hostile climate versus a warm, friendly one?  And if it were, what are the chances that such a simple answer would be accepted by those whose minds have become so deeply etched with the printed circuits of language and abstraction that what is obvious on a sensual level is routinely “explained” out of existence?

Relieved of the necessity of struggle in order to stay warm, southern peoples turned toward the “art of living”: decorating experience with a surround of color and pattern and rhythm. This was in contrast to northern peoples who—in order to merely survive in the cold—had to become resourceful in the way that later became known as “technology.” A few thousand years later, this branched into communications technology—the form which had the power to change the world more than any previous development. So the northern worldview—one reflecting the cumulative psychology of struggle—was the first to be projected worldwide in the seductive new forms of mass media.

And as the science and technology paradigm became the gold standard by which the rest of the world was judged (creating the cleavage into “first” and “third worlds”), many of the life-enriching gifts of the South—the ones which are often most treasured in our personal experience—have gone deeply undervalued, appropriated, or simply, gone.

A different kind of “global warming”—an emotional one—is called for as the basis for creating an alternate scale of “market value”—one that accommodates the samba as well as the microchip, one which reflects the actual degree of pleasure and cultural enrichment brought to our lives from the South, and the south of us.