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.Continue reading