11th December 2012
July: First Work in Progress at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House
September: Second Work in Progress at Norwich Arts Centre
October: Third Work in Progress at Leicester Curve
My Personal Journey to the music of Ravi Shankar
by David Murphy
The journey began when I was around 10 years old and heard the violin played live for the first time. There was an instant, on the spot decision that music was going to be my life.
Inevitably, the violin became the centre of this musical journey. I badgered my school for lessons and although I was considered too old(!) to join one of the beginner’s violin groups, eventually everyone relented and my journey as a musician was able to begin.
I didn’t realise it at the time but things started moving quickly. I bought myself “A Tune A Day” for the violin and had worked through all three volumes by myself in a matter of weeks, my teacher, seeing this kind of slightly crazy commitment wisely began to stretch me, lending me all manner of volumes of studies and exercises which I devoured insatiably.
Then one day I popped into the local library whilst we were on a family shopping trip, and found a biography of the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin. I was immediately gripped by the life and work of this amazing musician. At this time, largely due to strange pull the violin seemed to have over me, I was practicing in every spare minute, meaning that I soon won a local music competition and managed to gain a full scholarship to the Purcell School, one of Britain’s five specialist schools for young musicians. This was a transformational experience – I was with people equally enthralled by music every day. I came under the influence of Menuhin more and more during my teens, eventually having the opportunity to make music with him myself.
Menuhin’s supreme musicianship was so broad, so without restrictions and borders – that on hearing Indian music for the first time he immediately “got it” and made Indian music and philosophy a key journey in his life.
So my first introduction to Indian music was the album West Meets East with Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar. Hearing Indian music for the first time I was also gripped. Here was a music where notes were not individual islands of sound, but were part of a vast continuum, the space between the notes quite literally as important as the notes themselves.
The impact of this recording was such that I then found out as much as I could about Ravi Shankar and his music, followed by study of Indian music in general and branching out, tracing a similar path to Menuhin, into yoga and Indian philosophy. (I never dreamt during my teenage years that I would later spend the best part of a decade with Ravi Shankar studying Indian music with him and conducting for him – but that comes later!)
Finishing my studies, I was looking for ground breaking programmes for my orchestra, Sinfonia Verdi. Seeking to make use of my fascination with Indian music, I approached London based sarod virtuoso Wajahat Khan with the suggestion that we compose a concerto together. This was my first experience notating and arranging for an Indian musician – a fascinating process. Wajahat comes from one of the great family traditions or “Gharanas” of Indian music and creating the concerto with him was a very rewarding experience both musically and personally. We performed his work in the UK and abroad and it was fabulously received.
One of Ravi Shankar’s associates heard about this process and investigated further. Raviji was coming to the UK to work on a new piece for Indian and Western instruments, a joint project run by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Centre in London and Dartington Hall in Devon. It was my great good fortune to be booked to facilitate the project through notating for the western instrumentalists, arranging and conducting the final performance.
It was with great excitement, and not a little trepidation I went along to meet Raviji for the first time. This was for a preliminary session with some Indian musicians in his hotel. I had no idea if the relationship would work, I had worshipped him as a musician for so long and I had heard that he worked at white hot speed and I just hoped that I would be able to keep up!
Luckily the relationship clicked and the project was a huge high point in my musical life. I was working 20 hour days rehearsing, notating and workshopping with Raviji and the mixed group of Indian and Western musicians during the day and arranging the material for the ensemble during the night, and the three weeks went by in a whirlwind flash of creativity. After this I became Raviji’s student, and I would travel to India and California to spend as much time with him as our schedules allowed during the next eight and a half years.
We worked on many memorable projects, the most public being his Sitar Concerto No. 3, premiered with his daughter Anoushka at Carnegie Hall in 2009, followed by his Symphony, premiered in 2010 at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010, again with the wonderful Anoushka taking the solo sitar line.
Throughout these projects, the opera Sukanya was always in the background. The tale from the Mahabharata fascinated him – his wife is named Sukanya, and the ancient tale has uncanny parallels to his own life. We began focussing on the opera after the Symphony premiere. Raviji had to be careful with his health – he was always full of transcendental musical energy, but inevitably as he was now in his nineties he had to be careful that his body could keep up with his artistic vision. We would work whenever we could. I remember flying to California having heard that he had been rushed to hospital, not for the first time in recent years – as soon as I arrived, he asked if I had any notepaper so that I could take down all of the ideas that had been brewing whilst he was confined to the hospital bed. Soon he was feeling much better, and we continued the notation session in the hospital gym! He bounced back remarkably after this episode, and was soon back home practising, performing and exercising to get strong enough for the surgery that he was inevitably going to have to undertake at some point.
It is hard for me to write about the next few months at this point as the feelings are still too raw. I will let a master writer: Amit Chaudhuri (the librettist for Sukanya) continue the story from here. Amit wrote this article for the Guardian Newspaper the morning after Raviji’s passing:
“Last week, the conductor David Murphy and I met up for a cup of coffee in London, so that we could discuss what we had named, for convenience’s sake, the “Ravi Shankar opera”. Always adept at embracing new ventures, Shankar had begun working on a project that would become, to David’s harmonic arrangements, an opera about a sage whose extreme self-abnegation is interrupted by his desire for a much younger woman. Shankar had apparently been very moved by this tale, and perhaps saw in it an allegory for aspects of his own story, and the recurrent and late efflorescences in his life, in the midst of his stringent discipline as a musician, of romantic love. I had been invited to write the libretto, and was barely feeling my way into that world. Yet desire and love on the one hand and music on the other were not entirely separate categories of experience for Shankar, surely. Love, like music, entailed its own kind of demands and pain; and music, like love, was evidently a cause for constant rejuvenation.
Shankar wasn’t well, David said, but felt that, like before, he’d “pull through because of his music”. He was playing constantly. As the first news of his death began to come through, I was in a taxi to Heathrow airport and began to hear that name and little bits of sitar music on the radio. Frost and fog lay outside; after a high-spirited stream of commentary, Chris Evans managed to silence himself and play “Within You Without You” in its entirety (it’s one of the longest songs on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), in which Harrison, goaded and excited by his first hearings of Shankar’s music in 1967, was emboldened to improvise on this curious instrument with buzzing strings, the sitar. I suddenly felt sad as this slightly mad composition accompanied my sighting of expanses of frost-covered fields; an epoch had passed, not only in north Indian classical music, but for a certain buoyancy and colour in the music of the long 20th century.
Shankar’s life and career are the outcome of the radical movements and departures that characterise Indian modernity from the late 19th century onward, especially in the province, Bengal, to which his parents belonged and where he had his cultural ancestry. That culture – of the modern Bengali – was neither ancient nor classical; it was hybrid, bourgeois, nationalistic and cosmopolitan, a byproduct of early capitalism and the colonial encounter. When the Scottish Presbyterian educationist Alexander Duff found in Calcutta a young group of local university-educated radicals (who were later grandly named Young Bengal), reciting Robert Burns’s lines “When man to man the world o’er / Shall brothers be for a’ that”, he noted the coming into existence of “a new race of men in the east”. Shankar’s father, a Middle Temple lawyer who later moved to Banaras, where his younger son, Ravi, was born, was a progeny of that new race, with its avowed, sometimes misled, faith – almost as fierce as its faith in liberty – in its right to a universal culture, to access all the intellectual and artistic possibilities available to it. Some such faith would have driven the lawyer’s sons, Uday – a great experimenter in Indian dance – and Ravi in the opposite direction, away from the professions beloved of their father’s generation and, especially in the latter’s case, into the not-altogether respectable (for the bourgeois Bengali) realm of the classical arts. Ravi Shankar‘s radical experiment began, then, long before his meetings with Menuhin or Harrison, with his apparent abandonment of his Bengali middle-class origins in his very fashioning of himself as a sitar player, and in his new pan-Indian name, with Rabindra Shaunkar Chowdhury transformed into, simply, “Ravi Shankar”.
In the background lay a history and an arriviste but ebullient culture that habitually encouraged the casting aside of one persona and the dedicated embrace of another. As a musician, Shankar perfected a completely contemporary tone that was unmatched in its depth and sweetness, a tone not out of place in an urbane, increasingly amplified, aural landscape. That the tone became audible, paradoxically, even more clearly in the bass strings than in the fluent higher notes was testimony to Shankar’s urge, as a modern, to plumb and excavate the more arcane lineage of his music and the sitar, its roots in forms such as the dhrupad and the near-mythic instrument, the veena. In this, he was sage-like, immersed. He was also incomparably skilled, and his facility often made what he played seem easy. Besides being the most consistently excellent instrumentalist of the 20th century, Shankar’s achievement lay in making his great intellectual prowess as a musician – clearest in his astonishing mastery of time-signatures – and the complexity and difficulty of his melodic patterns seem almost irrelevant, so enticing is the cascade of sound he produces.
It was no surprise, then, that thousands of people who understood relatively little of what he was up to in his innovations with time and melody could derive such pleasure from his playing. Facility and mastery – like celebrity — lead to a suspicion, among some, that what sounds perfect must come from a place that’s slightly shallow. Two things prove Shankar’s fundamental seriousness of purpose. The first is the indefatigable riyaaz – or practice – that led him to perform into his 60s, 70s, even his 80s, in a way none of his contemporaries or successors could equal. The second is the recordings themselves, which, in their range over the decades, reaffirm the serene self-belief of one of last century’s most startling artists.”