Writings About Music
Decoding a Bacchus from Bonn and a Visionary from Varanasi
Ludwig van Beethoven, Ravi Shankar and Harihar Rao
Harihar Rao, standing far left, and Ravi Shankar, seated to the right of George Harrison. This photo is related to a tour presenting the classical music of India to the world made possible by Harrison. Other luminaries in the photo include Alla Rakha, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, L. Subramanian, Sultan Khan. Lakshmi Shankar, and seven others I apologize for not recognizing at the moment.
Whereas junior high found me lunching invariably with the same group of five like-minded friends, I had become more introspective upon entering high school, and took to a hasty noontime repast followed by immersing myself in the school library. Hungry for knowledge and new experiences, I hunted among the biography, history, poetry, music, arts, and travel volumes for material that promised to captivate my youthful intensity. One publication enticed me above all. It seemed more fantastical than any story in Greek or Norse mythology, or even the finest and most exciting films I had seen. It was an appreciation and aesthetic analysis of Beethoven, subtitled “His Spiritual Development,” by John William Navin Sullivan.
Never before had I heard or read such passionate and insightful speculation about the great challenges and promise one might attempt by pursuing what it meant to be a composer of classical music. Here was an unmatchable opportunity in life to unify spirit, intellect and emotion by melding into sound spheres of creativity that seemed to reach as far as endless space.
And, above all, Sullivan managed to humanize Beethoven, rendering apparent that the composer’s accomplishments had much to do with training, practice, focus, and concentration, even though much of this was imparted by a brutal upbringing. Without a doubt, this book awakened in myself the idea of becoming a composer, a pursuit I began to follow from that day on with a new compass for my adventurous musical impulses.
For another fresh and enlightened insight into Beethoven’s music, I cannot more strongly recommend the solo piano transcriptions by Franz Liszt of the nine symphonies as recorded by Russian pianist, Konstantin Scherbakov. Many of us have been greatly overexposed to these orchestral works, and the combination of Liszt and Scherbakov yields a series of stunning musical epiphanies - something like receiving a coveted invitation to witness the music behind the curtain, so to speak. Scherbakov's playing is so exquisite and intelligent, it's practically like hearing Beethoven's most famous works for the first time.
In my senior year of high school, I came across another monumental book in the same library that now seems to have foreseen some of what the future held. It was “My Music, My Life” by Ravi Shankar, and most all of the contents passed well over my head, even after writing a book report (now lost) for an undergraduate course in college.
Fortunately for myself, after moving to Los Angeles years later, Chuck Jonkey introduced me to Harihar Rao, a legendary teacher who was the senior disciple of Shankar. Harihar’s wonderfully insightful and articulate thoughts revealed with extraordinary clarity the esoteric concepts and practices found in My Music, My Life.
Harihar was an elegant, aristocratic gentleman with a fine sense of humor. Walking though the doorway of his home on South Madison Avenue in Pasadena was like being beamed to Bombay. The combination of the furnishings, decorative elements, scents, and Rao’s Hindu-nurtured intelligence and culture filled the room. Among the many musicians and composers he taught Indian rhythms, and other musical concepts to were George Harrison, Robby Krieger, John Densmore, Don Ellis, Ed Shaughnessy and Lalo Schifrin.
Don Ellis composed one of the most original, and thrillingly effective film scores in history for the French Connection. Additional works by Ellis that demonstrate the influence of Indian classical music as taught by Rao, along with pertinent efforts by the other artists mentioned, are too numerous to include here.
One favored memory of Harihar is how he regarded my third CD, Hamoa, the first recording of mine suffused with the influence of his teaching. Rao carefully placed the disc itself on the richly patterned Indian rug directly in front of him while he taught students, including myself, throughout the day. My choice of color design for the disc, an opulent pink with white characters, appealed to him, and periodically, as part of his teaching, Harihar would play excerpts from Hamoa, afterwards gently returning the disc to its position on the rug where he would periodically gaze and touch it.
I cannot conceive of even beginning to comprehend, in an internal manner, the principles of the elusive art form known as Indian classical music without Rao's guidance. (Later on, I was also able to benefit from the teaching of Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, Kala Ramath, and Pandit Jasraj.) In fact, Harihar told me that he was the person who actually wrote down in words Ravi’s thoughts when they worked together on My Music, My Life, something that is not specifically credited.
- Michael Robinson, September 2013, Los Angeles
© 2013 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).
Dear Mr. Robinson,
I totally share your thoughts and appreciate your kind comments.
I also believe that the unique project of Complete Beethoven Symphonies in Liszt’s transcription and the pianist who is the only one who realized it deserve the highest appreciation and must be presented to the classical music audience around the world.
With many thanks and warmest regards,