Writings About Music

East West Side Story: Ravi Shankar and Leonard Bernstein

They were contemporaries, born two years apart, and the similarities are so striking it’s puzzling that no one has really connected them before, but like chess, sometimes the most obvious moves are the most difficult to see.

Ravi Shankar and Leonard Bernstein embraced music with a ferocious passion that necessitated sharing beyond performance into the realm of education. Each loved focusing in on the technical and expressive fundamentals and historical tracings of their musical traditions presented to the public with unprecedented patience, scope and detail. Their teaching bolstered a genius for interpreting and reshaping the musical milieu of their classical music cultures, raga (North Indian) and symphony, respectively.

With the recent passing of Shankar, not nearly enough recognition was given to his most significant collaborator, Alla Rakha, a percussionist who was his musical equal, inspiring new dimensions in improvisatory exploration. Bernstein’s most memorable collaborators were Stephen Sondheim in composition, and the New York Philharmonic in performance.

My personal contact with these artists was brief, yet memorable. Leonard Bernstein approached me during a party following a Tanglewood student orchestra concert to meet and chat, but I was filled with the seriousness of an aspiring composer, and he simply wished to celebrate, so that conversation was cut short. However, we did end up dancing next to each other with our respective partners, and Lenny struck up a conversation with me regarding the content of a Herbie Hancock recording that was playing. Regretfully, this exchange came to an abrupt halt when the chorus of Musique's ribald In the Bush was reached, and Bernstein, groaning, covered his face in horror and disbelief, and left the dance floor! I saw him once more before the summer was over, and the maestro, in the company of others, gave a friendly wave and smile.

Purely musical memories of that summer at Tanglewood with Bernstein include his stunning ability, exhibited during a conducting class, to articulate and illuminate seemingly inconsequential and minute musical details to the point where they were revealed to be enormously significant, as if he was a human microscope with a higher intellectual and musical resolution than was previously thought possible. It was dramatically apparent that Lennie’s physically expressive conducting style was born from a prodigious musical knowledge and technique.

When an unfortunate French horn player in the Boston Symphony Orchestra cracked an extremely exposed note towards the end of the First Movement during a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, I was taken aback, sitting front row center, by the furious anger that spontaneously radiated from Bernstein’s body, like gasoline being poured on a fire, even though he did not utter a sound, and barely moved before instantly proceeding with his conducting undeterred. Days before, I had been riveted by Bernstein's rehearsals of both the Mahler and the Dmitri Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. His conducting classes were equally unforgettable as mentioned.

When I met Shankar and his wife following a lecture at UCSD in La Jolla, Sukanya greeted me with surprising deference, indicating that they already knew who I was because they had received and listened to my Chinese Legend CD, which prominently features a sitar timbre on the title piece, a composition that was even played on the notoriously conservative KUSC FM.

Amazingly, I felt the maestro was regarding me somewhat competitively as someone who had taken influences from Indian classical music, including a living semblance of the sitar, in an exciting new direction using an instrumental form I only named the meruvina several years later, simultaneously admiring me for having a musical vision that broke the rules of convention as he had done previously, if in a much different way.

There were numerous persons vying for Raviji’s attention, and I had only a brief opportunity to explain how I had listened to his music every single day for years, and that I was a student of his senior disciple, Harihar Rao.

However, I sent an email to Shankar after returning to Los Angeles, and he responded with a thrilling email that expressed a desire to teach me, and complimented me for possessing the quality of vinaya, which is the proper humility a student has toward the guru. Shankar suggested that we reconnect after he returned from a lengthy overseas trip, but unfortunately, our shared wish for private lessons didn't materialize. I simply wasn’t persistent and patient enough in dealing with his extraordinarily busy schedule.



Those interested in experiencing the essence of Ravi Shankar, whose birth name I was amused to learn was "Robindro", are advised to seek out a recording of Raga Jaijaivanti originally released by World Pacific. This is the most perfect creation of Shankar and Rakha I know of, and it exerted a powerful influence on myself, revealing with stunning clarity and elegance the expressive and technical elements and systems that ragas are made of, almost as if it contains musical secrets that were not intended for outsider consumption. Perhaps because I have mentioned it, this recording will soon become more well known, following a pattern of recommendations I made to Raviji in past years regarding various out of print books and recordings that coincidently became available once again.

Hello Goodbye was never one of my favorite Beatle songs, but as I say goodbye to Raviji, who passed away this month at 92, I thankfully realize I will forever be saying hello to him for the priceless musical gifts he bestowed mostly, in my personal experience, by way of the magnificently brilliant teacher, Harihar Rao.

It is an unavoidable double-edged sword that renders Indian classical music, both North and South, unintelligible to many without considerable exposure and education, including, by extension, my own music, with its unconventional assimilation of both East and West classical music influences.

- Michael Robinson, December 2012, Los Angeles


© 2012 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, pianist and musicologist. His 199 albums include 152 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.