Nath first arrived in America in 1970, just three years after Ali Akbar Khan began teaching in California. Several of his students became important pioneers in the development of progressive Western music, and his name is still spoken in hushed and awed tones by people who knew him by reputation. For that reason, I was more than a little embarrassed when I listened to this new release from the Pran Nath archives, and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. There was nothing here that I had come to expect from listening to my favorite khayal singers. The tabla player was playing so sparsely I couldn’t recognize the taal cycle. As far as I can tell, Pran Nath never sang the mukhra, and seemed to be meandering aimlessly around the raga without any sense of development or climax. I couldn’t help but speculate that Pran Nath’s reputation might be based on the naïve Orientalism which prompts so many Westerners to adulate what they can’t understand simply because it is exotic.
A little research quickly disproved that speculation, however. Composer and jazz musician Terry Riley was no Indian music dilettante. He began his 30-year discipleship by establishing a traditional guru-shishya relationship, living with Pran Nath in India for over a year and practicing five to 10 hours every day. A similar level of commitment was approached or equaled by numerous other influential students: avant garde composer La Monte Young (whose Mela Foundation produced this CD), pianist Allaudin Mathieu (author of the acclaimed Harmonic Experience, and The Listening Book), vocalist and spiritual teacher Shabda Kahn, trumpeter John Hassel, and Indo-jazz fusion saxophonist George Brooks. And many great Indian vocalists, including Bhimsen Joshi and Salamat Ali Khan, went to Pran Nath to learn nuances of ragas that no one else could teach. When people you respect say that they can hear greatness where you can’t, it’s much more likely that you are missing something than that they are hallucinating.
When I first listened to Ali Akbar Khan, all I could hear was my inner voice saying “where are the harmonies and chord progressions?” Now my inner voice was saying “where are the taans and the tihais?” but the problem was still the same. I was listening for the wrong things, which is why I wasn’t hearing anything. So I interviewed some of Pran Nath’s well-known disciples and students, in hopes of opening up new levels of awareness for myself.
Terry Riley was not surprised by my reaction. “Pran Nath’s style is not sung by very many people any more,” he said. “When the Princely States stopped providing patronage for classical music, the flashier technically dazzling styles became more popular, because musicians had to fill a concert hall to survive. Guruji was never an entertainer, and was willing to live like a sadhu to keep his devotion to his music pure. He sang first and foremost for God, and let you listen if you wanted to.”
But even musicians who had mastered the flashier styles came to Pran Nath for what he did best—using his phenomenal sense of tuning to develop every possible nuance of a slow alap. “I’ve never met anyone with a greater sense of the notes between the notes,” said George Brooks. “He could do more variations within a whole step than most musicians could do with an entire octave. I’ve heard him drop the pitch of a note while increasing the volume of an overtone, creating contrary motion in the harmonics of a single note.”
Riley’s and Brooks’s training consisted largely of exercises that Pran Nath called “voice culture.” These usually began with early morning “courage practice”—the low notes that had the most power when the vocal chords were still waking up. There would also be exhausting breathing exercises to give strength in the diaphragm for singing the deep wide vibratos known as gamak, and the singing of mantras in Sanskrit to learn vowel nuances that can be found in no other language. Pran Nath’s students also learned sounds that were used in the Muslim traditions for Sufi Zikhr, for Pran Nath spoke several languages, and had a scholar’s knowledge of many branches of musical history. Both Riley and Brooks, however, insisted that the most important practice they did was singing the single tonic “Sa” until it was completely free of any sort of unsteadiness or vibrato. Hearing this brought back a memory which enabled me to re-listen to these recordings with new ears.
I had tried to sing without Western-style vibrato when I had studied Indian vocals, and knew how difficult that was. But when I had first listened to these Pran Nath recordings, my reactions to those held notes was: “OK, I’ve heard that note. Now what are you going to do?” I had forgotten that these notes were artistic achievements that showed even more mastery than the ability to sing a fast scale. So I went back to listen again, savoring the beauty of each of those long held notes, and discovered that I could hear far more in them than I ever thought possible.
They slid majestically, almost imperceptibly, changing tone colors and intensity. Before, I had thought the tanpura was too loud; now I was aware of nothing but the sound of his voice. And—I swear I am not making this up—I could feel the notes in my body, as if I were being soothed and nourished by each one. Riley had said that Pran Nath had told him to sing each note from a different part of his body, with the lower notes emanating from the root chakra at the base of the spine, and the highest notes coming from the crown of the head. Now that I could hear at least some of what made this music great, these instructions seemed quite sensible.
This experience put me in the perfect mood to appreciate my next interview. Allaudin Mathieu had borrowed my copy of the CD, and had promised to give me some pointers on what to listen for. “This is one of the finest performances of Guruji I have ever heard,” he said. “There is so much going on it would take hours to describe it all. But I’ll give you the timings for a few examples that should help train your ears. At 5:43 there is a beautiful example of chromatic mixing, where he alternates and intermingles flat and natural Dha. He does the same thing an octave higher at 28:54 and again at 40:00. At 12:42 he does the same thing with flat and natural Ga. At 8:53 he does what he calls singing through a comma. This means that he alternates between two slightly different versions of what we think of as the same note. In this case, one of these notes is the third which is used in the Western tempered scale, and the other the third in the medieval Pythagorean tuning. This is a very subtle difference, about 22 hundredths of a Hertz, but he’s using it with deliberate expressiveness. Later on he does sitar-like bends that are as curved and elegant as Japanese calligraphy. There’s a particularly beautiful one that starts at 17:01 and goes for about 20 seconds.”
I’m tempted to include all of Mathieu’s commentary, for it taught me to listen in completely new ways. But reading these instructions without hearing the music would be like a description of color to someone born blind. If you want to change forever the way you hear music, I would strongly recommend buying these two CDs and taking the time to unravel their secrets. Mathieu compared listening to Pran Nath to studying Einsteinian physics. “Before studying physics, the world seems to be made of discrete middle-size objects. Before listening to Pran Nath, music seems to be made of discrete individual notes. Guruji’s music shows how the borders between the notes don’t stop them from flowing and combining, just as the objects in the physical world are ultimately governed by forces and fields that transcend them all.”
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.