In discussion with L’estasi Dell’oro on “Passages” by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass (1990).
Do you remember when you first got a hold of „Passages“?
I would have to say approximately 8 years ago. I believe that I first became aware of this album through familiarity with Ravi’s work, as opposed to the more likely channel of Philip’s. It was just the well-worn process of hearing a great musician’s work for the first time and then digging through as much of the rest of their discography as time allows.
What makes this album so important for you?
The simple answer is that this is the best collection of modern music that I’ve ever heard in my life so far. There’s other individual songs that I feel reach higher than any single piece from „Passages“, Jimi’s „1983, A Merman…“ for example, but taken as a whole, the variety and almost unwavering quality across the 55 minutes are very impressive to me.
Are you generally interested in either the Minimalism school Glass is a part of, and the heritage Ravi Shankar represents, or are there preferences?
Both traditions are of interest, for both similar and differing reasons. The Western minimalism side’s long form accuracy of performance is astounding. Of course many pieces utilize synthesizers or machines for part or all of the sound, but there are many examples of highly trained musicians playing these very fast and demanding arrangements in sizable groups with amazing accuracy. Hearing a quartet of woodwinds or vocalists arpeggiate 32nd notes for 20 minutes in synchronization is certainly impressive, especially when each player is playing in the pocket of another’s notes and one weak link could lose the all-important groove.
I feel that the general Hindustani music I’ve been able to discover, not too much beyond key names are readily available to foreigners like myself unfortunately, is an amazing marriage of musical rules and improvisations. Other cultures undoubtedly have similar structures, but the long form interplay between a sitar and tabla create a sound that appears loose and informal at first, but one where the performers are very highly trained and aware of their actions as a group. I’m certainly not deeply aware of the compositional rules of ragas & talas, etc. but familiar enough to appreciate what those musicians know themselves. Even in the related vocal styles of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Pakistani performers, the communal aspect of group support for the soloist is wonderful.
In common, the two traditions place emphasis on extended songs beyond the popular format, which when done correctly, can leave a profound impact on the listener. Also, the aforementioned backing of smaller choral support often features drawn-out vocal melodies that really appeal to my ear, especially with the female voice. I’ve enjoyed working with a couple vocalists in this style, which can even sound great just floating over a groove alone without the usual emphasis on a soloist drawing the main focus.
How would you place „Passages“ in both the output of Glass and Shankar? And how much of both artists is in it? Is this an ideal, true collaboration?
As far as I can tell from the album jacket notes and relatively little information available on the recording sessions, this work is an equal collaboration between the two. Each recorded three of the six pieces in their own studio spaces, with two of those three being compositions based off of riffs from the other. Philip took musical themes provided by Ravi and wrote full arrangements off of those, as well as vice versa. Additionally, each of the two recorded a third song of solely their own ideas to round out the package. Listening through, it’s certainly not just a case of Philip approximating “Indian sounds” or Ravi attempting “Western minimalism”.
There were numerous efforts to combine Western musical influences with other global traditions. The results were often half-hearted for both, or worse. Can you think of other projects where this approach really worked?
I’m sure that there are recordings that I’ve never heard or am failing to recall, but after spending some time trying to think of worthy items to mention, I really can’t unfortunately.
What mistakes should by all means be avoided?
I feel that any collaboration where each of the artists has a healthy understanding of the other’s background and ideas will be more likely to produce great results. Philip had a much deeper understanding of Hindustani musical concepts than most American composers, and Ravi likewise was much more familiar with Western composition than most Indians. I know that they had first encountered one another already in the mid-60’s for film work in more of a student-teacher relationship, as well as having collaborated in the intermittent years, so that long-established familiarity helped to avoid any great mistakes.
A lot of electronic artists are influenced by Minimalism, and also outernational elements. Is this all about rhythm and the according textures, or is there more?
It seems to me that not enough electronic artists are influenced by these elements, since rhythm in techno is often extremely rigid, in that 98% of tunes I’ve heard are all at a single set tempo throughout, even excluding DJ-focused tunes which are uniform for obvious reasons. Due to the hardware machines and computer programs making it not very easy to do so in practice, recording while syncing synths together often makes tempo changes an afterthought, or at least compared to a group of musicians sitting together being able to do so at the ease of a head nod. It is still a bit strange to my ears, since the main music vibe that I grew up in as a teenager was the local hardcore/metal/punk scene. Songs from bands like Botch, Converge, Dillinger, Skycamefalling etc. relied heavily on really interesting arrangements and a mixture of both subtle and jarring tempo changes. It was great for my curious 14-year-old mind along with millions of others across the country and the world to a lesser-extent; and great fun dancing, read: jumping & kicking & punching to these bands. There’s a lesser-known album named “Finding Solace in Dissension” from this band Taken, on which at some point long ago I realized that they don’t repeat an arrangement section really ever throughout the entire album. Even for this music it’s pretty rare, to never go back to a verse/chorus after a breakdown or anything. It’s not the greatest album of the style, but I really appreciate the fact that they purposefully tried something uncommon and pulled it off.
Regarding the according melodic textures, I agree that they are highly influential, although perhaps too much focus is put upon the machine-source aspect of the Minimalism sound palette. I do really enjoy getting some twisted and head-affecting sounds out of these electronics, but rather than just those bleeps and pads, I feel that the female voice is by far the best instrument, and wish a much healthier balance of songs featured the voice as do processed computer beeps. I can say that it’s usually much more fun to record vocal sessions and work with those sounds, and that it’s no coincidence that people have enjoyed the songs „Cry Stahl“ and „Iscariotic Lips“ more so than any of my other 12″s released thus far. In recent times I’ve been mainly focused on incorporating my girlfriend Sadie’s spoken words into original pieces of mine, along with the current live touring setup that I’ve began working with. Even a microphone through a space echo pedal and a few bits of hardware can come together really nicely.
As a producer, you work with musical elements that are not typical for the genres that your music is associated with. Like the Techno context for example, where functionality is often as important as musical ideas. Is it a matter of musical education that Techno offers so little that could be compared to an album like „Passages“?
Well, I myself am not musically educated beyond common public school band lessons and beginner reading of sheet music, but I do find myself occasionally disappointed by the rudimentary arrangements and melodies that are the norm in techno. I can only imagine for people way more educated than myself in these areas that it can be felt stronger. I mean, there’s no denying that a majority of great techno songs from over the years feature melodies and chord changes that a young child would learn in their first home piano lesson. Rather, it’s the background sound elements and locomotive grooves that hold my attention. I kind of understand how individuals from a more ‘educated’ musical scene could find techno very refreshing for these reasons, and it works wonderfully regardless, but I do occasionally question what an already amazing techno song could have sounded like if double the time was spent developing an arrangement beyond a single idea stretched to seven minutes. Something like a situation where no thought is influenced by a hypothetical DJ and the entire momentum and energy built over an extended set would become necessary to achieve within each song alone.
It’s a difficult question as a producer to know when it’s better to try to incorporate these things into the music, or when it’s best to keep it extra simple and leave it up to the DJ spinning your record to spice up the song. When I spin records out I really enjoy playing these types of techno that I wouldn’t necessarily produce myself, but work great in context. Ideally, I have a third turntable to throw spoken word, ambient, or acoustic works over top of the groovers, which also allows me to make more interesting mixes and dynamic changes that only two decks don’t so freely allow. The vast majority of times that someone will talk to me about a record I’ve played, it’s about a song from an ‘unrelated’ genre to techno that they would never expect to hear in that setting. Whether unknown poetry or a very recognizable melody, I can see peoples’ ears perk up in these moments.
Are their other fields you would like to explore, both as producer and music enthusiast?
Over the past couple years I’ve been actively digging into the current metal scene, which is closer to my roots but I can’t say that I was very aware of the more extreme end of the spectrum as a kid. I’ve found some amazing works amongst the mediocre, actually located in particular proximity to my part of Queens/BK, namely Krallice and Castevet, along with a few others. Take a good listen through the album “Diotima” and see if you can draw some inspiration as I have. It’s another good example of skilled musicians really attempting to create something together as has happened many times in the past, and hopefully many more times to come.
Creatively, the person reading this may be familiar with my records and rightly say that I’ve occasionally followed some of these overly re-re-re-visted themes in ways myself in the past, but my more recent material that will be arriving in the future is getting closer still to the sounds I’m reaching towards. Although I’ve enjoyed playing various instruments in various bands with friends, it’s only been over the past 5 years, starting with the Penalune material, that I’ve been actively concentrating on creating music to release to the wide world. I admit that I’m still actively contemplating how to go about this best, and am really genuinely excited about what songs will come to be in the future months and years.