When East Meets West: Hear What Happened When Ravi Shankar & Philip Glass Composed Music Together

in Music | March 8th, 2017

There were the Beats, with their interest in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. Then the Beatles and Rolling Stones mined Eastern music and traditions for their psychedelic head trips, and turned a lot of people on to the sitar and the Nehru jacket. But in many significant East meets West moments, the emphasis skewed heavily toward Western artists. These cultural moments created some truly inspired rock and roll and writing, but not much in the way of a genuine congress of artists of equal recognition.

Though we might expect to find something like this in the Collaborations box set, credited to Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, what we get instead are four discs of mostly Shankar compositions and classical Indian interpretations, which Harrison produced and played on as a guest artist. These albums refreshingly reverse the usual dynamic: “The music here,” writes the Beatles Bible, “is far from Western pop musicians dabbling with sitars in the 1960s.” But for a truly collaborative work, we should look elsewhere, and we’ll perhaps find few finer examples than Shankar’s work with Philip Glass.

The two giants of their respective musical worlds first met in Paris in 1965, but it was only 25 years later that they decided to work together on an album. You can hear the result, Passages, at the top of the post and in the Spotify playlist just above. Although it took over two decades for Glass and Shankar to record together, their collaboration began even “before The Beatles had met Ravi,” remembered Glass in a lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy. “This music would’ve been very exotic, at that time… in the ‘60s, this was the first time this kind of music had been heard. At least in the West.”

In his mid-twenties at the time, Glass was hired to transcribe Shankar’s score for the cult film Chappaqua. He began to combine what he had been learning in his master’s program at Juilliard “with the work I had been doing with Ravi Shankar. Almost immediately I began doing that.” And so audiences heard Shankar’s influence on Western minimalism before they heard it in pop music. “It was through Shankar’s music,” NPR notes, “that the American composer came to realize that music could be constructed with rhythm as its very foundation…. That realization became a cornerstone of Glass’ own work.”

Since his first meeting with Glass, Shankar influenced and collaborated with many other Western musicians in his long and varied career, inspiring John Coltrane and other jazz greats and releasing three albums with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, each called West Meets East, in 1967, 1968, and 1976. Passages is a sharing of both musical vocabularies and compositional methods: Shankar and Glass each composed themes that the other arranged. “There is a great deal of technical data involved here,” writes Jim Brenholts at Allmusic. “Both of these artists have long taken intellectual approaches to music.”

Theory aside, “the music is brilliant,” whether we understand its virtuosity or not, though it trends largely in a symphonic direction. Those interested in a more beat-oriented but also brilliant “East meets West” collaboration would do well to check out table player Zakir Hussain and bassist Bill Laswell’s project Tabla Beat Science, which, Allmusic writes, fuses the “rich and time-honored tradition of the tabla” with “contemporary electronica studio wizardry.” And, of course, don’t miss Hussain’s work with guitarist extraordinaire John McLaughlin.

Related Content:

Ravi Shankar Gives George Harrison a Sitar Lesson … and Other Vintage Footage

‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’: Allen Ginsberg’s 1996 Collaboration with Philip Glass and Paul McCartney

Watch “Geometry of Circles,” the Abstract Sesame Street Animation Scored by Philip Glass (1979)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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