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

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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