Freedom and Light


On Music

I saw Ravi Shankar at Carnegie Hall in 1966 or 1967. Because of the Beatles, of course. And I learned so much about music from that one concert. Not that the lesson stayed with me; it wasn’t like that. But it set me up for hearing music in a different way than I was used to (that is, as pop songs on the radio, as 45s on my record player, as the songs we sang at camp about the cat coming back or your heart going where the wild goose goes, or, worse, much worse, as the moth-eaten songs from musicals on Broadway).

The first half of the concert was endless and dull, nothing but a couple of notes played over and over, like a foreign cuckoo clock gone mad. And then, an hour in, it all changed. And time stopped. The notes began to form a pattern, and the pattern grew more and more beautiful, like a house materializing from thin air, rising out of nothing into the most glorious vista, a home and a garden and hope and love and time, spread out before me.

But that was after. First there was a lot of what seemed to be a long and pointless preamble. But it was that repetition and that dullness that ultimately made the ensuing music so sweet and so rich, so evocative. When the chord of monotony is stretched most tight, G. K. Chesterton wrote, then it breaks with a sound like song.

Ravi Shankar tuned for about six or seven minutes. I wasn’t one of the ones who applauded when he was finally in tune, at the end of that, thinking it was his first piece,though I remember thinking … This is Carnegie Hall! Why didn’t he come prepared?

There followed a long stretch of slow and formal posturings, like a host introducing a room full of guests to each other while they’re still trying to figure out where to put their coats, while they’re desperately seeking out the drinks table. But introductions were nonetheless made, modes and keys laid out one by one, as if the evening’s menu were being recited. Duck à l’orange. In the key of C. Or C#. Or something between.

It’s not unusual for a musician to introduce himself and his agenda before getting down to business: Thelonious Monk dealing a few notes from the bottom of the deck; Coltrane clearing his throat musically; Jimi Hendrix turning up his amp; Miles Davis turning his back.

That home, those gardens I mentioned before—Ravi Shankar spent the first hour slowly walking around and around them, pacing the distance from the hedgerows to the apple orchard, stopping to see if any fruit was ripe, checking the shutters on the gardener’s cottage for signs of wear or decay, not so much strolling the grounds as inspecting them with the unforgiving eye of the groundskeeper and the sure stride of the landowner.

And then, once the territory had been laid out, positioned, codified, once the world was set in place and all seemed right and clear, that’s when the whole world turned: there was a flurry of activity, notes that had been pent up were unleashed and began spinning around the grounds, dive-bombing the world we’d begun to recognize and know, like frantic, hungry birds. What had been nothing became everything, the far away became close, dark turned light, then slipped back to dark. Shadows caught fire and burned to nothing in the moonlight. Candles were lit, flickered out, and were lit once again in every window.

Have you ever seen a bird fly into a house and not be able to find its way out? You open the windows. You do your best not to make eye contact, for eye contact will disorient and terrify it. You open the windows, you stand back, you wait. There is a mad fluttering of wings, there is panic and feathers, and you can hear its heart pounding, and then, in a rush, it’s free, it’s out, it soars and is gone.

So it is with Ravi Shankar’s music. So it is with Ravi Shankar. Grace and speed and motion and, in the end, freedom and light and more light.

And when I awoke
I was alone
This bird had flown.

Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.