December 9, 2001

Remembering George Harrison: Open to the Influence of Unfamiliar Cultures


We all naturally remember George Harrison as one of the cornerstones (but weren't they all?) of the late-20th-century phenomenon known as the Beatles. But for some, George, who died on Nov. 29 at the age of 58, was an icon of another phenomenon, equally influential in shaping the music of today. I'm referring to the world-music culture, which, starting in the 60's, has become an inescapable aspect of our music life. George was among the first Western musicians to recognize the importance of music traditions millenniums old, which themselves had roots in indigenous music, both popular and classical. Using his considerable influence and popularity, he was one of those few who pushed open the door that, until then, had separated the music of much of the world from the West.

His close, lifelong friendship with Ravi Shankar was the opening of this new world for George. They met in London in 1966, and shortly after he went to India for a six-week visit. He bought a sitar in Delhi, and not long after it was heard in new Beatles recordings, beginning with "Norwegian Wood" from "Rubber Soul," then "Within You Without You" from "Sgt. Pepper" and going on from there.

I never met George. But what we shared was our encounters with Indian classical music through Ravi Shankar. My first meeting with Ravi was in 1965 in Paris and, for me, the experience was as powerful, and as important for my musical development, as it was for George. I, likewise, was drawn to India and, in fact, was in Bombay in 1966 when George was there. He was staying at the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel where he had begun studying the sitar with Ravi. (I, unknown to Ravi, was staying only a few blocks away in the distinctly unprestigious, but quite comfortable, Salvation Army lodgings.) In Ravi's autobiography, "Raga Mala," (with a forward by George Harrison and many additional contributions by him), he writes generously and quite touchingly of the early years of their friendship.

The role that Ravi played in George's life was so important I think a few words must be included about him as well. By the time they met, Ravi was 46 an acclaimed master musician who had been playing and traveling in the West for decades. It's impossible to overstate the importance and influence his long-term presence has had for Western music as a whole.

He was first involved in the tradition of Western concert music through Yehudi Menuhin, whom he met in London in 1956, and later with many other musicians in the classical field. Besides composing a series of concertos for sitar and orchestra, he performed frequently in chamber music ensembles with his friends. In fact, I met Ravi, Menuhin and Jean-Pierre Rampal in New Delhi in January 1998 when they were wrapping up what was to be their last tour together.

I can speak personally for Ravi's influence on the "experimental" music of the 60's. He was as great a mentor for me as he was for George. He set the musical direction for the first few years of my amplified ensemble, and he has remained a close friend, sometime collaborator and music confidant up until the present.

Ravi's contact with pop culture began in the 60's with Rory McEwan, whom he met in 1963. However, it was George, no doubt, who brought Ravi to a larger public. Ravi writes about the effect of George on his career in the following way: "I was planning to leave India again in February 1967, for a long, long tour. I had already become well known by then through my classical career and the recitals I had given at some folk clubs, even before my contact with George. But from the Bombay incident onwards" George was recognized by a bellhop at the Taj Mahal, which created a huge uproar "there was such a big flash all around the world in the newspapers connecting him and me, about how I had become George's guru. It was like wildfire, creating such a big explosion of fascination with the sitar that there was a tremendous demand for my concerts. I had become a superstar!"

After that Ravi appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 (which he seems to have enjoyed). Later he was at Woodstock in August 1969 (which he did not enjoy at all). Still later came the concert for Bangladesh in August 1971 surely the most important of these events. Ravi had asked George to help him organize the concert. George, besides writing his song "Bangladesh," arrived with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and others. Eventually there would be a Grammy Award-winning album.

Beyond being involved with the music of India, George was sincerely and deeply touched by its culture and religion. Anyone seriously involved with India eventually (sooner than later) will have to take on the whole culture. In my own case it led to an opera about Gandhi ("Satyagraha"), and a lifelong interest in the philosophy, history, art, people, food, et al. of India. My empathy with George comes about through this broader encounter with Indian culture, which we equally shared, enjoyed and were inspired by.

This rediscovered interest in ancient, spiritual traditions (mainly Eastern) seems to have swept through a host of artists, writers and musicians at this time. The likes of John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, George Harrison and many others were all deeply distressed and affected by the ethos of postmodern American-European life. It seemed that the materialism of the society as a whole had extended well past the simple consumerism of our capitalist environment and invaded the world of culture itself, producing a plethora of inhibited and cold works of art in the fields of dance, theater and music from trashy "pop" to intellectual exercises in modernism.

My view of mid- to late-20th-century music is born from this experience. For me the great event of the 20th century was not the continuation of the central European avant-garde to its last final gasp. I see the great musical adventure of our time as the emergence of a world-music culture, which crosses lines of geography, race and gender. From this perspective, the impact of George Harrison's life and times has been enormous. He played a major role in bringing several generations of young musicians out of the parched and dying desert of Eurocentric music into a new world. I have no doubt that this part of his legacy will be his most enduring. And not only that. He opened the doors to this new world of music with deep conviction, great energy and his own remarkable clarity and simplicity.

And then, of course, there was the Beatles.

Philip Glass is an American composer.

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