Pandit Pran Nath - Raga Cycle: Palace Theatre, Paris 1972 (Sri Moonshine CD)
New Pandit Pran Nath disc? Awesome times. Well not really "new", as the album title would indicate. And since, you know, Nath has been for some time now. But there's probably a wealth of recorded Pran Nath material that's languishing in somebody (read: La Monte Young)'s archives so anytime something that's previously unheard becomes available, you have to jump on it. he favor comes to us courtesy Terry Riley and his Sri Moonshine label, who was also responsible for one of the few (only?) other Nath release available at the moment, "Midnight: Raga Malkauns". That's a double-disc costing $36 U.S. which is a little too rich for my blood at the moment but this single slice at $17 seems reasonable enough. Like I said, you take what you can get. And Sri Moonshine did a very tasteful job with the packaging, a glossy gatefold with liner notes from Riley and translations of Nath's incantations are a welcome bonus. This disc is culled from the first of three sets Pran Nath played in Paris over the course of a weekend in 1972, these being the night ragas I believe. It's also to my understanding that Riley will be issuing the other two sets on CD at a later date, so I'll have to keep a watchful eye on that. Nath was accompanied on all three dates by his American disciples Riley, Young and Young's wife Marian Zazeela. Riley plays tabla percussion while Young and Zazeela occupy the space with tambouras.
It's tough to compare the two pieces - "Raga Shudh Sarang" and "Raga Kut Todi" - to this disc against anything else since I've only heard a couple of MP3s from Nath and even then I haven't studied them extensively enough to a point of being able to tell you the subtle differences. Heck I haven't listened/studied to nearly enough raga period to be able to tell the difference. But on his website (and in the liner notes) Riley states, "One of the undeniable beauties of Indian Classical Music is its strong connection to nature and especially the binding relationship of Raga melodies to their appropriate time of day. An elegant curve of melody, a subtle lowering of pitch, or an assertiveness attached to a particular note help to define the effect of a Raga" so you'll just have to take his word for it. He'd know far better than I would, to say the least. All I can do is tell you that I know what I like and "Raga Cycle" wins all over the place. On the "Shudh Sarang" raga, Nath's unmistakeable voice wafts in at an almost guttural approach at first before slowly opening up to reveal the multitude of galaxies embedded in his throat. At the end of the day there are only a handful of truly "pure" sounds in music and Pran Nath's eternally unfaltering voice has to be one of them. It's rather remarkable to listen to both these ragas and get the feeling that Nath has more control over his vocal chords than many others do over, say, their guitars - nothing more than what is essentially a piece of machinery. "Shudh Sarang" stretches out over 33 minutes, with Young and Zazeela's tambouras adding a sense of ever-flowing continuity and Riley's understated percussion keeping you from floating thirty miles up into the mesosphere. Most noteworthy are the moments around the 20 and 30 minute marks when Nath strays from his awe-inspiring drawn-out drones and engaging in an almost rapidfire delivery, something I don't remember ever hearing from him before in my limited listenings, although maybe I just wasn't paying attention (or I was lulled into a deep sleep). At 12 minutes, "Raga Kut Todi" has a greater sense of urgency as Nath's voice cuts through the air and you begin to sense the first indications that Nath is indeed human, snorting and clearing his throat a couple times before delivering the next flawless pitch. Riley delivers his percussion with smooth, organic feel while the tambouras remain forever unrushed, allowing to the grand master all the space he needs to unfurl silky strands of throat technique. I can't help thinking that at 45 minutes the album is still too short, but then I guess it's on me to man up and buy the 2CD.
If you're at all interested in the 60s/70s post-and-pre Velvets drone nexus and all related parts, then "Raga Cycle" is an absolutely invaluable document, especially when such documents are so hard to find (or when they aren't hard to find, they'll usually bankrupt you). Kudos go to Terry Riley for finally bringing some of this music to the people, and with any luck it'll be the first of many more to come.