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Ravi Shankar

The Unexpected Influence of Ravi Shankar on Philip Glass’ Musical Education


The encounter with a musician from India proved to be an unexpected opening onto a horizon until then unknown to Philip Glass.

The music of Philip Glass is usually classified as 20th century minimalism, a label that orients us but also smacks of reductionism: it leaves out many circumstances behind the composer’s life and work.

In a more close-up look at his career, there is a figure in Glass’ formative years that is mentioned little in the list of colleagues who influenced him. And that is Ravi Shankar, the famous Indian sitar player who, during much of the 20th century, put the West in touch with the music of his region, either in its traditional variant or in pieces that he composed.

Glass met Shankar in Paris in the mid-1960s. The former was taking composition classes with Nadia Boulanger but Glass never imagined that his stay in the French capital would bring about such a fruitful and unexpected encounter for his musical education.

Ravi Shankar opened the door into a world of music for me,” Glass recently said  in an interview with National Public Radio on the occasion of the publication of his memoirs Words Without Music. The merit, of course, is not small, as in certain ways the meeting was a decisive step toward that which he considered his vital vocation.

Among other consequences, the encounter with Shankar meant the discovery of a wide panorama of musical traditions that until then had been unknown to Glass. India, to begin with, but soon his curiosity and desire for exploration took him to Chinese Taoism, its Japanese Shinto variants, the native peoples of Australia and other cultural territories that expressed their world view through music.

The door opened by Shankar led to a wide and diverse road that made Glass take that step that few of us can, and along which we could, for a moment, cease to look at the world from our own criteria, our way of thinking, to contemplate it, at least partially, from other parameters.

“I think one of the reasons that I wrote so much music in my life is because I met a lot of interesting people,” Glass said in that same interview, as if raising to another scale – that of creativity and the imagination – the well-known saying that each person’s head is a world in itself.

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