Poster by Marian Zazeela for a raga cycle performance at St. John the Divine, 1991 (via The Hum)
William Farley’s In Between the Notes profiles the late Pandit Pran Nath, a singer and teacher in the Kirana school of Indian classical music. It features his most famous pupils, Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, and the late, great music scholar Robert Palmer sticks his head in, too.
Kicked out of the house at the age of 13 because he insisted on becoming a musician, Pran Nath made friends with the outdoors, as this short documentary illustrates. In Delhi, he demonstrates his keen ear for bird songs; on his return to the Tapkeshwar Caves, where, on the advice of his guru, he had lived for five years as a renunciant, Pran Nath shows how the sound of rushing water can stand in for the drone of a tambura when you are a homeless sadhu.
Pandit Pran Nath with Ann and Terry Riley (via Complete Word)
But if it was to be a tambura instead of a babbling brook, it had better be a “Pandit Pran Nath-style tambura.” Except in the caves, Terry Riley has his arm around one of these distinctive-sounding instruments every time he appears in the movie. Pran Nath’s New York Times obituary describes his specifications for the drone axe:
He secured the instrument’s upper bridge, changed the rounding of the resonating gourd and had instruments made without paint or varnish that might clog the pores of the wood, all to give the tamboura a richer tone.
Young and Zazeela maintain the Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music founded by Pran Nath in 1970. They still give lessons in “singing and the art of raga according to the method of Pandit Pran Nath” in New York City. Riley’s Sri Moonshine label recently issued Pran Nath’s The Raga Cycle, Palace Theatre, Paris 1972 Vol. 2 in double LP and digital format.
In this TV presentation of Riley’s Shri Camel concert at the 1977 Holland Festival, Riley says he’s studying “the oldest living tradition of improvisation” with Pran Nath. It’s at 5:15, followed by a clip of an incredible Pandit Pran Nath performance: