Most rock stars have unlikely origin stories, and Kaukonen is no exception. To put his journey in context, consider the case of one of his contemporaries, Janis Joplin, about whom Kaukonen writes, “The first time I met Janis, I realized that I was in the presence of greatness.” No disrespect, but it’s a safe bet Joplin was not thinking the same thing about Kaukonen when they performed together in 1962, with Steve Talbott on harmonica, at the Folk Theater in San Jose, California. Five years before her breakthrough with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joplin was already a full-time musician at age 19, the product of a troubled childhood in the oil-refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas. A budding drug habit would round out the dues she’d eventually pay to sing the blues.
Who knows where those tenderly delivered words came from. Petty certainly didn’t. “I swear to God it’s an absolute ad-lib from the word ‘go,’” he told author Paul Zollo for his book Conversations With Tom Petty. In the next three minutes, Petty waxed poetic about love and freedom, heart and home while the reels on his recorder spun around in a steady rotation. When the song came to its seemingly natural conclusion he reached over his guitar and clicked the stop button. “Then [I] sat back and went, ‘Wow, what did I just do?’ And I listened to it. I didn’t change a word. Everything was just right there, off the top of my head.”
Who else but Ravi Shankar.
Shankar practised throughout the day. “It was unusual for someone as old as Robu to be starting formal training,” writes Craske, “but he had the zeal of a convert.” An apt word, because the modern Indian arts—and the sitar is as much an emblem of modernity as the past—were often created by outsiders, rather than “natural” inheritors, with a quasi-religious fervour. I say “quasi” because it’s important to understand that the tradition—whatever its spiritual and philosophical moorings—is a secular one. It was called “classical” music to distinguish it from temple or scriptural music.
The end of the year needs some recap. Here is a list of 10 songs.
Then comes 2016, or, in the Chinese Calendar, the Year of the Lesser Pundit. In a world where Brexit was an absurdity, and Trump’s election an impossibility, the people elected to feel otherwise. The news of Britain’s decision to exit the EU caused shockwaves worldwide. Aware that the 52-48 outcome had caused a serious rift in UK politics, and that the 48 were not going to go quietly into the night, an enterprising Australian singer attempted to sum up the spirit of Bremainers everywhere: ‘Don’t give up, I won’t give up, | Don’t give up, no no no.’
Understanding classical music. What would that mean? In the first place, it means understanding how to listen to it. There is the passive way of listening, which is sitting relaxed in one’s seat, ignoring the audience and the players, closing one’s eyes and letting the sound wash over one – as if taking an aural bath – without giving much attention to what is happening. Certainly something of the musical meaning will be experienced, but it is like, well, taking a bath – good for you but only touching the exterior layers. To really experience the music as the composer and (hopefully) the performers meant us to experience it, a state of mind has to be prepared which combines the utmost alertness and focused attention with the total absence of intellectual deliberation. How can that be achieved? We have thoughts all the time, until we fall asleep or (if we are young and inexperienced) sink into a drunken stupor. But a form of attention without thinking is perfectly possible. Instead of the consciousness dealing with itself – which is to say, having thoughts – a state of consciousness is possible where all attention is focused upon the thing that is out there – in this case, the musical narrative where all notes are arranged along axes of relationships, moving position all the time and thereby changing the perspective. Music – tonal, classical music, that is – has more than the one dimension of physical sound: it is structured with a background and a foreground. The latter is the acoustical presence, the way it impresses upon our consciousness; the former is the tonal direction, which moves behind this impression, taking our consciousness from one moment to the next. Most classical music also has a middle ground, differentiating between back- and foreground and responsible for the experience of an “inner space” in the music.
“I used to sing in the open fields of Kashmir, with my neighbours,” Mir recalls by phone from Muzaffarabad, the city in northeast Pakistan where he now lives. Mir fondly recalls performing at school assemblies as a child, and at local wheat-sowing ceremonies in Kashmir. “But I was forced to run away from my homeland, when the situation deteriorated,” he says.
As a migrant in Pakistan, Mir had to give up singing, and began working as a textile embroiderer, making intricate Kashmiri needlework designs for clothes, tablecloths and curtains. (It’s still his primary job.) But after a few years in the country his love of singing was rekindled, when a Pakistani neighbor heard about Mir’s talent and hired him to sing at a family wedding. The job snowballed into more gigs and eventually leading to regular appearances on Radio Pakistan.