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The late raga master Pandit Pran Nath seems to have been mentioned an awful lot recently, what with last month’s long-awaited reissue of former student Catherine Christer Hennix’s mind-altering The Electric Harpsichord, and now fellow pupils Terry Riley and George Brooks touring a programme inspired by his work. Which, to be fair, is no bad thing: the droning, cyclical sound of raga was a fundamental influence on the development of minimalism (at least in part thanks to Riley’s efforts), and by extension – given that movement’s seismic impact - its effects can still be felt throughout the spectrum of modern music. For Riley’s seventy-fifth birthday this tour – subtitled The West Coast Legacy Of Pran Nath – seems primed to make those connections more explicit, sketching lines between the drawn-out, meditational nature of raga and the music he and Brooks have made in intervening years. Alongside Talvin Singh on percussion, his tabla alternating between devotional abstraction and hell-bent fury, this evening their arrangements are pared back to the bare essentials - piano, voice, sax – and rebuilt from the ground up.
This week seems to be a bit of a Terry Riley special in Bristol, with the following few days playing host to performances of his groundbreaking pieces In C and A Rainbow In Curved Air, so it’s appropriate that the man himself appears at St. George’s this evening. Plaited white beard extending down to his chest, he cuts a small but buoyant figure at the piano, while Brooks is more imposing and Singh teases out tabla and cymbal fills from a cross legged-position. They open with a single unbroken drone and Riley’s hoarse song, drifting on for around half an hour in a state of perpetual stasis and readiness; it’s initially bracing, but after four or five minutes it’s akin to sinking deeper and deeper through successive layers of consciousness, quite literally drowning in sound. Tonight Pran Nath’s ragas are treated reverently, but not without a certain creative license: Brooks’ warm sax figures lend them a wonderfully contradictory air, as thought they’re caught in limbo between their traditional origins and the rapid pace of the modern world.
If their opening raga appears to dispel all notion of time, the following piece – all bubbly piano and jazzy modality – appears to dissolve any notion of time signature, slipping in and out of recognisable structure like fluid. For its first half, and indeed for much of tonight’s concert, save two ragas, Singh’s tabla rolls feel deliciously out of step with the cosmopolitan, urbane pulse of the music surrounding them. Occasionally his switches to a regular drumkit meld the two more convincingly, resolving a tension that was only slightly detectable in the first place. At times, during the rapid-fire motion of the first two pieces in the concert’s second half, Riley’s piano phrasing – stuttering, repetitive – sounds caught in an escalating game of tag, almost stumbling over its own feet but just about managing to maintain a foothold. Brooks’ placid saxophone lines are the perfect foil, providing an anchor around which the music’s skeleton can pivot. At one point when that template is inverted, and Brooks heads off in his own direction, the result is a peculiar but impressive hybrid that brings to mind the strangest dancefloor jazz you’d ever be likely to hear.
It’s certainly true that tonight’s performance is a triumph – two hours fly past, and it’s rare to leave a venue wishing for an encore after such a long period of time. Beyond its immediate musical pleasures though, Riley and Brooks have managed to achieve what they set out to: a synthesis of sorts, a tribute and a tightly woven web of the old and the new. Next up: In C.