Shankar, Coltrane, Whitman: Within You, Without You

December 12, 2012

2012 is full of deaths at the year’s end.  Dave Brubeck last week; this week, Ravi Shankar.

Shankar was half an American musician (the fractions don’t have to add up to a zero-sum game).  Since 1970 he had been teaching in California, first at the California Institute for the Arts, then at the University of California, San Diego, living in nearby Encinitas and, on December 11, dying at the Scripps Memorial hospital, also not far.

A very local person from that description — of course he was anything but.  Shankar was best known for his collaboration with George Harrison (the Beatles’ “Norwegian Woods” and “Within You, Without You” were both recognizable tributes, perhaps even based on longer pieces by him).  But he also had numerous other collaborators: Mtislav Rostropovich; Jean-Pierre Rampal; Philip Glass; John Coltrane.

After they met in 1964, Shankar got “inside” Coltrane’s music, most notably in albums such as Om (1965) and Ascension (1965), which incorporated prayers and chants.  He got inside in another way: Coltrane’s son, Ravi, combined both their names.

No literary collaboration that I know of, though there might have been one if Whitman had been writing in this century.

Whitman loved music.  In “Proud Music of the Storm,” he mentions not only Rossini’s William Tell, Gounod’s Faust, Mozart’s Don Juan, but also the “Egyptian harp of many strings,” the “chants of the Nile boatman,” the “sacred imperial hymns of China,” and, finally, “the Hindu flutes and the fretting twang of the vina.’

Yes, within you, without you – as with the Beatles and Coltrane, so with Whitman.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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