Sometimes, in looking back over periods in your life, you may recognize that certain moments or events were turning-points. But you may also recognize other moments or events as having been potential turning-points that you passed up for one reason or another.
Just now I'm remembering one of the latter moments. While I was visiting my girlfriend at the University of Michigan 45 years ago -- I was eighteen at the time -- we went to see The Music Room, a film by Satyajit Ray. I had never before heard Indian classical music, and I was amazed and fascinated by its combination of intellectual complexity and sensual intensity. If I hadn't been so occupied and preoccupied with Western music, literature, and art, I could easily have taken a turn into Indian culture right then and there. I'm not a fundamentally lazy person, but I am a fundamentally all-or-nothing person, and this characteristic leads to laziness with respect to whatever doesn't interest me totally.
I've written the previous paragraphs only to explain (without attempting to excuse myself) why I know so little about Indian music despite the fact that every time I come into contact with it, it mesmerizes me. And this very fact surprises me, because I'm not easily mesmerized. Long-winded late and post-romantic works in the Western musical canon, for instance, rarely mesmerize me, nor does the music of composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, et al., much of which depends on some sort of capacity to be mesmerized.
I went to 89-year-old Ravi Shankar's Carnegie Hall concert yesterday evening, asking myself en route why I was going -- especially when a subway screw-up made the trip longer and more complicated than usual. During the concert itself, there was too much amplification in the hall, and some boors in the audience kept taking flash photos, despite a pre-concert announcement that this was not allowed. Yet I felt very, very happy to be there. I freely admit that just as people who don't know much about the internal workings, origins, and various performing traditions of Western classical music may derive uncritical enjoyment from concerts that I find appalling, it's quite possible that what I heard last night would not have appealed at all to people in the know. All I can say is that the music's rising, falling, and orgasmically explosive re-rising, its constant changes of meter and pace, its stupefying rhythms (the tabla player Tanmoy Bose was wonderful), and its vast emotional range delighted me as they always do. I heard, or thought I heard, more pain and anger but also more unrestrained joyousness in the playing of the old man -- who can no longer even tune his own sitar (whether for lack of strength or loss of fine hearing I don't know) -- than in that of his 28-year-old daughter Anoushka, who nevertheless seemed to me to play beautifully on an instrument that had a much longer neck (thus a wider range) than her father's.
I repeat: I was happy, truly happy, to be enjoying the complex rhythms and melodies and the Dionysian impulse of this foreign but to me wholly attractive music.