Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ali Akbar Khan, 1922-2009

The Los Angeles Times reported this morning that Ali Akbar Khan, the master Indian musician and composer who was a key figure in introducing the music of India to the United States, has died at age 87. Khan was born 14 April 1922, in Shivpur, East Bengal (now Bangladesh), and began playing the sarod (a 25-stringed instrument that is similar to the Middle Eastern oud) and other instruments as a boy. He became a legendary sarod player and music teacher, but for many his greatest significance was in the popularization of Indian music to the West. Remarkably, he recorded more than 95 albums, was nominated for five Grammy Awards, and composed scores for both Indian and Western films, including Satyajit Ray’s DEVI (1960), Merchant-Ivory’s THE HOUSEHOLDER (1963), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s LITTLE BUDDHA (1993). The L. A. Times obituary said:

“He was instrumental in transforming Indian music into an international tradition in a way that was unprecedented,” said David Trasoff of Los Angeles, a senior student of Khan’s who has studied north Indian classical music and sarod performance for the last 36 years. “What he attempted to do and, I believe, succeeded in doing was to transplant this very deep musical tradition by committing himself to a level of teaching that resulted in a number of protégés who have gone on to present this music throughout the world,” Trasoff said.

Khan’s earliest record in the West was issued on the Angel label in 1955; Odeon began issuing his records in the early 1960s (available in the U. S. as imports), followed by a series of records issued in the United States by the Connoisseur Society beginning in 1965. Additionally, Khan’s duets with Ravi Shankar were a key factor in introducing the latter musician to rock culture. By the late 1960s, the music of the sarod became frequently associated with the psychedelic experience, that is, with transcendence and transformation, and while Khan recorded very few pieces for films in the West, his influence can be heard, for instance, in soundtracks such as that of Jack Nitzsche’s for PERFORMANCE (1970). As I indicated earlier, Khan recorded many dozens of albums, but here are few of them that had some influence on the rock music of the 1960s:

Morning & Evening Ragas (Angel, 1955)
Music of India (with Ravi Shankar) (Odeon, 1960)
Classical Music of India (Odeon, 1961)
Ali Akbar Khan (Odeon, 1965)
Master Musician of India (Connoisseur Society, 1966)
Predawn to Sunrise Ragas (Connoisseur Society, 1967)
Flowers of Evil: Six Poems By Baudelaire narrated by Yvette Mimieux (Connoisseur Society, 1968)
Shree Rag (Connoisseur Society, 1969) (1970 Grammy Award Nomination)
Concert for Bangla Desh (with Ravi Shankar) (Apple, 1971)
In Concert 1972 (with Ravi Shankar) (Apple, 1972)

Although there many sites on the web featuring Khan playing the sarod, for convenience I've made a link to one of them here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Now In Its 20th Year

Today, over on his WatchBlog, Tim Lucas announced that Donna had informed him VIDEO WATCHDOG has officially entered its twentieth year of publication. Donna remembers receiving the copies of VW #1 from the publisher on June 15, 1990, nineteen years ago yesterday. That bit of news prompted me to think about my and Becky’s long association with the venerable magazine, and I realized that our association with VIDEO WATCHDOG has now entered its twelfth year: our first reviews for the magazine were published in VW #45 (May/June 1998), eleven years ago last month (cover pictured). We have therefore been involved with the ‘DOG for over half of its life. Becky and I have cherished our association with the magazine, primarily because it has been one of the happiest and more fulfilling activities of our professional lives.

I remember sending an email to Tim very early in 1998 saying Becky and I would love the opportunity to review for the magazine, and asking if he would be both interested, and willing, to have us send our reviews of the Criterion Collection laser discs of THE NIGHT PORTER (1974) and VICTIM (1961), issued by Criterion at the same time in December 1997. As I recall, he responded to my email rather quickly, saying sure, he would be happy to consider publishing our reviews of these discs—but they would be considered merely as “spec” reviews, meaning there was no guarantee they would be accepted for publication. I wrote back saying I was delighted that he had agreed to consider reading our reviews, and also that I perfectly well understood that he, as editor, had the right to reject them. But secretly I was very sure he wouldn’t.

And he didn’t. A couple of weeks after I first initiated contact, I sent him our reviews of those discs, and happily, he accepted them for publication, thus beginning our long association with the magazine. In his email accepting them, he asked me if there were any feature articles we might be interested in writing for VW. I wrote back telling him that we would love to write a piece on the EVIL DEAD trilogy, a proposal that he thought was a great idea, and one we later wrote for the magazine. Moreover, given the fact that the “blood red” edition of EVIL DEAD 2 had been recently issued on laser disc, he asked us to review that LD as well. So those three laser discs—the “blood red” LD issue of EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, THE NIGHT PORTER, and VICTIM, were our first unholy three published in VIDEO WATCHDOG. We still have those laser discs, but they are now, a mere eleven years later, artifacts of a now moribund era of home video. They are not without a little monetary value, of course, especially for collectors, despite being a form of déclassé technology. But I strongly suspect that Becky and I will always hold on to those discs, because they represent our very first association with VIDEO WATCHDOG. I remember times, early on, when the VHS and LD reviewers for VW were Tim, longtime contributor John Charles, Kim Newman, and Becky and me, with Douglas E. Winter doing soundtrack reviews and, as I recall, Anthony Ambrogio writing the book reviews. Soon after, by the next year, I think, Richard Harland Smith had joined on, and The Kennel continued to grow from there. We have learned and profited from the writing of all the contributors to VIDEO WATCHDOG, and are delighted to be among such esteemed company. Through our association with VW, Becky and I were able to meet some people who would later help us considerably with our book on Donald Cammell, including David Del Valle and Brad Stevens. Just a few years ago, I was able to meet Richard Harland Smith in Los Angeles, when he stopped by to see the exhibition of art from the Corman Poe films that David Del Valle had arranged and curated. Thus, my and Becky’s association with VIDEO WATCHDOG has been to our great professional advantage, among other benefits, including allowing us the opportunity to meet new friends.

We didn’t actually meet Tim and Donna until several years later, in July of 2006, when we swung through Cincinnati on our way back from Montreal, where we’d attended the official North American release of our book, DONALD CAMMELL: A LIFE ON THE WILD SIDE. Accompanied by our young son John, Becky and I enjoyed a memorable evening of laughter and conversation with Tim and Donna, the kind of evening that made me wish we lived closer together, a sentiment that I know Tim has expressed as well. (You can read all about our meeting in his WatchBlog entry of July 17, 2006.) Tim and I are very close to the same age, although I’ve always prided myself in being the oldest (“senior”) member of the current VW Kennel—and how often does a person brag about being older than his peers?

So here’s to you, Tim and Donna, and the first nineteen years of VIDEO WATCHDOG! Becky and I have thoroughly enjoyed our association with you and your venerable magazine, thank you for the opportunities you have given us, and look forward to its continuation as long as you wish to pursue publishing it. We also look forward to spending another evening or two (or ten) of conversation and laughter with you, accompanied by fine food and wine, of course, and the pleasure of the company of friends we just don’t see often enough. Alas. And here’s to all of our fellow Kennel members as well, with whom we’ve often disagreed, but always learned, and been frequently astonished by the range and scope of your erudition.