On the 70th anniversary of Indian independence East met West in the first complete live performance of Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar’s concept album Passages, performed by the Britten Sinfonia and an ensemble of Indian musicians, with Shankar’s daughter Anoushka on sitar.

Anoushka Shankar © Harper Smith | DG
Anoushka Shankar
© Harper Smith | DG

Philip Glass met Ravi Shankar in Paris in the 1960s, a time when Shankar was already famous in the West for his collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison of The Beatles. Shankar taught Glass, then still in his twenties, how to accurately notate Indian classical music and Glass learnt how Indian music achieves its sophisticated rhythms and ornamentation, which had a profound affect on his approach to rhythmic structures as a foundation to his own music: “I did a remarkable, intuitive thing, which is I took the music I had written down and I erased all the bar lines. And suddenly, I saw something which I hadn’t seen before.” (Philip Glass)

Conductor Karen Kamensek, who began working with Glass in the 1990s, said the work blew her mind when she first encountered it and secretly hoped she might one day perform it. She created a performance score, cracking the code of Glass’ and Shankar’s notation to make it accessible to Western orchestral musicians. 

In Passages, American Minimalism fuses with traditional Hindustani classical music to create a mesmerizing flow of exquisite sounds and intoxicating pulsating rhythms. The first movement is based on a theme Shankar gave to Glass (a raga played on saxophone), the second vice versa, and so on through the six movements of the work. The influence of Shankar and Indian music is clear in Glass’ use of complex rhythms and multiple time signatures, repeated elements, drones and open fifths, but Passages is very different from the hard-core Minimalism one normally associates with Philip Glass – the spooling, repetitive motifs which ebb and flow, and his distinctive, sensuous harmonic shifts are all there, but there is a wealth of lyricism and poetry too in the intertwining lines and voices (including solo soprano and four other singers). The whole work is a rich tapestry of sounds as East and West flow effortlessly in and out of one another, with passages of jewel-like clarity and exotic dialogues between Western and Indian instruments.

Kamensek is clearly very comfortable with this music (she conducted ENO’s acclaimed new production of Glass’ Akhnaten in 2016), combining rigour with an instinctive feel for its shifting rhythms and palpitating melodic streams. The strings of the Britten Sinfonia were wonderfully sleek and silky, the percussion sparkled with precision, the harp delicate and filigree. There was fine playing from woodwind and an elegantly supple solo trumpet. Soprano Alexa Mason’s translucent voice melded with the ensemble as another layer of instrumentation. From the first shimmering sounds of Anoushka Shankar’s sitar, we were instantly transported to another time and place.

This was a spellbinding fusion of modernity and tradition, an exquisite meeting of minds, music styles and instrumentation, and a brilliant exchange of musical languages and compositional methods.