A while back, in response to what I perceived as heinous omissions from a well-known book, I began compiling a list of “101 More Albums You Must Hear Before You Die”. I thought this addendum could provide a focus for occasional Vinyl Connection posts. Sadly, the project stalled, largely because I couldn’t get the list under a further three hundred essential albums.
If, however, the idea gets picked up again (and it might) there is one 1968 release that is an absolute certainty for inclusion.
Rishikesh, northern India, was the site of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, visited by The Beatles and assorted friends and acquaintances in February 1968. Stories and songs arising from that visit are plentiful and if we tackle The Beatles (aka The White Album) at some point, perhaps we’ll delve into some of those. But for now our focus is an attendee who certainly would not have caught the attention of teen pop magazines at the time.
When he visited the Maharishi’s ashram, Paul Horn was already a twelve year veteran of the West Coast jazz scene, yet clearly he hankered for more.
His studies in Transcendental Meditation and travels on the sub-continent had a profound influence on the flautist: a deep curiosity about spiritual places took him back to India several times. As Paul writes in the pasted-in liner notes to the original Epic release, the beauty of the Taj Mahal exerts a powerfully reverential force. The musician convinced the guard/attendant (yes, just the one was necessary in 1968) that his desire to play in that hallowed place was a spiritual communion between human and edifice.
And what an edifice. The Taj Mahal sits on the bank of the Yamuna River near the city of Agra, not far from the border with Nepal. As the liner notes by the wonderfully named Kip Kipnis tell us, it was built by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, who died in 1631. Drawing architects and specialist masons from all over India and beyond, the Shah wanted the best, and was willing to open his Treasury to achieve the result he desired.
“Pure white marble for the walls came from Jaipur, to be inlayed with a flowering, flowing pattern of vines in twenty different kinds of precious and semi-precious jewels: jasper from Punjab; jade from China; turquoise from Tibet; lapis from Lazuli, and sapphires from Ceylon; coral and carnelian from Arabia; onyx and amethyst from Persia; and diamonds from Panna in Bundelkund”
An army of twenty thousand workers laboured for well over two decades to create one of the wonders of the world. When Paul Horn takes over the story, his wonderment is clearly evident.
“The majesty of the place staggers the imagination and the hushed atmosphere throughout the grounds makes the soul begin to glow deep within.”
An attendant would explain to visitors the history of the place and its extraordinary decoration… and demonstrate the acoustics by singing a musical phrase into the dome. This marble structure, “60 feet in diameter and 80 feet high” has amazing resonance; the American musician was entranced.
“Each tone hung suspended in space for 28 seconds and the acoustics are so perfect that you couldn’t tell when his voice stopped ad the echo took over.”
Horn took out his flute and played a few phrases.
But they had to leave.
A month later, another opportunity arose to visit the mausoleum and this time, after some uncertain preliminaries, Horn and his sound recordist were allowed to play.
The sound is quite unlike anything you’ve ever heard, not so much a tune as an emanation of notes into space where they soar and bank and dip like ecstatic spirits. Horn skilfully layers the phrases, using the echo as a natural multi-track; the pure tones of the gold flute expand into the dome and enlarge the heart of the listener. If ever there was a record for listening with just a single candle for company, this is it.
All of this would be plenty to delight the armchair traveller, yet there is more. What makes this album extraordinary is the inclusion of some of the attendant’s “calls”. There is even a call-and-response collaboration between human voice and flute. It is the presence of this voice—true, impassioned, yet reverent—that lifts Inside into a realm that could almost be described as sublime. The Indian man’s singing grounds the music in a way that no other instrument could; hearing heavenly sounds we are also gently called back to earth. It is a remarkable recording.
Inside is considered one of the best New Age albums of all time, which is interesting given that it was released many years before that term was even coined. In 1968 its’ multi-cultural flavour and new sounds certainly marked it out as ‘progressive’. It is one of the first Western records to include Indian sounds created in India (rather than buying a sitar in London and adding some Eastern touches to your Western album, for instance).
But most of all, Inside is a record of timeless beauty. Definitely worth hearing before you die.