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In Conversation With George Ruckert

Ranjani Saigal

George Ruckert — performer, composer, arranger, author, teacher  — is a rare breed of artist who has an extensive background in the disciplines of both western and Indian classical music.

His musical training began in early childhood, when his mother, the former Lavinia Norton, herself a music and dance teacher, introduced him to the piano, which he also studied with Fritz Thor and Amelia Mitrani.  He went on to earn his masters degree in western music theory and composition from Queens College (New York City) in 1967.

It was soon after this that he was introduced to the music of the legendary sarod master, Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib, and made the challenging decision to set aside his academic studies in order to embark on his path of discipleship under this great maestro.  As one of the senior-most disciples of Khansahib, he focused his attention on sarod and vocal music for nearly thirty years. During this period he earned the Gayan and Vadya Bid degree in 1975 and also served for many years as teacher and Director of the Ali Akbar College of Music near San Francisco. 

 As a solo artist on the sarod, he has performed, recorded, and taught in India, Europe, and the United States.  He has also recorded and performed with several of the of the finest Indian vocalists on the harmonium.       

 While at the Ali Akbar College, he was also introduced to the world of Kathak dance through the work of Kathak dance-master Chitresh Das of Calcutta.  He was called upon to compose for the choreography of Mr. Das, and arranged much of this music for the innovative east-west ensemble, the New Maihar Band.   He has composed not only for traditional dance dramas, such as Giri Govardhan  and Sita Haran, but also for Mr. Das' original work, The  Gold Rush.

  In 1992 he earned his Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from University of California at Berkeley with his dissertation on the music of Ali Akbar Khan. He has written a highly acclaimed textbook presenting the music of Khansahib, and is a published author of numerous articles and books about Indian classical music and artists.  He is frequently called upon to write articles about India’s most prominent musical talents and liner notes for CDs as well.  His recent book, Music in North India, has been published by Oxford U. Press, and forthcoming this fall is an anthology of the Cape Breton fiddle music of John Campbell. 

 Mr. Ruckert presently resides in the Boston area, and is a Senior Lecturer at MIT where he teaches western, World and Indian classical music, while continuing his performing career on the sarod. His in-depth of knowledge of both western and eastern traditions, puts him in great demand to give concerts, workshops and lecture-demonstrations throughout the US and abroad. He is one of the founders of and Artistic Director for MITHAS, MIT Heritage of the Arts of Southasia.

Where did your musical journey begin? How did you develop an interest in Indian Classical music?

My musical journey began with my interest in Western Classical music. I  learnt to play the Piano as a young man. I liked music a lot and attended Queens College in Pennsylvania where I majored in Music Theory and Composition. In 1965 there was a summer event organized by Lewis Scripps in which leading artists from many countries including India, Indonesia and Japan, presented their art form. Many people including Ali Akbar Khan and Balasaraswathi were present at that event.  I was really very taken with Khan Saheb’s music and that is how I developed an interest in Indian Classical music.

Why did Khan Saheb set up the Ali Akbar Khan College of music?

 Khan Saheb attracted a large following at the summer institute. But he felt the event was very crazy since there were too many artists and one could not concentrate on any particular style. He felt that to do justice he must have space, away from the main city where people can concentrate on his music without getting distracted. There was a gentleman by the name of Don McCoy who gave $20,000 to Khan Saheb and that helped set up the music school in Marin County,  a place that was a suburb of  San Francisco. This made it affordable for students to stay around the college and learn.  Later there was a lady by the name of Daisy Paridis who was connected with the Best Foods Company and she was able to provide some funds. We also applied for grants to supplement the funds.

What motivated you to join and stay as a student for 17 years? Could you describe the learning experience?

I can only attribute it to the ecstasy of Khan Saheb’s music which was overwhelming. Khan Saheb also gave me a job doing administrative things to help him run the college.  So I was able to get financial support.  Around Khan Saheb there was only music. I never took a vacation for 17 years. When I suggested the possibility of a trip to India he would say- learn music first and then think of other things. It was a “Gharanedar” style of teaching music.

Khan Saheb hardly spoke any English. He was fluent in Hindi , Bengali and Punjabi.  Every day we would have a two hour vocal class followed by instrumental classes. In the instrumental class there were students playing different instruments. While he was a Sarodiya, he had played the Tabla and Violin fairly well.

We also had great musicians like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Chitresh Das, Zakheer Hussein and others visit. In the classes you would find great musicians like Carlos Santana, Yehudi Menuhin and others.

After 17 years you decided to do your PhD. Why?

It was a time when my father-in-law was sick and did not feel he had a long time left to live. He had a boat in Europe and he wanted Gretchen and me to spend some time with him. So I quit my job at the college. Khan Saheb was reluctant to let me go, but I found someone to take my place. When I returned, the job was not available. At that time I met Bonnie Wade from UC Berkeley and she encouraged me to join the PhD program. It made great sense since I could do the PhD while continuing to learn under Khan Saheb. I did my thesis on the Rags Keervani, Chandranandan and Darbari Kannada.

What made you join MIT? Why did you start MITHAS?

There was a job opening at MIT for which I applied and was selected. Cambridge is a good place for Gretchen and me to live. It helps both of us do a lot with our dance and music.

Prior to MITHAS there were concerts that featured great musicians at MIT. But I felt the concerts were not well done. The artists were not honored well and consequently the music suffered. When I was hired, there was an  MIT alum by the name Moes Rawji who was very excited to hear of my Indian music background. He called and offered his help. So I took him up on it and asked him to help create MITHAS.

You teach music in a school where the students are very technical. What is the experience like for you?

It is very interesting. The students come with good music sensibility. MIT students are disciplined. They are quick learners and show a lot of interest in music. The curriculum at MIT is very demanding. When crunch time comes, their music lessons do suffer. But they really do respond very well to my classes.

Do you introduce Indian music in class? Do you think there is interest in classical music amongst the younger generation?

I do. I talk about Rag and Tal. I use the vocal technique used in Indian music. I definitely think the younger generation is very interested in the music.

What does the future hold for you? 

I would like to be more active in the performance arena. Unfortunately a Westerner is not easily accepted as an Indian music performer in America. People seem to prefer a low grade Indian artist to a well trained Westerner. I have to work hard to break that barrier.

I would like to write more books. I would like to move MITHAS forward.

What kind of support does MITHAS need from the community?

We would like people to come to the concerts. Financial stability is critical and we could use a lot of help in that direction. We have been moving the venues out into the suburbs so more people can attend the events.

Thank you very much for you time.

Thank you.


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