A Bridge of Dreams
A Bridge of Dreams
Ars Nova Records
Scintillating vocal music from the Pacific Rim featuring composers and poets from China, Japan, California, New Zealand, and Australia ... and one ancient Anglo-Saxon Seafarer. Unusual and lovely music sung by the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble, Ars Nova Copenhagen, under their conductor Paul Hillier, and with early harp virtuoso Andrew Lawrence-King.
IN MEDIEVAL JAPAN a woman whose name we do not know wrote a little book that has no title in which she recorded some of the travels and impressions of her life. The book later became known in Japan as Sarashina Nikki and the author as Lady Sarashina. Sarashina, a mountainous district in central Japan, also receives no mention in the text.
The mood of the book is one of intense melancholy tempered by a fragile awareness of the beauty of the physical world and the evanescence of life. When Ivan Morris translated the book into English some forty years ago, he chose to borrow a phrase from an ancient Japanese poem and call it: As I crossed a bridge of dreams. It is a good title in that it reflects the book’s central metaphor of life as a dreamlike journey between two unknown eternities, and also because the text itself recounts a dozen dreams and visions of the Buddha.
Shortly after Morris’s translation was published, the Australian composer Anne Boyd used the title for a choral work based on the book. It was one of four works commissioned for the 1975 Radcliffe Musical Award and premiered at the Wigmore Hall in December of that year by the John Alldis Singers. I was in the audience and was very taken by the piece, not least because it evoked a musical tradition quite differ-ent from the European modernism then all around me. I performed it during my first real conducting job (as a Visiting Lecturer at UC Santa Cruz in 1980) and have revisited it on a number of occasions since. Now, several decades later, it has given me the original impulse for this cd.
Anne Boyd was the first Australian and the first woman to be appointed Professor of Music at the University of Sydney, where her research work focuses upon the influence of landscape and Asian music upon Australian composers. She writes: In at least two senses, this work harks back to the Japan of the 11th century – to me, an infinitely remote and dreamlike world whose great art spanning the centuries speaks to the mind and heart of contemporary man with as much poignancy and beauty as it did nine hundred years ago. In the first place, in attempting to write a composition for unaccompanied voices I found myself drawn again to the voice of the sho, a Japanese mouthorgan whose soft, infinitely subtle and slowmoving chords form the background sonority for gagaku, the ancient court music of Japan. This harmony is based upon the whole tone scale with some chromatic embellishments: the chordal progressions are themselves essentially static in effect, being a movement from one version of a chord to another version of the same chord. This principle informs much of the harmonic writing in my own work. In another direct sense, 11th century Japan finds its echo in As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, for the title of this composition is also the title given to the account of her life written by Lady Sarashina (b. 1008).
For her, dreams were of considerable importance; she recounts several and ponders deeply upon their spiritual significance. I have chosen three of her dreams upon which the mood and ‘text’ of each of the three sections of my own work are based. All three dreams take place in temples and the ‘magic’ names of various Buddhas are phonetically transcribed and ‘hidden’ inside the slowmoving choral textures. In the final dream the sixfoot Amida shining with golden light appears with outstretched hands, promising to return and fetch Lady Sarashina; it is upon this dream that her hope of salvation rests and it is at this point that my work is brought to a final cadence.
Like Anne Boyd’s work, the other music on this recording looks mostly beyond Europe for its inspiration, and does so in two ways. Firstly, the composers come from Australia, New Zealand, California, and China – or, broadly speaking, the Pacific Rim. Secondly, they are composers who have consciously looked beyond Western aesthetic traditions to create a musical language with a variety of different reference points. Some have found their sources close at hand in the aboriginal cultures of the land where they live, while others have looked towards the religions and music of Asia. The results are still concert music—not musical exotica—but the direction from which their ideas have arrived gives their music a sense of openness and receptivity. It is for the most part tonal or modal, rhythmic, and in close touch with the natural capabilities of voices.
There was a time not so long ago when this program might have been called ‘looking East’, or some such phrase. But we are no longer so Eurocentric! In any case, Lou Harrison was looking west, out from California across the Pacific to Asia. I met Lou in that Santa Cruz year (1980-81) at the Cabrillo Festival, just down the road from my campus; a year in which I was also immersed in reading John Cage books (the UCSC library houses his mycology collection) and listening closely to a gamelan for the first time.
In the 1990s I was back in California, teaching for five years at U.C. Davis. I returned there quite recently as artist in residence, where Andrew Lawrence King joined me for a recital. My old friend Rhio Barn-hardt, the music librarian, showed me a curiosity: a Mass for Saint Cecilia by Lou Harrison in a screen print copy made from the composer’s beautifully calligraphed manuscript. I took a copy home with me and resolved one day to perform it.
Lou’s Latin Mass is composed in plainchant style, but employs scales which reflect his studies of gamelan and even traditional Chinese music. (See Lou Harrison’s Music Primer1 for further examples.) Fur-thermore he calls for drones and instrumental elaboration to be improvised, by harp particularly, following guidelines in the score. As Lou and his partner Bill Colvig were keen instrument builders, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate accompaniment than that provided by ALK’s medieval harp, psaltery, and hurdygurdy.
The Mass had been commissioned by The Saint Cecilia Society for the Preservation and Restoration of Gregorian Chant and Peking Opera, Cecilia being of course the patron Saint of music. We will come to Pe-king, or Beijing as it is now called, in a moment.
It was some years later that I acquired a copy of Jack Body’s Five Lullabies, (composed in 1989). Here again I was attracted to a musical style that owes little to European models and yet seems to fit our singers – those who also know medieval polyphony – like a glove. In addition to his composing, Jack is also photographer, artist and ethnomusicologist. He teaches at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, and has been a guest lecturer at the Akademi Musik Indonesia, Yogyakarta. We have never met, but have exchanged many emails. In one of them, learning that I was performing Lou Harrison’s Mass, Jack told me that Lou had begun to compose the Mass in 1983 while staying with him in Wellington.
Jack Body writes: I have been interested in the minority cultures of China for over twenty years and have collaborated in the publication of recordings of some of this little known music. The vocal polyphonies of such groups as the Dong and Hani nationalities certainly do not follow the ‘rules of good counterpoint’ of Western music. Particularly astonishing was a recording I heard some years ago of vocal duets of the Bouyi in Guizhou province. The music is very soft and meditative and yet the principle interval between the two voices is a second, with the voices sometimes even moving in parallel 2nds. This music became the inspiration for Lullaby III. Lullabies I and V comprise a single line, shared between voices. Whereas we generally think of lullabies as being sung by the mother, Lullabies II and IV are male lullabies, sung by a father for his son – a little boisterous perhaps, as the father dreams of what his son might become. Except for Lullaby V, which is the name of the barrio where a Filipino friend of mine lives (Calumbaya), the texts are all imaginary with hints of the sound of actual languages: I an African language perhaps, II Turkic, III Latin, IV a little bit Japanese.
The next composer to be added to the plan was Ross Edwards. Some three years ago I was invited to submit ideas for a concert at the Edinburgh International Festival by the incoming artistic director, Jon-athan Mills, who also asked me if I would be interested in cocommissioning a new work from his countryman, Ross Edwards. As I then knew the name only by repute I asked to see some music: my curiosity was quickly aroused and I confirmed my support of the idea. The result is Sacred Kingfisher Psalms – a stunning virtuoso work for chamber choir which we premiered last summer in Edinburgh, Copenhagen, and New York’s Lincoln Center.
Edwards is one of those many composers who have made the transition from a more modernist position ‘back’ towards tonality and pulse, although in no way could he be described as a minimalist, and his use of pulse deploys freewheeling assymetric patterns. The thing that most attracted me to his music is the way in which he seems to have been inspired by Aboriginal culture to root his work in the Australian landscape and its night sky – filled with stars unseen in Europe. His vocal works use texts that fuse Latin psalms together with the names of stars, and native rivers, birds and mountains.
Ross Edwards writes: I began to compose Sacred Kingfisher Psalms immediately after completing another a capella choral work, Missa Alchera (Mass of the Dreaming). I compiled texts excerpted from the Latin Vulgate versions of Psalms 1 and 130 (131 in modern psalters) as well as the names of birds in the language of the Aborig inal people who inhabited the district that is now Sydney long before Europeans arrived in Australia. These ancient texts have in common a strong sense of the spirit and significance of place and an awareness and acceptance of implicit natural laws recognized throughout the ages as being essential for balance and harmony, renewal – and, ultimately, survival. I have treated them musically as both chants and praises with a strong connection to the earth.
The work springs abruptly from the interiority of Psalm 130 into a vigorous ‘bird chant’. In this ritual chanting of bird names, prominent among them dyaramak, the sacred kingfisher, a close relation of the kookaburra, there are many resonances of earlier material as well as a return to the Phrygian mode and its pentatonic derivatives which underpin the psalm settings. No attempt has been made to mimic either Aboriginal music or birdsong: the rhythmic patterns and drones are directly influenced by my subconscious absorption of sounds of the south eastern coastal environment of Australia where I have spent most of my life. The spontaneous appearance of some universal characteristics of children’s song seemed in keeping with the theme of renewal.
The final choice of music for this CD has a curious background. In 2009 my Theatre of Voices – together with the Barbican Centre in London and the Danish Royal Opera – cocommissioned a new work from the distinguished Chinese composer Liu Sola. Sola is active as a singer and writer as well as composer, and lives in Beijing when not busy performing in Europe or America. Composed in the style of a xiqu or kind of café opera, The Afterlife of Li Jiantong tells the story of the composer’s mother and is presented with minimal staging by just three singers and three players. Sola herself writes: My mother Li Jiantong was a writer on history and politics who was highly respected by many people in China, but her first book, published in the 60’s, was criticized by Mao and her writings were subsequently banned for the rest of her life. During the Cultural Revolution, she was investigated, jailed, interrogated and eventually sent off to work in the fields. After her death, my mother’s spirit came to me. This chamber piece is about her three visitations.
After the production, Andrew Lawrence-King extracted some of the interludes to make a solo suite that he could perform on his psaltery. It was his idea then to add the recitation of The Seafarer, an An-glo-Saxon poem in the modern translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland, spoken over the playing of Liu Sola’s music. Although The Seafarer is preserved in the 10th-century Exeter Book, it may have been composed at least a century earlier. The original Anglo-Saxon text can be viewed online at www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ascp/a03_09.htm. Anglo-Saxon poetry belongs to the North Atlantic rather than the Pacific Ocean, but its mood and imagery often come remarkably close to the world of medieval Japan with which this project began. The Sea-farer evokes the idea of life as a journey, just as our title likens it to crossing a bridge of dreams.
© Paul Hillier
Odsherred, August 2011