Thursday, January 29, 2009


E quietate ciascuna in suo loco
La testa e ‘l collo d’un aguglia vidi
Rappresentare e quell distinto fuoco.

Quel che dipinge li, non ha chi ‘l guidi
Ma esso guida, e da lui sai rammenta
Quella virtu ch’e forma per li nidi.

(Dante-Paradiso, Canto xviii, l. 106-110)

Each sparkling flame came to rest in space
And I saw the head and neck of a great eagle
Present itself in waves of shimmering sparks.

Who maps out this form has no guide
But is a self-arisen guide, and we recognize in him
The virtue that is the paradigm of all community.

Dante’s journey begins, of course, with his love for Beatrice, and as that love deepens, it expands to encompass his entire cosmos. Thus Dante journeys upwards through celestial realms, and his love unfolds as an all-inclusive vision encompassing innumerable specific beings and moments, all rendered with such clarity and music that they are immediately alive for us.

So, as Dante nears the apex of his journey, his love becomes a radiant clear expanse in which the longing of humanity forms a vision of social harmony. The souls of thousands just rulers, both Christian and pagan, appear as ruby sparks which spontaneously coalesce to form a single imperial image, the innate principle of just rulership. When, in the following two cantos Dante asks the eagle how non-Christian rulers could attain such glory, the eagle proclaims that the ‘Supreme Goodness’ is not confined to the doctrines of the church and can be apprehended in any place and time. Thus the eagle sings:

“Lume non e, se non vien del sereno
Che non si turba mai”

“Light does not exist that does not come from the clear sky
That never is clouded”
(Ibid. Canto xix l.64-5)

Sunday, January 25, 2009


(The following appeared in New Muse, but I’ve changed it somewhat. I was asked to write the piece as part of the publicity for the release of Sony Classical’s wonderful (And with Yo Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax, Peter Serkin, Omar Ibrahim among others how could it not be?) of ‘King Gesar’ which Peter Lieberson composed and for which I wrote the text. It was also supposed to provide some discreet tub thumping (eliminated here) for the premiere of our opera ‘Ashoka’s Dream’. )


There is, of course, awareness beyond thought.

In our collaborations, neither Peter nor I have thought of our work as particularly “spiritual” or as bearing the message of some particular religious outlook. But we do share a view, or a sensibility that sound, whether formalized in music or specified in words, is a communication from and to the world that is all-pervasive, alive and never ceasing. Whether presented in melody, rhythm, and the movement of chordal structures, or articulated in the language of conversation, of epics, love poems, of comedies, elegies, novels, or tragedies, sound is awareness as continuity.


As a child, I found music more vivid and compelling than painted images, sculpture or words. Since then, though I have never had the slightest ability to play or compose, music remains not only a love, but a model for what I have wanted to realize through writing. It always remains entirely mysterious how music, by arranging sounds without any conventional meaning according to varying underlying formal logics, can move us into the deep, subtle movements of existence and invite more profound involvement with them.

But language itself is hardly less unfathomable. Words distinguish and separate one experience from another, but brought together in stories and poems, they brought the lives of others to life and enabled me to explore worlds in time and space far beyond my own. So while music provided a feeling of continuity with wordless inner live, words provided a vivid sense ways of life long gone and deeds that would have otherwise been long forgotten.


Peter Lieberson and I met thirty-five years ago when we were each beginning our respective careers as composer and writer, and from the very start we wanted to write opera together. In the following years, though we both studied with Trungpa Rinpoche teacher, we usually have ended up living fairly far apart, so our friendship has developed over many years in numerous visits and dinners, sometimes with our families, sometimes not, and in correspondence, phone, fax, and the like.

And I think we both feel, even though we have never discussed it, that in combining words and music, we have the opportunity to convey the worlds which expand in the immediacy of so many ordinary moments which subtly present but usually bypassed.


Often, standing alone in a crowd, one may see a flock of birds wheel before a sky-scraper, hear a child whistle, smell rain coming, and experience some poignant feeling of meaning. We cannot explain, reduce, or convey this feeling of elusive significance in terms of the outer circumstances from which it arose. Nor can we capture it by referring to our own inner states of mind or the history of our moods. It cannot be directly stated.

The essence of what we feel then is both specific to a moment and somehow outside of its circumstances; intimate, it is somehow impersonal. There is a kind of freedom from contingencies here, and this may be experienced as freedom of longing, freedom of enjoyment, freedom of feeling or awareness. It does not remain, can barely be remembered, and is, in some elusive way, very near our core.

In general, our world is an unceasing welter of conflicting emotions, obsessive thinking, long term ambitions and desires, and a pervasive uncertainty about what is, or is not, truly real, valuable, and significant. But in certain moments, like a bubble rising out of a rushing stream, such subtle feelings bring a stillness free from all this.

Then, as we try to verbalize and hold such moments in the language and memory of personal continuity, the experience fades. We lose the heart of it. We are returned to the clamor of outer and inner life.


The obdurate and impassioned 14th century Zen genius, Ikkyu wrote of our passage between unsought stillness and unceasing movement like this:

From the world of passion,
I return to the world beyond passion.
A gap.
If the rain comes, let it rain.
If there is wind, let it blow.


When we try to articulate and convey anything whatsoever, be it lust, rage, understanding, sorrow; whether it be smoothness or sweaty heat, or granular roughness; or whether it be more complex sequences: aspirations not quite reached, hopes overwhelmed in passion, longings sustained by unfulfillment, insights that did not quite hold up; when we try to articulate and convey what we have felt and know, that same empty silence, the suspended moment of presence arises, mocking our intentions.

It is mysterious that this gap bubbles up through the stream of our intentions again and again.


Although in the early eighties, Peter had set some poems of mine for the Fromm Foundation, our first real collaboration began with King Gesar, a chamber opera commissioned by Hans Werner Henze for the Munich Biennale. Peter and I discussed the piece extensively before I wrote it, but I felt it necessary to write a full account of Gesar’s most famous exploits before I made excerpts for the libretto. (This was later published by Wisdom Publications and will soon be re-issued.) Then it was edited and slightly altered as musical needs dictated.

King Gesar is based on a Tibetan and Central Asian epic which is part of a bardic tradition, involving narrative, chant and song still alive today, and tells the story of the semi-mythical medieval monarch, Gesar, King of Ling. Gesar, as is said, was born completely enlightened in order to overcome the demonic forces in his world. However, unlike the conventional Western notion of 'enlightenment' which usually is taken to mean: serene, otherworldly, unflappable, and consistently full of wise sayings and cryptic advice, Gesar is a warrior. His life is a life of battles, treachery, ruses, jokes, and feasting. Within that, he is always acting to renew uncompromising wakefulness and to restore confidence in the potential of human life. The demons he fights are neighboring lords who embody the self-serving territoriality of envy, fear, lust, greed, and so forth. Often he loses himself completely to those mental states before he can conquer them. Thus, in order to realize the freedom, dignity and luminosity of open direct experience, Gesar moves through his wild and shifty world with ferocity, passion, crude humor, and uncompromising simplicity.

Working on this grandiose, gaudy, barbaric, yet somehow very human play called forth a scale of gesture and utterance that left me uncertain of its possible effect. When I was done, I had no idea what to think of it. I also had no idea of what Peter would do or what the music would sound like. But when I finally heard the words and music together for the first time in Munich, the power, extravagance, and lyric delicacy of Peter’s created a world where the words seemed more pointed and resonant. The world of Gesar was present in the hall, and it was like listening to, as Peter put it, a “campfire epic”.


Sound, of course, is a ceaseless communicative presence. Within this, music is distilled from our appreciation of the pattern and flow of all that lingers on the edge of comprehension. Words rise in the precision of our desire to communicate that appreciation. Music is more true because, even if notated, it exists only moment by moment. Writing is more true because of its lavish, shifting specificity. Music is delusory because of its freedom from embodiment. Words are delusory because they make the insubstantial seem solid. Joined, words and music create a reciprocal context, not necessarily more ‘real’, but often more haunting.

Ikkyu again:

From the endless realms of sight and sound
One transparent note emerges in the cold.
The crazy master had a few tricks up his sleeve;
Wind and bell meet high above the frozen balustrade.


John McCormick/Fritz Kreisler- Joceyln- Berceuse


(There was no way I could include what follows in the essay above.)

King Gesar was commissioned for the Munich Biennale by Germany’s greatest living opera composer, Hans Werner Henze who ran the festival with great efficiency and vision. Though we had friends in common, I had never met him.

I was wandering around in the balcony, checking balances as Peter conducted one of the later rehearsals, when suddenly I heard a voice in a hard German accent shouting through the music:

“The TROMBONE is too LOUD! I cannot hear the CELLO. I’m PAYING the cellist (Yo Yo Ma) a lot MORE MONEY, and I want to HEAR him!”

The music crumbled to a halt, and the trombonist began sinking in his chair. I looked down to see a man with a shaved head, looking rather like Mussolini striding through the hall. This, I was to learn, was Henze.

The premiere was attended by the mayor of Munich, the Governor of Bavaria, and the President of Germany Carl Friedrich von Weizs├Ącker as well as by many luminaries from the art and music worlds. All came to the reception afterwards in a nearby Indian restaurant. At some point, Hneze signalled to Peter and me to join him outside.

There was a small paved square in front of the restaurant. The air was cool, and the autumn sky was clear. Two of the President’s guards, in bright green racing leathers leaned against their motorcycles. I was surprised at how little security Germany’s titular leader seemed to need.
Henze looked around, nodded at the guards, and lit up a joint.

“It’s for the arteries I need this.” He tapped his temple, and indeed the veins there were prominent. Peter and I stood awkwardly as Henze smoked.

“You know, ACTUALLY, I am … HETEROSEXUAL.” Peter and I blinked. This was not at all Henze’s reputation. “BUT… due to MISFORTUNES in my UPBRINGING, I CANNOT express this DIRECTLY.” He waved the joint around vaguely and smiled warmly, moving his gave between the two of us. “SO with this festival, and with the WONDERFUL PIECES such as yours that we commission,” and here he swung his arm grandly to the heavens, “ I SPREAD my SEMEN through the WORLD.”

Maybe Peter and I now looked utterly stupefied, because Henze gave us an apologetic smile: “I hope you don’t mind.”


Words and music in the same key:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Introduction and Alternatives


Hello and thank you for visiting WORD AND WORDLESS.

It seems we are on the verge of not quite imaginable transitions. For a moment, we feel we can almost master the means to realize dreams. Timelessness could unfold within time. Sanity might prevail. Or insanity. We feel the nearness of collapse and void. We shiver on an edge where extremes are inseparable. The world is changing us.

Whatever Trungpa Rinpoche taught, he was never conveying information or promulgating some view. It always felt that he was opening a door right before your eyes to worlds that are almost familiar but somehow far more gorgeous, far more menacing, far more seductive, far more expansive, far more dire.

Towards the end of his life, he said: “I have given you all you need to know to change the world.”

This blog will present/explore moments and possibilities of that.

Contributions and comments are most welcome.

Douglas J. Penick

Alternatives  1.

The reader is feverish, lying on a rough cot, drifting in and out of a sweaty sleep. Then, suddenly he is walking down a narrow murky corridor until he finds himself standing in a doorway. The dim room before him is made of crude log walls and lit by a single candle.

A tall woman wearing an elaborately embroidered red kimono is bent forward, facing away from him. The kimono is pulled down to her mid-back, and the long stream of her black lustrous hair falls down across bright pink skin. She is stooped over a small wooden table, washing her face carefully in a blue and white porcelain bowl besides which a bronze mirror is propped in a crimson lacquer stand. The reader finds the scene subtly erotic in a way made familiar by Japanese woodblock prints.

Very slowly, the woman begins to turn her head towards the reader, as if to look at him over her shoulder. Then he sees that her skin is an absolutely even flamingo pink and it shines in a completely unnatural way. As slowly she turns her head further, he sees that she has only a single, large inquisitive eye in the center of her forehead. Her nose is even and elegant, and when she smiles slightly, he sees that there is only a single sharp-pointed tooth, dazzling white, in the center of her wide mouth.

As she raises her head to the reader, in a delicate gesture poised between seduction and offering she opens the red kimono which rests below her shoulders. In this way, she shows him the single breast in the center of her chest, small and perfect with a tiny rose pink nipple. Her gaze, though almost solicitous, is intent.

The reader feels a certain inner struggle as he stares openly at a kind of being he has perhaps heard of but has never been able to imagine clearly. He knows that if she speaks to him now, she will say:

“You see, this is just how I am.”


From the Empress:

Entries 1

To begin with

Servant's Moon

The faint scent of skin and sex
Fades in the dark amid the golden leaves
About to fall.

The servant's moon, 
A moon not full
Yet offering the light of fullness,
Floods the sky

And reveals a long luminous cloud bank,
A new snow-mountain range
Rising on horizon's edge,

As another world
Briefly touches here.