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 Weizsäcker 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:

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