Shiki (note for entire piece)
'Shiki' began as a request for a short winter-themed piece for the Hämäläis-Osakunnan Laulajat. Since I regard the finding of texts for musical setting as a matter of serendipity rather than research, I didn’t think very much about the idea at first. A few weeks later while browsing in a bookstore, I stumbled across an English translation of a very unconventional haiku about snow by Santōka Taneda, a poet then unknown to me. I later tracked down the poem in the original Japanese, and it opened up an entirely new soundworld, one I knew immediately how to approach.
The resultant work is a four seasons-type cycle, which felt appropriate given the genesis of the poetry. A lifelong alcoholic and depressive, Santōka joined the Sōto school of Zen Buddhism in 1924 after a suicide attempt, and chose as his spiritual practice the life of a wandering mendicant monk, crossing the length and breadth of Japan many times over, begging to survive, sleeping in small inns when he could afford to, and outdoors when he could not. As such, he lived in and with the landscape of his native country for almost fifteen years, and his poetry is thus marked by a deeply reverent but unsentimental view of the natural world, far removed from the Romantic tendency to rhapsodize nature from a safe distance. I was inspired by how the enormity and remoteness of creation seemed to fill Santōka with a sense of purpose rather than insignificance, by his ability in the midst of a life-altering spiritual journey to find ephemeral moments of wonder – some extremely vulgar! – and treasure their beauty instead of mourning their transience. I was also moved by Santōka’s determination in the face of many hardships – the suicides of his mother and brother, failure at business, divorce, estrangement from his family, illness and addiction – to seek some measure of redemption for his failings and leave a gentler mark on the world through his poetry.
The music of 'Shiki' is a progression through various states of near-stasis. The main impression I wished to convey was one of absolute stillness at the heart of each scene, of communion with the outer world, as if the viewer were drawing the landscape into him, and at the same time dissolving himself into it. The voices are treated texturally, as well as textually, moving in slow masses, with the soft but precisely colored vowels of Japanese creating the basic sounds, and the sharper consonants giving them shape and definition. The end result is closer to electronic than acoustic music, so it seemed natural to include electronic interludes between the main movements, ambient pauses which also serve a practical purpose in accompanying the performers’ movements around the stage. These visual reconfigurations of the choir body are a product of a lifelong fascination with religious ritual and procession, but also help, I feel, to make clearer the interactions of the different layers of sound, vocal subgroups and soloists in performance. It may be worth noting that, while the words and thoughts are Eastern, the landscape the music evokes is one that is, I hope, recognizeably Nordic.
I am greatly indebted to the Hämäläis-Osakunnan Laulajat and their director, Esko Kallio, for their support of, and enthusiasm for my music over the last few years. Without their trust, hard work and willingness to follow me on my wildest experiments in amateur choral writing, a large-scale work of this nature would not have been possible.
Shiki (Notes for individual movements)
Sakura (Cherry blossoms)
More than any of the other poems I chose for this cycle, Sakura perfectly captures one of my favorite themes in Santōka’s work: the valuing of tiny, transient moments of beauty amid the wider continuum of daily life. I have long felt that the ability to stop and be moved by such things, the capacity for wonder, is extremely important to retaining one’s humanity. By the same token, the treasuring of evanescence seems to make it that much harder to fall into the trap of cynicism. The music of Sakura is an attempt to reflect those values. Though a single, unmoving harmony hovers in the air throughout the piece, small inner gestures constantly surface and dissipate back into the texture. A four-note melody gradually forms and, having achieved this modest level of development, the music is quite literally blown off the stage, like the fragile petals in the poem.
Amanogawa (River of Heaven)
It would have been disingenuous, I felt, to portray Santōka as an ascetic, clean-living saint, even in such a small selection of his poems. Amanogawa presents a wryly humorous image of the poet in one of his less monkly states. Although a direct translation suggests a drunkard dancing under a late summer night sky, the Japanese words were quite a bit subtler. Rather than the literal word for “drunk” – yopparai –Santōka chose "yo", a divinely inspired, Bacchus-like figure, drunken spiritually as well as physically. A Japanese expression roughly meaning “to drink until one sees stars” also suggested that the poet was in no condition to be dancing. The sound image I used is an unmoving bass pedal supported by Tibetan-style throat singing, while a starlit sky wheels and spins above it. The music attains a state of motion eventually, rising to a pounding climax and quickly collapsing, as tends to happen in such circumstances. I am especially grateful to Nobu Takezawa for her insight into Santōka’s words, which proved far more inspiring than the standard interpretations.
This poem brought out the most static music in the cycle, with its image of a clear sky reflected in the surface of still water. I wanted to do my best to convey the absolute timelessness of the words, and as a result, there is no musical development of any kind. The voices generate a continuum of pitchless, liquid sound, over which float melodic fragments, harmonic clouds and stylized bird calls. The piece reaches an iconic, somewhat ambiguous conclusion, which may or may not be an unconscious quotation of Sibelius’ tone poem The Swan of Tuonela.
I had intended to set Yuki for the full choir, but I found that the words, which so perfectly captured an atmosphere of unbroken cold and stillness, suggested no low-register music at all. In the end, the women’s voices created a sonic tapestry of interwoven lines, dissonant harmonies frozen in place, which slowly settles into a motionless backdrop of white noise, while the men amplify and refract the windlike consonant sounds of poem. Toward the end, a high whistling is transfigured into a meditative chant colored by vocal overtones, as the music subsides and, like the snow, becomes the surrounding silence.
© Matthew Whittall Instrumentation
Vocal and Choral Works Language
Helsinki Chamber Choir, cond. Esko Kallio, Musica nova Helsinki, Helsinki, March 13, 2007. Movements
1. Sakura (Cherry blossoms), 2. Amanogawa ( River of heaven), 3. Sora/Mizu (Sky/Water), 4. Yuki (Snow) Commisioned by / dedications
Commissioned by the Hämäläis-Osakunnan Laulajat.
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