Caves of Dunhuang (Triptych III) (2015)

I.    madhyamāpratipad (the middle way) (the middle way) 

       for erhu, cello, dizi/xiao, clarinet/bass clarinet, yang qin, harpsichord, and temple bells (10:35)

II.   śūnyatā (emptiness) 

       for fixed media  (8:02)

III.  vijñāna-santāna (rebirth) 

       for erhu, cello, dizi/xiao, clarinet/bass clarinet, yang qin, harpsichord, and fixed media (13:03)

available from the composer

duration ca. 31:30

 

Instrumentation

erhu, cello, dizi/xiao, clarinet/bass clarinet, yang qin, harpsichord, temple bells,

and fixed media

Program Note

At the foot of the Southern Silk Road, Dunhuang was a trading place between East and West—the final stop both for caravans coming across the desert from as far west as the Mediterranean and Chinese merchants from the east.  Not only goods, but culture also moved along the Silk Road—Indian Buddhists brought their religion to China and over 1500 years ago, carved caves from the cliffsides of Dunhuang, establishing several centers for meditation and worship.  Dunhuang became a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, and many of the caves have been decorated with intricate artworks depicting the lives of Buddha’s avatars, including an enormous statue inside the largest cave that cannot be seen in its entirety from any vantage point.

 

A triptych is a painting on three hinged panels, often used for Christian altarpieces from the late medieval period onward--Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights is one of the most unusual examples.  In this collection of three independent but closely related pieces, I have applied the form to music.

 

The Lord Buddha taught the middle way, that moderation in all things is the path to enlightenment.  The first piece, madhyamāpratipad (the middle way), is scored for a unique mixture of Chinese and Western instruments, paired in families: two strings—erhu and cello, two winds—xiao and bass clarinet, and two struck or plucked instruments—yang qin and harpsichord.  To compose the work I began with a musical meditation, by filling a page of manuscript paper with pitches that came immediately to mind.  The only criteria was that there was no criteria—if I noticed patterns, I immediately broke them.  Having completed this collection from my subconscious, I then set about discovering the inherent meaning, the hidden, unintended patterns that are inescapable in human endeavours. 

 

Emptiness is the concept of ‘not self’, of awareness in which perception and feeling cease.  The second piece, śūnyatā (emptiness), for twelve-channel prerecorded sound only, is based on a recording of the first movement, and generated by duplicating that recording hundreds or thousands of times with phase shifts—slight timing offsets between every duplicated version, that vary from microseconds to seconds.  This process of massive replication and phase shifting obliterates the sense of the original in a musical śūnyatā.

 

Upon death, consciousness dissolves and re-forms in new ways, being neither identical nor completely different from the original.  The final piece, vijñāna-santāna (rebirth) , unites the instruments with manipulations of the pre-recorded version, in a metamorphosis that re-form the material in new aggregates, breathing into it new life.

 

Caves of Dunhuang (Triptych III) was funded by a grant from the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong.  

 

Technical Note

The Triptych series was designed to work as a set, with all three pieces in a single Triptych performed at the same time; and equally as independent pieces that can be programmed separately.

Program Note for śūnyatā (emptiness)  from Caves of Dunhuang (Triptych III) 

śūnyatā (emptiness) is the middle piece in the triptych Caves of Dunhuang, which is scored for a unique mixture of Chinese and Western instruments, paired in families: two strings—erhu and cello, two winds—xiao and bass clarinet, and two struck or plucked instruments—yang qin and harpsichord, with temple bells and fixed media.  The triptych consists of  1. madhyamāpratipad (the middle way)  2. śūnyatā (emptiness)  3. vijñāna-santāna (rebirth).  Each is inspired by Buddhist beliefs depicted in the thousand-year-old meditation niches carved into the cliffs of Dunhuang, China. The first piece is scored for instruments alone, the second for fixed media based on transformations of a recording of the first movement, and the third piece combines instruments with fixed media in new transformations.

śūnyatā is the concept of ‘not self’, of awareness in which perception and feeling cease, of meditating to the loss of self-awareness.   The piece transforms a recording of the first movement through massive replication and phase-shifting, obliterating the sense of the original piece in a musical śūnyatā.

III.  vijñāna-santāna (rebirth) 

Christopher Coleman

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Fo Tan, New Territories
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