Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Music for Battle:



The image is of the first page of the text of "The Tale of the Heike," a song cycle relating the events of a clan feud/civil war in Japan, 1180-85. (The translation below is, I suspect, not so good.) The story of the Heike was compiled from a collection of oral stories recited by traveling monks, who chanted to the accompaniment of the biwa, a type of lute. The most widely read version of the Heike monogatari was compiled by a blind monk named Kakuichi in 1371. The Heike is considered one of the great classics of medieval Japanese literature.
The central theme of the story is the Buddhist law of impermanence. The theme of impermanence (mujō) is captured in the famous opening passage:

"The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things;
the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.
The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night;
the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind."

The birth of Buddha took place under a sāla tree.

I first heard the Heike music in "Hoshi the Earless" one of the stories in Kwaidon, a classic Japanese film of ghost stories. The stories are treated in a style that combines naturalism with some of the look and conventions of the Kabuki theater and the kind of Japanese painting depicting supernatural creatures and events which looks surrealist, but predates that style of painting by centuries. The Heike music came closer to me when I met Kakuho Ohashi in Japan.



(That's Ohashi-san & me in the center - Chisato is beside me.)

Ohashi-san began making a biwa for me right after we met, a gift which I still wonder if I deserve. Biwas are rare instruments. Ohashi-san is one of only 5 living makers, and his biwas are precious treasures. Ohashi-san came to Kentucky to perform the opening prelude for Love & Time, part III of The Secret Commonwealth. He performed one of the Heike songs describing an ambush that takes place at night, during a wild storm. Kelly Gottesman, choreographer for the first three Secret Commonwealth dance operas, informed me that the jig was up for me, that it was time that I danced on stage. I took class with the dancers, so that as a director I would know what was going on, and because I love to dance, but I was leading the ensemble of musicians throughout Secret C., as well as directing the production, and didn't even think of dancing too. I did as I was told, and helped develop the choreography with Kim, as most of the time Kelly was too busy with the other dancers to work with me. Dancing to Ohashi-san's performance was one of the most thrilling experiences, and greatest honors, that I've ever had. As far as I know, the dance was the first, and perhaps only, time that a traditional biwa performance of the Heike music was combined with contemporary dance.

I'll confess to having some jitters before we performed this dance. For one thing, I had watched Ohashi-san rehearse HIS performance, in the dressing room, WITHOUT the biwa, and WITHOUT making sound. He performed the entire piece as a silent sequence of perfectly executed movements, lips silently forming every no-sound, hands making every note-bend, every strike of the plectrum, with absolute precision. It was the most magnificent performance of music I've ever seen, and it made no sound, except the imagined one. The dance, my first in front of a seated (and paying) audience, was aptly titled "Inside/Outside."

But all my fears vanished when Ohashi-san struck the first note and we began. As I looked out into the audience in the darkened theater, the Japanese ghost story weirdness took ahold of me. The faces of the audience looked like an ancient screen painting of ghosts, assembled to view the re-enactment of the battle. Even though our choreography was not specifically "about" a battle, more about the creative interaction that Kelly and I shared, and how that was at once inside us and outside us, it felt very martial arts to me all of a sudden, and I found my arms and legs slicing through space as though people's heads were coming off with every move. If it wasn't a trance, it might as well have been.




(photos by William Cox)

This came back to me last night as I finally broke the code on the music for The Battle of Dutton Hill in YACB. The voice that sings is a ghost voice, and contrary to what I had been trying to do, which was find sounds that would correspond somehow to the loud and horrible noises of a real battle, the song is, I think, much more terrifying for being smooth as silk. The chorus comes from a detail that Mary Beth provided, concerning the morning of the battle (March 30th, 1863), noted by the Shakers at Pleasant Hill, that there was a late, hard frost, and that they feared the peach trees, in full bloom, would lose their entire crop.

Here's the text of the song:

I don't have a face. My name is gone.
All that's left of me are my bones - and a stone
with a vague description of how I died
fighting a long time ago in a war.

Now I'm here, off duty, till the last reveille
where I fell, among strangers - unfriended and unknown.
On a fruitless enterprise, I staked my life,
and lost it, on this rocky hilltop, cold and alone.

No, the proud do not endure -
they're like a dream on a spring night.
The mighty fall
like petals on frost.

By the time they found my body, back in 1863,
I was in perfect shape for an April Fool -
eyes wide open, seeing nothing at all
in the blind reflection
you could watch the petals fall.

Watch the petals fall
Watch the petals fall
Eyes wide open, seeing nothing at all

No, the proud do not endure
they're like a dream on a spring night.
The mighty fall
like petals on frost.

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