i saw my mother ascending mount fuji incorporates two of my previous compositions:
Chimyaku (1968) for alto flute, performed by David Gilbert (May 1973)
and Michi (1972) for violin, performed by Linda Cummisky (August 1973).
Tape part by Harley Gaber (June-August 2009)
Special thanks to Anna Dolan whose interest in Michi helped get this work made.
innova is supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation.
Philip Blackburn, director, design
Chris Campbell, operations manager
A WORK FOR MULTI-TRACK VIOLIN, PROCESSED ALTO FLUTE AND TAPE
It was the on the morning of Saturday, 20th of June 2009 that I began working on “Mount Fuji,” some eighteen years since my mother died from cancer. She went into a coma on the 20th and died in the early evening of the 21st of 1991 (the Summer Solstice). The coincidence of the dates of both her death and of my reviewing older music from new digital transfers that might be issued on CD in the near future, was one of the factors that eventually pointed me in the direction of imagining a piece that would address her death and my past and present reactions to that event. In thinking back to that time eighteen years ago, I concluded that I had not dealt with her death in an open and conventional way, which is to say I didn’t mourn or grieve her passing. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer almost a year earlier. Her death, then, came as no surprise. It happened, as everyone knew it would, and then she was no longer there. As it has turned out, the piece that has become “Mount Fuji” gradually revealed itself to me as an opportunity to both deal with the past, and at the same time, begin to create a new musical language for myself that would be more accessible to the listener and more inclusive with respect to dealing with the human condition in a more direct, less abstract manner than my music did in the past.
The process of listening to these new transfers of music I had written in the 1970’s had begun earlier in the week. The transfers had been made for the consideration of Edition RZ in Germany who had expressed an interest in issuing two or three pieces of mine that pre-dated my “Winds Rise in the North,” which was remastered and reissued by them on CD at the end of 2007. Two of the three pieces, “Sovereign of the Centre” for four violins and “The Realm of Indra’s Net,” a work for solo violin made into a four track tape piece, sounded very good after some minor sound shaping in the computer. The third piece, “Michi,” a solo violin piece written in 1972 for Linda Cummiskey, and heard in a performance she did of it in July of 1973 as part of Madnadnock Music—a summer festival in southern New Hampshire—was a different story all together. There was absolutely no possibility that the piece as heard on this tape could be released on CD due to excessive tape noise, which by and large obliterated the work’s intensely still, meditative quality that was so important its effectiveness. The long, silent pauses between individual sound events, to cite the recording’s most obvious shortcoming, were no longer silent and therefore did not function as the integral and crucial stilled moments between sound events that they were meant to be. The absence of the work’s clarity and stillness, due to the amount of noise on the tape, made me even question the “correctness” of the sound events themselves. It was difficult for me to believe this was the same piece I had remembered so differently.
Nonetheless, I began working on the sound quality of the recording in the computer trying to salvage what most people would consider a lost cause, (even St. Jude would have walked on this one). I first worked at reducing the noise on the tape keeping in mind that I could go only so far before those adjustments would alter the violin sound itself, reducing it to sounding like a poorly synthesized version of a violin rather than the real thing. Eventually, having gone as far as I could go with those adjustments, I still was not satisfied with the overall effect of the piece. I hit upon the idea of layering or collaging two iterations of the solo violin part so that overlapping notes from one or the other layered iterations of the piece covered most of the long silences—in musical parlance, rests—that exist between the notes of the piece’s original version. By covering many of the silences I was then able to go back and readjust the violin sound back to a version that that was closer to where it had been before I had begun working on it so as to make it warmer and more “real” sounding once again. The compositional problem of ending up with something that resembled a protracted, literal and repetitious sounding canon between the two parts was solved in part by cross fading the volume between the two parts and by editing out certain notes in one part or the other. In fact, what came out of these manipulations—the layering, and collaging of the solo version—was, to my current way of hearing, far richer harmonically and more interesting because of its new sense of harmonic unpredictability that sounded more like an elaboration of the tightly controlled harmonic vocabulary of the original work rather than a nullification of it. I was pleased with the outcome: I felt that I had successfully created a new, multi-layered version of “Michi” without sacrificing the piece’s original intent or character.
It was about eight in the evening—I had been working since early that morning—that I finished this new, layered version of “Michi,” which in Japanese means road, but when used in the context of Zen, is metaphorically translated as path or way. As I have already mentioned, the new version worked well for me, but at the same time, it raised an issue that I had never considered, nor even been aware of when I wrote the piece in 1972: A path to where? An outlook to what end? Had I really thought back then that it was simply enough to say, in effect, “This piece is an expression of Zen thinking,” or “This piece is an expression of Zen itself?” I must have, because that is what is suggested by the inclusion of various quotations relating to Zen and Taoism that can be found in the printed, published score dating from that time.
I must admit that I had no answers to any of those questions. I was faced with the simple fact that the thinking that had served me so well when I composed the work in 1972 was no longer working for me. It was not consonant with my current thinking, which is far more focused on issues dealing directly with the myriad aspects of the human condition than on the more abstracted world of physical phenomena. That major shift in my focus perhaps explains why my thoughts about what I wanted from this new version of “Michi” (apart from the merely practical consideration filling out a CD) turned to my mother and the last few days prior to her death. I thought just about her: who she was, what her life had meant to her, and finally how she might have experienced her oncoming demise. These thoughts led me to consider, once again, how the last ten years of her life had been affected by my younger brother Danny’s suicide in May of 1982. It seemed that her interest in Nature, one that predated his death, became more and more important to her as a “place” where she could go—in reality and in her mind—to deal with the loss of her youngest son.
As her primary care giver during the last month of her life, I spent a great deal of time with her and had the general impression she was more or less at peace with herself with the passage she was now going through. I got a rocking chair for her so that she could sit comfortably, looking out the windows at the trees that surrounded the house. One of the last things she said was “I never thought it would be like this.” Maybe it was the chair, the view, or the drugs, but whatever it was, she seemed more peaceful than I had ever seen her in my entire life. I would like to think that she had reached an understanding and acceptance of life in general, and her life in particular. With that in mind, I began to think about her last two days not as the ending of something, but rather as the beginning of a uniquely different journey, returning, so to speak, to Nature.
Turning back to the musical issues of the piece with these thoughts in mind, I made a (quantum) leap of sorts that allowed me to think of her as the violin, thereby enabling me to imagine and experience her “journey” through the violin(s)’s sound; the notes it was playing, the pacing of the notes and the purposeful “purposelessness” of how these notes, when taken in aggregate, suggested an action that could and would never cease. A strange mapping—the violin and my mother—even for me, but one nonetheless that had become very real. It wasn’t that I was abstractly imagining her wandering aimlessly and eternally, or for that matter that she had literally become the violin. In my mind, I was experiencing the energy that had been her, a force of energy that ebbed and flowed—as all energy does—with seemingly no end to its motion.
Despite the newness and challenging nature of these insights and thoughts, and the satisfaction of making a “new” piece out of the old one, there was at the same time, a not so satisfying feeling that what I was now calling “Michi Duet” was, in and of itself, of no particular interest to me. Out of necessity (and curiosity), I had created a hybrid work that did not accurately reflect who I was in 1972 when I composed it nor who I am now, in 2009. I think all the work and thinking I have done throughout all the intervening years, especially my involvement in film making over the past six years, had something to do with my sense that this re-composed piece in its current form could not stand alone. It was as if I had made a film with no narrative, with no images; only a character set in motion within an undefined context.
So, thinking both as a composer and a film maker, I began late Saturday afternoon to imagine the possibility of creating a ground and/or a space with volume and “a life of its own” over which and/or through which the layered violin elements could move in and out of; sometimes becoming part of that “(back)ground,” sometimes being autonomous, sometimes even existing in opposition to it. To make this piece work, I knew I had to go beyond my past thinking about musical composition, beyond the purely musical boundaries that I had consciously and rigorously adhered to in the past. I saw that what I wanted could be thought of as either a piece of music that was, so to speak, “filmic,” or, from the reverse perspective, a film that had no images. From either perspective, the key element that would make or break the piece I was beginning to imagine was the inclusion and the delineation of a human struggle or human spirit, which in this case was embodied in the image of my mother and the journey she was about to embark on. It was at that point—like a screenwriter placing a film’s action—that I began thinking about the setting of her journey. My very first (and only) thought was Mount Fuji and that was it. I spent remainder of Saturday night trying to find and organize the material for the soundscape I wanted to create. I assembled older music of mine that had already been digitized, sound effects used for my film making, and importantly, so-called ambient sound material I had recorded in various locations on a portable digital recorder during a recent trip to visit my brother Steve, in Santa Fe, and my old and dear friend Eric Richards—our friendship goes back to the early mid 1960’s at Mannes College in New York—in Albuquerque.
After a few hours of sleep Saturday night I began early Sunday morning to assemble, order, and transform all that material into what would become the soundscape that would eventually function as both a foil and complement for the violin(s). I felt inexplicably pressed to have everything finished by late Sunday afternoon or early evening, the time I recall my mother actually died. Why this piece took the direction it did and why I linked it so literally to the time of my mother’s death, and finally, why I felt so compelled to finish it at the hour of her death is something I really can’t explain. In any case, that is how it happened. I was more than pleased with the overall result, and to be perfectly honest, I was stunned by how the piece’s evolution seemed somehow preordained: It seemed, in retrospect, that it was merely waiting for me to figure out how to bring it to life. The image of my mother ascending Mount Fuji and the exactness of the experience I wanted to convey regarding her ascent came to me sometime Sunday afternoon as I was working on the soundscape. Having that concrete an image come to me at that particular moment was as serendipitous as it was inspired: It guided me toward making what I would like to think were the right compositional decisions as to how the piece unfolded, and how it had to end.
Talking specifically about how the piece works will have to wait till some other time. One part of that explanation that I can address now relates to my feelings about Mount Fuji itself, which unlike most mountains, seems to exist for many people as an icon and an idea as much, if not more than, the real volcanic mountain it actuality is. I think of it—unlike any other mountain that comes to mind—as being a poetic metaphor for itself. By that I mean there is almost no gap between the actual mountain and the image(s) and idea(s) of it. Its significance seems to transcend both its reality and its iconic status. Over the two days I worked on this piece I came to see the “voice” of the violin in a similar manner. The music that emanates from that voice seems to step outside itself and becomes, in its own way, not dissimilar to Mount Fuji, a metaphor for its own unique, real identity. The intertwining of the metaphoric and the real is one of the central characteristics of the piece as it wends it way “up the mountain.” A path is found without taking a step. A journey is begun and continues with no need to leave or arrive. Ascending Mount Fuji is not an act of faith or a belief for me. It is as real as a post card, a snap shot taken along the way; an image, one that gets put in a box with other “real” images either under the bed or on the closet shelf, (or on the Internet these days) to be looked at sometime in the future without a certainty that the map, so to speak, is not the territory, or, as in the case of this musical composition, that the territory is not the map.
No gate stands on public roads;
There are paths of various kinds.
Walk freely throughout the Universe.
NOTES FOR THE REVISED VERSION (AUGUST 2009)
It is now the second week of August; so much has happened since I finished the work on the evening of June 21st. The rush to complete the work was followed by writing the liner notes, designing the cover, designing the disc, and finally mailing copies to friends, colleagues, and especially to Robert Zank so that he could begin thinking about possibly releasing some or all of the music through Edition RZ. I sent out the CD of this piece—to get the process going—despite certain reservations I had about the work regarding how the first half of it unfolded and specifically, how that unfolding was not quite right. In my rush to get it to Robert, however, I more or less convinced myself that the unfolding—which seemed not directional enough and therefore sounded too repetitious in a way that made me feel uncomfortable—could somehow be justified by looking at in a similar light as one might view the process of sitting meditation. By that I mean that it might take a long time during any given sitting for someone meditating to reach the level of focus that they are attempting to attain through their meditation practice. Unlike a piece of music that tends to engage one immediately (think Beethoven’s “da-da-da-dum . . .”), it would seem highly unlikely that any person meditating would find him or herself immediately and instantly at the level of meditative focus and engagement they were attempting to eventually reach. Deep down, however, I felt I was pushing things with that analogy because I felt that even I, myself, wasn’t being brought into the flow of the music quickly enough, even after having given it more than a fair chance with multiple listenings. The experience of listening to music might be meditative in its own way, but it is certainly not the same as practicing the discipline of actual meditation.
Two friends—both composers who know my music—let me know how it went for them. They both corroborated my reservations about the first half of the work. Half heartedly defending what I had done, I explained to both of them my analogy to meditating, especially as it might relate to the indeterminate period of time it might take one’s focus, so to speak, to come into focus. I half-heartedly argued my case but in the end, accepted the work’s problem for what it was, i.e., a temporal miscalculation: It took too long for the violin(s) to initially integrate with the soundscape, leaving the listener either confounded or simply worn down.
It also became clear through the conversations with these same friends and through my own subsequent thinking about what they had said that the problem was not that the piece was too long in “getting to the point,” but rather that there was some crucial element missing from what amounted to more than the entire first half of the piece. That missing element seemed twofold: Firstly, it needed to be something—not something added to the electronic “(back)ground”—that would work with and against the violin thereby giving it (the missing element) an ever-changing role or presence (vis-ą-vis the violin and the soundscape) and secondly that whatever that element might be, it had to have a sense of continuous harmonic directionality and forward motion that would stand in direct contrast to the violin’s more or less circular path and its lack of any obvious sense of striving to reach some structural, harmonic, or “emotional” goal. I’m not sure what I can say in defense of my overlooking that obvious aspect of striving to reach a goal given the final premise (and the title) of the work. Wittgenstein’s remark—“The aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.”—is as good an explanation as any for my failing to fully understand that I had failed to musically convey the experience I had thought in my head.
But putting aside my miscalculation of the work’s general trajectory or arc for a moment, there was the very real problem of my not having a large selection of my own musical material in a digitized format that I could use to solve the problem. (The thought of my writing something new and having it recorded was, for many reasons, not an option.) I then remembered that I had an old digital transfer of my piece “Chimyaku,” written in 1968 for solo alto flute that I had used as part of a soundtrack for one of my films some three years ago. As I have already mentioned in the notes for the other CD—“Sovereign of the Centre” and “The Realm of Indra’s Net”—“Chimyaku” was my first slowed-down (or maybe slow motion) piece that marked a change in the direction my music eventually took. I listened to it a number of times and imagined that with some work, I might be able to incorporate it into “Mount Fuji” to resolve the problem of work’s first half. Most importantly, it had the quality of striving to reach some undefined, but fulfilling goal. It accomplished that by moving slowly but continuously toward a musical climax going from a slow and “peaceful” beginning to a more agitated state that eventually culminated in a complex configuration of compound multiple lines—not unlike some sections of Bach’s pieces for solo violin—that interrupt each other with greater frequency and intensity, thereby achieving a structural and emotional climax, which, importantly (for “Mount Fuji”) does not then lead to a conventional dénouement in the trailing off of its final notes. “Chimyaku’s” final gesture ends with an intense high note that suggests a willful assertion that it has had “it say” and is ending the conversation on its own terms.
Another aspect of “Chimyaku” that led me to believe that it would fit into this piece so well was its reliance on breath control accomplished through its very specifically notated use of vibrato. (I do not mean to be heavy handed when I say that I imagined the flute would literally and figuratively “breathe some life” into this piece.) In the printed score of the piece, the rate of vibrato is indicated in a graph-like manner that appears above the musical staff. Lines with numbers connecting them indicate the number of vibrato pulses per beat; the vibrato pulses can remain constant, speed up or slow down. They, in effect, become the inner pulse of the sustained note, at times either driving a phrase forward or bringing it to an end. All of these structural attributes of “Chimyaku” combined with its breathy, shakuhachi-like sounds and inflections appealed to me as the perfect sound that might bring the listener into the piece from the outset, rather than so much farther into the piece.
At the same time, I realized that that for “Chimyaku” to work in this piece it would have to be slowed down to at least half the speed of its original tempo, and that the register of the pitches had to be proportionally lower. So, through a multi-step process I dealt with the tempo issue while working on specific pitches so that not all the pitches would be lowered in a one to one mapping with the slowing of the tempo. Beyond that, I made some further changes to its overall sound so that in its final form it had a “feeling” and timbral quality located somewhere midway between the purely acoustic sound of the violin and the electronically manipulated sound of the soundscape. The flute, in a very real sense, not only becomes a mediation of sorts between the violin and the soundscape, but also functions in the dual role of “narrator” and “guide” of the climb up Mount Fuji. My feeling is that I made the right choice with its inclusion in the piece. It brings a greater sense of a human experience to the piece—the difficulty and striving of the ascension—by demonstrating a similar striving in its own musical and “emotional” structure. That particular emotional quality, so evident in the piece played at its original tempo is still apparent in the manipulated version I made for this piece. In a totally unexpected and unimagined way, I feel that I have come full circle with “Chimyaku’s” inclusion in this new piece: It was a watershed piece for me in 1968 and it has now become part of what I hope is another watershed work in my evolving, musical thinking.
I see “Mount Fuji’s” structure as a reflection of my general attempt to reconcile the seemingly conflicting states of cyclical and non-cyclical movement. The repetitions in the soundscape are kept to a minimum; it basically moves forward through a series of gradually changing moods and levels of intensities, which help move the “narrative” of the work to its conclusion. The original, solo violin part was doubled, as I have already mentioned, by overlaying the original solo version at different intervals. There are also sections of the work where I have added yet another track of the doubled version of the original solo version so as to create an even greater density of sound and harmonic variety. The flute part is repeated twice throughout the piece with different intervals of spacing of its material. The final shaping of the work—in both musical and experiential terms—was achieved in the mix-down process by the constantly changing volume levels in each of the three separate parts.
The ending of “Mount Fuji” reveals and encapsulates the “text” of the entire work. The soundscape simply fades away. (It ends with the ending of the final clip I had collaged into the piece.) The flute has already dropped out even earlier in the piece when it came to its conclusion. The violin(s) continues, doing what it has been doing throughout the piece, except now there is a feeling that it is entirely exposed and on its own: It continues to alternately turn in on itself while moving forward, not seeming to understand that the piece “should be over.” What occurs finally is that the overlaid solo versions of the original “Michi” reach their respective original ends, and what remains in the last two notes of the work is one (solo) violin. The ascension is completed, so to speak, on its own terms. I sensed that I should leave well enough alone and not make the ending more “perfect” and balanced. It was the moment I completely understood that I had to let go of my role in deciding how it should be.
It goes without saying that any so-called meaning one might draw from the work will vary from listener to listener. What I would hope for, however, is that the listener will at least grasp my overall intentions with respect to what is meant to be heard as an intentional, cyclical repetition as opposed to that which is non-cyclical and only coincidentally repetitious. That particular distinction goes to the very heart of the work: At what point, and through what logic, can we determine with any real certainty that an act of will has imposed itself on the organic randomness of nature, or is it possible that the reverse has taken place, or even, that both have taken place simultaneously and are therefore, for all intents and purposes, one and the same, (notwithstanding our need to see them as being categorically different.) Recently, I half jokingly asked my brother Steve, who has been a practicing Buddhist for almost fifteen years, “Why be a practicing Buddhist, Steve, when you can be the Buddha?” We both laughed and smiled at each other, and I imagined that somewhere, wherever he was, Wittgenstein was smiling along with us.
H.G. August-September 2009