On Cold Mountain

Songs on Poems of Gary Snyder

 

Karen Clark, contralto

Galax Quartet

Innova 795

 

 

 

The new music on this recording is a meeting of the American Pulitzer poet out of the Pacific NorthWest (Gary Snyder), the 8th century Chinese “beat” poet, Han Shan; and the musical settings of 21st century western composers whose heritages are baroque counterpoint, post-modern atonalism, rock & roll, and jazz. All are performed by a modern voice with early classical string quartet.

In 1994, I recorded Roy Whelden’s song “Like a Passing River” with the American Baroque ensemble in Marin County. The following year I moved from Princeton, New Jersey, to California and was apartment hunting in Berkeley when, I was surprised to run into Roy. He told me he was on his way to hear Gary Snyder read from his new book, No Nature, and, would I like to come along?

Jump ahead to 2007: Whelden, the Galax Quartet, and I performed old (John Dowland) and new music (Whelden’s settings of Snyder poems) on the San Francisco Early Music Society’s series. Although Gary Snyder replied with regrets to my invitation to the concert, I was happy to receive his email. Around this time, the Galax Quartet was pursuing commissions for new works. We asked Fred Frith, W. A. Mathieu, and Robert Morris to compose songs on their favorite Snyder poems for contralto and baroque strings.

Thus began our dream concert! The premieres took place in June 2008, as part of San Francisco’s Old First Concerts and we were fortunate to have each of the composers and the poet there. Gary Snyder gave introductions to both halves of the concert and read “A Berry Feast” in a musical setting by Whelden.

For me, these new songs bring together what used to feel like disparate parts of my life. I am most grateful for a childhood of singing country hymns with my family in South Eastern Kentucky, opera studies at Indiana University with Virginia Zeani and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and my teachers and mentors in early music, Thomas Binkley, and Andrea von Ramm.

Perhaps, somewhere Han Shan is reclining under a blossoming peach tree, giving a nod, and chuckling, “Ah, that’s America!”    

TWO SONGS FROM COLD MOUNTAIN  Roy Whelden (born 1950)
The poetry of Han Shan underwent, inevitably, a transformation during its trip between 8th century Chinese and modern English. But its directness and almost popular style remained. I’ve tried to retain that quality for these two settings from Gary Snyder’s famous translations made in the mid-1950s.

I.
I have lived at Cold Mountain
These thirty long years.
Yesterday I called on friends and family:
More than half had gone to the Yellow Springs.
Slowly consumed, like fire down a candle;
Forever flowing, like a passing river.
Now, morning, I face my lone shadow:
Suddenly my eyes are bleared with tears.

II.
I spur my horse through the wrecked town,
The wrecked town sinks my spirit.
High, low, old parapet-walls
Big, small, the aging tombs.
I waggle my shadow, all alone;
Not even the crack of a shrinking coffin is heard.
I pity all these ordinary bones,
In the books of the Immortals they are nameless.

For Nothing  by Fred Frith (born 1949)
For Nothing represents an attempt to combine two worlds with which I'm very familiar: song form and the string quartet. In this case these worlds are filtered through the lens of an hour of music that I had recently created for the Baroque orchestra Concerto Köln in Germany. The material was inspired by reading Gary Snyder's poems while lying in my backyard watching the shifting patterns of the wind through the eucalyptus leaves! This commission was supported by a contribution from the American Composers Forum.

I.
Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease -
No more tangled, hung-up mind.
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.

II.
Earth a flower
A phlox on the steep
slopes of light
hanging over the vast
solid spaces
small rotten crystals;
salts.
Earth a flower by a gulf where a raven
flaps by once
a glimmer, a color
forgotten as all
falls away.
A flower
for nothing;
an offer;
no taker;
Snow-trickle, feldspar, dirt.

(we shall see who knows how to be)

III.
My home was at Cold Mountain from the start,
Rambling among the hills, far from trouble.

Gone, and a million things leave no trace
Loosed, and it flows through the galaxies
A fountain of light, into the very mind -
Not a thing, and yet it appears before me:
Now I know the pearl of the Buddha-nature
Know its use: a boundless perfect sphere.

This Bubble of a Heart  by Robert Morris (born 1943)
In the music, I try to get at the stillness, irony, and complexity of this wonderful poetry. The voice is a "wife" to the music. Separate yet intimate. This is expressed by the way the endemic musical materials of the voice intertwine with the  ensemble and especially the viola da gamba part. This commission was supported by a contribution from the Zellerbach Family Foundation.

I. FOR A STONE GIRL AT SANCHI
half asleep on the cold grass
        night rain flicking the maples
under a black bowl upside-down
on a flat land
        on a wobbling speck
smaller than stars,
                                space,
the size of a seed,
        hollow as bird skulls.
light flies across it
                                - never is seen.
a big rock weathered funny,
old tree trunks turned stone,
                split rocks and find clams.
                                all that time
loving;
two flesh persons changing,
                clung to, doorframes
                notions, spear-hafts
in a rubble of years.
                                touching,
this dream pops. it was real:
                and it lasted forever.

II. NEW MOON TONGUE
Faint new moon arc, curl,
Again in the west. Blue eve,
Deer-moving dusk.

Purple shade in a plant-realm -
a million years of sniffs,
        licks, lip and
reaching tongue.

III. regarding wave
The voice of the Dharma
                   the voice
                          now
A shimmering bell
                    through all.

Every hill,               still.
Every tree alive. Every leaf.
All the slopes        flow.
                old woods, new seedlings,
                tall grasses plumes.
Dark hollows;            peaks of light.
        wind stirs                the cool side
Each leaf living.
                All the hills.

                        The Voice
                        is a wife      
                            to


                        him still.

for all  W.A. Mathieu (born 1937)
The seed of ‘For All’ was planted in the late 1970s, when Gary and I served together on Jerry Brown’s California Arts Council. Gary and I are from the same generation of eclectics and generalists; I have long felt a kinship with his work and its panorama of sources. We share a love of letters, a deep respect for ancient knowledge and spiritual legacies, a fierce, protective love of the natural world, and an ongoing sense of wonder. His poetry has always seemed to me intricate and well made, but not until I set these few poems did I realize how beautifully woven they really are. I have tried to stay true to the music of his poems, only to make it ring in a new dimension. This commission was supported by a contribution from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

I. milton by firelight
“O hell, what do mine eyes
                with grief behold?”
Working with an old
Singlejack miner, who can sense
The vein and cleavage
In the very guts of rock, can
Blast granite, build
Switchbacks that last for years
Under the beat of snow, thaw, mule-hooves.
What use, Milton, a silly story
Of our lost general parents,
                eaters of fruit?
The Indian, the chainsaw boy,
And a string of six mules
Came riding down to camp
Hungry for tomatoes and green apples.
Sleeping in saddle-blankets
Under a bright night-sky

Han River slantwise by morning.
Jays squall
Coffee boils
In ten thousand years the Sierras
Will be dry and dead, home of the scorpion.
Ice-scratched slabs and bent trees.
No paradise, no fall,
Only the weathering land
The wheeling sky,
Man, with his Satan
Scouring the chaos of the mind.
Oh Hell!
Fire down
Too dark to read, miles from a road
The bell-mare clangs in the meadow
That packed dirt for a fill-in
Scrambling through loose rocks
On an old trail
All of a summer’s day.

II. cold mountain poems of han shan
        (translated Gary Snyder)
I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don’t get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress.
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone underhead
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.

Spring-water in the green creek is clear
Moonlight on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge-- the spirit is enlightened of itself
Contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness.

Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease--
No more tangled, hung-up mind.
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.

III. FOR THE west
        Ah, that’s America:
the flowery glistening oil blossom
        spreading on water -
it was so tiny, nothing, now it keeps expanding
all those colors,
                                                our world
        opening inside outward toward us,
each part swelling and turning
who would have thought such turning;
as it covers,
        the colors fade.
and the fantastic patterns
        fade.
I see down again through clear water.

        it is the same
ball bounce rhyme the
        little girl was singing,
        all those years.

IV. spel against demons
The release of Demonic Energies in the name of                          
                                                                                        the People
                                                          must cease
Messing with blood sacrifice in the name of
                                                                                        Nature
                                                          must cease
The stifling self-indulgence in anger in the name of                           
                                                                                        Freedom
                                                          must cease
this is death to clarity
death to compassion
the man who has the soul of the wolf
knows the self-restraint
of the wolf
aimless executions and slaughterings
are not the work of wolves and eagles
but the work of hysterical sheep
The Demonic must be devoured!
Self-serving must be
                                                cut down
Anger must be
                                                plowed back
Fearlessness, humor, detachment, is power
Gnowledge is the secret of Transformation!

Down with demonic killers who mouth revolutionary
slogans and muddy the flow of change, may they be
Bound by the Noose, and Instructed by the Diamond
Sword of ACHALA the Immovable, Lord of Wisdom, Lord
of Heat, who is squint-eyed and whose face is terrible
with bare fangs, who wears on his crown a garland of
severed heads, clad in a tiger skin, he who turns
Wrath to Purified Accomplishment,
                whose powers are of lava,
                of magma, of deep rock strata, of gunpowder,
                                        and the Sun.
He who saves torture intelligent demons and filth-eating
                                        hungry ghosts, his spel is,
NAMAH SAMANTAH VAJRANAM CHANDA
        MAHAROSHANA
                                        SPHATAYA HUM TRAKA HAM MAM

V. as for poets
As for poets
The Earth Poets
Who write small poems,
Need help from no man.

The Air Poets
Play out the swiftest gales
And sometimes loll in the eddies.
Poem after poem,
Curling back on the same thrust.

At fifty below
Fuel oil won’t flow
And propane stays in the tank.
Fire Poets
Burn at absolute zero
Fossil love pumped back up.

The first Water Poet
Stayed down six years.
He was covered with seaweed.
The life in his poem
Left millions of tiny
Different tracks
Criss-crossing through the mud.

With the Sun and Moon
In his belly,
The Space Poet
Sleeps.
No end to the sky -
But his poems,
Like wild geese,
Fly off the edge.

A Mind Poet
Stays in the house.
The house is empty
And it has no walls.
The poem
Is seen from all sides,
Everywhere,
At once.

VI. for all
Ah to be alive
                on a mid-September morn
                fording a stream
                barefoot, pants rolled up,
                holding boots, pack on,
                sunshine, ice in the shallows,
                northern rockies.
Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters
stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes
                cold nose dripping
                singing inside
                creek music, heart music,
                smell of sun on gravel.
                I pledge allegiance
I pledge allegiance to the soil
                of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
                one ecosystem
                in diversity
                under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.

landscape  by Karen Clark
The new music on this recording is a meeting of the American Pulitzer poet out of the Pacific NorthWest (Gary Snyder), the 8th century Chinese “beat” poet, Han Shan; and the musical settings of 21st century western composers whose heritages are baroque counterpoint, post-modern atonalism, rock & roll, and jazz. All are performed by a modern voice with early classical string quartet.

In 1994, I recorded Roy Whelden’s song “Like a Passing River” with the American Baroque ensemble in Marin County. The following year I moved from Princeton, New Jersey, to California and was apartment hunting in Berkeley when, I was surprised to run into Roy. He told me he was on his way to hear Gary Snyder read from his new book, No Nature, and, would I like to come along?

Jump ahead to 2007: Whelden, the Galax Quartet, and I performed old (John Dowland) and new music (Whelden’s settings of Snyder poems) on the San Francisco Early Music Society’s series. Although Gary Snyder replied with regrets to my invitation to the concert, I was happy to receive his email. Around this time, the Galax Quartet was pursuing commissions for new works. We asked Fred Frith, W. A. Mathieu, and Robert Morris to compose songs on their favorite Snyder poems for contralto and baroque strings.

Thus began our dream concert! The premieres took place in June 2008, as part of San Francisco’s Old First Concerts and we were fortunate to have each of the composers and the poet there. Gary Snyder gave introductions to both halves of the concert and read “A Berry Feast” in a musical setting by Whelden.

For me, these new songs bring together what used to feel like disparate parts of my life. I am most grateful for a childhood of singing country hymns with my family in South Eastern Kentucky, opera studies at Indiana University with Virginia Zeani and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and my teachers and mentors in early music, Thomas Binkley, and Andrea von Ramm.

Perhaps, somewhere Han Shan is reclining under a blossoming peach tree, giving a nod, and chuckling, “Ah, that’s America!”   

biographies

Karen Clark
Karen Clark's repertory includes the medieval chant of Hildegard von Bingen, chansons of the troubadours and trouvŹres, 19th century German lieder, and new music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her singing has received critical acclaim from the New Yorker, New York Times, Seattle Times, South China Post and San Francisco Chronicle:

“The evening’s most exciting performer was Karen Clark. Ms. Clark’s vocal power and riveting stage presence was an aching, unforgettable display of pathos and musical subtlety.”    - Joshua Kosman

Karen has performed in prestigious festival and concert series such as Berkeley, Boston, Cologne, Hong Kong, New York, Ravinia and Utrecht. She has toured North America with New York Early Music and the Waverly Consort and Europe with Ensemble Sequentia. Career highlights include singing Bach’s B-minor Mass with Joshua Rifkin’s Bach Ensemble in Brixen, New York and Perth, and with the National Chorale in Lincoln Center Avery Fisher Hall. Also, Thomas Binkley’s reconstruction of the Greater Passion Play (Carmina Burana ms.) where Karen sang the role of Maria Mater in Berkeley, Bloomington and New York. Karen has recorded on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Dorian, Erato, Focus, Musica Omnia, and New Albion labels. She has taught at Sonoma State University, and in the Early Music Program at University of Southern California. As guest director, Karen has led the Early Music Collegium at USC and the Chamber Choir at University of California, Berkeley.

Galax Quartet
Since 2005, the Galax Quartet has been commissioning new music, exploring early works, and performing these in unexpected collaborations. The quartet has performed new works (Marc Mellits, Carl Stone, Dan Becker) on concert series in Northern California; played Bach's Art of the Fugue alongside Hubble Telescope images at the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival; recorded film music by Belinda Reynolds for PBS (The New Metropolis); accompanied computer images from virtual worlds with mathematician and sci-fi writer Rudy Rucker.

The Galax Quartet is modeled after an early version of the string quartet —two violins, cello and viola da gamba—developed by the eighteenth century composer and viola da gamba virtuoso, Carl Friedrich Abel.     The baroque instruments' gut strings, lower bridges, and lighter bows lend themselves well to the detailed nuances and coloration required in new music.

Each member of the Galax Quartet is a specialist in the field of early music. David Wilson, violin, is author of Georg Muffat on Performance Practice (Indiana University Press); Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin, is a frequent soloist and concertmaster with San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; cellist David Morris was founder and musical director of the baroque opera ensemble Teatro Bacchino; and composer and gambist Roy Whelden has been called “a key figure in the world of new music." (Early Music America)

The new songs on poems of Gary Snyder have been performed on concert series in San Francisco and Grass Valley. It was satisfying to hear Gary Snyder describe our collaboration with Ms. Clark as "remarkable, dedicated, intense, nutty, delightful.”