|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
The photos that grace the front and back of the Vipassana CD, I took on my trip to Malaysia a few years ago. What does a photo of trees have to do with Vipassana and "seeing things as they are"? Well, nature was always in my mind and served as one of the inspirations as I was composing the pieces. If you come to a Vipassana performance and open my conducting score (preferably AFTER the concert), along with my various cue markings and missives to myself ("Don't slow here", "Give a big downbeat", "building throughout") you'd find various photos of nature heading each movement. Only one of the photos (a beautiful picture of scarlet ibis taken by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, which I'll talk about in more detail in a later post about the first movement) had any direct influence in the inspiration of any composition. Rather those photos in my score just remind me of the feeling I'm looking for my pieces to evoke. Of course, that feeling is difficult to describe in words. What does seeing flying birds (or a picture of them) feel like to me? What does a lovely periwinkle and rose colored sunset sky mean to me? Trying to answer questions like those is one reason why I named my group Numinous: to create music that hopes to resonate with that indescribable numinous feeling one might get looking at a landscape or the night sky or a tree or a sleeping puppy or from many other experiences. And whether you feel the same things I feel when I hear the music is not necessary or even hoped for. What I wish is that you'll hear something that does connect you to the music.
My trip to Malaysia was a surprising wealth of inspiration with two compositions directly coming from it: Rihla and Kelip-Kelip, as well as more unmined ideas still floating around my mind. More details of the trip are in the notes to Rihla. Well, Vipassana was already about three years old by the time we took the trip. Actually the trip occurred a few weeks before the Vipassana studio sessions, so a perfect break to clear my head before having to jumping into the enjoyable abyss of recording. One of the days in Malaysia we visited a national park and walking around we came across monkeys darting about in the trees and very interesting birds and fauna all around. Along our walk, almost by accident, we came across this dry marsh filled with a stand of trees. I think I was attracted to the almost starkness of the scene because it seemed a bit odd that there were many dead trees surrounded by many leaf bearing ones and I took two photos of the forest from two slightly different perspectives.
So when it was time to start thinking about a cover design for the Vipassana CD, I immediately thought of the Yann-Arthus Bertrand photo I mentioned before. While it is a beautiful photo and had a direct inspiration to the creation to some of the music, I didn't want to go through the hassle (and expense) of trying to get rights for the photo. Also, since the photo represented only one part of the whole, I didn't feel strongly enough to pursue the idea of using the picture. So my thoughts came to the photos I took in Malaysia. Looking at the photo I used for the cover, one is struck with the dead tree stand prominent in the foreground and the lush green fields lower and in the background. I thought of the idiomatic phrase "seeing the forest for the trees" and how generally it reflects NOT seeing things as they are. If one looks at the photo and sees just some dead trees, you are missing the beauty of the whole and how there is much life on and going on around those dead trees. To me they represent an aspect of the connectivity of all things and seemed quite appropriate for Vipassana.
Check back soon for more insider tidbits about Vipassana though you'll have to come on the 28th to see the full monty for yourself.
Numinous performs Vipassana
Wednesday October 28, 2009 8 PM (one set only)
227 4th Avenue
Take the M, R Train to Union Street
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 10:08 AM
Leading up to my concert of Vipassana on October 28, over the next couple of weeks in regular posts, I thought I would share various details and inside information about my composition Vipassana.
vi-pas-sa-na, the primary accent is on the pas, the secondary accent is on the last syllable na, which has an ‘ah’ sound.
What Vipassana means
The word vipassana comes from the Pali language of early Buddhist texts. It means "to see things as they really are" but is often translated as "insight" or "clear-seeing." The type of seeing denoted by vipassana is that of direct perception or observation, as opposed to knowledge derived from reasoning or argument. Today, vipassana is a type of meditation that seeks spiritual clarity and insight through silence. While I have yet to do the vipassana retreat workshop, someday I do hope to find 10 days to try it.
How I came to know Vipassana
Originally I had no idea how to pronounce the word; I was saying vi-pa-ssana, with the sanasounding like sauna. It wasn't until we had performed the piece for the third time when an audience member came up to me and said that he enjoyed the piece and had actually done the vipassana retreat. At that moment, I realized that I had been saying the word wrong for a couple of years! Well before that moment, my first run in with the word was through an article in the May 8-15, 2003 Time Out New York. In the Chill Out section, the article The Silent Treatment by Jennifer Romolini caught my attention (it was taped above my piano for many years, as you can see from the photo). I was in the process of finishing the composing of the music and was searching for the right name for my baby. I needed just the right word(s) to convey the spirit of what the music is. Always a challenge, but one I love, I had a number of viable choices (of which I'm keeping to myself, unlike George in that Seinfeld episode) but the word vipassana seemed the most fitting, although it took a while to realize it for myself.
Check back soon for more tidbits about Vipassana! Just saw Julie and Julia last week and like one of those beautiful French meals or wines that Julia Child loved, Vipassana is best experienced and appreciated with your own palette so come out and have a tasting for yourself.
Numinous performs Vipassana
Wednesday October 28, 2009 8 PM (one set only)
227 4th Avenue
Take the M, R Train to Union Street
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:05 PM
It has been 8 years since the events of September 11, 2001 and recently I've been thinking about John Adams's, and subsequently my own, musical response to that day. John Adams in an interview originally posted on the New York Philharmonic website, talks about his trepidations when asked to write a work, "On the Transmigration of Souls", to have been performed almost exactly one year after the attacks of 9/11:
"I didn’t require any time at all to decide whether or not to do it. I knew immediately that I very much wanted to do this piece–in fact I needed to do it. Even though I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of a shape the music would take, I knew that the labor and the immersion that would be required of me would help answer questions and uncertainties with my own feelings about the event. I was probably no different from most Americans in not knowing how to cope with the enormous complexities suddenly thrust upon us. Being given the opportunity to make a work of art that would speak directly to people’s emotions allowed me not only to come to grips personally with all that had happened, but also gave me a chance to give something to others."
I started the composer group Pulse in May 2004 with an initial meeting of six other like-minded composers. From this initial fellowship gathering, all through that summer and fall, we worked on organizing our premiere performance to be that December. For that first performance, I knew I wanted my piece to be based on 9/11, but was unsure of what direction to take. Like John Adams stated, it felt too big and too raw an event to process my feelings enough in order to create something decent let alone meaningful. After a few sketches and false starts, which looking back now, tried to do and say too much, I decided that the best way for me to approach the composition was to reflect on my own experiences that day. To create something with simple and direct expression that did not tackle 9/11 directly, but tangentially; something not exactly programmatic but still able to convey the story of an unexpected pulchritudinous moment that day.
I was in Brooklyn at the time of the attacks, substitute teaching a high school math class at the Brooklyn International School, in a building next to and overlooking the Manhattan Bridge. I first noticed something was wrong when I casually looked out the window to see the usual bustling rush-hour car traffic flowing over the bridge was non-existent. Someone eventually came to the classroom I was in and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Many of the students became visibly upset. I looked out the window again and where just a few minutes before no one or thing was coming over the bridge, now the bridge was beginning to fill with people streaming from Manhattan eastward across the roadway. The first tower had fallen before I had a chance, during my prep period, to run out onto the bridge toward Manhattan (just before the police stopped anyone from traveling westward) to see what was happening for myself. I reached the center of the bridge and could see the top of the second tower in flames. Less than a minute later the second tower, hauntingly silent and seemly in slow motion, imploded upon itself with audible gasps and cries of horror from the crowd which turned to look.
After retuning to the school, you can imagine that it was difficult to focus for the remainder of the school day. With people passing in front of the school, it was a constant reminder of the enormity of that morning's events. The fear and confusion was particularly palatable in the students. As the news coverage slowly uncovered the terrorist plot, this being a high school of all recent immigrants (many of whom were Muslim and wore Islamic veils and scarfs), it was hard not to control my own fears of what would happened to the students when school let out and they would have to pass through the crowd on their way to the subway. Despite the police presence, would they be blamed and suffer verbal or physical abuse from the understandably bewildered and upset crowd coming over the bridge? At the end of the day, many of the teachers, myself included, decided to walk with some of the students to the subway to make sure they were ok leaving the school.
Later in the early evening with two other friends, I was on a townhouse roof in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn surveying the entire lower Manhattan cityscape. I watched as a distant flickering mass seemed to be coming closer toward us from the World Trade Center site. At first it looked like a swarm of white butterflies, glittering in the evening sun, but as it got closer we realized that it was paper rising with the heat from the site and floating toward us from lower Manhattan. An immensely beautiful and ethereal sight, none of us spoke as the swarm came directly over us with some of the many pages from law books and computer printouts fluttering above and some landing all around the roof. We watched as the swarm passed over us and quietly continued farther into Brooklyn. No more than five minutes, this small and ephemeral moment, still resonated with me all those years and when I was ready, found outlet in my composition. Inspired by a short poem by Li Po, I wrote the text for my piece:
High in September's winds
Drifting white butterflies
Passing silently by
With a shadow of autumn in their eyes
we may never know
© Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
"The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness" premiered at the inaugural concert of Pulse on December 1, 2004 and you can hear it here. The performance featured Amy Cervini (vocals), Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Jody Redhage (violoncello), Diana Herold (vibraphone), with me conducting. It was one of those moving performances where everyone in the audience and the musicians (including myself) were wrapped inside an all-encompassing bubble of the moment. After the piece ended and we were changing over to the next composer, Jody remarked "Did you feel that?" and indeed, the air seemed charged with something tangible and indescribable during and just after the performance (I realized had goosebumps during the end of the piece as the vibraphone and guitar drifted into their final nothingness). There was something magical and real about the performance with the events of 9/11 only three years removed and still so close to people's emotions. It still remains one of my most special musical memories so far in New York.
(photo by Marcy Begian at Pulse concert December 1, 2004)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:46 AM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.