|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
One thing that I wanted to create with Vipassana was a composition that was integrated from the first piece to the last. My conception was more symphonic, with cross relationships and development between parts rather than suite-like. In fact Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9 was a structural inspiration, although it didn't work out exactly as I planned. Like Symphony No. 9, my initial thought for Vipassana was to have two large Adagios one at the beginning and one at the end, with two smaller works in the middle. I did end up with two larger movements, although "Of Climbing Heaven and Gazing on the Earth" (the first movement) happily did not want to become an Adagio. Also unlike the Mahler, my original intent was to link the individual works with small "transitions" featuring the different instrumental sections of the ensemble. But as I was writing the pieces that idea didn't seem to be what the whole needed or was saying either, although a vestige of this idea can still be found in the opening soli string sextet of last movement, "The Nothingness that is the Source of Everything".
Each of the individual movements of Vipassana can stand on their own, but it is in the totality of the four parts together that more richness of details and commonality become apparent. One of these details is the relationship Vipassana has to two compositions by other composers I admire: New World by Björk and "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" by Gustav Mahler. Here's how I described the development of "The Nothingness that is the Source of Everything" in the program notes at the premiere:
The last movement was the longest on my mind and the last I decided to tackle. Originally I entitled this movement, "Ich bin der neuen Welt abhanden gekommen" (“I am lost to the new world”). This was to reflect the dual inspirations of the piece: Gustav Mahler’s beautiful orchestral song "Ich bin der neuen Welt abhanden gekommen" (“I am lost to the world”) from Rückertlieder (1899-1903) and Björk Guðmundsdóttir’s haunting "New World" from Lars von Trier’s movie Dancer in the Dark (2000). I had Selmasongs (the title of the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack) long before I saw the movie. However, it wasn’t until after watching the movie on DVD, that I was really moved to arrange the final haunting song of the movie, sung by Selma (Björk) as she is waiting to be executed for a crime she didn’t commit. I transcribed "New World" with the hopes of arranging it for Numinous but over time I could not complete it to my satisfaction. Working on the arrangement intermittently for a year, it wasn’t until in the middle of a casual conversation with one of my musicians about the status of my 'arrangement', I suddenly thought of combining material from "New World" with "Ich bin der neuen Welt abhanden gekommen". Not in an arrangement per se, but by using those pieces as source material to inspire a newly composed piece. Now, this final movement of Vipassana began to take shape, at least in my mind.
You might wonder why I would have thought that Björk and Mahler would have anything to do with each other? I know that they do kind of make strange musical bedfellows but it's interesting how the unconscious mind can see connections or other qualities that we might otherwise miss or not notice. It really was a 'moment' when the solution appeared to me seemly out of no where, when seconds before there was nothing to see. Thinking about it after the fact, the connections between the Mahler and Björk pieces seem obvious, at least on the surface. Here's the melody for "New World":
And here is the Mahler:
Both pieces share a few things: I didn't include the key signatures but both are in Eb, both share an octave range (from Bb3 to Bb4), and both have a similar melodic contour. How I used these two pieces as source material is by often utilizing, subverting, or refracting the intervallic relationships in the melodies. Sometimes this intervallic manipulation affected how I moved between harmonies, but more often than not, the subtle influence of the two pieces on what I created was more melodic. And while all of the melodic material is original in the four parts of Vipassana (except for one almost literal quote from Mahler), there is really only one place where the relationship between Mahler and Björk is in the foreground.
This comes at the very end of "The Nothingness that is the Source of Everything" where a sort of Björk "New World"-like melody (played by a solo oboe, second line) is pitted in counterpoint against the sort of Mahler "abhanden gekommen"-like melody (played by a solo English Horn, top line):
One could look at this proxy battle between Mahler and Björk as a choice between the hope of a 'new world' versus the despair of being 'lost' in the old one. In the end not only does hope and Björk 'win out', but the English Horn melody, which was playing the sort of Mahler, is transformed to the hope of the 'new world' and the sort of Björk. Now this kind of extra musical existential crisis was not what I had in mind as I was writing the piece. All I knew is I wanted the melodies to play against each other and I did not think about "fate knocking at the door" or anything like that. My analysis came when after performing the piece and thinking about it, I realized that one could 'interpret' the end in that way.
Whether that interpretation is true or not for you is beside the point really. I love the six-part Leonard Bernstein Harvard University Norton Lectures from the early 1970's and in the last talk he postulates that Mahler's 9th Symphony (one of my all-time favorite works) is a harbinger of the horrors of the 20th century: world wars, genocide, poverty. Yet somehow Mahler, despite ultimately speaking to the hope for mankind, foreshadowed all of the terrors to come in his music. In a very quietly intense and gripping description of the symphony, Bernstein, with melodramatic earnestness heighten by a slowly tightening camera close-up which was common at the time (I think of some of the 'serious' TV shows such as All in the Family which used the device to emotional effect), is so compelling you COULD believe that is what the 9th Symphony is and what Mahler had in mind. But was Mahler really some kind of Nostradamus, seeing the future and trying to impart Cassandra-like warnings in his music? Doubtful. But the Mahler is nonetheless very moving, beautiful and hopeful in the end, extra-musical prophecies or no. And I wish at the end of Vipassana you are also similarly stirred and moved and hopeful.
Check back soon for more insider info about Vipassana!
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 5:19 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.