Septet for Shakuhachi, Koto / Shamisen, and String Quartet (2019)
Premiere: 14 April 2019 / Tenri Cultural Institute, New York, NY / Sumie Kaneko, koto / Yoko Reikano Kimura, shamisen / James Nyoraku Shlefer, shakuhachi / Cassatt String Quartet.
Instrumentation: shakuhachi, koto, shamisen / vln1.vln2.vla.vlc
Commissioned by: Kyo-Shin-An Arts
Dedication: "To my family”
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In Greek mythology, the swan was a bird consecrated to Apollo; it represented harmony and beauty. Pliny debunked the idea that the swan was mute –a contemporary field guide describes the actual sounds made by swans as “honking, grunting, and hissing on occasion,” so there’s that. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that “the swan … sings sweetly as it dies, that song ending its life.” “Swan song” has become an idiom referring to a person’s final performance, whether it be plangent, as in Ovid, or valedictory, as in Gibbons’ famous madrigal. Although the mockingbird (which sings only to please and to beguile, not to deceive) is my favorite bird, the swan is a close second.
My septet, Swan Song is twenty minutes long and consists of five movements that share a handful of melodic and rhythmic ideas. I am named after an older brother born with atresia (absence or closure of a natural passage or channel of the body) of the aortic orifice who lived but a few days. I wasn’t really surprised when, 57 years later, my cardiologist informed me that it was congenital, and that I required an operation to replace my aortic valve.
Although I certainly have no intention of dying under the knife or retiring as a composer, I found the title just too intriguing to set aside. I’ve always been inspired to compose music that deals with the emotions surrounding events in my life. This septet, commissioned by Kyo-Shin-An Arts celebrating their tenth anniversary, explores the feelings I’ve been moving through the past month in five movements held together by a web of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas.
The first, Atresia, unfolds in an emotionally cool fashion the sound of the rushing of blood through arteries and veins in the strings, the whooshing sound of the heart as heard through a monitor, and moaning glissandi. For the second movement, Chambers of the Heart, the shamisen, poses a series of questions in a context of gently nostalgic reverie. Kissing the Porcupine was inspired by an article about the complexities of porcupine ownership that spoke to my condition, and raised the question, what kind of music would a hedgehog sing, if it sang. And does it? Anyway, the koto player responds appropriately. Echocardiogram takes the “heart monitor motive” from my opera Amelia in the shamisen and koto and weaves around them the whooshing sounds of blood, and the plaintive thoughts familiar to anyone who has ever been subjected to medical tests. Without pause, Goodbyes begins, further developing the little fragmentary gymnopédie tune heard in the first movement, gradually warming it up into a glowing embrace. Life is good.
Chambers of the Heart
Kissing the Porcupine