Commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Premiered by Yo -Yo Ma and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste
1. The Sorrow of The World
2. The Hell Realm
3. The Hungry Ghost Realm
4. The Animal Realm
5. The Human Realm
6. The God Realm and The Jealous God Realm
Yo-Yo Ma’s silk Road Project involved working with musicians of many different nationalities that were located on the ancient Silk Road between east and west. In my case Yo-Yo asked me to contribute a piece that reflected my long-standing practice of Tibetan Buddhism. My first thought was to compose a piece that reflected principles of Tibetan Buddhism rather than build a piece based on Tibetan folk music or something of that nature.
The six realms described in Buddhism are a highly detailed portrait of our human consciousness. These are the God realm, the jealous God realm, the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm and the hell realm. In some explanations these are actual places, inhabited by beings not seen by the human eye. These two viewpoints need not be seen as one more literal and the other more fanciful, because when a realm is fully manifest within our consciousness, whether it exists as an actual place or not is somewhat irrelevant. Each of the realms is associated with a particular emotion: anger with the hell realm, immense neediness with the hungry ghost realm, jealousy with the jealous God realm, and ignorance with the God realm, but a different kind of ignorance than found in the animal realm, a blissful kind of ignorance and snug self-satisfaction.
In my concerto the portrait of the six realms is initiated and guided by the solo cello. I wanted to give the cello a variety of music, while always emphasizing the lyric quality and melodic line. The piece opens with an introduction called The Sorrow of the World, a lament for the condition we find ourselves in again and again. A high G-sharp in the piccolo and a low E in the contrabasses are the first notes that are sounded. Other instruments that are playing the same notes are added until the entrance of the cello, as if to suggest that everything in the world gives birth within that space and returns to it. The cello enters with an expressive motive. A-flat to G-flat to G-natural, which revolves around itself and gradually expands, climbing in register until the full orchestra plays the motive, further expanded into a long melodic line.
As the conclusion of this section, the cello has a solo, which initiates the portrayal of the Hell Realm. It is reflective at first but soon there is a build-up of angry energy. This provokes a reaction from the orchestra, that is attire "hot" and then abruptly "cold" of frozen, typical of our responses when we are angry. After a final orchestral tutti, the energy of the hell realm slowly dissolves, and the movement ends with the cello playing the opening sorrowful motive, now transformed into a "folksy" tune, as if to say: this was all a dream. I should add that this cello motive, transformed, precedes each of the next movements as a kind of a passport to the next realm.
The Hungry Ghost Realm is predominantly for cello and strings and begins without a pause. The hungry ghost who is unfulfilled, never having enough, always needing more. There is a feeling too of sadness. At the end of this movement the motive appears, again somewhat light and folksy, first the solo horn, then the cello. The Animal Realm opens with a tuba solo. This movement is a scherzo, with a plodding quality, but also with a sense of innocence and exuberance. The music fades away and the solo cello leads us into the human realm. The human realm can be characterized not only by its passion but also a sense of loneliness — a sense of separation from others and which intensifies our longing to communicate and unite with others. I composed this movement principally for solo cello with very little accompaniment.
The God Realm and the Jealous God Realm are combined in the final movement. I have portrayed these realms not in a linear fashion but simultaneously. The jealous Gods who are highly involved with envy try constantly to "enter" the realm of the Gods, who are involved in their self-absorption. The movement opens with a sustained chord — like the Gods, it stubbornly holds its own no matter what else is going on. Underneath, the cello enters in brusque and feisty manner, and begins a long passionate solo. This movement is very directed, like envy itself — the jealous God is very "windy" realm, always blowing in one direction, intent on proclaiming its point of view. Gradually the cello ignites an outburst from the orchestra which responds in a wild and furious way. The movement ends with a recapitulation of the very opening lament - we’ve come a full circle. The piece ends quietly, a return perhaps to a more human realm - there is an openness, reflective of having "seen the nature of these realms," having gone the whole experience.
— Peter Lieberson