For shakuhachi and orchestra
In 1995 I began to compose for the shakuhachi, a five-holed end-blown Japanese bamboo flute originally played by mendicant Buddhist priests. An apparently simple instrument, it’s capable, in the hands of a master performer, of an astonishing range of expression and colour. In the 18th century it flourished under the auspices of the Kinko school, whose legacy is a repertory of profound meditational solos known as honkyoku.
For years people had been observing that the phraseology of some of my more quiescent compositions, especially The Tower of Remoteness (1978) for clarinet and piano, recalls the classical honkyoku pieces. This had happened naturally: I’d come to regard certain of my own works as musical contemplation objects and my source of inspiration was the timeless and mysterious continuum of the natural sound world, especially the insect chorus. And since these works were designed to focus attention inwards and create trance-like stillness, the similarity to the honkyoku was as inevitable as my being drawn to compose for the shakuhachi.
With Riley Lee’s encouragement I composed Raft Song at Sunrise (1995) for Riley to perform at an exhibition of Ross Mellick’s bamboo construction ‘Raft No. 3′ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in January 1996. Later that year Riley made an important contribution to my music for Bruce Beresford’s feature film Paradise Road. Our collaboration has continued over the years with such works as Tyalgum Mantras (1999), in which the shakuhachi is joined by didjeridu and percussion; and Dawn Mantras, my piece for Australia’s new millenium telecast to the world from the sails of the Sydney Opera House, which has solos for shakuhachi as well as saxophone, didjeiridu and child soprano.
Having combined the shakuhachi with voices and other instruments, the logical next step was to compose for shakuhachi and orchestra. The Heart of Night, commissioned by the Melbourne Symphony and Symphony Australia, explores the intuitive “night” mode of consciousness in which linear, or clock time is suspended and listeners are invited to turn their attention inwards in present-centered contemplation. This is not the sort of listening normally associated with western concert halls where symphonic dramas are played out. It’s actually the response you’d expect to the traditional honkyoku pieces which have the effect of relaxing the body while keeping the mind calmly alert. This capacity to still the unquiet mind has been universally recognised through the ages as one of music’s great blessings to humanity, but it’s been neglected in the western world in recent centuries. One cause for optimism in these turbulent times is that we’re beginning to rediscover its importance.
The Heart of Night was first performed in Hamer Hall, Melbourne, on 7 April 2005. The soloist was Riley Lee, to whom the work is dedicated, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Hiroyuki Iwaki.