Lament Amid Silence

Solo viola, consort of six violas, piano

54 minutes


Lament  . . .

Amid  . . .


Lament is universal–we find it everywhere—all that lives dies–all that is, changes—what we love, we will lose.

Silence is also universal—encompassing everything—when all is gone, silence remains.

Amid lament, there is silence; within silence, there is lament.

Within silence, there is much more than lament: there is joy, there is peace, there is love.  But they all change, as does lament.

Lament Amid Silence is one work consisting of a compilation of two separate works from very different periods of my life:  Four Meditations from Dogen for piano (1993), and The Lament Cycle for seven violas (2006-2007).

The piano pieces originated in 1987 as music for the video, Mountains and Rivers, based on the Mountains and Rivers Sutra of Dogen Zenji, the great 13th century teacher who introduced Soto Zen to Japan. The videography is by my first Zen teacher, John Daido Loori Roshi, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, who asked me to write music for the video. I did this in collaboration with Daniel Palkowski, who created the electronic elements, while I wrote for keyboard and two sopranos.  In 1993, I transformed some of this music into Four Meditations from Dogen, a set of concert-pieces for piano.

The Lament Cycle is an inter-related group of three works inspired by the wonderful playing of Professor Helen Callus and her studio at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The cycle consists of Lament for solo viola, Ghosts for six violas, and Lament with Ghosts for solo viola accompanied by a consort of six violas. In the last of the three works, the solo Lament and the ensemble Ghosts are played simultaneously, creating a concerto for viola accompanied by a consort of six violas.  What has been termed modular composition is used here to provide a cycle of works featuring a master teacher and her studio.   In my mind, this method is simply an extreme extension of the ideal of creating works in which every facet is “interwoven and complete”, able to stand on its own. This method is associated with the work of John Cage, and all these works feature extensive use of silence, making the modular technique possible on a large scale. Ghosts is the most radical of these works in its use of silence, since it is designed to serve also as an accompaniment for a concerto-like work including extended passages for the solo viola alone. Precisely because these works share so much of the same material, they are not designed to be heard in immediate succession.  It is possible to include them as parts of one larger cycle only because of their juxtaposition with two drastically contrasted works, the third and first pieces of the piano cycle, Four Meditations from Dogen.  These five works, together, do indeed form one large piece in two parts: the first three sections–Lament, Meditation from Dogen #3, and Ghosts–form the first part; and the last two sections—Meditation from Dogen #1 and Lament with Ghosts–form the second part.

As the title implies, The Lament Cycle is an expression of passionate, even operatic grief.  Anguished writing featuring expressive quartertone trills and glissandi is set off by melodic sections of the utmost simplicity.  Especially at the beginning and end, vast stretches of silence encompass the anguish: the works all begin with a scream that emerges from silence, and at the end the quiet, fragmentary phrases simply die away.  The ensemble in Ghosts represents fragments of feeling and action that have both led up to and reflect the anguish of the entire cycle.  About a third of the way though Ghosts, a series of spectral descending scale-fragments appear surrounded by long silences.  In the solo work and the concerto, this section features a simple spiritual starting in the lowest range of the viola, the first of two very simple, tonal melodies that provide the main contrast in these works.  In Ghosts, the melody itself is never heard at all, the most extreme example of the kind of techniques that result in each piece being a clearly distinct statement of its own. In Lament with Ghosts, the melody is interrupted and disturbed by the descending passages in the ensemble; only in Lament is the melody stated simply, by itself.  The second solo melody, about two thirds of the way through Lament, becomes an expressive chorale in both of the other works, in Ghosts, a chorale without the chorale melody itself. The ensemble fades away long before the soloist: both Lament and Lament with Ghosts end with the solo viola’s quiet pizzicati fading back into the all-encompassing silence.

The video that inspired the Four Meditations from Dogen features beautiful footage of the Catskill Mountains near Zen Mountain Monastery, as the landscape changes through the seasons.  Originally, the first Meditation accompanied images of early spring, and the third piece illustrated peaceful views of a pond on a quiet summer day.   In Lament Amid Silence, the third and first pieces are played in that order. Each of these two pieces is inscribed with a passage from Dogen: in the third piece,

water is nothing but the real form of water just as it is  . . .

And in the first piece,

to be “in the mountains” is a flower opening within the world  . . .

Daido Roshi explained to me that water is used by Dogen to denote what I am here calling silence: that un-nameable thing that encompasses everything, the absolute or unconditioned nature of things.  All you can say about water is that it, in itself, is nothing but the real form of water just as it is  . . .The mountains refer to our everyday world, full of lament and joy, love and hate, war and peace, everything marked by change and therefore some degree of sadness.  For Dogen, realizing the inseparability, even the identity of the “mountains” and “waters” transforms our experience of the world so that we are truly “in the mountains”  . . .  in the world of lament, joy, hate, love, war, and peace, experiencing them completely with nothing left over; and so we can be a flower opening within the world  . . .

The Lament Cycle was written for and is dedicated to Helen Callus and her wonderful students at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Four Meditations from Dogen is dedicated to my mother, the late pianist Mollie Kanowitz.