Sleeping Muse Study

A Composer's Travel Journal (12)

- Sleeping Muse Study -

A few months ago, Steven Cantor, a pianist living in New York City, commissioned me to write a piece to be included on his program of "Night Music" which he will play in New York on November 10, 2002. As a result, I'm writing a piece entitled "Sleeping Muse Study" which will be the fifth in a series of piano studies I've been doing since 1996.

The title came from Constantin Brancusi's sculpture, "Sleeping Muse", an oval-shaped, asymmetrical, tilted head with closed eyes. I think one can sense, from the sculpture's subtly basic shape, Brancusi's respect for the marble. I'm planning to write two versions of the piece - "Sleeping Muse Study 1" and "Sleeping Muse Study 2". I began work on the first version a couple of weeks before I left for Cholla province and, when I returned to work on the piece after a 4-week-long absence, I couldn't remember what I'd been doing! Now I've been working on it again. The pianist wears a bracelet of dried seed  pods on each wrist and plays quickly moving, subtle lines of music. Horizontal movements will cause the seed pods to make more sounds than vertical movements and a smaller hand will create more movements than a larger hand. These conditions will produce many different possibilities in the piece. The second version of this piece will be done without the seed pod bracelets. I want to write the same piece twice; one with percussive sounds and the other one with only the sounds of the piano. While working on "Sleeping Muse Study", I was reminded of the words of Samuel Beckett in "Krapp's Last Tape”: "Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited ... Perhaps my best years are gone ... But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back."

This is the last of the series of 12 articles I'm writing for the Korea Times San Francisco. It has become a kind of a travel journal of the last 12 weeks, following a composer searching for sounds yet unknown (in the imagination), discovering possible sounds (in the workroom), and hearing the realized sounds (in the world). For some weeks now, I'll be discovering my version of the music in my mind and studio, then I'll fly to hear Steven Cantor's version at the Flea Theatre in NYC. Whenever I can, if they desire it, I try to help the performers with the first performance of a new piece; after that, it has its own life. It's like planting an apple tree without knowing who might eat the fruit, or even if it's taking root in the right orchard.

Besides working on "Sleeping Muse Study", I'm still rereading the 10 volumes of "Spirit Fire" for my 80 minute-long chamber opera project. I'm also making notes for two large orchestra pieces (30 minute-long and 15 minute-long pieces). All these pieces are going to be played for the first time in 2003.

On my daily walks, watching people busily moving about, I sometimes feel very remote from the world in which I live, my mind still vividly full of the music I've been putting down on paper. For a composer, there is no need to divide the world of reality and imagination. However, if a violin player doesn't know the appropriate hand position for a certain combination of notes, it's a problem. If a composer imagined the wrong hand position, it could be the beginning of a search for new sounds, followed by a search for a way to realize the sounds in a practical way.

My initial idea for "Sleeping Muse Study" was to write quiet, peaceful music like the compassionate face of the Buddha. However, now I wonder if I can say that the face of the Buddha is compassionate. Maybe it's an illusion in which I myself am looking for this compassion. A composer needs to follow these initial ideas in many different directions until a piece of music is born. I think of my 1999 piece "The Wind Has No Destination" (for kayageum solo) which has parallels Zbigniew Herbert's poem "A Journey". The poem has seven stanzas, the first of which is:

    If you set out on a journey let it be long

    Wandering that seems to have no aim groping your way blindly

    So you learn the roughness of the earth not only with your eyes

    But by touch

    So you confront the world with your skin

In a traditional setting, a kayageum player, in contrast to other instrumentalists, will re-tune the instrument frequently in the course of the performance, correcting subtle changes of pitch that tend to occur as the bridges shift their position slightly; in this piece the player is asked to refrain from re-tuning during the piece, and also to pluck the strings on both sides of the bridges (the tradition is to pluck only on the right side). Consequently, at the end of the piece, the tuning of the kayageum (which is a very fragile instrument) is quite different from the one it had at the beginning. This seems only natural in the process of making a piece of music and is just the way one lives a life.

In a few more weeks, I'll know more about "Sleeping Muse Study". This journey continues on…

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