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Peter Lieberson: The Six Realms

Peter Lieberson’s record label, Bridge Records, has been kind enough to share some of his music with us: an excerpt from The Six Realms, for Cello and Orchestra (2000), one of his later and larger works and a piece that has an explicitly Buddhist programmatic element.

Here is movement 5, performed by cellist Michaela Fukacova, the Odense Symphony Orchestra, and conducted by Justin Brown. The recording is from Bridge 9178, The Music of Peter Lieberson.

The Six Realms:  V. The Human Realm

Program Note:

In addition to silk and other precious goods, the Silk Road helped disseminate Buddhism, one of its earliest, and most valuable, cultural exports. For almost thirty years, Peter Lieberson has been a devout Buddhist, having studied with the great Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist master he met in 1974. Says Lieberson, “Buddhism’s appeal to me in the early 1970s was that it was not a religion in the conventional Western sense. Buddhism did not posit the existence of any external deity or savior or, for that matter, an individual personal ego…The basic message of the great Buddhist masters was: Be brave enough to experience existence without dogma or beliefs of any kind.”

Lieberson left New York City in 1976 for Boulder, Colorado, to absorb the Tibetan master’s wisdom, especially the concepts, experiences, and views of the Shambhala tradition as presented by Trungpa in his book Shambhala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior. “I went to a Buddhist seminary where I studied intensively for three months,” Lieberson has said. “When I started writing music again, my style had changed…There was less sense of struggle…the horizon expanded. It’s as if you had tunnel vision, and then you have panoramic vision. Studying Buddhism also affected my approach to composing [in that] I understand there’s a kind of journey that’s made.” After completing his studies, Lieberson directed Shambhala Training, a meditation and cultural program, for a number of years, both in Boston and in Halifax, all the while building an international reputation as a composer. Observed writer Victoria Roth in 1989: “Since Lieberson’s commitment to Buddhism is intensely personal, it is not reflected in compositions that sound ‘Eastern’.” Lieberson has devoted his time exclusively to composition since 1994. Although his musical language has not changed greatly, most of his works now deal with Buddhist subjects or concepts. It is a philosophy as life-giving for Lieberson as air itself.

At the request of Yo-Yo Ma, who had played in the 1992 premiere of King Gesar, Lieberson conceived a concerto for amplified cello and orchestra, entitled The Six Realms, that outlines a key Buddhist teaching: that differing states of mind and emotions color our view of the world and shape human experience. This philosophy is reflected in the piece’s formal structure (see diagram below); each of the concerto’s six continuous sections represents a different state of being.

The Six Realms is structured as follows:

1. The Sorrow of the World (introduction)
2. The Hell Realm (aggression: acute, self-perpetuating anger at the world and ourselves)
3. The Hungry Ghost Realm (passion: the need to possess or continually consume; we are never satisfied because we can never get enough)
4. The Animal Realm (ignorance: an obsessive need to control or to find security)
5. The Human Realm (passion: the desire for something better, and a lessening of self-absorption, allows for the possibility of our becoming dignified humans who long for liberation from these six realms of existence. It is only from this realm that we are able to move on to achieve Enlightenment: the right way to view, and interact with, the world.)
6. The God Realm (ignorance: blissful self-absorption of our godlike powers, until doubt sets in and shatters our confidence) and The Jealous God Realm (aggression: extreme paranoia and competitive drive; we never trust anyone or their motives)

Put simply, Buddhists believe that humans cycle back and forth, endlessly, through these six states, experiencing the concomitant afflictions that attach themselves to each level. In Lieberson’s Six Realms, the cello soloist acts as emotional protagonist and the orchestra’s “guide” — a cousin to the Romantic concerto’s “hero” — leading all of us from realm to realm until we finally are able to liberate ourselves from this misery-inducing cycle. By simply letting go of the neurotic attachments in our lives, we become fully aware of our self-destructive behavioral and thought patterns, thereby achieving spiritual fulfillment as the realms collapse upon themselves. Counterbalancing this concerto’s Eastern philosophy is Lieberson’s Western, modernist musical language. Although not programmatic, the piece’s subtle use of musical imagery allows the listener without any previous knowledge of Buddhist tenets to grasp its depiction of universal human experiences.