This is a meditation on the connection between mindful compassion and mystical longing and the title comes from a cabbalistic use of the Hebrew word for ‘this’ that can denote the un-nameable one-ness that surrounds us at each present moment. The texts include an excerpt from The Song of Songs that can be read as a desire for mystical union, a poem by Rumi that is a reflection on compassion and freedom from longing, and the famous six syllable Sanskrit mantra associated with the bodhisattva of compassion. When searching for a way to balance an end for the piece,
the om manipadme hum mantra reminded me that the Dalai Llama has said that one way to sum up his religion of kindness and enlightenment was simply to treat everyone he meets as an old friend. This saying in turn reminded me of a a stanza from a poem by H.N. Bialik that beckons a tired friend to repose and peace and I end the piece with a setting of that poem (in part derived from a previous setting by Moshe Vilensky.)
When thinking of all these things, I kept thinking of prayer wheels and mantras. For some Tibetans, writing a mantra or prayer on a wheel and then spinning it has the meditative effect as saying that mantra as many times as the wheel spins, and this in turn lead me to think of the spinning religious dances native to the Sufi traditions that Rumi is associated with. That lead me towards using about four different very repetitive drone-like mantras. And around those, different dance rhythms and melodies alternately float above and engage in the mantras as a way to express the seemingly paradoxical coupling between a deep yearning and a compassionate lack of desire, between seeking and peace.
This is dedicated to my daughter, Ruby.
Little Bear (in progress)
When I was a child, one of my reading obsessions was Andrew Lang’s series of color Fairytale books. At an early age, I sensed that the stories swirled with primal desires and fears. The monsters and princesses and many characters in the stories resonated with the colors of my world and echoed the fierceness, the togetherness, the honor, the humor, the caustic post-traumatic stress, and the radiant love of my own family.
When I was a little older, I realized that one reason we keep rereading and reframing these stories is that they can bring us back to our own early times when we construct our primal emotional narratives. In bright primary colors fairytales explain things obliquely, offering us templates for our imaginations. Wild young love? Check. Good and Evil? Check. Deep personal bonds? Check. Fear of separation? Check. Enormous physical and emotional danger? Subtle traps? Everywhere.
And now, now my own children keep asking for stories. Made up stories, true stories, stories about previous generations, princes and princesses and happy kitties — there is never enough. My wife is the master story-teller and I love it. And our children revel not just in the wildness of the telling, but also in the connection it fosters between us.
As I look outwards at our wonderfully re-invigorated era of new operas, I notice that there are not very many works being written about or for children and families. Over the past few months, I’ve realized some of the reasons why this is so: it is indeed tricky and delicate bringing the intensely bright world of childhood stories into operatic drama. It is difficult to know what best captures the stark, strong colors and keen craziness of being a child—or a parent for that matter.
I wasn’t sure how to begin. I didn’t want to write just for children, but I also don’t want to avoid musical languages that may evoke a certain childlike aura. Though I have deep respect for the art of Disney fairytales, it didn’t seem quite honest of me to write in anything like that style. And I didn’t want to modernize fairy-tale opera precedents, but I didn’t want to avoid them either. In fact, it has become clear to me only gradually that one of the challenges of writing Little Bear is finding a way around an ever-present, almost-zen paradox of trying not to avoid anything as I write.
So instead focussing on aversions that can too easily paralyze creativity, I have been trying to continually renew a more positive aesthetic. One positive answer I found is the incorporation of flamboyantly non-Western music styles into the actual storytelling portions of the plot. For me these seem to mirror the bright colors of the original stories: The little Red Riding Hood scene presented here uses Middle Eastern drumming, the Rumplestiltskin will use West African bell patterns, and Beauty and the Beast will be centered around repetitive Indonesian cycles. More generally, and perhaps more importantly, another positive answer to the challenge of writing a fairy tale opera has been the pursuit of a strategy which I like to imagine the creators of Bugs Bunny or Spongebob must enjoy: writing for children but being silly on an adult level as well — amusing oneself at the same time. This, I hope, can help me find a voice that effectively echoes both my own and my children’s love of stories.
The word derech in Hebrew means “path” and the prayer along the way, the T’filat ha-Derech, refers to a traditional traveler’s prayer that asks to “cause us to reach our destination in life, joy, and peace”. If a concerto can have a plot, the sense of this piece is that we are always on the way,at every moment, much of the time unrelentingly, sometimes in stillness. Sometimes living in the same repetitive motion over and over again, caught in a flood of whirling echoes. Sometimes distracted, sometimes, if we are fortunate, in happy repose.
The first movement is a dance, alternating between a simple Phrygian tune and more raucous interludes reminiscent of a sort of wild, rickety junk-yard funk. The second movement, posted here, is a meditation on a two-note figure in the ’cello that spins off into the other voices, filling out and becoming wilder and wilder. The ’cello responds in turn to their new ideas, eventually leading them into a tolling, closely repeating chorus before climbing back somewhere up into its original notes.
The final movement is based on a very short piece I wrote several years ago in memory of my mother, a cellist herself. I had become interested in Yemenite music and wrote a brief dance echoing some of the clangorous rhythms I heard in that music. For T’filat ha-Derech, I took that fragment and filled it out, adding a sort of orchestrated reverb as I went, and striving for the same kind of aesthetic that I love in some of the joyously meditative electronic dance music I hear these days. At times the tune disappears and reenters, and when the cadenza is finished, it falls gently into a much slower coda, an attempt at gratitude and resolution, an attempt to portray the hopes of the original prayer.