Zen Songs for Hikers!: “Mountain Songs”

Mountain Songs

In 2010 I was asked to write a piece for a concert of the Governor’s Mansion Chamber Music Series in Olympia, Washington, in honor of long-time Olympia resident and Evergreen College music and art professor William (Bill) Winden. Seattle pianist Judith Cohen was the organizer of the concert and asked me and our fellow Evergreen Alumna colleague,  coloratura soprano Cyndia Sieden, to collaborate on this concert that would celebrate the life, music, painting and love of mountains of our former mentor, Professor Winden.

I googled “poems about mountains” (a silly thing to do, but sometimes silly things work!) and came up, quite magically, with a name I remembered well from my years as an Evergreen College student in the mid 1970’s: Cal Kinnear. At that time Cal ran the grooviest bookstore in Olympia, out in the woods near the Evergreen campus. It was stocked with coffee table books of the DaoDe Jing, Alan Ginsberg and Alan Watts, The Greening of America, Future Shock, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (of course!- de rigeur reading in those days!) It was also the place where I rehearsed with my Renaissance music group, arriving there on my ten-speed with four recorders and a “Rackett” in my red REI backpack, my pony tail flapping in the breeze. “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end…”

My google search turned up the fact that Cal, who had been a poet back then but also a bookstore owner and dancer(!), had indeed become a serious poet on the Seattle/Pacific Northwest scene in these intervening years and had published, amongst many others, a superb set of 22 poems called Heart Range that were reflections on a solo multi-day hike he had once taken in Washington’s Olympic Mountains. For me as a fellow backpacker, these were so vivid, so clear, so TRUE that I immediately recognized them as the poems I wanted to set for this concert and tribute to Bill Winden- himself a great hiker and climber.

Another google search revealed Cal’s whereabouts, and a phonecall and a ferry ride from Vashon Island brought Cal and me together for the first time in 30+ years for a chat about the project. Cal had been working for an arts law group for many years in Seattle, helping makers of literary and artistic property protect and benefit from their work, so I knew I wanted to get the permissions stuff just right! Poets seem to be much like classical composers- we definitely want to be credited for our work, and if there is money to be had, we’re happy to receive! But we also know that we make art for the joy of it and because that is who we are and what we naturally do. Most of us are happy to collaborate with each other for a good cause and for the purpose of making more art, and so it was for Cal and me.

Of course, some poets seem less than thrilled with having their carefully crafted art messed around with by a composer- after all the poem is “complete” unto itself, and does not require music to present itself in final finished form! Sometimes adding music to a poem is no more satisfying than adding words to a Tchaikovsky symphony theme… I remember humbly discovering in college that T.S. Eliot’s poems did not need my music! (Imagine that!) But, as I like to suggest to poets, sometimes music can add a context in which new understandings of the words can be found, surprising and interesting even to the poet!

I proposed a set of 3 poems, selected from the full group of 22, that I hoped formed a nice set unto themselves and, in an abbreviated way, reflected the longer journey of the entire collection. Cal agreed instantly, and also agreed to do a reading of these and a few others of the set at the concert, prior to their musical performance. This wonderful idea allowed the audience to hear the words clearly before they were sung, and to hear them the way the poet heard them, in the music of pure language.

My selected set of three suggested a quiet, mystical opening song, a more robust and physical second, and a quiet, reflective third: slow-fast-slow. Overall, the three seemed to emphasize the smallness of a human when in the midst of vast mountainous terrain, and our tendency at such times to wax philosophical- even cosmic. Like the Chinese and Japanese philosophers of Chan and Zen Buddhism, like Americans John Muir or Gary Snyder, we find ourselves musing on the universe and our infinitessimal place in it.

The first song, No. 12 in the full set, begins with the line “Mountain under Heaven,” ( a hexagram from the Chinese Book of Changes) which I used as my title. It is night, and we see the mountain looming above us and beyond that, the stars. A rising series of quiet intervals in the piano evokes our rising gaze, and quiet tinkles evoke stars. The soprano enters and sings her poem, quoting enigmatic but thought-provoking lines from the Book of Changes and Genesis.

The second song, No. 21 in the full set which I titled “Lost Where I Was Lost,” is the full-throated joyous one of the set, beginning immediately with energy and movement. The text suggests that though we can stride through these mountains and gaze over great distances from these heights, we are still unable to fully grasp the vastness of the space or time they represent. We also seem to revel in these moments of feeling “lost” in the universe.

The third song, No. 19, ends with the word “Enough” which I chose as my title. It is short, but extremely vivid in its compression- again, very Zen. It reflects on why we hike to such remote places- not to prove anything to anyone, but simply “for the having been” in these “wholly (holy?!) other places.” I chose to set this with an appropriately simple pattern in the piano- almost a Mozartian alberti bass and a kind of breathless simplicity. It ends quietly, returning us to the place of silent awe where the first song began…


Beginning “Fiery Jade-Cai Yan” An Opera

Today I wrote the first notes of the opera “Fiery Jade-Cai Yan.”

That is the working title provided by librettist Zhang Er, my collaborator on this experiment.

(I should more appropriately say I am Zhang Er’s collaborator as she initiated the project by writing a libretto just for fun, to see how it might be done!) She is an opera fan and wondered how a published Chinese poet could use words, perhaps in two languages, to make a piece that both western and Chinese audiences would respond to. I asked to see it and was very intrigued with the choice of story and the inherent drama that seemed very “operatic.”

We have agreed to work on a single scene as an experiment to see if we agree on the musical language and how well it works on stage. With any luck, we will perform this at Pacific Lutheran University sometime in the next year.

Er is a poet with multiple books of poetry published. She writes in Chinese but collaborates with colleagues to produce bi-lingual editions that are really beautiful. I am a western-trained composer with a 20 year fascination with everything Chinese including Chinese opera and various instrumental traditions.

We both love Chinese history and the many characters who populate it and are the subject of millenia of didactic and poetic tales. Cai Yan is one of these: a talented woman poet and musician of the late Han Dynasty, about 2000 years ago, who lived during one of the many inter-dynastic periods when everything was falling apart and then slowly coming together again. She was the daughter of a prime minister and the wife of another official when war broke out with a northern border culture and she was captured and sent north to marry the “barbarian” prince. She seems to have actually found a complex happiness in that new, nomadic life- so foreign and usually so despised by Chinese culture- raising two sons with an apparently truly loving husband. Nonetheless, when later called back to China by a new regime, she had to obey, leaving behind her family. She represents many women of traditional China, forever at the command of family, duty and nation, yet always retaining her own identity and honor. As Zhang Er points out, there are few operas, western or Chinese, in which the woman survives, thrives, and goes down in history as a loving mother, spouse and patriot. I wouldn’t call the story exactly “happy”- indeed even at the end, where a kind of resolution is found, it is a mixed one- but it is a positive one in which the winds of history and change in troubled times are told through the eyes of a woman in all her universal femine roles.

Zhang Er suggested that some of the “characters” in the opera be represented by a trio of three singers, called the Three Stars, representing the Chinese values Happiness, Wealth and Longevity (we often see statues of these at Chinese restaurants.) This trio will portray those characters who most “embody the mainstream of Chinese values.” They sing various roles: emperors or ministers, the mother-in-law, servants. This provides me a very abstract musical entity who will be a sharp, and thus very interesting contrast to the other, more human characters sung by a single singer. There will also be a chorus of men and women who function as groups of people at various points.

As usual when I set texts, I did a lot of analyzing of Er’s libretto, searching it for its major literary and narrative themes. I’ve come up with quite a rich list: War, Fragility, Confucian Ritual, Buddhist Withdrawal, Children, Settled Chinese vs. Nomadic Culture, Husbands/Fathers/Kings/Princes… All of these can be represented respectively by certain iconic instruments.

I’ve also brought up my usual (and long established) set of western instruments that can emulate the sound of Chinese instruments: pizzicato-glissando cello and harp for the guqin, flute for the xiao, oboe/english horn for the suona, various percussion for Chinese percussion, etc.

I’ve also begun my frequent process of inventing the pitch/harmony world of the piece. I do this by beginning with a pentatonic (five-note) scale- in this case the usual Confucian one but in a mode (E-G-A-C-D)- and then dividing the other 7 pitches of the 12-note scale into two other groups, in this case a 4-note group (Bb-Cb-F-F#) and a 3-note group (Db-Eb-Ab). Each of these produces really interesting and dramatically appropriate motives and themes in and of themselves, and produces others when combined in various ways. By doing this, I constantly force myself into unknown musical territory. I consider it to be a kind of musical chemistry in which I invent elements and compounds and then experiment with them to produce the biology of the piece- the actual musical ideas that the audience will hear.

By including a pure penatatonic scale in my chemistry, I have the opportunity to present it unadulterated whenever I need that naive, beautiful, nostalgic evocation of pure beauty, harmony or peace. But I can also “complicate” it in numerous ways with other pitches from the other two groups of pitches.

I’ve chosen an anticipated set of nine instruments to accompany the singers onstage: string quartet, flute, oboe/english horn, harp and two percussionists. Others may be added if necessary, but I will try to discipline myself to stick to this small ensemble to keep the opera practical both logistically and financially.

So- how does it begin? well, this experimental scene is the second of the opera, following an opening “prelude” scene. So I need to think about what has just preceded this scene as I imagine how it begins. In fact the prelude ends with both impending disaster and the happy news of a baby’s birth (Cai Yan’s in fact!) This second scene begins perhaps 18 years later as Cai Yan is mourning the deaths of her own young and beloved husband, and her father, the Prime Minister. It is also Spring, however, (Zhang Er has provided us some sad irony here!) so the plum blossoms out the window need to be musically present as well as the obvious mood of mourning and familial tension.

I begin with the notes of note group 2 in the strings- particularly F-Bb and Cb- providing the darker side of the mood, and let the harp and flute bring a brighter quality to represent flowers and spring. So far, I have about 30 seconds of music…

But at least I have begun! And to have begun an opera is better than to have thought about beginning an opera!  So- we are launched. More soon.

A Prayer to the Storm Gods


Fashion a Hymn in the Mouth (Audio Recording)

In a book of quotations about music I found at a second hand bookstore years ago, I found the following astonishing line:

Fashion a hymn in the mouth.

Expand like the cloud.

Sing a song of Praise!

All I knew was that it was from the Rig Veda, meaning about 3500 years old, but other than that it was just an strange and enigmatic text- the sort I like to contemplate for a musical setting. I thought about it over a number of years, once planning to use it for a tour of European Cathedrals undertaken by the Pacific Lutheran University Choir of the West. I imagined abstracting the syllables of the text and making them waft and sail through the shadowy arches of vast Gothic ceilings in luminous veils of overlapping chords. But I wrote another piece instead- in fact several times.

When asked to write a piece for a tour to Texas for the choir in January 2012, and to include the viruosic pianistic skills of my new faculty colleague Oksana Ezhokina, I once again returned to this text. But this time I had the internet… I typed the text in and pressed search and… up came an entire website devoted to “Hymns to the Maruts” (storm gods)- one section of hundreds of texts from the Rig Veda. My text was near the end of a longer poem that pleaded with the storm gods to send rain to the parched land, and scolded them for not doing their job. The images were primal and vivid and I knew I had to expand my text to include some of them. As usual, I excerpted and paraphrased the text to make it more mine and ended up with the following:

Where are you going, white clouds?

On what errand  in Heaven and not on earth?

Where are your favors, your blessings, your delights?

Even to the deserts you bring rain that never dries up.

Where are you going, white clouds?


The lightening lows like a cow.

It follows as a mother follows after her young, when the shower has been let loose.

Even by day you create darkness when you swell and drench the earth.


Speak forth for ever with thy voice to praise the Lord of Prayer

Who is like a friend- the bright one.


Fashion a hymn in the mouth.

Expand like the cloud.

Sing a song of Praise!

I returned to the octatonic scale for this piece to produce that exotic but intense flavor I had used thrice before in the previous year. I broke the text up into four sections (as seen above). The first section begins with prepared piano and whispered aleatoric text from the choir- as though both are too parched to play or sing. Gradually pitches emerge and a soft wailing motive in the sopranos interspersed with sparse piano notes. The prayer to the gods intensifies until, in section two, the piano enters with a thunderous cadenza joined by the choir who flatter the gods to inspire them to gather the storm. In increasing frenzy the choir, in section three, return to aleatoric chattering while a soprano and tenor soloist exhort the crowd to pray. Then in section four the opening returns and builds to an ecstatic climax as the choir “expands like the cloud and sings a song of praise.”

Fragments: Three Songs of Hope (Song 3 audio)


The third and final song of the three song set is a setting of a troped Agnus Dei from the European Middle Ages:

Agnus Dei- Lamb of God

Virga tulit florem – the branch bears a flower

Stella maris solem – the star of the sea, a sun.

Agnus Dei, dona nobis pacem- Lamb of God, give us peace.

This final song of the set of three “Fragments” begins with an anguished wail- perhaps the echo of the one in the first song sung as the husband leaves for war. In this wail though, I imagine the woman calling the heavens on the carpet, demanding explanation for the cruelty of the world. Gradually her wail turns to prayer as “Ahh” becomes “Agnus Dei” and she seems to find some sort of temporary solace.


Fragments: Three Songs of Hope (Song 2 audio)


The second song in the set of three, Love, is an excerpt from one of the many anonymous Majnun and Leila love poems of the Arab Caliphate era of the Middle East, perhaps in the 8th century.

How can pain be softened?  Too much loss- I tremble.

Love is a small bird, tied by a child, sipping the lake of death.

The child goes on with his game mindless of the bird’s pain

And the wings that cannot fly.

In this world there are a thousand roads.

But without a heart, where can one go?

I am particularly proud of the last line! This piece seemed to call for almost stasis- paralysis of emotion- near the beginning. The piano holds notes too long for a piano- they decay helplessly. A bit of “arabesque” in the melody is, I hope, not too broad here- it seemed appropriate to allude to the cultural music of the area using the ubiquitous “surna” oboe which is prominent across Central Asia. Each phrase seems to run out of words as though there are none for this circumstance.

See the next post for the final song of the set.

Fragments: Three Songs of Hope (Song 1 Audio)


In 2002 I was asked to write some classical songs for soprano and piano for a CD project with a theme of “Peace” by Seattle area soprano Janeanne Houston. Seems I was the only one to complete my contributions on time however, so the CD never happened. Alas… However, we kept the ideas alive until a few years later when Janeanne asked me to re-write them to include an oboist with whom she was about to do some touring concerts. I complied and the three songs are those recorded here.

I found the texts in 2003 just as American bombs were beginning to fall on Bagdad, and so they have an air of hopelessness searching for hope about them. The first one, “Trouble” is a setting of my paraphrase of an excerpt of an 18th century Vietnamese woman poet’s epic about her husband going off to war.

When the dust of the world blows wild, the lovely ones suffer.

Oh, Lord of the far blue land, for what purpose has this trouble come?

Moonlight trembles to the beat of the drum.

The watch fires reach to the high clouds.

At midnight the Emperor draws his jeweled sword;

A proclamation, and the war is on.

Young hero, you put down your pen and ink

And, appareled in arrows, seize your bright shield.

Your heart has wars to win. You fling your wine cup down

And point your spear at the cave of the tiger.

 I watch your footsteps vanish.  My heart follows like the moon.

You go forth, I return home.  Each of us looks around and is alone.

Lost, amid blue clouds and green mountain.

I enjoy the way the two main motives in this song evoke swirling clouds of dust and military preparations respectively. I also like the way I was able to recapitulate the swirls motive at the end but still retain the sense of utter change brought about by the departure of the young man; there is no way we can really “return” to the opening mood after he departs. In other words, this is an example of a piece that does not return to to its starting place, but rather moves beyond it into a new space. This is tricky to pull off effectively and I like the way this song succeeds.

See the nexts posts for the next two songs of the set.

High Romance in the Horn of Africa: Audio Recording of “You Who Might Be The Moon”

You Who Might Be The Moon

Thirty years ago I came across a book of popular song lyrics from Somalia that struck me as amazingly fresh and intimate, despite their (to me) exotic imagery of lions, tall grass by the sea and tribal elders. I paraphrased them into my own English language poems and set them (perhaps badly) in a now withdrawn choral piece that only saw the light of day briefly during my wedding in the late 1980’s. (It must not have been THAT bad- I’m still happily married!)

A year ago I found these texts again and felt that they deserved to live again and so set them in a new piece with the same title but this time for tenor voice, flute and piano. This is arch romanticism, and no apologies for it a’tall… I’m a card-carrying romantic from the beginning.

For those of you who enjoy theory, the whole piece is built on an octatonic scale- eight notes in the scale in the pattern of alternating whole and half steps. It gives the piece a slightly exotic tonality that you can’t quite put your finger on…

Here are the texts:


Lovely as the lightening in the dawn

I have longed to speak to you.

I have seen you, I have watched you,

I have seen you sitting among the tall grass by the sea.

I long for you as one whose boat in summer winds is blown adrift and lost

longs for land and finds only gray and empty sea.

All your young beauty is to me

Like a place where the young grass sways

After the blessing of the rain

When the sun reveals its light.

My eyes draw me toward your charms

As to a garden at the cliff’s edge.

When you die, all delight will be stilled

By the silence of the earth. So come!

Do not let the voices of the old ones

Drive you from your song.

Until I die, I shall not give up the love song.

Of God, forgive me my weakness.

My heart is single and cannot be divided

And it is fastened on a single hope-

Oh you, who might be the moon…