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ClassicsOnline Home » BODY, J.: Palaran: Songs of Love and War / Meditations on Michelangelo / Poems of Solitary Delights (New Zealand Symphony, K. Young)
Jack Body is one of New Zealand’s leading composers. His fascination with Asian traditional music has had a profound impact on music which often tells ‘dark stories of repression and unjust political imprisonment’ (New Zealand Listener). Body’s opera Alley tells the extraordinary life of Rewi Alley, whose powerful experiences in China are reflected in these specially orchestrated arias. Palaran: Poems of Love and War draws on the subtleties of Javanese gamelan and traditional vocal styles, while Poems of Solitary Delight gives a musical context to Japanese poet Tachibana Akemi’s light-hearted meditations on solitary pleasures. In contrast My Name is Mok Bhon references Cambodian traditional music to express the trauma and anguish of the Khmer Rouge years.
Jack Body (b. 1944)
Three Arias from ‘Alley’ • My Name is Mok Bhon • Palaran: Poems Of Love And War • Meditations On Michelangelo • Poems of Solitary Delights
Three Arias from ‘Alley’
During my first visit to China, in 1985, I began to consider the extraordinary life of Rewi Alley, a New Zealander who lived sixty years in China, arriving in Shanghai in 1927. I worked with Alley’s biographer Geoff Chapple to assemble a libretto for an opera. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and conducted by Peter Walls, Alley was produced by the Wellington International Arts Festival in 1998, the centenary of Alley’s birth.
The opera opens with the aged Alley slumped in a chair, haunted by memories. The Chinese god of death, Yen Wang, interrogates Alley about his life and work in China, while Alley’s younger self challenges his older self, examining his successes and failures, and questioning his motivations.
In 2010, at the invitation of the NZ Symphony Orchestra, I orchestrated three arias for inclusion in an NZSO concert for the Chinese New Year. The selected arias are those of the young Alley as he reflects on key experiences, the first as being moved by the heroic defiance of a young Communist suspect being dragged away for execution, the second as being inspired by seeing a multitude of workers digging a canal and by the sensuality of a young workman dousing himself with water, and third, hearing in a dream the voices of abandoned and exploited children calling to him.
The texts are drawn from Alley’s own writings.
My Name Is Mok Bhon
I have been haunted by the Cambodian genocide ever since reading Dit Phran’s account of living through the Khmer Rouge years, dramatically portrayed in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. In 1995, at MOMA in New York, I chanced upon a deeply disturbing photographic exhibition of portraits of victims from the infamous Tuol Sleng prison (also known as S-21), where an estimated 14,000 men, women and children were photographed, interrogated, tortured and finally executed as perceived enemies of Pol Pot’s paranoid regime.
In 2007 I visited Cambodia for the first time, where I made daily visits to Tuol Sleng, to sit among the portraits, trying to grasp the enormity of this monstrous history. Mok Bhon is the name of one of these victims, the person who, in my mind, came to represent the many. His face haunted me, his eyes burned into me. At the beginning and end of my work a recorded voice is heard, speaking in Khmer:
‘My name is Mok Bhon…Please remember me…
Remember all of us…’
My Name is Mok Bhon uses transcriptions I made of two types of traditional Cambodian music: a funeral song played by an ensemble comprising gongs, drum, gong-chime circle, sralai oboe, and singer, and a plaintive 3-note melody played on the sneng, an instrument constructed from an animal horn with a reed inserted in its side. The live performance of my work was accompanied by images I shot at Tuol Sleng, assembled as a video by Andrew Brettell.
This work was commissioned for the NZSO by my friend Jack Richards, who requested a dedication also be made to Kong Orn, a friend of Jack’s who was also a victim of the Khmer Rouge purges.
Palaran: Poems of Love and War
Among the many subtleties that can be found in Javanese gamelan music, I have always been struck by the exquisite rhythmic dichotomy between the steady pulse of the main body of instruments and the rhythmically freer layering of singer, suling bamboo flute and rebab fiddle. While generally these ‘refined soloists’ must pace themselves to arrive at the frequent cadence points at the same time as the larger group of instruments, in the palaran style it is the vocal soloist who signals the points of change; the gongs set up a repeated pulse, only moving to the next pitch on the singer’s cue.
The forms of Javanese sung poetry each have emotional and psychological associations, much like Indian rag, or Arabic makam, and offer the singer considerable scope for personal interpretation. Several of the melodies used here blur the distinction between the pelog and slendro modes through the use of expressive ‘bending’ (miring) of certain pitches.
The texts chosen are drawn from tradition, and juxtapose images of love and pity with those of forcefulness and aggression. I am indebted to Budi Putra for the selection of the texts and melodies, and to Yono Soekarno for the translations. The poetry is rich in allusion and word-play, its true meaning often resistant to translation.
Palaran was commissioned in 2004 by the Amsterdam Atlas Ensemble, a chamber ensemble comprising Western, Middle Eastern and Chinese instruments. This orchestration for Western orchestra was made in 2009.
Meditations On Michelangelo, for solo violin and strings
Considered alongside Michelangelo’s masterpieces of painting and sculpture, his poetry adds new, often poignant insights into his character and sensibility, his struggle against the obsessive power of love and desire, and his adoration of male beauty.
Meditations is based on one of my previous compositions, a setting for two female voices of the seven of Michelangelo’s sonnets. Composed in 1982 for dancer/ choreographer Michael Parmenter, this music-theatre work combined dance, music and film.
I still have affection for the music I composed more than thirty years ago, and in this composition of 2007 I rework the material, intensifying its emotional quality, making explicit the harmonies ‘implied’ in the original, and ‘amplifying’ the expressivity of the voice through the rich resonance of strings, in the absence of the actual poems themselves.
The work is in seven movements:
1. Sonnet XXXII
S’un casto amor, s’una pietà superna …
Contemplating ideal love, shared equally.
2. Sonnet LVII
Passa per gli occhi al core in un momento …
Lamenting the obsessive power of carnal passion.
3. Sonnet XXI
D’altrui pietoso e sol di sé spietato …
The poet longs to sacrifice himself to the beauty of his beloved, picturing the silkworm which sheds its skin in order that the body of the beloved may be more beautifully adorned.
4. Sonnet LIV
Veggio nel tuo bel viso, signor mio …
A declaration of love. ‘Though the world may condemn this love, through it I may find God.
5. Sonnet XXVII
Non posso altra figura immaginarmi …
Gripped by passion, the poet sees no escape. ‘By trying to diminish grief, I but double it.’
6. Sonnet XXVI
Se da’ prim’ anni aperto un lento e poco …
Even the heart of an old man falls victim to passion. ‘A small flame consumed and fed on me in my green youth: now the wood is dry, what hope have I against this fire more fierce?’
7. Sonnet LXXVIII
Caro m’è il sonno, e più l’esser di sasso …
Sleep is sweet, but better to be made of stone, … wake me not.
The work was commissioned by Japanese violinist Rieko Suzuki, and is dedicated to her.
Poems of Solitary Delights
This work was composed for performance during the 1985 Cambridge Summer Music School (in New Zealand), to mark the school’s 40th anniversary. It is dedicated to composer Douglas Lilburn (1915–2001), who was the composition tutor during the first two Cambridge schools. 1985 also marked Lilburn’s 70th birthday, and I chose this cycle of poems as being empathetic to his personality, as someone who valued privacy and who found pleasure in solitary activities such as reading and, of course, composing music.
Scored for a small orchestra, the work makes much use of ostinati, and circular melodies shared between instruments. An exotic aspect of the orchestration is the inclusion of an electronic keyboard emulating the sound of a koto (Japanese zither). Originally I intended that the narrator should momentarily burst into song, but in this version a second performer is used. The scoring was revised in 1986 and again in 2003.
The Japanese poems by Tachibana Akemi (1812–1868) are used here in an English translation by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite from The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (used with the permission of the publisher).
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BODY, J.: Palaran: Songs of Love and War / Meditat...