Hojoki (2006)

Dramatic Cantata for Counter Tenor and Orchestra   28 minutes

These days it seems that natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more dramatic.  So it is interesting to read the 800-year-old essay by Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216) called Hojoki (An account of my hut) and learn that, in the span of less than a decade in Kyoto, this mediaeval monk witnessed the devastation caused by a great fire, a mighty whirlwind, the uprooting and relocation of his city, a two-year famine, and finally an earthquake. Not surprisingly, these events caused the writer to reflect on the impermanence of human dwellings.  His own life shows a progressive shedding of living-space, and eventually a retirement from the world to the life of a hermit.  I am glad I first encountered his remarkable essay in Donald Keane’s elegant and lyrical translation.  I have subsequently read other versions, and it would not have occurred to me to set any of them to music.  But Keane’s has an irresistible poetry and depth, which I hope is still discernible in my considerably abridged version. David Daniels suggested that I write him a dramatic cantata based on a real historical character.  I initially considered various eye-witness accounts of historical events – Pepys and Evelyn writing about the Great Fire of London, Pliny the Younger writing about the eruption of Vesuvius, or Seneca on earthquakes – but I wanted a wider range of contrasts than any one of those events would supply.  So I was delighted to discover this wonderful text, with its several disasters, suggesting a series of short narratives with dramatic orchestral interludes. Chomei’s progression through distress, finally attaining a mystical serenity in seclusion, offered a musical shape.  I have not attempted to write something that sounds Japanese, although, in ackNowledgement of the source, I have used Japanese modes – pentatonic at the beginning and The End, minor-sounding in between – and there are occasional echoes of koto and shakuhachi.

Text adapted from Kamo No Chomei in the translation by Donald Keene

Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and by Casa da Música, Porto, Portugal

First performance: 29th September 2006, Lawrence Zazzo (counter tenor), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek, Barbican Centre London.


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