Let me write today about two possibly useful incidents in this project’s working process. Let’s start with the process of translation or adaptation of 8th century master Chinese poet Li Bai’s words. Long-time readers here will know I rely on English language glosses. Here’s the one I used to start work on today’s piece:
High tower high hundred feet
Hand can pluck stars
Not dare high voice speak
Fear startle heaven on person
Unlike some other glosses I start with, this presents a fairly clear setting: there’s a high tower, from the title, part of a temple. It’s so high and the 8th century sky is so clear at night that one can imagine grasping the stars. The final two lines say there’s a compelling notion to not speak loudly, that heaven might be startled by a loud voice. The first two lines, clear, objective, the last two lines, in that they seem to be reflecting something subjective, open to interpretation.
Here’s an even-tempered and minimal translation into modern English:
This tower is a hundred feet high.
From its top one’s hand can pluck down stars.
I shouldn’t talk in a loud voice,
for I might startle the people in heaven.
I could leave it at that. One might consider the above an accurate translation of a modest thought. One might ask why the concluding fear/shouldn’t statement, and answer that matter by saying the poet is in awe in this high nighttime temple. I later saw at least one published translation that goes this way.
That could be what poet Li Bai was saying, or would say if he was speaking to us in modern English today, but I made another approach. My understanding, limited though it is, is that Li Bai was often not a respecter of conventional piety, and legends include stories of his early life as some kind of free-lance swordsman* and his lifelong habits of drinking and intoxication. Chinese scholars think Li Bai helped bring an individualized mode of expression to classical Chinese poetry and that’s part of what he’s revered for.
Audaciously thinking then that I know those things, I took almost the same English words, and even though classical Chinese writing has no equivalent of the question mark, made the phrases questions — impudent questions at that, aimed as replies to whoever might be hosting a boisterous poet. This is the result of that approach:
Later below I mention my persistence in composing music, despite my limitations. Why not? Am I afraid I’m going to bother the people in heaven?
I like that. I think it’s a better poem in English, though I could be wrong about Li Bai’s attitude. Do not trust me as a Chinese scholar! Furthermore, do not trust fully any translation. Even better scholars than I are making best guesses and practical choices while enclosed in their own mindsets while translating.
For a second chorus, here’s a short tale of how my music for this came to be. I’ve been dissatisfied with my musical efforts as of late. I call myself “a composer” because I don’t think I’m a competent musician most of the time.*** Yet a lot of the things I’ve been presenting lately are mostly to entirely live takes. Of course, instantaneous improvising is composition of a rapid kind. I enjoy that as a listener and player — yet I also didn’t think I was presenting enough music recently that was reflectively devised to my plans, making choices and re-choices before presentation. Even though I felt that, I couldn’t get started with that mode. And this was so, even as this spring I’d sprung for a yearly subscription to a larger set of orchestral virtual instruments. Weeks had passed by, and I hadn’t made use of them.
Would I this week? I kept telling myself: no, you have too many distractions, your energy level is too low, your musical concepts are probably too simple-minded anyway.**** But I willed myself to sit down with them and my MIDI keyboard and guitar and….
Several of the new sample libraries, present on an external hard drive, wouldn’t load. Couldn’t be found. I’d told the software where they resided, but somehow it hadn’t understood. I thrashed about trying to figure this out for nearly an hour (I’m not quick witted) and then finally told them again where the sample libraries, all those gigabytes of notes and articulations of notes, were sitting.
And that worked! By this point I was a bit mad at myself or the software or fate. But mad is energy. Over the next day or so I worked on today’s music as I made myself familiar with some of the new software’s system. Some of that aggression found it’s way into the orchestral swells, and I think it fits well with my portrayal of Li Bai’s belligerence when told to be quiet.
You can hear that example of my composed music, and my adaptation of Li Bai’s words in the recorded performance below using a graphic music player that many will see. Don’t see the player? This highlighted link is an alternative way to play it.
*Obligatory explanation: how Chinese character names are presented in western alphabets is a fraught process. Li Bai has often had his Chinese name presented in the West as Li Po. Same guy, just a different system/approximation.
**Given that early history, I’m tempted to adapt a Charles Mingus phrase about the influential bop saxophonist: “If Charlie Parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats.” The story is that Li Bai was handy with a deadly weapon. If Li came to us out of a time-machine, Western authors of inessential haikus — or chancey translators like me — might want to up their armor class before meeting up with him.
***This is not humble-brag, but a clear-minded evaluation. I’ve never developed a goodly number of useful musician skills, and even those things I can do some days to my reasonable satisfaction escape me on other days. A musician has a baseline and a variety of dependable skills I don’t have.
****I sometimes call what I do with orchestral instruments “Punk Orchestral” in that it asks simple motifs and naïve playing abilities to carry the weight over greater elaboration and musical knowledge. Via that approach, what comes out sometimes sounds to others like that Mid-Century musical movement that was dubbed Minimalism. I was aware of that movement in the 70s and 80s, attending Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and others’ performances and listening to eventual recordings. But I don’t have a theoretical basis for what I do, I just make music with what I can figure out to do, trusting that simple concepts sometimes produce equal effects to more elaborate ones.