This collection, named Grass for a Pillow, takes five of Bashō’s well and lesser known poems and sets them to music for mixed choir a cappella. Each piece expresses some of the many possible meanings a haiku can offer, while trying to imagine the different feeling they might provoke to various listeners and readers. Simultaneously, it’s also a very personal musical rendition. This is the order of the pieces:
I. furu ike ya (an old pond / 古池や) [1’45’’] II. kare eda ni (on a withered branch / 枯れ枝に) [2’25’’] III. natsugusa ya (the summer grass / 夏草や) [4’30’’] IV. kono michi ya (this road / この道や) [2’00’’] V. ara umi ya (the rough sea / 荒海や) [2’25’’]
The haiku are set in an order in which I expect that the uniqueness of each piece can be most optimally. In addition, haiku I and V are water-themed, II and IV autumn-themed and III is the centrepiece to reflect on previous songs and look forward to the next ones. Performing the entire collection will last approximately 14 minutes.
Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) is a legendary Japanese poet who adored moon viewing. The so-called tsukimi is an ancient festival in honour of the autumn moon. This could be done at parties where dumplings (dango’s) were eaten and naturally also the moon was observed, preferably via a rippleless surface of a lake. The tsukimi is still a very popular tradition. Sometimes, the moon is not visible because of clouds or rain. Bashō wrote a poem (specifically, haiku) about it:
kumo wori wori 雲をりをり hito wo yasumuru 人を休むる tsukimi kana 月見哉
Which could be translated as:
clouds now and then a moon viewing giving me rest
The interpretation could be more profound than it initially seems, especially from Bashō’s point of view: Bashō, fascinated with moon viewing, is constantly with his head ‘in the clouds’. Due to clouds sometimes appearing before the moon, it is possible for him to return to himself. Otherwise, he could forget himself entirely.
The piece Clouds, Now and Then is written for soprano, violin and piano and is inspired by the haiku above. The soprano recites the Japanese haiku in a melismatic way, accompanied by a sterile but colourful line played by the violin. It almost sounds like tangible moonlight. After each singing moment, the violin reacts in a virtuosic and calligraphical way. The piano connects to the poetic whole by growing several types of musical clouds. How will the moon viewing continue?
Written for organ and soprano. Commissioned for Ruud Huijbregts.
Bright Lights is inspired by the story of St. Catherine of Alexandria, who as chaste and devoted young Christian woman was persecuted and put to death under the reign of Roman emperor Maxentius (306-312). She was exposed to numerous horrors, including imprisonment, starvation and torture. Remarkably, when sentenced to death by a spiked breaking wheel, the awful device shattered upon her touch. As last resort, she was to be beheaded. Upon execution, a milk-like substance flowed from her neck. St. Catherine is remember as a martyr ever since.
Sharp contrasts characterize Bright Lights. Transitoriness is put against the everlasting, conflict against peace, grief against joy. The incredible main organ of the St. Cathirine church is the perfect medium to express all these extremities to the fullest. After a quiet, heavenly and innocent start, conflict kicks in. Constantly interrupted by mourning but hopeful episodes, Catherine witnesses the various horrors. After her decapitation, a bright musical light appears, whereafter the music calms down, as if starting from the beginning again. A voice from high and far appears, bringing a short but glorious message about Catherine. The apotheosis is completed.