Drum of the Deathless (2016) 16'

Ritual for 4 Pecussionists

Orchestration: Percussion Quartet

Commissioned by: Korean Music Project

Dedicated to: Unsuk Chin

First performance: 25 June 2016

In February, I was invited to visit South Korea in a project devised by Korean Music Project, and guided by Unsuk Chin. The purpose of this visit was to make acquaintance with Korea's rich and diverse musical culture. There was a special emphasis on Percussion instruments as well as Pansori operatic styles. I was generously taken to several institutions of Korean culture and visited many cities on the 10 day trip. I came away filled with rich experiences, large amounts of audio and video recorded material and wonderful memories.

One of my most memorable visits was a 24-hour stay at a Korean Buddhist monastery. On the morning of 8th of February, I moved with my guide and translator Eunsi Cho to the mountainous region of Gurye via Suncheon, in order to stay at a Buddhist monastery. I would say that it was here that I experienced the high point  on my visit to Korea. The beauty of this traditional, working monastery with its truly exquisite buildings and sculptures made of wood will be etched in my memory for always. I had to submit myself to a very strict regime for 24 hours, starting with a lesson in temple manners and the use of the temple uniform that I had to wear over my woolen suit. I was taught the correct etiquette to greet a monk and how to conduct myself during mealtimes when all conversation was forbidden. I was given a bare monastic cell with no furniture (but fortunately with underfloor heating), so that I could have an experience of extreme simplicity and austerity.

The wake-up call in the morning was at 3 am and at 3.30 am we had to proceed to the early morning ceremony in the Buddhist cathedral located on a higher slope of the mountain. The temperature was minus 10 degrees centigrade! I was definitely not prepared for this in terms of clothing, and unsurprisingly I began to get quite ill. My extreme discomfort was tempered by the sheer beauty of the surroundings. On the way to the cathedral we passed the gigantic, open-air drum which was being ritually sounded in a vigorous rhythm by a monk with two wooden beaters. The robust rhythm of this gigantic instrument resonating in the clear early morning air of the mountain is one of my most cherished musical memories ever. 

We then proceeded to the cathedral itself, climbing up a steep bank of steps to enter through its tall and gigantic doors. Inside was a sacred interior unlike anything I have ever seen before. I can truly say that it was the most remarkable religious space I have ever encountered in my life. There were several monks assembled there in meditation and fortunately since I am trained in vipassana (mindfulness) meditation I was able to experience this place as a meditative space, watched over by the most stupendous sculptural representations of the Buddha and his principle disciples.