Drum of the Deathless
Ritual for 5 Pecussionists
Other versions available for octet, quartet and duo
YEAR OF REVISION: 2017
ORCHESTRATION: Percussion Quintet
COMMISSIONED BY: Korean Music Project
DEDICATION: Unsuk Chin
PREMIERE DATE: June 25, 2016
“I beat the drum of the deathless in a world gone blind.” These lines were spoken soon after his Enlightenment, as he went forth into the world to look for students to teach them the meditational technique leading to Enlightenment.
The work had its premiere in Gwangju in 2016, at the enormous new Asian Cultural Centre. It now exists in three versions:
- Original Percussion Quartet
- Percussion Quintet
- Percussion Duo
When I visited Korea in a remarkable exploratory visit organised by Korean Music Project, I met a scholar and composer Ms Hyejin Yoon. Her lead question was: “What is the most important conception when you’re composing?” Perhaps it is worth quoting what I said to her, as it lies at the heart of this work:
“For me the most important thing is to consider what the music is about, from where it is coming, that what I am trying to say or express or feel is rather more than just the notes . . . it must come from something that is deeper than my emotions . . . something ritualistic, drawing on the relationship between the cosmos, nature and humanity. That is quite important to me, and that the music has a sense of magic, the sense of something extraordinary . . . it is always a journey from the ordinary to the extraordinary.”
This work for percussion ensemble was inspired by the ritual early-morning drumming of a Korean monastic drummer. It takes its cue from the famous lines uttered by the Buddha:
“I beat the drum of the deathless in a world gone blind.” These lines were spoken soon after his Enlightenment, as the Buddha went forth into the world to look for disciples to impart to them the practice leading to Enlightenment.
In February 2015, I was invited to visit South Korea in a project devised by Korean Music Project, and curated by the distinguished Korean composer 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 music and instruments. One of the most memorable highlights of this visit was a 24-hour stay at a Korean Buddhist monastery, and this proved to be a high point of my visit to Korea. The beauty of my experience at this traditional, working monastery with its exquisite buildings and wood-carved sculptures will remain forever etched in my memory.
The wake-up call in the morning was at 3 am and at 3.30 am visitors had to proceed to the early morning ceremony in the Buddhist cathedral, located on the higher slopes of the mountain. On our way we passed the gigantic, open-air drum that was being ritually sounded in a vigorous rhythm by a monk with two wooden beaters. The robust sound of this enormous instrument resonating in the clear early morning air of the mountain is one of my most cherished musical memories ever, and directly inspired the sound-world of this piece.
The strident morning call to meditation is the guiding impetus of this work. Its use of metal instruments especially symbolizes the breaking of patterns of mental illusion, and therefore serves a ritualistic purpose. Drum of the Deathless was originally commissioned for percussion quartet, but now exists in two further manifestations: a quintet and a compact duo version. The quintet revision is a significant expansion of the original, and features more extensive tala recitation in one of the movements by all the five percussionists – using typical tabla sounds chanted dramatically by traditional tabla players in India. At cadential moments, rhythmic gestures are repeated three times in increasing intensity, in the manner of the classical “Tihai”. The work is structurally organised around idiosyncratic tala patters I created for the ensemble, though there are occasional hints of Teen Tala, a 16-beat pattern common in classical Indian music.
I am grateful for the many insightful suggestions made by Professor Michael Rosen as I was composing the work, and during the creation of the revised and expanded version. It is thrilling that he is conducting the second ever performance of the work, and the world premiere of the Quintet rendition with five outstanding young percussionists from Oberlin Conservatory.
The work is dedicated to Unsuk Chin.
10 April 2017, London