being the pine tree (2007)

13 min.

The title is paraphrased from a quote by the poet Bashō, “When you depict a pine tree, you must become the pine tree,” referring to the Zen concept of non-duality between object and observer, or the dissolution of the self into the wider continuum of creation. Bashō’s point was that a painting of a tree must not be a faithful graphic representation of it, but rather a timeless distillation of the being of that tree in its surroundings, independent of any pre-existing concept of “tree”. Simply put, to paint a thing must be to know it, and to know is to be. Thus, an artistic presentation of a thing becomes a devotional act, like meditation. Applying this to an instrument was a logical extension of the idea for me as a musician: to try to portray the instrument’s “truth” through the process of composition, to know it on an essential level, to in fact become it. The accordion was an especially attractive vehicle, with its implicit physical connection to breathing, the most basic ritual act in meditation, as well as its sonic resemblance to the Japanese sho, a mouth organ played in gagaku music whose characteristic sound became the starting point for the piece. The form and duration of the piece are largely dictated by the instrument itself, specifically the space of time it takes to extend or close the bellows completely, in the manner of deep, calm breaths.

As one might expect from the above, the music is extremely, predominantly slow; it is marked by long pauses and contains few notated rhythms, though this came about for a more explicit reason. The extraordinary musicianship of Veli Kujala, the commissioner and dedicatee of being the pine tree, had already inspired other composers to the heights of transcendental virtuosity. I had thought to write him something along similar lines, but what eventually sparked my imagination was the intensity and commitment of his live performances, which seemed to have a parallel in meditation. I began to imagine what it would be like to turn that intensity inward, slowing down his virtuosity infinitely, reaching toward a pure state of awareness and focus, and bring the performing experience closer to the searing clarity of what, for lack of a better term, one could call enlightenment.