a thousand golden bells in the breeze
for double-manual harpsichord
Year of composition:
Chau-Yee Lo (harpsichord)
Edinburgh Festival, Early Music Series
St Cecilia's Hall, Edinburgh, 29 August 2009
This work borrows its title from an image in Sudhana’s journey of spiritual realisation, as related in the final chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Midway through his pilgrimage the youth seeks a female teacher, who to those unable to understand her virtues appears to dwell in the polluted realm of lust and desire. People who can only project their own illusory world-views on her wonder why such an evidently calm, pure, profound and wise young man wishes to submit to the power of her sensuality. As Sudhana approaches her palace, he is engulfed by the sound of a myriad golden bells rustling in the breeze. He finds her ‘draped with a radiant mesh made of all kinds of precious substances, shining with an array of countless celestial jewelled ornaments’. Sudhana learns how some of her disciples have transcended passion and attained absorbing joy simply by gazing at her. For others, talking to her has been a ‘gate’ to the essence of sound, while many have reached ultimately liberating knowledge and tranquility by kissing and embracing her.
Echoes of the exuberant imagery of this story are found even nowadays in the shining tassels and gold studded fabrics displayed in Indian bazaars. The accomplished artistry of the nineteenth-century Mogul courtesans, whose legendary beauty and refined skills as dancers, musicians, and poets, we are only just starting to appreciate, are distant descendents of a long tradition of female performers and artists. The extravagant ‘costume of the Queen of Oudh’ (Lucknow, 1813, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum) made entirely of gold and silver braiding in the pattern of fish-scales applied on transparent silk, is a testimony to the refinements of this culture of female performers, who the Victorians, like the deluded people in Sudhana’s story, viewed and treated as worthless.
I first composed a version of the piece for harpsichord, in 2009; then a version for harp and two double-basses in 2012. The two works are related in the manner of a Picasso ‘series’, in the sense that the second is not a mere re-instrumentation but a radical reinterpretation of the detail and overall design of the original. The harpsichord piece consists of four ‘gates’ or sections, each lasting between two and three minutes. On entering each ‘gate’ we hear a phrase evoking the chiming of an ethereal carillon, which resurfaces at the very end of the work.
My writing for the harpsichord was inspired by Shivkumar Sharma’s improvisations on the Indian santoor, and in particular his delicate combinations of contrasting timbre, which result from lightly striking, bouncing, and gliding the mallets on the strings at various distances from the bridges.