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Music Composition as Cosmology


I believe that my music has its own necessity and its own path of development. Although it is probably the result of many more influences than I can be aware of, it took the direction of a compositional research in the year of 1989, my first year as a graduate student in composition at CalArts. This research still continues to this day, and takes into consideration a few specific musical traditions: modern and avant-garde music of the European 20th and 21st centuries, Hindustani, Karnatic, Indonesian and Japanese classical traditions, ancient Greek music theory, and the western polyphonies of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.


From the point of view of form or structure, the research started as an investigation in the field of time organization, which includes rhythm centered in the use of ratios and number (expanded modal rhythm), methods of macroform planning, and the idea of circularity, both static and in progressive spiral transformation. It explores polyphony, monody, drones, various methods of pitch organization but often according to the concept of symmetrical or asymmetrical total chromatic harmonic fields.  Potentially, it employs any world instrument, from the European violin to the Australian didjeridu, from digital keyboards to the shakuhachi, not only because the world of today encourages geographical and cultural dialogue, but also because of the richness of research possibilities offered by the instruments from around the world. In vocal music, I have explored polyphonic choral writing, chant, and overtone-singing techniques. I have embraced music composition as an art form that is aware of, and has its reference points in, more than one world musical traditions, and not just Western Art Music, which is originally the birth place of music composition. 


The interaction of music with traditional metaphysics, archetypal symbol and myth means to me a search for true spiritual meaning through and beyond music. This has been a second main shaping force in my music, just as important as the structural musical elements mentioned above. This is not a personal symbolism, but an attempt to bring to music symbolic knowledge that comes from ancient cultures, as studied by scholars like Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, Carl Gustav Jung, Mircea Eliade, Titus Burckhardt and Marius Schneider, among others.


Several of my compositions are pregnant with ideas that originally come from the study of musical, artistic, religious and philosophical concepts of traditional India, mainly from the Vedas, Vedānta, Yoga and Sāṃkhya. In Marriage of Heaven and Earth, the Hindustani tablā is a concertante instrument together with the English horn and oboe; Sacrifice and Agnistoma I are entirely sung in Sanskrit and structured according to mnemonic patterns of Ṛg Veda recitation; Pralāya is the cosmic dissolution narrated in the Purānas; Sol das Almas has a sound image similar to rāga purvi; Numen and Sun Door ... at World's End use texts from the Upaniṣads and the Gāyatrī Mantra respectively; Ākāśa tries to convey the idea of the fifth element (ākāśa) through reverberation and ressonance.


I have come to the idea of composition as cosmology and cosmogony through religion scholar Mircea Eliade's writings about creation myths. This is one of the basic premises of how I see music and my work in composition:  the act of creating music (and art in general) is a repetition of the creation of the world. Music is the order of sounds, the mutual relationships and ways of interaction of its sound components. Just as in the Greek concept of kosmos, the ordered universe, sounds must be ordered to acquire the status of music. The musician creates sound relationships by putting them together in a musical piece, a composition or improvisation. Creative methods vary. If we take a moment to define what are the musical characteristics of bebop jazz, or of Karnatic rāga, or of a classical symphony, we become aware of the musical principles by which each is recognized as exactly as what they are: bebop, rāga, and symphony, and not something else. These musical principles and relationships form, in each case, a universe of sounds; the formative principles are the natural laws of this sound world.  Seen as the rationale of its creation, music composition is a musical cosmology; seen as the process of creation unfolded by this rationale, it is a musical cosmogony. In this cosmogony, the cycle of musical creation includes several shaping moments, ultimately completed when the music is played and becomes physical sound during its performance, or, perhaps, at the moment of perception, as the music is formed in the listener's mind.


The idea of composition as cosmology is, however, more prescriptive of the organization of sounds in music than descriptive or interpretative, such as musical analysis is. Musical analysis sometimes attempts to describe the universe of sounds in terms of how it was made, bringing light to its creative process and cosmology as intended or conceived by the composer. However, in most cases, analysis "takes a life of its own", and becomes a description that may have nothing to do with the music's formative process, or becomes a tool for the corroboration of an interpretation or new view about the music, or, still, becomes a kind of proof or model for a theory or for an analytical method.  Therefore, it is useful to distinguish my idea of cosmology of music (or musical cosmology) from that of musical analysis. While it is a fortunate thing that analysis allows us to see one and same object from different perspectives and angles, the idea of composition as cosmology is a study of music that sheds light onto the creative process that originated that object – the musical or acoustic kosmos –, its poetics. Ultimately, this study results in the practice of composing music.


One more note about the concept of cosmology of music has to do with it as a double form of musical knowledge. There are two aspects to the cosmology of music: the scientific and the contemplative, gnostic (not gnosticism) or mythic.  The scientific aspect of the cosmology explains how the music is made. It is like a natural science of music, its Physics. It describes the structural, concrete, "physical" (and often mathematical) relationships between sounds, such as tonal relationships in tonal music, pitch organization, rhythmic organization, morphology, etc. Research in composition usually deals with this realm of musical order, which I call the scientific cosmology of music. 


However, composition is not only a science. As an art, it cannot be just the object of an exclusively scientific approach, much less scientificist. The contemplative aspect explains how the music is a consequence of contents and meanings that initially do not pertain to the structure of music, but that, however, can be conveyed by the structure of music. This includes any content that relates music to the knowledge of a spiritual truth (gnosis). Such contents actually take part in the shaping of a composition or a musical style, and account for the music's symbolic dimension mentioned above. Examples of the gnostic, mythic or contemplative cosmology of music are the role of astrology in the poetics of James Wood's Stoichea, or of Hindu sonic theology in Giacinto Scelsi's string quartets.


Some of my compositions, such as Ākāśa, Sacrifice, Luna, Agnistoma, Sun World's End, Pralāya, and others, are especially eloquent in this search for a meaningful spiritual content, the gnostic cosmology in my music. The music structure in those works is in-formed by ideas and conceptions related to traditional metaphysics, ancient cosmologies and archetypal symbolism, with an emphasis on contents from, but not limited to, ancient India. I have frequently explored the mandala and the spiral as time and space (harmony/pitch) organization principles. The elements of circularity, interdependence, complementarity, symmetry, and progressive transformation, thus constituting their contemplative cosmology, make these compositions become the symbols (the mandala and the spiral) in musical manifestation. As it remains in this orientation, my music is an imitation of nature or the cosmos (or an imitation of a construct, of an idea of what nature is) and searches to contain and radiate the immanent sacredness of the world and of music: a "cosmofonia", of which the scacciapensieri mandala on the bottom of this page is a symbol.

                                                                 Scacciapensieri mandala (nankin on paper, Luigi Antonio Irlandini, 1986)

scaciapensieri mandala RED.JPG
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