Programme Notes – Towards Nirvana (2002)

I am constantly drawn towards the idea of conflict in my works. The invitation to write a substantial piece for the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra gave me the opportunity to explore the conflict between the stress of living in today’s frenetic world and the search for something far more transcendental. During the writing of this work I became drawn to the story of the Buddha: Siddhartha Gautama whose life and teachings over two thousand years ago paved the way to one of the world’s great religions.

The Buddha’s early life was spent in comfort and naive self-indulgence and his father made sure that he would not experience any of the harsh realities of the world at first hand. After a while the Buddha did encounter old age, sickness and death on three forbidden visits from his father’s palace. On his fourth visit he came across a religious ascetic dressed in rags who seemed content despite his suffering; from this moment on Siddartha decided to devote the rest of his life to seeking the truth of human existence.

At the age of twenty-nine the Buddha left his life of luxury to become a wanderer himself. He spent six years in complete self-denial fasting and meditating, before, emaciated and starving, he realised that he was no closer to finding the answers he sought. After several days of prolonged meditation he opted to try a moderate, middle way which would bring an end to suffering. He spent the remaining forty-five years of his life travelling the North East of India teaching, answering questions and engaging in debates with audiences in the towns and villages. He died from natural causes aged about eighty.

Nirvana is the highest possible state of tranquillity and the realisation of no-self and freedom from cravings and attachment. The experience of nirvana gives release from suffering and rebirth. The thirty-one levels of the Buddhist universe ascend from Hell to ‘Neither perception nor non-perception.’ In this twenty-minute work I have attempted to follow a musical route from depicting base self-seeking human existence through harsh austerity leading eventually to the promise of complete detachment and calm. In the first part of this work, man’s striving for pleasure and self-gratification is expressed in harsh, dissonant music that veers between the expression of hollow triumph and despair. The sleazy worlds of jazz and music hall make their appearances before a complex and desperate climax is reached and then cut off by cataclysmic drum rolls.

The second section of the piece is a long extended diminuendo over thirty-one strokes of the tam tam. A sombre brass chorale offset against the piercing sound of unison woodwinds in their highest registers gradually descends into the murky depths of the band. There is a brief restatement of the stabbing chords of the start of the piece before a tense calm is broken by the sound of offstage saxophones impersonating Tibetan horns. Now the colours become more transparent and the harmonic language softens, and the third section introduces a vaguely pentatonic theme that is also derived from the opening. The saxophones are heard again, as well as new, more exotic sounds. In the final moments of the work I was drawn to the Buddha’s own description of the end of a person’s life likening it to ‘A flame that has been blown out. The flame does not go anywhere. Where would it have been before it was here and where would it go to next?’

‘Towards Nirvana’ is dedicated to the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra and their principal conductor Douglas Bostock who gave the first performance in Tokyo in October 2002.