The Way Of The Water

Zhao Mengfu, Herding Horses In The Countryside, Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

The horse has hooves to tread the frost and snow, a coat to chase away wind and cold. It champs the grass and drinks the stream, it lifts the knee and prances. Such is the nature of the horse; it needs no lofty halls, and no palaces.

These are the opening lines of Judith Weir’s 1998 song cycle Natural History. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was composed for the voice of the soprano Dawn Upshaw. It’s also one of the most fascinating and beautiful pieces of modern classical music that I’ve recently come across.

At first glance, the title Natural History might suggest science. But in her programme note, Weir tells how she became interested in Chinese philosophy as a teenager, through the writings of John Cage. For this commission, she chose to set passages from a collection of Taoist writings thought to have been written by a man called Zhuang-Zi, in the fourth to third century BC.

Her selected extracts, ‘considerably compressed’ from a translation by A.C. Graham, are described as ‘short parables about natural life as lived by different species, human and animal; a Taoist Carnival of the Animals, in fact’. This intermingling of animal and human concerns also offers a way in to the Taoist world of Zhuang-Zi, as A.C. Graham explains:

In the landscape which he shows us, things somehow do not have the relative importance which we are accustomed to assign to them. It is as though he finds in animals and trees as much significance as in people; within the human sphere, beggars, cripples and freaks are seen quite without pity and with as much interest and respect as princes and sages, and death with the same equanimity as life.

Beside this all-embracing worldview, Weir reveals that she values Taoist literature for its ‘concision, clarity, lightness and (hidden) wisdom’. Fittingly, the beauty of her score is in the breezy directness of the word-setting, and the imaginative restraint with which she deploys the large orchestra around the vocal line – not drowning it in dollops of paint, but shading with colourful pastels. There is a remarkable delicacy in the string writing, and the bright timbres of woodwinds and brass combine with a sparkling percussion section to create a sense of wonder, at times exotic and otherworldly, but never descending to Orientalist pastiche.

Taoism, as A.C. Graham admits, isn’t easy to define. Tao (or Dao) is usually translated as ‘The Way’, and he sums up this school of thought as expressing ‘the side of Chinese civilisation which is spontaneous, intuitive, private, unconventional, the rival of Confucianism, which represents the moralistic, the official, the respectable’.

This idea of intuitiveness can be seen in the opening lines of Horse. We are shown a creature effortlessly responding to its environment, unburdened by rational thought. In the orchestral introduction to this song, Weir focusses our attention on three solo cellos, which play alternating chords with a loose and unforced rhythm, their tone rich and lyrical. When the vocal line comes in, it shares this expressive suppleness.

After a derisive downward turn on ‘palaces’, our soprano goes on to describe the cruelty of a horse tamer. We hear a list of techniques he uses to break them in – whips, branding, starvation – and the music now adopts an ‘exacting rhythmic patterning’, his cold calculation underscored by the mean pinching of pizzicato violins.

But the horses that thrived on this treatment, we’re told, are only ‘two or three out of ten’. And so comes our first lesson:

Is it the nature of wood to long for the carpenter’s plane? Does clay yearn for the touch of the potter’s hand? This is the error of order. 

That final sentence is repeated, interspersed with big, sonorous chords of woodwind and brass. They have the rich bloom of a bell toll, like a moment of insight, a beckoning to immediacy.

This formula – a short story followed by a repeated conclusion – becomes a pattern in this work. The second song tells of a singer who lives in grinding poverty. But as Weir’s notes explain, he ‘possessed a magnificent voice, and was therefore, in Taoist reality, richer and greater than anyone else’. After a suitably austere opening, the song turns on the line ‘but when he sang the Hymns of Zhang…! The Son of the Heavens could not touch him; the Lord of the States could not make him his friend; the sound filled sky and earth, as if from bells and chimes of stone’. 

Suddenly, blended woodwind figures bound upwards, with the fiery vigour of inner life. And the soprano’s line reaches ecstatic heights as the singer in the story delivers our second lesson:

“Forget body, forget profit”, he sang. “To find perfection, forget the calculations of the heart”. 

Then with a strange mixture of bamboo chimes, violin harmonics, and ‘key slaps’ on the woodwinds, the song leaves us in a cloud of dust.

The idea of ‘forgetting calculations’ chimes with Zhaung-Zi’s belief in following ‘The Way’ unimpeded by cautious thought. Graham explains this as the ‘one basic insight’ of Taoist thinkers, that:

While all other things move spontaneously on the course proper to them, man has stunted and maimed his spontaneous aptitude by the habit of distinguishing alternatives, the right and the wrong, benefit and harm, self and others, and reasoning in order to judge between them.

At this point you might be wondering: how exactly should we be ‘spontaneous’? Wouldn’t that lead to societal chaos, something like the farcical ‘Do What You Feel’ festival in The Simpsons? Zhuang-Zi’s ideal of spontaneity, Graham argues, is bound up in ideas of ancient Chinese physiology and cosmology, but it’s analogous to the know-how of the experienced craftsman, whose sureness of hand cannot be imparted through words, but nonetheless finds the right path. This learned ‘knack’, as he puts it, is about spreading our attention over a situation with ‘the unclouded clarity of a mirror’, which will then respond with ‘the immediacy of an echo to a sound or shadow to a shape’. If we teach ourselves this knack, he writes:

One hits in any particular situation on that single course which fits no rules but is the inevitable one […] this course, which meanders, shifting direction with various conditions like water finding its own channel, is the Tao, the ‘Way’.

The analogy to the unerring path of water is a naturally compelling one, and it runs through the third song, Swimmer. An impressive orchestral panorama is our introduction – deep brass chords and high tremolo violins. Once it subsides, the soprano tells of a turbulent stretch of water where even fish and turtles cannot swim. A man is seen in the water and seems to be in trouble – our observer, we learn, is none other than Confucius himself. When the swimmer safely emerges onto the bank, to the dripping of pizzicato violins, the great Chinese moralist hears him start to sing:

“I was born in dry land, I grew up in the waves, I go out with the flow, I follow the Way of the water. That is how I stay afloat.”

As the orchestra regains the swelling power of the introduction, the torrent seems to be part of this swimmer’s very being, and the sinuous irregularity of his song, in 7/8 time signature, makes for a surprisingly catchy ear-worm. His lesson is pressed home several times more before a dramatically abrupt ending.

But the final song features the strangest text of all, with words of dreamlike ambiguity set to music that is unexpectedly moving. As Weir puts it, this extract ‘seems to me to describe our uncomprehending perceptions of the infinite’. It begins:

In the Northern Ocean, there is a fish, its name is the K’un; it is a fish a thousand miles broad, no-one knows how long. It changes into a bird, its wings are like clouds that hang from the sky.

There is a rapt wonder to Weir’s rendering of this remarkable scene, as supremely understated scoring combines with a shapely vocal line and a new-found tonal purity. Breaking with the previous pattern, our final parable concludes not with a statement, but a question:

Is it true that the sky is azure? Or is it the infinite distance? Is it true?

Natural History ends with a delicate cross-hatching of violins and trumpets, gently glowing with flutes, glockenspiel and cymbal – much like the opening bars, Weir focusses our attention on a narrow band of sound. The music simply ebbs away, perhaps with that same equanimity that Zhuang-Zi showed towards life and death.

Zhuang-Zi Dreaming of a Butterfly, Ming dynasty, mid-16th century, ink on silk. Wikimedia Commons.

Weir acknowledges that her interpretations of Taoism may spring from an ‘avowedly Western sensibility’, but she also states that she has found it ‘the most helpful of established philosophies in the conduct of modern life’. The qualities of concision, clarity and lightness certainly shine through in this wonderful score. As for hidden wisdom, I can only say that the more I listen to Natural History, the more I marvel at how much it achieves so fleetingly.

While the composer compares her texts to Saint-Saëns’ Carnival Of The Animals, I feel that this piece could also be a modern Taoist cousin to the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. There is a kinship in their luminous colouring, their spirit of contemplation, and ultimately, their serenity.

It would probably be contrary to the palace-spurning philosophy of Zhuang-Zi to don this work with the laurels of a ‘masterpiece’ – that lofty hall only echoes with the sound of its own bluster. Natural History is actually something far more interesting than that. Now that the twentieth anniversary of its premiere on the 14th January is almost upon us, there’s no better time to get to know it. Dive in.

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Find out more:

‘The Inner Chapters’ by A.C. Graham is available from Hackett Publishing.
Read Judith Weir’s programme note, and preview / purchase the score at Music Sales.
Read more about Judith Weir on her website.
Listen to a broadcast of the 1999 premiere of Natural History on Youtube.