Contemporary composers who are strongly influenced by Buddhism are not often featured in the music press, but there are several very talented figures working currently. Here are four to note:
Akashadeva – David Earl
David Earl was born in Stellenbosch, South Africa, in 1951. He moved to London in 1971 and studied under Jacob Kaletsky and Richard Arnell at Trinity College of Music. He has since had a long and distinguished career as a composer and concert pianist. As well as piano works he has written operas, ballet scores and concertos. David has received many awards and accolades starting in 1975 when the then Greater London Arts Association selected David as one of its Young Musicians of the Year. He won first prize in the 1976 SABC Piano Competition. In 1977, David premiered his own Piano Suite No 1 Mosaics at Wigmore Hall, launching his career as a composer. In subsequent years he played his Suite No 2 Gargoyles, 24 Preludes – Oxymorons, and Suite No 3 Mandalas at London venues. In 1980 he gave the first performance of his Piano Concerto No 1 with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra under Christian Badea. In September of that year he performed the solo piano part in Chéri, an hour-long score commissioned by The Scottish Ballet (choreographed by Peter Darrell) and premiered at the Edinburgh Festival.
Within the last few years David has completed two full-length operas: Mary and the Conqueror in which Alexander the Great and Mary Renault meet in the afterlife; and Strange Ghost, composed to mark the centenary of the death of Rupert Brooke. Both have libretti by the Cape Town playwright Juliet Jenkin. The latter opera was premiered in Cambridge in December 2015, directed by Dionysios Kyropoulos, and conducted by Dominic Peckham with James Schouten in the title role. See www.RupertBrookeOpera.com
2017’s recitals in the UK, Germany, and South Africa included the premiere of Piano Suite No 4 Darshanas – the title refers to the Buddhist word for vision and insight.
For many years David has been a practicing Buddhist with the Triratna Buddhist Order, and in fact several of his compositions show a strong Buddhist influence, notably his Piano Suite No 3, Mandalas.
A recent piano composition is a musical evocation of the ancient Buddhist meditation practice Metta Bhavana (‘the development of loving kindness’). David says of this compostion:
“It found its moment when I was asked to write a short work for the 2019 Olga Kern International Piano Competition in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The meditation itself usually consists of 5 stages: engendering loving kindness towards oneself, towards a close friend or loved one, towards a neutral individual, towards someone difficult or hostile, and to society and the world at large. In the middle of the composition the performer is invited to improvise for a dozen or so bars, in keeping with the title. Many thanks to the musically angelic Federico Gad Crema who performs here in a clip from the live stream during the Winners’ concert on November 3rd 2019. Federico won the Best Contemporary Piece Prize, the Audience Award, and Second Place overall.”
Amalamati (Timothy Lissimore)
Amalamati is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order who is now chair person of the Valencia Buddhist Centre in Spain.
While still living in London, in the 1990s he composed several large scale works on Buddhist themes which were successfully performed in London and elsewhere.
The Voice of the Buddha was large scale oratorio, about the life of the Buddha.
The Triumph of Life was an opera about the last days of the Buddha, and the Buddha’s friendship with his faithful companion Ananda.
Resources on Amalamati’s work are scarce, we hope to bring you further details at some later date, including a a recording of The Voice of the Buddha.
The Chinese composer, Tan Dun, whose work spans everything from his stunning score to the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to experimental music drawing on unusual sound sources, conducted the Australian premiere of his new large-scale choral work Buddha Passion with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in October 2019, as part of the Melbourne Festival. The piece, a co-commission between the MSO, the Dresdner Musikfestspiele (where it received its world premiere), the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sets teachings of the Buddha in six parts, in what has been described as the first Buddhist Passion in a history of Christian oratorios.
In fact, the idea for the Buddha Passion had its origins in a response to the Christian Passions of Bach. Dun’s Water Passion after St. Matthew was commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart who premiered it in the year 2000, conducted by Dun. The Water Passion, which features vocal styles from Mongolian overtone singing to Peking Opera as well as traditional instruments found along the Silk Road and the music of water itself, paid tribute to Bach but in Dun’s own distinctive language.
“A German critic said, ‘oh, this is Buddha Bach,’” Dun explains. “It’s like a Buddha Passion. That actually gave me a very interesting idea: I said, ‘Why don’t I write a Buddha Passion?’”
Composer Justin Merritt was the youngest-ever winner of the ASCAP Foundation Rudolph Nissim Award. He is also the winner of a host of other awards including the McKnight Fellowship, the Copland Award, and the Polyphonos Prize. His music has been played by the Minnesota Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony, and on A Prairie Home Companion.
His evening length cantata, The Path, was premiered at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis in April 2018. The work is a setting of a collection of Buddhist Pali scriptures translated by the composer and set for multiple choirs, soloists, and large orchestra.