Four Buddhist Composers

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

Image result for David earl composer

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

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.”

You Tube Clip of Metta Bhavana piece:


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.

The opera is here
There is a  documentary on Youtube about the rehearsal process.

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.


Tan Duy


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?’”

Tan Dun

Interview with Tan Dun



Justin Merritt

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.

More on The Path



Auden for now?

Coming up on the 15th of February at Poetry East, the London Buddhist Centre, an exploration of Auden’s great poem of political fears and disenchantment: ‘September 1st, 1939’, with Ian Samson who has recently published a book dedicated to an in-depth exploration of the poem.


But what would that great poet of political engagement in the twentieth century have made of the current state of the world? Would it have brought out the ambivalently committed English socialist of the earlier years, or the Christian humanitarian Auden of maturity? Would he have understood that modern right wing populism is not quite the same thing as the fascism that he knew, and proceeded to dissect the differences and similarities with prophetic brilliance?

A partial answer to these impossible questions is provided for me at any rate by the still pertinent introduction to Faber’s 1979 selection of Auden by Edward Mendelson:

” In Auden’s unbroken vision of history, the ancient discontents survived in contemporary forms, but so did the ancient sources of personal and literary vitality. Modernism, disenfranchised from the past by its own sense of isolated modernity, could bring  literary tradition into the present only as battered ironic fragments as in Eliot or by visionary heroic efforts like Pound’s to ‘make it new’. For Auden, it had never grown old. A laconic old English toughness survived in his poetry as did an Augustan civility…. Modernism tended to look back toward the reigns of a native aristocracy, too often it found the reflected glory of ancient tradition in political leaders who promised to restore social grandeur and unity through coercive Force. Auden’s refusal to idealize the past saved him from comparable fits of mistaken generosity. His poems and essays present the idea of the good society as, at best, a possibility never actually to be achieved, but towards which one must always work.’




Black Mountain Blues

Optic Nerve is a Blakean project based in South London. Largely self-funded they are producing fascinating videos about poetry and contemporary music. Especially the black mountain poets and the Objectivist poets of 20th century America. And from Britain material on Elaine Feinstein – her ‘Song of Power’. I also highly recommend the interview with ‘the last living Objectivist’ Carl Rokosi in the ‘current projects’ section. There is much excellent work here in progress much of it needing funding to continue…

Optic Nerve


American Zen issue

Urthona goes zen for our next issue due out next summer. American Zen. Buddhism and in particular Zen have had a profound influence on on American arts and literature over the last 100 years. We plan to cover:

* Buddhism and American poetry from Ezra Pound to Jane Hirshfield. And the Beats of course.

* Zen and Abstract Expressionism.

* Interview with a contemporary master of Zen brush painting.

Longing for the swifts

Sabrina’s Stream at Kempsey on Severn by Benjamin Williams Leader

High summer approaches. For me this time of year is very much associated with that most aetherial of birds, the swift. I’m waiting eagerly for them to arrive.  Remembering sitting in the garden at peace on summer afternoons; looking upwards into depth upon depth of blue, where the screaming swifts are seen looping through the sky in their great, unhindered gyres. So sad that their numbers have declined in recent years, not enough people have proper wooden eaves under which they can make their nests anymore.

Continue reading “Longing for the swifts”