Sheffield alumnus composer Dr Ben Gaunt writes about his work Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind, composed while Ben was a member of the LSO Sound Hub, which has been shortlisted for a BASCA award 2017
The LSO Soundhub is a marvellous programme, designed to help composers realise projects that they would otherwise struggle to develop. Four composers are chosen each year, and they get the opportunity to use the players and facilities of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Applying for the Soundhub requires candidates to submit a portfolio of pieces (which is fairly commonplace) and a proposal for the kind of project they wish to develop. Having unsuccessfully applied in previous years, I decided I should make my proposal as unusual as possible; perhaps, then, I would stand a chance of being selected. I have studied martial arts for a number of years, and decided a composition that combined my love of karate with my love of music might be sufficiently unique.
To my surprise, I was selected and whilst I was very happy knowing that I would be working with musicians from one of the finest orchestras in the world, I was definitely apprehensive; I had no idea how a piece for a martial artist and musicians would work. One of the benefits to the LSO Soundhub scheme is that it allows for substantial workshop and rehearsal time, and gradually (with help from composer/mentor Harrison Birtwistle, martial artist Simon Keegan, violist Anna Bastow, and clarinettist Ausiàs Garrigós Morant) I managed to create something coherent.
In karate (and other traditional Japanese martial arts), a kata is a choreographed sequence of moves used to develop technique, strength, and speed. In essence, they are kinetic databases of punches, blocks, kicks, and throws; regularly practising katas will help the karateka (karate practitioner) deal with real-life violent situations.
In competition, martial artists will perform kata, often accompanied by non-live music. The chosen music tends to be bland, unadventurous, and does not resemble or reflect the meaning or movements of the kata. Consequently, the martial artist has to accept that the kata and music will not synchronise or the martial artist has to change and adapt the kata to fit the music (both unsatisfactory compromises, in my opinion).
In composing Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind I attempted to remedy this by presenting five traditional kata, accompanied by music that has been specifically written to fit each kata. The karateka essentially acts as a conductor, directing the musicians.
The katas are ordered in such a way that the first (‘Meikyo’) features a 1:1 relationship between movement and music; that is, each action is accompanied by a sound (a technique often referred to as ‘Mickey Mousing’!). As the piece progresses, the music and movement become less connected; there exists almost no synchronisation in the fifth kata (‘Hangetsu’). The final kata, Jo-ha-kyū, operates differently; here the musicians perform music derived from all the previous katas and the karateka improvises in response.
Aside from ‘Meikyo’ and ‘Jo-ha-kyū’, each kata ends with an instrumental postlude – this gives both the audience and the karateka time to reflect, and enables me to explore musical ideas that are not directly connected to physical action.
I wanted to evoke, through music, the physical sensation of practising karate; however, I also aimed to communicate the myths associated with each kata:
Meikyo was chosen as the first kata for two reasons. Firstly, its name translates as ‘bright mirror’, and this felt appropriate; the musicians reflect the actions of the karateka (and the mirror symbolism also influenced the way in which I devised the harmonic language). Secondly, the kata has become associated with the legend of the sun goddess Amaterasu. I liked the idea of beginning with the sun and ending with the moon (Hangetsu).
This is my favourite kata to perform – it feels very powerful. The fact Tekki Shodan moves from side-to-side (never forwards or backwards) has led some to assume this kata is for fighting in small spaces, perhaps on board a ship. Thus, the postlude to Tekki Shodan is a simple, slow barcarolle.
There are five different Heian katas. They are usually the first katas a student learns, and they impart upon the karateka a number of basic skills and principles. (The name ‘Heian’ means ‘peaceful mind’; karate translates as ‘empty hand’, hence the name of the overall work.) I have always considered this kata to have a mischievous quality, and I have responded with appropriately quirky music. Hidden within it, however, the kata possesses some devastatingly powerful techniques (as indicated by the brutality of the postlude).
One interpretation of the title of this kata is to ‘break an enemy’s fortress’. I imagined a solid music, which gradually crumbles and disintegrates with each of the karateka’s punches and kicks. The postlude combines broken textures with wailing laments.
Hangetsu translates as “half-moon”. Tension builds during the opening, before exploding into celestial textures that gradually subside.
Jo-ha-kyū roughly translates as ‘beginning, break, rapid’ and is a Japanese aesthetic concept that indicates that actions should begin slowly and speed up. During the composition of the first five kata, I noticed that it had taken less and less time to write each one. The first kata I wrote (Tekki Shodan) took a couple of months, the last (Meikyo) only a few days. I decided, then, that the final movement should be named to reflect this, should begin slowly and end quickly, and should be written as rapidly as possible. Ordinarily, my music is composed using maths and systems and lots and lots of planning. In order to capture a sense of spontaneity, however, Jo-ha-kyū is written freely.
The piece presented a number of challenges, in both composition and performance. The hardest thing to contend with was that whilst the order of the moves in each kata were fixed, the time it took to perform each move could change, as could the pauses in between the moves. This meant that the score had to be flexible, and the performers had to be incredibly alert. As a result of experimentation and workshops, I devised a system which combined boxes, arrows, text, and conventional staff notation; the resultant score is functional (although especially pretty!)
Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind was one of the first works I created after completing my PhD at The University of Sheffield. I think it is the best thing I have written so far (it was recently nominated for a British Composer Award), and puts into practice a number of concepts I tested during my doctoral research.
Ben (in black) working with Simon on the moves for Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind