Proms 2013: Param Vir – Cave of Luminous Mind (World Première)

Last Wednesday’s world première of Param Vir‘s new Proms commission, Cave of Luminous Mind, gave particular pause for thought in light of its position in the season. Twice recently we have been presented by works from composers of Indian descent (Nishat Khan & Naresh Sohal), works seeking at least in part to acknowledge the disjunct traditions of east & west, yet both composers seemed compelled not to seek a deep synthesis, but to contrive a weak symbiosis by diluting their respective sources of inspiration & tribute. Aside from these works, just once has the (holy) ghost of religion raised its head in this year’s new music (from Sofia Gubaidulina), & then in violently apocalyptic fashion. Which brings us to Cave of Luminous Mind, another of Param Vir’s works in which “Tibetan Buddhism is once again a source of inspiration […] inspired by the meditational journey towards enlightenment of the Tibetan saint Milarepa”, & which is dedicated to contemporary music’s most radical of spiritual seekers, Jonathan Harvey. On its own terms as well as in light of these preceding works, Cave of Luminous Mind was already thought-provoking even before the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Sakari Oramo, had played a single note.

But it’s even more thought-provoking afterwards, an extremely fascinating work that feels very much larger & longer than its relatively concise 20-minute span. It is, in fact, like a kind of mini-symphony, two wildly contrasting movements that propel us into environments that are both very strange, but for very different reasons. The first is, on the face of it, the more accessible of the movements. It emphasises space & clarity of utterance, unification & solidarity in its material & orchestration. Woodwinds tend to chatter, an assortment of duets emerge, the harp concerns itself with captivating flourishes & cadenza-like episodes, percussion—& this makes it sound as though the music is less gentle than it is—opts for hard-edged xylophone rattling & heavily accented metallic thumps. & through, above, under & around them all, unifying everything, is a seemingly endless fabric fashioned from upward-sliding strings, a mystical surface of Shepard tones that establishes the context for everything else to play out. Despite often not featuring in the foreground, the strings are by far the most pervasive timbral force in this movement, occasionally afforded the opportunity for a solo melody, or combining to form a kind of lustrous veil, as well as giving the music one or two unsettling shoves into more ominous territory.

Its counterpart confounds on more than one level: why break the potent mood established by the first movement? why shift so completely from its engrossing material & style of delivery? & besides, what the hell is going on in this movement? All reasonable questions when confronted by the unexpected ferocity of Cave of Luminous Mind‘s second movement, which continues the instrumentational affinities already established, but now at breakneck speed, regularly breaking out in barely-controlled hammer blows. These are all Param Vir offers by way of obvious clarity, choosing instead to dive, full throttle, into a maelstrom of hectic tuttis, slithering textures of echoing, overlapping lines, massive crescendo blasts & almost ludicrously intricate polyphony. The music is practically snapping at its own heels, as though (to switch metaphors) it’s trying to break beyond its confines, smashing against invisible walls. Is Vir’s cave proving too restrictive a habitat for the mind? or, more likely, is it not confined at all—are we hearing a hint of the vast expanses of possibility & liberation that can come from humble points of limitation? Either way, this second movement, for all its boundless energy, is, in hindsight, a great deal more comprehensible & immediate than its predecessor, & as Cave of Luminous Mind fades from buzzing ears, one’s left grappling anew with that first movement, which now seems even more mysterious & unknowable, despite appearances to the contrary.

Mysterious & unknowable—concepts that preoccupied Jonathan Harvey throughout his life, epithets that so often characterised his music, as they do Cave of Luminous Mind, making it in every sense a worthy & very powerful homage to its dedicatee. East & west seem entirely & simultaneously omnipresent in the piece, as does the very essence of humanity’s latent spirituality, not in mere contrivances of style or narrative, but in a less immediate & tangible (but more telling) engagement with notions of reflection & meditation, ambiguity & allusion. Perhaps only this way can one truly aspire to the infinite.

Param Vir – Cave of Luminous Mind (World Première)

FLAC part 1 FLAC part 2 [110Mb]

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One Response to Proms 2013: Param Vir – Cave of Luminous Mind (World Première)

  1. Liam

    Thank you very much for your work on this blog. It’s rare to come across reviews of contemporary music that are as forthright and clear as your own. Faber would never hire you; I mean that as a compliment.

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