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

by 5:4

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 and Naresh Sohal), works seeking at least in part to acknowledge the disjunct traditions of east and 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 and 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), and 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”, and 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 and 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 and clarity of utterance, unification and solidarity in its material and orchestration. Woodwinds tend to chatter, an assortment of duets emerge, the harp concerns itself with captivating flourishes and cadenza-like episodes, percussion—and this makes it sound as though the music is less gentle than it is—opts for hard-edged xylophone rattling and heavily accented metallic thumps. and through, above, under and 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 and style of delivery? and 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 and 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 and 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 and immediate than its predecessor, and as Cave of Luminous Mind fades from buzzing ears, one’s left grappling anew with that first movement, which now seems even more mysterious and unknowable, despite appearances to the contrary.

Mysterious and 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 and very powerful homage to its dedicatee. East and west seem entirely and 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 and tangible (but more telling) engagement with notions of reflection and meditation, ambiguity and allusion. Perhaps only this way can one truly aspire to the infinite.


Param Vir - Cave of Luminous Mind
  • Loved it! (42%, 5 Votes)
  • Liked it (33%, 4 Votes)
  • Meh (8%, 1 Votes)
  • Disliked it (8%, 1 Votes)
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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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