Karen Tanaka – Sleep Deeply

by 5:4

While i can take or leave most Christmas music, i have a real soft spot for lullaby works setting texts that either allude to or directly address the sleeping infant Jesus. It’s a nice counterpoint to the shouty-shouty zeal that permeates a great deal of festive musical fare, but more importantly it invites composers to explore the most intimate, dare i say ‘snuggly’ side of their musical language. So the next piece in my week-long journey into winter is a lullaby composed last year by Japanese composer Karen Tanaka. Though not actually a Christmas carol at all, to my mind it fits perfectly in this context.

Setting words by Irish musician Michael McGlynn, Tanaka approaches the text in two ways. The verses take the form of personal reflections about the nature of Christ and the broader spiritual relationship the writer has – from birth to death – with what the figure of Christ represents. Consequently, these verses convey a nice mixture of introspection, contemplation and wonder, Tanaka’s melody having a simple, folk-like quality, surrounded by warm, balmy harmonies. The refrain is treated much more intimately, the words here becoming a lullaby sung to oneself, liltingly and soothingly inviting an immersive sleep in an atmosphere of safety and security. Throughout Sleep Deeply, a female soloist takes precedence in the verses with the accompaniment kept light, occasionally doubling or reiterating key phrases. But the ending is really special, Tanaka allowing the choir to elaborate just a little bit, finally repeating the word “softly” again and again as if savouring it on the lips and tongue, lingering over its sound and its meaning. And the unresolved final chord – which nonetheless feels final – couldn’t be more right.

If you’ve already broken into your festive confectionery, you can think of Sleep Deeply as the musical equivalent of a dark chocolate treat with a salted caramel soft centre. This performance of the work (the Estonian première) was given in May this year at the World Music Days in Tallinn, by Vox Clamantis directed by Jaan-Eik Tulve.

Programme Note

Sleep Deeply was inspired by the lyrics written by Michael McGlynn, composer and Artistic Director of the Irish vocal ensemble Anúna, whom I have long admired. McGlynn originally wrote the lyrics in the Irish language, Codhlaím Go Súan, based on a medieval Irish poetry that adds mystique to the setting. The text explores the circular nature of life. The refrain phrase, I sleep softly in your heart my Christ, is sung as a lullaby and it illuminates devotion and love for God.

—Karen Tanaka


He comes with the wind,
He goes on the waves,.
He hears my prayer,
When I call him in the darkest moment of the night.

Softly, softly, softly, I sleep softly in your heart my Christ.

Naked he stands at the dawn,
In the new-born child,
He is there are the end,
As the soul parts from the body.

Softly, softly, softly, I sleep softly in your heart my Christ.

There is no one so full of mercy and love,
There is no way to understand your goodness.
You are my teacher and guide.

Suan, suan, suan, codhlaim go suan, a íosa,
Suan, suan, suan, codhlaim go sámh id’ chroí.

(Michael McGlynn)

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