Classical music has many Buddhist tendencies

With 376 million followers Buddhism is the fourth largest belief system in the world. Its core teachings of compassion and non-violence are well-known; but the wider cultural impact of those in the creative community exhibiting what the composer Jonathan Harvey described as "Buddhist tendencies" is underappreciated. Sri Lanka's state religion is Theravada - doctrine of the elders - Buddhism, and it may not be a coincidence that in 1960 elected Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world's first woman prime minister. The island has been a center of Buddhist scholarship and practice since the introduction of Buddhism in the third century, and the country played a leading role in the preservation of the Pāli Canon of Buddhist teachings. I took the accompanying photos on a recent pilgrimage to Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka, and to illustrate the influence of Buddhism on classical music I have juxtaposed them with cameos of music with Buddhist tendencies that provided the iPod soundtrack for my travels.

First up is the music of Jonathan Harvey. He professed to having Buddhist tendencies but did not want to be pigeon-holed as a Buddhist composer. However Buddhism is implicit in many of his later compositions including Body Mandala, Tranquil Abiding and the opera Wagner Dream. But arguably the work that connects most strongly with Buddhist teachings is his Fourth String Quartet. This uses electronic sound shaping to suggest Tantric Buddhism's higher meditation practices. In his programme note Jonathan depicts how the quartet is divided into 'cycles' depicting Samasara - the endless cycle of death and rebirth. He explains "It is as if several lives are depicted, each dying and being reborn with traces of the previous ones. Repetition, transformation; architecture and narrative; construction, dissolution: these are the characteristics of both autonomous music and what it refers to outside itself".

In 2005 His Holiness the Dalai Lama attended a performance of Lou Harrison's 'Peace Piece One' at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, with Patrick Gardner conducting the Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir. Although not a practising Buddhist, Lou Harrison participated in Buddhist rituals in the 1960s and was attracted by the tradition's core teachings which probe the causes of human suffering. Probably his most overtly Buddhist work is La Koro Sutro; this is a setting in Esperanto of the revered Mahayanan Buddhist Heart Sutra which contains the celebrated affirmation that "Form is emptiness, emptiness is only form".

Smiles of the Buddha (Les sourires de Bouddha) is a setting for chamber choir by the Vietnamese composer Ton-That Tiêt (b. 1933) of verses by the 8th century Chinese poet Wang Wei. Tôn-Thất Tiết studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire with André Jolivet and followed his teacher's dictum that music should be “a means to express ideas and not an aim in itself”. Despite being an agnostic the Mahayana Buddhism of his native Vietnam is, along with Hinduism, one of the influences on Thất Tiết's music.

Edmund Rubbra had a life-long interest in comparative religion and metaphysics, and following a flirtation with Theosophy briefly practiced Buddhism before returning to Catholicism. In 1947 Arnold Bax's brother Clifford wrote the BBC radio play The Buddha; Rubbra provided the incidental music which became his Suite, The Buddha op.64 for chamber ensemble. Although this is the most overtly Buddhist of Rubbra's compositions, his whole opus is imbued with Buddha nature - the unceasing search for enlightenment. In his invaluable biography of Rubbra Leo Black opines that the composer's final symphony - the compact and enigmatic Eleventh - reflects this unceasing search by asserting that transcendental enlightenment is a glimpse, not a state.

Danish composer Per Nørgård's three act opera ballet Siddhartha depicts the pre-enlightenment years of the young Prince Siddhartha. Composed in 1979 it has a libretto by one of Denmark's greatest poets Ole Sarvig (1921-81). Writing of the opera Siddhartha some years ago I said that "Despite its arcane origins and uncompromising modernity Per Nørgård's music sounds surprisingly familiar at first hearing, an apparent vindication of his rejection of serialism as an artificial device". Exhibiting fewer Buddhist tendencies but also highly recommended are Per Nørgård's symphonies, notably the abrasive Eighth.

Philip Glass is one of the two modern composer's celebrated for their Buddhist tendencies. His work for the Tibetan Vajrayana school of Buddhism and his commitment to preserving the Tibetan way of life in the face of the Chinese cultural genocide is celebrated. He scored Martin Scorse's 1997 movie Kundun depicting the Dalai Lama's flight into exile from Tibet, and his Fifth Symphony sets extracts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and concludes with the Dedication of Merit from the Mahayana school of Buddhism.

My inclusion of ambient composer Robert Rich's work in a list of music for meditation sparked a healthy debate on whether he composes classical music. Most probably Zen practitioners would solve that koan by answering that Robert Rich's music is not not classical music. Semantic arguments not withstanding, his music was high on my playlist in Sri Lanka. Meditation is at the heart of Buddhist practice and in Sunyata - the Mahayanan concept of 'emptiness' - Robert Rich explores using music not for entertainment, but for induction into a new and vastly more important state of mind.

Lineages are an important chain of transmission in Buddhism. So it is significant that Jonathan Harvey mentored the Catalan composer Ramón Humet (b.1968). Buddhism and Eastern metaphysics are an important influence in Ramon Humet's music; notably in his tetraptych Música del Esse (Music of non-being), and in other works such as Quatre jardins Zen (Four Zen gardens) and Jardí de Haikus (Garden of Haikus).

Herman Hesse's 1922 novel Siddhartha, which recounts the spiritual journey of a young man seeking enlightenment, was a sacred text of the 1960 and 70s counterculture. It inspired Claude Vivier's eponymous orchestral work composed in 1976 to a commission from the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. Claude Vivier (1948-1983) died in 1983 at the age of 35. He is one of a number of hugely talented but rarely performed composers whose cause is not helped by current classical programming which places more emphasis on click bait potential than artistic merit.

John Cage and Philip Glass are the two modern composers usually linked to Buddhism. Whereas Philip Glass is associated with the esoteric school of Tibetan Buddhism, John Cage drew inspiration from the more austere Zen tradition. Zen scholar and teacher D. T. Suzuki inspired a generation of American Buddhists, and John Cage was particularly influenced by the teachings of the Heart Sutra on sunyata - emptiness. The Heart Sutra's core teaching that "form is emptiness, emptiness is only form", found expression in Cage's groundbreaking silent piece 4'33", Music of Changes, and the multi-media Black Mountain Happening.

Zen was also a major influence on the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. Zen gardens were a particular influence, and he once explained that 'I design gardens with music'. The Saiho-ji Temple in Kyoto designed by the 14th century Zen priest Muso Soseki inspired Takemitsu's Dream/Window for orchestra, and another work that reflects the composer's preoccupation with Zen gardens is his Spirit Garden. This preoccupation is reflected in the numerous other botanical references in the titles of Takemitsu's music, including In an Autumn Garden, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden, Tree Line, Garden Rain and Music of Trees. Writing in the Guardian of Takemitsu's Visions Tom Service said the work "sounds like music that should be at the heart of orchestral programmes and listeners' imaginations everywhere". But sadly, like Claude Vivier, Toru Takemitsu has been marginalised by today's click bait classical programming.

Dhyana is the spiritual state of trance attained by the practice of higher Buddhist meditation. Expressions in music of the search for trance states range from the relentlessly ecstatic Psytrance electronic dance music that originated from Goa in the late 1960s, through Jonathan Harvey's sound shaped Fourth Quartet featured at the start of this article, to the nuanced electronica of Éliane Radigue with its infinitesimal but engrossing dynamics. Éliane Radigue's middle period works are overtly Buddhist, notably Jetsun Mila, Trilogie de la Mort, and Songs of Milarepa; in the latter work texts by the Tibetan saint and poet Milarepa are spoken in Tibetan by Lama Kunga Rinpoche and in translation by composer and poet Robert Ashley.

Éliane Radigue's deeply Buddhist compositions bring me to the end of this personal overview of classical music with varying Buddhist tendencies. If this article has any message at all it is simply to encourage everyone to listen and think beyond personal comfort zones. The great Buddhist Emperor Asoka of India expressed this message far more profoundly in an edict carved in rock. It is a message that applies far beyond attitudes towards religion:

One should not honour only one's own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honour others' religions for this or that reason. So doing, one helps one's own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others too. In acting otherwise one digs the grave of one's own religion and also does harm to other religions. Whosoever honours his own religion and condemns other religions, does so indeed through devotion to his own religion, thinking "I will glorify my own religion". But on the contrary, in so doing he injures his own religion more gravely. So concord is good: Let all listen, and be willing to listen to the doctrines professed by others
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Alex Ross said…
Bob, a fascinating list! I would also mention Meredith Monk and Peter Lieberson.

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