A Vietnamese Requiem: The creation process

Photo © Anvi Hoàng

Photo © Anvi Hoàng

—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —–

A Vietnamese Requiem by P.Q. Phan
Premiered on Friday, April 24th 2015 by NOTUS: IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble

Composer’s Note

A Vietnamese Requiem is the first requiem ever written using a Buddhist text and composed in a parallel format to a Western standard requiem. A Vietnamese Requiem is also the first of its kind to use Vietnamese.

There are two major components I thoroughly investigated prior to composing A Vietnamese Requiem: the text and the musical approach.

1. The text for A Vietnamese Requiem. The text I wanted to use for my creation is a Vietnamese Buddhist text. “Kinh A Di Đà,” or Amitabha Sutra, is often used for the purpose of post-funeral prayer. This “Kinh A Di Đà,” however, is widely circulated in several languages. Some appear entirely in Sanskrit with Vietnamese phonetic translation; others are in Sino-Vietnamese; still others use a combination of Sanskrit, Sino-Vietnamese and vernacular Vietnamese. My question, therefore, is which version of “Kinh A Di Đà” I should use. It is fair to say that because of the confusion in language use in “Kinh A Di Đà,” very few Buddhist followers understand the text of this Sutra. My goal was to do further research of “Kinh A Di Đà,” to collect those different versions, and to combine them into one understandable text in vernacular Vietnamese so that the meaning of this popular and significant Sutra is clarified. This final personalized version of the Sutra would serve as the text of my A Vietnamese Requiem. I received a grant from the Mellon Faculty Short-Term Fellowship to carry out this research.

During my two-month period of research, I visited over forty influential pagodas throughout Vietnam to collect the texts of the Amitabha Sutra and to study how it is practiced in Vietnam. All those field trips and countless talks to the head monks and nuns and Buddhists led me to the finding of an alternative Buddhist text of the Theravada tradition. The practice of Theravada Buddhism in Vietnam is far less common than that of its counterpart, Mahayana Buddhism; however, it is a fast growing practice. The Amitabha Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism promises a beautiful, rich, and pleasant pure land for deceased Buddhists. This land is a promise established by Bodhisattva Amitabha, but not necessarily by Gautama Buddha (The Buddha).

Theravada Buddhism, interestingly enough, teaches only sermons given by Gautama Buddha himself but not by his disciples nor Bodhisattvas. Without offering a promised land to deceased Buddhists, Theravada Buddhism preaches death as a part of life: One must accept death the way one receives life. A temporary death is completed with reincarnation, and the last death ends with Nirvana, a state of infinite enlightenment without reincarnation. The non-materialistic and selflessness in this belief of Theravada Buddhism regarding death convinced me to change my original intention of using the Amitabha Sutra to selecting Theravada Sutta (Sutta is Pali for Sutra) as texts for my requiem on the matter of death.

Theravada Sutta fits almost perfectly for my requiem, except that it offered no conclusion that I envisioned. Theravada Buddhism mentions little about what happens after death, while I needed that brief mentioning to use as a farewell to an earthly life and a welcome to a new realm. As I read through the whole book of Theravada Sutta, I found my wish in one section that describes the moment when Gautama Buddha was leaving his physical body to enter enlightenment. Using the image of this moment, I decided to draw a parallel transcending path to the realm beyond for the deceased on earth, and use this as a conclusion. After all, Gautama was a human being before becoming Buddha and his belief and teaching are that anyone can become Buddha. The enlightened moment for all humans could be similar his.

2. The music direction of A Vietnamese Requiem. A Vietnamese Requiem takes shape with four movements. The first is a daily prayer to Gautama Buddha. The second is about the holiness and the formation of Gautama Buddha. The third explains four meanings/realities about death. And the fourth conveys how Gautama Buddha left his physical existence, also the transcending journey to the realm beyond.

The popular use of the glorious and apocalyptic sounding approach in a requiem started in nineteenth century in Europe and is still a common trend today. This was made possible due to glorious liturgical texts such as the Kyrie and the Sanctus and the judgment liturgical text of Dies Irae. However, the unexpected philosophy of Theravada Buddhism regarding death has shifted my direction. In dealing with death in Theravada Buddhism, one can say in layman terms that “You were born. You die. So it is!” The non judgmental, anti-emotional, and anti-dramatic attitudes towards death make it impossible for me to apply the glorious and apocalyptic sounding approach. The nature of the Theravada text became the key challenge for me to compose my A Vietnamese Requiem.

I perceived my set of Theravada Buddhist Suttas about death as peaceful, accepting, natural, and transcending. Thus I aimed to compose a large scale transcending form moving from the most peaceful nothingness to the most beautiful and colorful infinity of non-physical existence. The music employs numerology that is significant to Buddhism, conveying the meanings of numbers 10, 8, 7, 5, 4, and 3. The significant meaning of number 2 in Vietnamese traditional vernacular music is added into the series to create an intimate concept for the Requiem. This set of numbers gives ways to constructing the form of lines, phrases, and movements in the whole piece. The numbers are also used in prolation counterpoint, counterpoint being there to establish ratio relationships between the lines, phrases, and movements in the work. How the music accelerates or decelerates also depends on whether the order is 2-3-4-5-7-8-10 or 10-8-7-5-4-3-2.

In the last movement of the Requiem, a battery of percussions, arranged in the back of the hall, is added to make sounds that come from behind the audience to create an overwhelming feeling of what death could possibly mean, to create a concept that death is both powerful and naturally peaceful and that one should accept and welcome it as part of life. This physical setting creates an atmosphere where the audience can better experience the insignificance and meaningless of earthly desires that exist in the living vessel one is carrying.

A Vietnamese Requiem is dedicated to the nearly 10 million Vietnamese war victims (approximately 15% of its then population) in the twentieth century.

–> Read the Vietnamese version

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