I’ve recently completed a video. It’s a musical setting of three short passages selected from the work known as Inner Chapters by the early Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou. I composed the music long ago, sometime around 1988, and at the same time I built a self-playing ostinato machine to provide most of the accompaniment. In several live solo performances over the following years I sang the words, accompanied by the machine and occasionally picking up other instruments to add in. But the new video is not a live performance, because now, 30+ years later, I’m no longer able to do a decent job of the singing: my neglected vocal skills have headed south in the intervening years. The video is made up instead of a lot of animated graphics, interspersed with recently shot footage of the machine in action, while the audio is from a studio recording of much earlier vintage, made shortly after the piece was first composed.
The texts are from a translation by Gia-Fu Feng (1919-1985) and Jane English, published in 1974. They’re used with the kind permission of Jane English ( www.eheart.com). I used this particular translation because – well, certainly not because I was a scholar of early Chinese literature and had reason to think that this translation was superior to others; in fact I was entirely naïve in the field (still am). Rather, I stumbled into this translation because my sister, always a source of new perspectives for me, happened to loan me the book. But I was quite taken with the writing, and the selection of the texts and the composition followed from that.
It’s my impression that translations of this material vary widely in their renderings. How could they not? Thousands of years intervene between the original writing and the modern translations. With concomitant evolutions in human vocabulary and thought, this must certainly introduce an element of inexactitude and speculation into the translation. But there was a sensibility in the writing that struck me as oddly contemporary: something about the blend of humor and detachment, and the quality of self-reflection embedded in recursive levels of self-reflection, and the cultivated balance between mundanity and transcendence, that might have resonated with a lot of post-hippie Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century. It felt both exotic and close to home. With this in mind I allowed myself, in the making of the music and images, to be freely anachronistic—that is, I made no attempt to make things stylistically relevant to the time frames involved. The starting point is a different kind of connectedness with the oddly glimpsed, imperfectly shared perspective of someone who lived in another cultural world far away and very long ago.
Thanks to my good friend Carly MacLane (Carly MacLane Photography) for shooting the video.
Thanks also to the anonymous programmers, not often credited as they should be, who made a lot of what goes on in the video possible. I’m thinking in this case of those working for Cubase (audio), Anime Pro (animation), Photoshop (image processing), and Movavi (video editing). A couple of these are considered to be high-end, industry-standard; the others perhaps less so; but this is the level at which I operate, and they worked for me.