for violin and percussion (1 player)

Program Notes

Sabi was written at the request of my colleagues percussionist Greg Byrne and violinist Peter McHugh, for a performance in Michinoku Hall in Hirosaki, Japan in December of 2000. It was commissioned by the Instrumental Performance Department of the University of Louisville School of Music.

The title is a Japanese word for which there is, apparently, no exact English translation. It is described in Keys to the Japanese Heart and Soul as a “poetic ideal [which] points toward a medieval aesthetic combining elements of old age, loneliness, resignation, and tranquillity, yet the colorful and plebeian qualities of Edo-period culture are also present.” It is further described as a “synthesis of conflicting aesthetic values,” in which a “person awakened to the essential mutability of life does not dread physical waning or loneliness; rather he or she accepts these sad facts with quiet resignation and even finds in them a source of enjoyment.”

This short piece attempts to capture in music my own understanding of this concept. While composing Sabi I was very much aware of the simplicity and austerity that so is often present in Japanese art and aesthetics, in which small gestures add up to much more than they seem to on the surface. One could think of a Zen garden, or of certain paintings in which a few simple lines of black ink on silk or paper will imply a mountain, or indeed a whole mountain range. Haiku also comes to mind: seventeen syllables will somehow suggest a whole world of meanings. My piece follows similar methods of construction to, I hope, similar ends.

However, I wish to make it clear that I do not pretend to understand the concept of sabi as a Japanese would, nor do I offer this work as anything more than a respectful gloss by an American composer, looking into another culture from the outside.

Professor Takefusa Sasamori of Hirosaki Gakuin University kindly gave me a copy of Keys to the Japanese Heart and Soul when told I him I was planning to write a piece for Greg and Peter to play in Japan, and he suggested that I might find subject matter and perhaps a title within it. I am very grateful to him for his gift and suggestion.

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