We live in an interconnected world. My (Germanic) Schreiner piano was manufactured in China, Chinese pianists are perfecting the European concerto repertoire. As a composer I have learned from the creativity of many cultures, my uncle was a Canadian professor of Chinese History, my daughter speaks Japanese, I’ve lived in Kenya, and Princeton, my friends and pupils are international. So perhaps it is not surprising that the humane wisdom of the I Ching eventually took root as the basis of a few piano pieces (wonderfully premiered by Geoffrey Duce, Helen Reid, Jane Ford, Louisa Breen, and Nic Hodges, mostly at the Purcell Room in London) and continued until all 64 hexagrams of this “Classic of Changes” had inspired a musical counterpart.
Viewed as a single three-hour composition, A Pianist’s I Ching may appear formidable. But individually these are concise, vivid, character pieces, such as have always contributed to the keyboard repertoire across the centuries, whether by Byrd, Rameau, Schumann, or Janacek. The 64 miniatures are grouped into 8 Zones of 8 movements, each Zone being organised to sound well as a unity, a Suite. Where to start? Choose a Zone, perhaps. Or Start Anywhere – at random, with any title that appeals – just as you might open a book of sonnets, or recipes.
I say this because ‘at random’ is how I Ching itself is traditionally accessed. It is not read from the beginning: you fix a question in your mind, meditate on it, then follow the outcome of a chance (or is it intuitively sought?) pattern that is materialised by a protocol usually deploying yarrow stalks or three coins. The internet is richly stocked with material but, put briefly, this leads you to one specific Hexagram – the word signifies a block of six lines, each one being either solid or divided, yang or yin – which carries a unique text to dwell on. More often than not your coins have also raised some “changing lines” that lead to a second Hexagram. What this means is that every question that is posed can open up any one of 4096 possible responses.
Listeners do not need to be at all familiar with I Ching at all to ‘get’ the music. But if you are, you could locate the music to match any one, or any pair, of the 64 Hexagrams, here:
While “The Classic of Changes” does seem, to me, to voice an unheard music of life’s flow of events and potentials (the Tao), I do not pretend my music can capture all the complex nuances of the I Ching texts. As in a song, a landscape painting, or portraiture the artist cannot, indeed should not, leave personal vision and passion out of the picture. So my music does not pretend to ‘speak for’ the oracle. But it is shaped by it. And I dare to hope the listener will share something of my thrill at exploring I Ching’s vivid imagery and its conciliatory wisdom.
These compositions were begun spontaneously on a London to Bristol train in May 2001 and completed in January 2018. I then revised and reconfigured them into what had originally been planned in 2001, which was that the ‘lower trigram’ remains fixed in each volume /zone, revealing a thread of connection and character within each. The complete set was recorded in four sessions at Cardiff Millennium Studios between January and March 2019, and a fifth session at the Kings’ School in Macclesfield early in February 2020, just before Covid lockdown. A Pianist’s I Ching reflects an epoch, one of Millennial dismay, gratuitous warfare, the end to growth, and climate crisis, alongside personal losses, joys, and discoveries. “Interesting Times” indeed! Geoffrey Poole