Interview of Luc De Winter

In November last year, Luc De Winter proposed his concert « SANDOKAI – Zen and Polyfonie », for which the most important texts of Zen Buddhism were set into music by the Ensemble Polyfoon.

Over a thousand people attended the concert, a recording was later released on CD. On November 11, in the Gothic chapel Keizerskapel of Antwerpen, his one-hour-long composition for string quartet « AIGO – a Ceremony for Consort » has been performed by four professional gambists. A seventy minutes piano recital is scheduled on February 12, 2012, called « KANNON'S PILLOW », that will be performed by Veerle Peeters.

We wondered about the reasons for this sudden wave of music inspired by the Zen and we have asked the composer...

LDW : Well, finally it is a coincidence that these three programs were ready in just over a year... the music of the concerts Sandokai was written between 2008 and 2010, and it all went rather well, since I could finally work directly from the texts, which stimulated inspiration.

So I wrote Ten Line Sutra and Sutra of the Heart in a few weeks, between the summer camps of Maredsous and the Gendronnière, it is true that outside summer time, I have no time to compose. My second string quartet Aigo was written between 2006 and 2008, therefore before the music of Sandokai, and the seven pieces of Kannon's Pillow between 2000 and 2011... When I wrote in 2000 Prelude for Kannon, I felt like continuing exploring this style, not only because I noticed that it was not enough elaborate, but also because I wanted « some company » to this composition, other pieces could fit it, which could be performed together in a comprehensive program. But I had not expected that finally, it would become seventy minutes of music, seven pieces the longest lasting over twenty minutes...

ABZE : All the pieces have « zen » titles... The Sandokai, we all know it ; Aigo, does it refer to the Bodaisatta Shishobo of Dogen ?

LDW : Yes indeed ...

ABZE :... but what mean titles as (consulting the program for piano recital) Kannon's Pillow, Riding the Waves, 37 Wings... ?

LDW : Well, the music composed for the piano revolves completely around Kannon, as the personificationof compassion, the central notion that ultimately brings these three projects together... Riding the Waves is a rather lively piece, contrasting in this program, both in form and language : it refers to the often naïve and popular representation of Kannon, standing in the middle of the waves, in the world of phenomena, which do not reach him, though. I must say that those titles are always added once the compositions are completed : when I write, I think pure tones, and only afterwards I try to put down the emotion into a title.

37 Wings is inspired from the new translation of 37 Voies de l'Eveil by Tanahashi (commented by Roland in his book "Voies d'Eveil". I found this new English translation of the title, 37 Wings of Enlightenment particularly inspiring. The composition is probably the most abstract one of the program, it reminds me of the classic Zen dry gardens, such as Ryoan-Ji.


Kannon's Pillow (the name of the last and the longest part and of the whole program) refers to a classic (famous) mondo quoted by Dogen in the Shobogenzo Shinji in which Ungan asks : « What can Kannon do with his innumerable hands and eyes ? » Dogo answers : « It's like someone asleep at night who loses his pillow and fumbles about for it.»

Compassion as a natural action, fundamental. The subtitle of the piece, nocturne, (at night) is related to this image, and with music features. As you know, in Zen we are fond of this « U- turn » image, expressed in these images of the day and night : « In the darkness of night it is perfectly clear », that can be read in the Hokyo Zanmai. « In the light of day it is hidden. » I hope that my composition is in this way a nocturne....though we mustn't become attached either to the day or to the night (laughs).

ABZE : Do you consider your music as part of the tradition of Zen arts ?

LDW : Well, first, naturally, it is music written by someone who practices zazen. It is certainly not my intention to write consciously a contemporay European Zen music... In the end, I write by inspiring me from the music I absorbed for years : from the Renaissance, for instance, that I found for many reasons appropriate to the transposition of classic Zen texts : this music is vocal and suited for sutras chants, in a certain way, they rely on simple and sober elements (an extremely simple writing, using basic accords essentially ...)

Finally, there is the simultaneity of this music that is not searched for but that appears as it emerges from life itself : as a tree has simultaneously thousands of different leaves, as our body that uses at the same time hundreds of different functions, and it is the same in this music : multiple melodies are present in the moment, you can not follow them using your conscious straight thinking, you must somewhere let go and let yourself be carried away by the whole piece...

I realised though that my own music is a 20th century version of ancient polyphony... This is typical of my interpretation of this music style actually, it contains more space for breathing, as in calligraphy, the sumie is the practice of shakuhachi : we are not afraid to do too little, we let time and space be, simply.

But the influence of the Renaissance music, which was obvious for Aigo, began to change for the project of Sandokai, and in the piano piece this style is hardly noticeable. The constant features are rather great soberness, letting go of personal intentions, to the benefit of a natural organic growth, an experience, a celebration of the moment. At the same time, I joined several styles : influences of Impressionism, Expressionism, non-European music from the late 20th century.

I don't want either to make impersonal music, it is important not to remain only in a absolute perspective, but to express human warmth. In this area, I feel deeply related to the work of Kaz Tanahashi, who when using different colours for an enso (classic circle), calls at the same time both the absolute and the emotional, personal life.

The pianist Veerle Peeters succeeded in expressing it in a masterly way, maintaining that delicate balance which is however different for each piece. It was very interesting for me to see what she made of those compositions... She quickly perceived what that music needed, and her interpretation reached an extraordinary subtlety, in which music came to life from the inside, as you can see it in this sumie of Beppe Signoritti (Luc shows a sumie behind him), each little leaf, each bamboo is different, and becomes an organic whole...

A CD was recorded in August and I hope to present it next February.

ABZE : Have you got any project for your next compositions ?

LDW : Yes, of course. Presently I am working at Songs from Five Scoop Hut, 14 chants based on poems of Ryokan, according to the new translation of Kaz Tanahashi, which also has not yet been published. Other projects are compostions for the Hokyo Zanmai, the Shodoka, the Shin Jin Mei and other Zen texts... I would also like to work with other families of instruments ... That'll do it for now !

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