The Heart Savors its Fragrance
For Solo Cello. Duration: ~16'
Premiered by Robert Howard on May 31, 2019 at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, TX.
One version of this piece contains some simple choreographed hand gestures derived from Odissi dance. There is also a sonic-only version.
In 2009, I began learning a piece of choreography by my Guru Ranjanaa Devi, called "Sabori". It was an Oriya setting of a part of a collection of esoteric poetry called "Charyapada", Songs of Realization, of the 8th-12th Centuries, in Odisha, India. As I later learned, this was a fascinating moment in the religious and cultural history of the region, dominated by Buddhist Tantrism and tribal religions. The characters who appear in Sabarapada, the poem I have spent these 10 years puzzling over, reflect this cultural diversity. Without going into too much detail about the poem (contact me if you'd like to read the 20-page research paper I wrote about it in college...), I will describe its musical incarnation here.
"The Heart Savors its Fragrance" is my musical meditation on the Goddess Nairatmya, the embodiment of the Buddhist philosophical idea of "no self." It describes a lonely, sensuous forest atmosphere, where the Goddess wanders, and the spiritual seeker eventually unites with her. Having grown up in a forest, I wanted to capture some of the spiritual imaginings that can happen in a place that is both so full and so empty. Perhaps you might believe that a tree could grow all the way up to the sky within a couple magical musical phrases.
The name "The Heart Savors its Fragrance" refers to the metaphor used to describe the heart and our capacity to feel. This metaphor is paan, a street food made of betel leaves with various flavors inside, which is still enjoyed in South Asia today. In Medieval poetry, lovers wrapped paan lovingly in antipation of the arrival of their beloved. To me, this idea that the heart can enjoy (or eat) the fragrant essence within it -- that is to say, love -- points to the endless well of spiritual bliss inside us, a vast, encompassing aroma that far exceeds the scope of our loneliness.
In Odissi dance, we tell stories using the power of gesture and intention. I wanted to bring this choreographic magic to the cello -- my first instrument. For a piece that sits prominently on the open strings (A, D, G, C) -- notes that a beginner spends a bit of time on -- unusual techniques happen frequently enough to keep the performer on their toes. Some of those "techniques" involve gestures of love: embracing the cello as a part of oneself. (Even placing necklaces and earrings upon it, as I would to my own body, gesturally, through dance).
The meaning behind these loving gestures is very intentional for me as a cellist. After experiencing performance injuries a few years ago, it's a challenging emotional and physical journey to come back to a state of comfort while playing.
Many thanks to Robert Howard and the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music for their tireless support and guidance. Thank you to my Guru Ranjanaa Devi for introducing me to the magic of this poetry and dance; and finally, to Robert-Christian Sanchez for delivering to me that most satisfying and fruitful of all cello positions, the cello hug.
Charyapada 28 (Songs of Realization) - Sabarapada
Translation by Akshaya Avril Tucker and Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud.
Up in tall mountain peaks, Sabari lives -
decked in peacock feathers -
a string of red gunja berries, on her neck
O wild, mad Sabara,
Stop your useless, heart-wrenching cries -
for your own
is the Goddess of Innate, blissful Beauty.
The tree grew, and flowered,
the branch brushed the sky.
Sabari’s ears hang with the weight of her earrings,
she grasps the sacred thunderbolt, Vajra -
and wanders alone, in the forest.
The bed of three metals is placed.
Sabara spreads the sheets with delight -
the lover, Sabara, and Sabari, the beloved, caress until morning.
The heart, a betel leaf, savors the fragrant camphor wrapped inside.
Embracing the Void in his neck,
Sabara passes the rapturous night.
Consider the Guru’s words as your bow,
and with your mind as the arrow,
Pierce through Nirvana in one try.