O ihr Zärtlichen, tretet zuweilenP eter Lieberson died of sepsis, a complication of his lymphoma and treatment for lymphoma last Saturday, at age 64. Lieberson gratified our ears not only with composerly talent but with a humor and warm personality that do not require atmospheric ‘soft-focus’ photos like the one above to convey the inner gentleness.
in den Atem, der euch nicht meint,
laßt ihn an eueren Wangen sich teilen,
hinter euch zittert er, wieder vereint.
O ihr Seligen, O ihr Heilen,
die ihr der Anfang der Herzen scheint.
Bogen der Pfeile und Ziele von Pfeilen,
ewiger glänzt euer Lächeln verweint.
Fürchtet euch nicht zu leiden, die Schwere,
gebt sie zurück an der Erde Gewicht;
schwer sind die Berge, schwer sind die Meere.
Selbst die als Kinder ihr pflanztet, die Bäume,
wurden zu schwer längst ; ihr trüget sie nicht.
Aber die Lüfte ... aber die Räume ...
[O you Tender Ones, you will walk, persisting
Through the cold breath that was not breathed for your sake,
Your heedless cheeks oblivious to its trembling.
Blowing as it does, the wind coalesces behind you after you've passed, without trace.
O Blessed Ones, healthy and whole though you be now,
Who seem to be enveloped and self-sufficient, the epitome of life and the heart's beginning.
Bows are there for each conceivable arrow and a target for all arrows:
Logical correlates of the perpetual brilliance of your pulsatile smile.
Fear not the pain and sorrow and stillness that will inevitably come,
Consign all of that back to the heavy Earth who knows good and well what to do with it:
Heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
Even as a child, you planted these trees:
Already they are awfully heavy, beyond belief really.
Despite this persists the pervasive space ... the ubiquitous breezes ...]”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, VI.
P eter’s wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, died of breast cancer at age 52, in 2006. She was a mezzo-soprano, known for her dramatic power and raw virtuosity as well as her artistry performing Baroque era and new compositions. Her career path to becoming a singer was unconventional. Formerly a professional violist, Lieberson changed her full-time focus to singing when she was around 30 (1985 and beyond). As violist she played in the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music in Boston under conductor Craig Smith and later sang in the chorus. For a time, she was also principal viola in Berkeley Symphony.
I n re-listening to recordings I have of Peter’s later compositions, Lorraine’s influence on Peter’s soul and heart becomes evident… how she provided him with insights and renewal. This is an undeniable element in Peter’s writing after 1997. Lorraine’s influence is diaphoric, trans-illuminating—an emblem of spirit-in-matter. Must be why he fell in love with her… good reason why anyone would fall in love with anyone.
[50-sec clip, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson & Peter Serkin, Peter Lieberson, ‘Rilke Songs’, ‘O, ihr Zärtlichen’, 1.6MB MP3]
L ieberson was expert at syllabic setting and pitch repetition: the vocal part centers on particular notes for considerable proportions of passages. These songs are predominantly recitative. They have suspended accompaniment and rubato manifestations of the singing part.
W hen I was growing up, my mother, whose first language was German, would often quote lines from Rilke. I have been drawn to his poetry ever since. Rilke evokes feelings, states of being that are at the edge of awareness, mysterious but close to the heart. One can’t always understand exactly what he means. I believe this is a deliberate elusiveness in order to provoke our intuition. The Rilke Songs were written for my wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I think of them as love songs even though the poems themselves are not overtly about love. They are about being childlike and open in ‘O ihr Zärtlichen’; in ‘Atmen, du unsichtbares Gedicht!,’ they are about the breath being a complete exchange between our own essence and the universe. They are about how the breath seems to go out into space like our wandering son; the mysterious way in which we might transform ourselves: ‘If drinking is bitter, turn yourself into wine’ (‘Stiller Freund’). To me these Rilkean insights are a gift of love..”K atherine Kelton maintains that Peter Lieberson “learned about the complexity of the human voice and the multitude of intricacies of which it is capable” through Lorraine. “Much as Robert Schumann’s love for Clara Wieck inspired him to compose in a genre he had previously disregarded,” so too Lorraine propelled Peter in directions that were, up to then, unfamiliar.
Peter Lieberson, program notes.
M aybe this is so; maybe a ‘push’ theory is right.
B ut it is also possible (and, I think, more likely) that it was a matter of ‘pull’, of natural attraction. In fact, it is hardly plausible that the diverse nuances of the voice could have been novel for Peter in 1997. If anything, his many years leading Shambhala sessions led him to develop acute sensitivity to myriad manifestations of ego/self and selflessness. And there was Lorraine, an eager collaborator, able to animate a composition so as to lead to discoveries for both, on the part of both.
L orraine’s performances of Peter’s compositions evoke what Mircea Eliade once called ‘dialectique du sacre’ and ‘hierophanies’. Sacred portrayal is realized as an individual creative act—one that embodies both spiritual insight and sensual perception. The relationship ceases to be merely ‘of-the-world’. It achieves transcendence, a dimension of sacredness. That, I believe, is what we hear in these wonderful recordings. The feeling conveyed is one of consummate ‘hereness’, ‘thisness’—a kind of presence, of living entirely in the present.
I think of my Rilke Songs as love songs even though they are not overtly about love. They are, for example, about being child-like and open, as in “O ihr Zärtlichen;” about the breath being a complete exchange of our own essence with the universe in “Atmen, du unsichtbares Gedicht;” about the mysterious ways in which we might transform ourselves in “Stiller Freund” . . . To me, these Rilkean insights are gifts of love.”
Peter Lieberson, program notes to ‘Rilke Songs’.
T he act of singing... when my voice is feeling free and soaring... it is a wonderful, healing experience.”
Lorraine Hunt, interview with Terry Gross, NPR, 1996.
T he spelling sgra bla (‘la of sound’) found in the ancient texts as a matter of fact is based on a very deep principle characteristic of the most authentic Bön tradition. Sound, albeit not visible, can be perceived through the sense of hearing and used as a means of communication, and is in fact linked to the cha (the individual’s positive force, the base of prosperity), wang tang (ascendancy-capacity), and all the other aspects of a person’s energy, aspects that are directly related with the protective deities and entities that every person has from birth. Moreover, sound is considered the foremost connection between the individual himself and his la.”T o me, Peter Lieberson’s later compositions embody Shambhala texts that reveal and test our relationship to the “material world” and our sense perceptions. They teach the practice of enriching presence—the ability to instantly envision the inner wealth within oneself.
Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, Drung De’u and Bön, translated by Adriano Clemente, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1995, p. 61.
T o compose ‘Neruda Songs’, I responded to the words and to the emotional tone of the poem. I heard notes when I read the words. Generally I like the tactile feeling, the sensual feeling of being at the piano, so I compose there. I listen very, very carefully to the words, and the harmony is very intuitive. The great period of jazz, that’s how I learned harmony, Bill Evans and Miles Davis. That was my ear training. Orchestrations come easily to me, and I often hear which instrument should be playing. It’s constant responsiveness; it’s somewhere between improvising and strategizing.”T here is, to me, a cinematic quality to the songs—as though the composer were a cameraman.
Peter Lieberson, interview with Pierre Ruhe, 10-JUN-2010.
C amera placement distinctly influences our perception of the world that’s portrayed and the characters in it. Shooting down at a seated character can diminish her presence and stature; it may make her seem submissive or even supplicative. Filming up at a character provides a sense of the figure’s power and command. By contrast, in Rilke Songs it is as if Peter Lieberson’s ‘camera’ is placed at eye-level, making the perspective like what we would see while sitting across from Lorraine having a conversation. The character isn’t ‘owned’ by the camera/cameraperson nor is she sensationalized by it.
C ombien qu'a nous soit cause le SoleilT here is an interview that Lorraine did with NPR’s Terry Gross back in 1996, in which Lorraine confides her fascination with identity-bending, gender-bending roles—the journeys of self-discovery and transcendence that are made possible through these. Beyond angle, camera placement also affects the view that we have onto the action and the resultant meaning we can derive from a shot. On the surface, the Rilke Songs setting of several Rilke poems celebrate the then-undersung life and burgeoning talent of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. That her belated decampment from viola to singing was what vaulted her to international fame was an oddity: here was the soul and and the propensities of a string player inhabiting an operatic singer’s body.
Que toute chose est tresclerement veue:
Ce neantmoins pour trop arrester l'œil
En sa splendeur lon pert soubdain la veue.
Mon ame ainsi de son objiect pourueue
De tous mes sens me rend abandonné,
Comme si lors en moy tout estonné
Semeles fust en presence rauie
De son Amant de fouldre enuironné
Qui luy ostast par ses esclaires la vie.
[Much as the Sun causes each thing
To lie so clearly before our eyes:
To linger too long in its splendor
Is to be suddenly made blind.
My soul and its object
Now abandoned by all my senses,
As if, within me, and to my great surprise
Semele were ravished in my presence
By her Lover [Zeus] who, with his thunderbolts,
Snatched her life in a flash of light.]”
Maurice Scève, Délie, v.443.
P eter leveraged Lorraine’s enthusiasm for transcendent experiences to honor her. In Rilke Songs, it is as though composer Peter were a filmmaker choosing to shoot in a long profile ‘take’. The placement of the voice-leading/camera here and the accompaniment there; the choice to let the ‘shot’ play out as it does; these reveal the nuanced components, not only of composition but of microphone placement and physicality that Lorraine so deftly crafted in the use of her vocal instrument. No other ‘camera’ position and mic position could have permitted such insight into her craft, nor into the craft of the composer who created this vehicle for shared expression.
E very 24-hour day is a tremendous gift to us. So we all should learn to live in a way that makes joy and happiness possible. The first miracle of mindfulness is our true presence—being here, present, totally alive. If you are really here, the other will also be here. Loving? It is recognizing the presence of the other with your love... Dear One, I am here for you... A human tendency is to see spirituality as a process of self-improvement—the impulse to develop and refine the ego when the ego is, by nature, essentially empty. The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality.”N o atmospherics or sentimentality in this long ‘take’. Her delivery is straightforward and expository, articulated calmly and directly to the listener. Knowing as we do that these performances were sung—the compositions were composed—when Lorraine was already afflicted by breast cancer, the récits produce a kind of uncanniness; produce narrative convergences between Peter and Lorraine; they embody a tantric, elliptical concentration; they are an Unheimlichkeit, a Verklärung, eine Vorahnung.
Thich Nhat Hanh.
T hese wonderful specimens of humankind will be deeply missed.
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- Tricycle magazine
- Surviving Sepsis Campaign
- The Heart of Warriorship
- Level I: The Art of Being Human
- Level II: Birth of the Warrior
- Level III: Warrior in the World
- Level IV: Awakened Heart
- Level V: Open Sky
- The Sacred Path
- Great Eastern Sun
- Outrageous and Inscrutable
- Golden Key