Shing Kham (world premiere, LA Phil commission)
Composed: 2010-2011 (orchestration completed by Oliver Knussen with the assistance of Dejan Badnjar)
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, baritone saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussionists, piano (doubling celesta), harp, strings, and solo percussionist (marimba, snare drum, 6 tom-toms, bass drum, 6 wooden tom-toms, 4 suspended cymbals, and triangle)
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)
For Peter Lieberson, working on what would be his final composition “was a life-sustaining and joyful activity,” according to the writer Rinchen Lhamo. She adds that it’s likely Pedro Carneiro’s “unique capacities as a percussionist had something to do with this: something brand new for Peter to wrap his mind around.” Lhamo was Lieberson’s wife when he died from complications of lymphoma in April 2011. Although he had been in treatment for some years, she recalls that her husband anticipated being able to complete Shing Kham up until his last bout of illness, which arrived suddenly and unexpectedly. Several other projects on the horizon – including an orchestral song cycle he planned to compose to poems by Lhamo – additionally indicate the resurgence of creative energy that accompanied work on the percussion concerto.
The temptation to discover in Shing Kham some sort of “last will” or “farewell” to life would therefore be as misleading as it is with regard to the final works numerous other composers have left to posterity. Indeed, the tempo indication Lieberson gives at the outset of his score – “mercurial and feisty, with energy” – could stand as an epithet for the concerto as it now exists, suggests Carneiro: this despite the fact of death that frames its genesis.
Carneiro remembers that they started talking about the idea of a percussion concerto seven or eight years ago. Carlos de Pontes Leca, at the time adjunct director of the music division at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Carneiro’s native Portugal, had especially admired Lieberson’s Grawemeyer Award-winning Neruda Songs, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered in 2005 (with the composer’s second wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, as the soloist). Particularly since Lieberson’s music was relatively unknown in Portugal, Carneiro decided to commission a new work and formed a consortium with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So Shing Kham’s genesis dates back before the onset of the composer’s illness and before the death of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, also from cancer.
“I experienced tragedy in my life around that time as well,” says Carneiro, but eventually they resumed their discussions and entered into a long-distance collaboration. He would regularly send Lieberson videos to demonstrate particular sonorities or combinations of instruments or registers. “I tried to make the videos as entertaining and yet intellectually stimulating as I could,” Carneiro explains. “It was important for me to remain neutral and give him free rein, not to ask for anything in particular, like a cadenza at such and such point in the score. A great deal of energy went into it, even though there was such a long gestation behind a ten-minute piece.”
The percussionist traveled to Tel Aviv, where Lieberson was undergoing experimental treatment, and had a moving encounter not long before the composer died. “Peter was a generation older, but we had become longtime friends and had a real connection. The collaboration was a beautiful process, and I like to think that it gave him something to be working on it under the worst conditions possible. For me, I hope it will touch on all my future projects.”
Lhamo points out that her husband had an extraordinary ability to “hear the music in his head” while he was creating. Carneiro, too, recalls how amazed he was by Lieberson’s precision. “He didn’t even have a piano available [at the facility in Tel Aviv] when he was working on the score. He had just bought some manuscript paper in a shop and was writing it out the old-fashioned way.” Yet because Lieberson’s ideas about the sounds he wanted were so specific, he was able to indicate many of the details of the orchestration in his short-score continuity draft for the first movement of what he envisioned as a three-movement concerto. (Carneiro estimates that, had Lieberson completed it, Shing Kham would have been compact and might have had a duration of about 25 minutes.) Lieberson’s peer Oliver Knussen later prepared the realized version of the score which we hear in this concert using this source and also drawing on his intricate knowledge of the composer’s style. Knussen notes that at places up to measure 144 of the 247-measure movement he completed, he “elaborated the texture, mostly according to suggestions in P.L.’s sketches.” After that point, “where instrumental details are frequently absent in the draft,” Knussen’s realization provides “either practical alternatives, or places where I have introduced instrumental details not indicated in the manuscript.”
The basic sound world evoked in Shing Kham, as Carneiro describes it, is “earthy, impulsive, somewhat ‘throbbing’ – I learn it directly from the orchestral score, as every step of the way I need to connect to every single player in the orchestra.” Along with this “sinfonia concertante” dimension, he refers to Knussen’s characterization of the music as “volatile and quirky.” As a percussion concerto, Carneiro believes Shing Kham is a “game-changer” because of the original techniques and sonorities it calls for. In particular, these include instruments Carneiro designed in collaboration with instrument-makers in Holland (Majestic) and Portugal (Missom): a marimba with a damper pedal, a custom-made “oversize” mallet requiring a novel playing technique, and a series of multiple-sound mallets made and developed specifically for this piece.
During their collaboration, Carneiro and Lieberson didn’t discuss a programmatic dimension to Shing Kham; in fact it was only after the composer’s death that Carneiro learned of the title, which suggests the relation of the composer’s Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist practice to his creative life. Lhamo explains that her husband first mentioned this as a tentative title for his work in progress on August 9, 2010, when he was receiving medical treatment in Houston. He wanted to keep it private for the time being – the key to a meaning “special only to us” which “unlocked a door for [Peter] and gave [him] more juice to compose the piece.”
The words Shing Kham refer to an enormously complex topic in Buddhism. Lhamo articulates some of the essential connotations of this idea, which vary widely according to different branches of Buddhist teaching: “Put together, the two words are popularly translated as ‘pure land.’ Some people will interpret a pure land as literally some kind of heavenly realm, filled with sublime beings, free of neurosis, practicing kindness, and so forth.” It can also indicate “a kind of enlightened society imbued with an abundance of sensory pleasures. In Tibetan lore, there are various shing khams, each one endowed with its own name and its own specialties (such as particular types of flowers and trees, certain kinds of melodies in the air), and presided over by a particular deity that embodies a particular kind of exalted quality.”
At the same time, shing kham is a state that can be “subjectively experienced anytime and anywhere…. The experience is abiding bliss and pure goodness (like Peter, if I may say so).” Lhamo adds that she doesn’t think that by choosing this title her husband “meant to reflect thoughts he might have had about dying and ‘moving on to the next realm.’ I dare to think that Peter was writing the concerto from the ‘pure realm’/space of his mind, that this present world (his personal version of it) maybe arose as something inherently brilliant and good. And maybe there was something aspirational in the writing as well – that maybe he wanted to invoke the idea of a pure realm for whoever would hear the music.” And percussion instruments themselves, suggests Lhamo, “with their sharp, fearless, awake sound… may also have inspired Peter to use the title. I wish he were here so we could ask him.”
- Thomas May