One week ago, Kilu Music School had the remarkable honor and great fortune of performing in front of His Majesty, the King of Bhutan. My next blog entry will be about that unforgettable day. During that performance which mostly featured our students, I had the opportunity to perform a short excerpt from the special birthday composition I was commissioned to compose for His Majesty’s 30th Birthday several months back. I am taking this opportunity now to tell you more about that remarkable project.
Not long after I arrived here in Bhutan, I was asked by the Press Secretary for His Majesty if I would be interested in a commission to compose a special celebratory piece in honor of His Majesty’s 30th birthday, which took place February 21, 2010. I happily accepted such an honor and opportunity and composed “The People’s King”, a 25 minute cross-cultural work that brings together traditional Bhutanese music with classical music and jazz. It features the piano, four traditional Bhutanese instruments: flute, dramnyen (lute like), pchewang (similar to the chinese erhu/two stringed bowed instrument) and yangchen (zither like) as well as the long life Amitayus prayer chanted by the young monks of Dechen Phodrang.
I composed the piece during the months of December 2009 and Janauary 2010 and it was rehearsed and recorded in February 2010 at the national studios of Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS).
In my letter to His Majesty, which was submitted along with my composition on His Majesty’s birthday I wrote the following in describing the composition and the intentions behind it.
February 21, 2010
It is with great and distinctly unique pleasure that I submit to you this musical offering for the occasion of your 30th birth anniversary. When Dorji Wangchuk of Royal Office of Media asked me not long after arriving in Bhutan to compose a piece of music for your birthday, I immediately felt compelled by the exceptional honor and opportunity to express my great appreciation and admiration for this wonderful country, its beautiful people and its exceptional leader. As the months went by, and my life here grew ever more rich and rewarding in virtually every aspect of my life, I feel that this has also become my opportunity to express my gratitude for the many gifts that Bhutan has bestowed upon me.
In composing this piece I have attempted to bring to life an integration of my very preliminary understandings of Bhutanese music with the other compelling influences that have shaped my internal musical landscape. To achieve this end I decided to bring together four traditional Bhutanese instruments along with the piano, and write melodies that primarily use the Bhutanese musical scale, while incorporating harmonies and rhythms that are jazz and classical music inspired. I feel that the result is at once exciting and full of promise for many more such endeavors of musical collaborations and integration in the future.
In the beginning and ending of the piece you will hear the young monks of Dechen Phodrang Monastery chanting the Amitayus (Tsepagmed) mantra of Limitless Life. This long life mantra was chanted and recorded especially for the occasion of your birthday, praying for your long life. Aside from wanting this very meaningful and appropriate mantra in the piece to express my deepest wishes for your continued health and prosperity I have been very moved in the past few months by the beauty and hauntingly meditative quality of mantras chanted collectively.
I would indeed like to join the monks in my piece and wish you a long, limitless life. I also want to take this opportunity to personally express my admiration for the work that you do, for your leadership and service to your people, and for the values that you articulate and demonstrate by example. This world desperately needs more countries like Bhutan and more leaders like you.
I hope that you enjoy the music!
Yours truly, with deep admiration and respect,
The experience of creating and delivering this piece was unique and full of learning every step of the way. The minute I had decided that I wanted to use primarily traditional Bhutanese instruments and Bhutanese musicians, I also had to limit the melodic content played by these instruments and musicians to the pentatonic scale as this was the only music they knew how to play on these instruments. I believe the melodies I wrote for this piece were inspired by the many songs and melodies I’ve heard many mornings of the year coming from all around my neighborhood. Sitting on my balcony, or working inside, sometimes I would hear Bhutanese pop music coming from a neighbor’s house, chanting and religious songs coming from the Memorial Chorten, or contemporary Bhutanese folk songs being blasted loudly from speakers at the police grounds, where rehearsals were taking place for various National celebrations.
During the rehearsal process, I taught by ear each part of the piece to the four Bhutanese traditional musicians. And when we recorded there were a myriad of logistical obstacles that came up. However, the piece was completed on time, and the result was heartening.
This project was made possible, with the help of several important individuals. I would like to list them below.
Samten Chopel, flute
Songay Thinley, yangchen
Kelzang Phuntso, dramnyen
Monks of Dechen Phodrang Monastery
Sonam Wangmo, sound technician
Neten Dorji, mixing
Khen Sonam Dorji, for helping me find musicians
Dorji Wangchuk and the Royal Office of Media for all of their help.