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13 June 2013

Responding to Bodhasāra

Chris Williams Image: Chris Williams  

Chris Williams writes about his involvement in the Bodhasāra project by Chronology Arts, funded through its Commissioners' Circle crowdfunding initiative. The other composers of the project are Leah Barclay, Annie Hsieh, Alex Pozniak and Hayden Woolf.

I decided to begin this blog by excavating my inbox for an e-mail I knew I had from one of our translators for Chronology's Bodhasāra Project. The project takes Jennifer and Grahame Cover's new translation - the very first in English - of Narahari's eighteenth-century sanskrit text Bodhasāra, and invites musical responses from five Australian composers. It has also been supported, in part, by Chronology's new micro-philanthropic Commissioners' Circle, but more on that later. Back to the dig...

I do wonder if the inbox will become the digital generation's archeological record. It seems a reasonable assumption, with the occasional stunning artifact often hidden amongst seemingly increasing layers of proverbial dirt, or literal 'junk.' On the 1st of April 2013, at 12:38am (in one of the time zones the project was coordinating at that stage), I had written to Jenni :

...This question might be a little vague, and I am not really anticipating any particular response. It might be a question of philosophy, translation, or something all together more practical. I'm not sure. I'm curious about the distinctions in the text between 'meditation', 'contemplation' and 'consideration'...

These three words divide and order the text with which I have chosen to work.

Jenni's response was the kind of rare artifact that makes an inbox worth having. Like the book, it was immediate, insightful, and careful beyond 'simple translation' (as if such a thing exists). Jenni explained that the origins of their translation lay in three similarly related sanskrit ideas which form a unified and integrated approach to worship. Dhyāna, from the root meaning 'to meditate, contemplate or recollect', is rendered 'meditation' and associated with the heart (or soul). Vicāra, from the root 'to move', combined with a word for 'apart, away or asunder' is rendered 'contemplation' and focuses on the mind, while nirṇaya whose root 'to lead, guide, or direct' is rendered 'consideration'. It prepares the body for worship. Soul, Mind, and Body for the complete dissolution of 'self' associated with devotion. It isn't hard, of course, to start making musical connections.

Her e-mail, with wonderful concision, captured and animated an experience otherwise quite foreign to my own. Culture aside, I can also confess to expecting having the opportunity of discussing the nuance of sanskrit translation with a scholar of Jenni's caliber as I might expect 'the inquisition,' so I am doubly grateful.

And as for the Commissioner's Circle, without which none of this would be possible, it is the aptly chosen word circle that most interests me. As well as forging new work, it relies on making new, and fostering extant, connections between specific audiences, performers and artists; circles abound and they are important circles for the things we make and experience with one another. The audience as an inextricable part of the creative product is acknowledged and directly supported. We, the audience, can have intimate possession of the things that interest us (or might interest us) beyond buying a ticket to a concert (which is still imperative!). Funding becomes part of the creative act, too. Rather than denying economic realities, the Commissioner's Circle invites the entire audience to take part in the real-time creation of art.

Through the Bodhasāra project, I have learnt of a sanskrit literary technique known as the 'branch moon maxim' which describes moving from the tangible known to the intangible unknown, as an important way of understanding the world beyond the self. Jenni's wisdoms helped me to move from that which I knew myself already and begin grappling with the things I could not manage on my own, while the Commissioner's Circle integrates a tangible way to become part of the intangible experience of making art.

Translation from language to language, or culture to culture, is an infinitely complicated process, but every new attempt at it is really a new attempt at understanding, constructing, re-imagining the world we know, while laying claim to the possibility of the worlds that we do not yet know. This seems as good a place to start composing, as it is to start listening.

AMC resources

Chris Williams - AMC profile

Further links

Chronology Arts - Commissioners' Circle (current commissions)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Chris Williams has just completed his masters in composition at the University of Oxford, studying with Robert Saxton, and is looking forward to an Australian summer, for which England has rendered him completely ill-equipped.


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