Labyrinth for Solo Piano
Inspired by The Book of Imaginary Beings
and other writings by J. L. Borges
Tomorrow evening, March 27, 2018, I will premiere Labyrinth, a large work for solo piano commissioned by San Francisco Performances.
I have been fascinated with labyrinths - real or imaginary - all my life. So, it is not surprising that J.L. Borges has been one of my favorite writers for a very long time.
Labyrinth is an exploration of Time and its different prisms, mirrors, faces, games. The passages of the labyrinth are the passages of Time. Or, perhaps, Time itself takes the form of a labyrinth in which the inner and outer sides are the same, infinitely expanding and infinitely contracting.
Inspired by the hidden set of variations in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (the series of Promenades portraying a man walking through the gallery) in Labyrinth appeared the "Traumwanderer" (Dream wanderer). I do not know where the Traumwanderer came from. I asked him, but his answers are cryptic. Perhaps, the Traumwanderer is my double. More likely, he is a shape-shifter and becomes the double of each listener who comes to a concert hall and unexpectedly finds himself in the bestiary of a labyrinth.
Together with the Traumwanderer, we discover different passages, become lost and sometimes recognize reflections of our memories, fears, and dreams in the strange and at times disturbing shapes of the imaginary beings that the Traumwanderer meets.
These beings have encounters and relationships not only with the Traumwanderer but also among themselves. There are connections and hidden clues that allow the Traumwanderer to recognize his features, even the most grotesque and foreign elements.
Is the Traumwanderer inside of the labyrinth, or is the labyrinth within the Traumwanderer? Is Time standing still while we are searching for our way, or is the labyrinth made of the same material as Time itself? Is the Wanderer's progress through the passages of the labyrinth illusory? What is passing — us or our Time?
Together with the Traumwanderer, we meet the invisible A Bao A Qu, who has lived since the beginning of Time on the spiral staircase of the Tower of Chitor. This tower is known to have the most perfect view in the world, which — as with any perfection — can never be reached. We meet the Kilkenny Cats, who get into raging quarrels and devour each other in anger, leaving behind only their tails. We meet the poor Squonk, who cries himself into nothingness. We encounter the magical binding of the gigantic wolf Fenrir, who is kept on the strongest, yet lightest chain ever made — a cord woven of six imaginary things. (Of course, Fenrir eventually breaks loose.) We experience the terror of the Traumwanderer as he becomes increasingly lost within the mirrors, dead-ends, and detours of the maze. We hear the calling of the mystical Simurgh, the immortal bird that nests in the Tree of Knowledge. The other birds (after a long and difficult pilgrimage to reach him) realize "that they are the Simurgh and that the Simurgh is each of them and all of them." And, of course, what labyrinth could be complete without its Minotaur?
I remember myself as a child, aged six, reading Greek myths and wondering: What did the Minotaur do all day long, sitting at the center of a labyrinth, in the unchanging room, looking at the same inescapable walls? I imagined him being bored, lonely, and malnourished. After all, the poor beast had to survive on an unhealthy diet of only seven young men and seven maidens per year. Always hungry, lonely, half-mad... I imagined him occasionally dancing with himself from boredom and loneliness, perhaps while thinking of some appetizing maiden. As Ovid wrote, “The man half bull, the bull half man—not simply a monster, but a sad, unloved, and a somewhat comical creature at the heart of a labyrinth it will never be able to leave.”
We encounter angels and demons, gods, monsters, and chimeras, while the three ancient Norns (Past, Present, and Future) weave the thread of our lives.
I built Labyrinth in search of a form where relationships and dynamics between the Observer and the Object of observation could be explored. Or, perhaps, I built it to create a space where the inner dialogue between the Self and the Brain (also in the form of a labyrinth!) could be imagined. Sometimes, I think that I am, myself, an imaginary being, just as my Traumwanderer. And, perhaps, it is the Traumwanderer who composed this music, and I am the one forever lost in the labyrinth without even realizing it.
This thread brings me back to the beginnings, to a poem I wrote when I was 14 years old, titled "Labyrinth." I wrote it in Russian. Here it is in its English translation by Ronald Meyer.
by Lera Auerbach
In the labyrinth of words and sounds
I search for the riddle of life.
Whether I'll find it or not -- I do not know,
But I am playing upon the strings of the soul
And in sharing this music, I find happiness.
Commissioned by San Francisco Performances in honor of Ruth Felt