This album was conceived as a result of multiple disparate threads coming together during the Summer and Fall of 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic. My home is on the side of Cooper Mountain, and we are on a particularly quiet cul-de-sac. Being sequestered here for months on end, and composing all of this music here during this time, my home became my own “quiet mountain.” In a classic metaphor of a hermit finding quiet refuge on the side of a mountain in a quest for inner peace, my own home became a sort of unintentional hermitage. With the emotional turmoil of the pandemic and political situation in 2020, and in an attempt to counter that with quietude and peace, I turned more and more to writing quiet, piano-based compositions very different from the layered, somewhat “noisy” works on my previous West Riding albums.
As a part of this unexpected hermit activity and the additional free time and lack of “external” activity it afforded, I began exploring different musical artists. In so doing, I came across the soundtrack to the television show “Tales From the Loop,” composed by Philip Glass. I was immediately struck by something I already knew, which is how much beauty there can be in simplicity and repetition - I have explored his music occasionally in the past, but this was the first time I really noticed how lovely it could be. By way of exploring his music, I also came across the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and Icelandic musician Olafur Arnalds. I was similarly struck by how beautiful simplicity and repetition can be. These musical discoveries are what motivated the musical sound of the compositions themselves, and my compositional approach.
As a practicing Soto Zen Buddhist, I spend a great deal of time with the teachings of the 13th century Japanese master Eihei Dōgen. One of his fascicles is entitled the “Mountains and Waters Sutra,” which uses imagery of mountains and rivers to convey an understanding that goes beyond understanding. I was able to sit a retreat with Great Vow Zen Monastery (remotely from a hotel room, of course, due to the pandemic) where we studied this sutra, and intertwined it with the poetry of Cold Mountain (Hanshan). The idea of the retreat was how we can sit like a mountain while life flows like water, and sit like a river while life flows like a mountain? At the end of the retreat, the osho compelled us to write our own Cold Mountain-style poem and take on a “mountain” name - I chose “Quiet Mountain.” My poem was a metaphor on the forest representing our delusion, and the mountain representing clarity. Rather than delving into the dark forest itself, to step back into the mountains, taking, as Dogen says in his essay “Fukanzazengi,” the “backward step and turning the light around to illuminate the self.” To that end, the imagery I try to evoke, reflected in the song titles, is one of calm nature - and I intentionally selected descriptive text found in various Zen writings for the titles themselves (outlined below).
This is the closing track on my first West Riding album “Nothing Left But Light,” where it’s titled simply “Epilogue” (as the closing track). Here, it’s the opener, so I retitled it “Epilogue/Prologue” for that reason...but also to hint at the notion that endings are always beginnings, and beginnings are always endings, and there is no way to find precise definite points in time.
The original has many layers of analog synthesizers, computerized voice, wordless vocals, trumpet, loops and found sounds that were summarily obliterated through various filters. I wanted to return to the basic melody and harmony of the piece itself and keep it simply to piano and cello for this version.
A Coin Lost in the River (Is Found in the River)
The title stems from a koan featuring Chinese master Yunmen:
Yunmen was asked, "What does it mean to sit and contemplate reality?"
He answered, "The coin lost in the river is found in the river."
We are always searching for something that is already right in front of us, and always has been. Our original buddha nature has never been apart from us, it’s merely about looking deeply enough into the river so we can see it.
Ash Does Not Become Firewood Again
This is a reference to a metaphor in Eihei Dogen’s “Genjokoan,” where uses the supposed transition of firewood to ash as an example of how we see the progression of time as linear, and this becomes that, A turns into B, etc. but in reality, everything simply abides in its dharma position - firewood simply abides as firewood, and ash simply abides as ash. To think that firewood BECOMES ash is as false on a certain level as the idea that ash can become firewood again. Later in this same essay he uses a similar comparison that “we do not say that winter is the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.” Winter is simply winter, spring is simply spring, summer is simply summer - there is no one becoming the other.
Musically speaking, the fire builds and builds around the firewood, until the final note signifies the presence of nothing but ash.
Watching Joyful Leaves Dance to the Ground
Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story of watching leaves fall in autumn, and feeling melancholy for the passing of summer and the sadness of a once vibrant leaf saying goodbye to the tree and dying on the ground. Soon, though, he realized that autumn itself was just another beginning, and that rather than leaves falling sadly, they were dancing to the ground, joyful that they could decompose into mulch to feed the same tree from which they had fallen, bidding a happy farewell and a ‘see you again soon’ to the tree. The cycle of life, and impermanence, represented in a simple event that has occurred since the first tree, and will occur until the last tree is gone.
This piece was definitely inspired by Phillip Glass, as is quite evident throughout, and for me sounds very indicative of the type of ballet that a leaf would dance to as it drifts to the ground. The initial theme played by piano solo is the leaf changing color, as it begins to fall, new themes are introduced when the cello and trumpet enter, as the leaf leaves the tree and exists now only as a falling leaf and no longer as part of a tree. After its final descent to the ground, the first theme enters again, signifying the leaf’s disintegration into the earth and subsequent rebirth as part of the tree again.
No End To The Water, No End To The Air
This is another allusion to Dogen’s “Genjokoan” where he states that when a bird flies, there is no end to the air, and when a fish swims, there is no end to the water...fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, as the old song says. Meaning (perhaps), that the best place for us to be, the ONLY place we can be, is right here, right now, doing just what needs to be done next, in whatever form we are in right now. A fish can only be a fish, a bird can only be a bird, and we can only be deluded humans existing in this relative world. Dogen goes on to say that if a bird leaves the air or a fish leaves the water, it dies...there is no other place for them to be, as birds or fish. Similarly, the air and water is our life right now. Everything is already out in the open, waiting to be discovered, so be here now to find it, don’t go looking elsewhere.
The melodic and harmonic basis of the work are 4 fundamental pentatonic scales typical in Japanese music - in order of their usage in the composition, ryu-kyu, miyako-bushi, min-yo and ritsu, all starting on the pitch “A” and using that note as the pedal or drone throughout.
The piece is also a sort of “theme and variations” with 3 sections - the introductory piano solo in a style similar to Satie’s “Gymnopedies,” the same melody and chord progression over arpeggiations of the 4 pentatonic scales, and closing with a rubato improvised cadenza that deviates from the 4 modes, replacing the first 2 modes with their counterparts found in typical jazz harmony.
Mountains Walking, Mountains Flowing
This is another Eihei Dogen reference, this time from his “Mountains & Waters Sutra.” While very difficult to grasp intellectually, the basic premise is that we need to see past the seemingly ridiculous idea that a mountain can walk or flow - it’s a mountain after all! But even a tall, formidable mountain is “walking” and “flowing.” Changing bit by bit, atom by atom, in ways mostly imperceptible to limited human understanding and comprehension. Over hundreds of thousands or millions of years, we could likely see this change - the mountain eroding away into a flat plain, being submerged by a rising ocean, etc. as has happened for hundreds of millions of years in the history of the Earth. And while this particular metaphor apparently focuses on geologic time, it applies to everything. How can we use this to change the fundamental way we see our own existence and the seemingly permanent existence of other things?
Musically, this one hints at piano works by Phillip Glass and Romantic/20th century era piano composers, but with a decidedly modern flavor in the 2nd section.
The Mirror Gathers No Dust
This is a reference to the transmission story of the 6th Zen Ancestor, Huineng (Eno). As the story goes, Huineng was an illiterate “barbarian” who had a gift for the Dharma and impressed the 5th Patriarch Hongren enough that he was allowed to live and work at Hongren’s monastery, despite not being an ordained monastic.
When Hongren held a poetry contest to determine who would succeed him, his head disciple Shenxiu composed a poem that Huineng thought was inaccurate. So, with the help of another monk to act as translator and scribe (as he was illiterate), Huineng composed his own poem which showed a clearer understanding than Shenxiu’s.
The body is the bodhi tree.
The mind is like a bright mirror's stand.
At all times we must strive to polish it
and must not let dust collect
The mind is the bodhi tree.
The body is the bright mirror's stand.
The bright mirror is originally clear and pure.
Where could there be any dust?
The “mirror” is also a reference to the musical composition that provided inspiration for this piece - Arvo Part’s “Spiegel Im Spiegel” (“Mirror In Mirror”). Part intentionally uses the compositional technique “inversion” to serialize most of the aspects of the piece, following one idea with that same idea inverted, thereby creating a “mirror” image of it. I followed the same general compositional technique in the cello melody, but didn’t apply it in a strict sense to other aspects of the composition.
She Hears The Cries of the World
This epithet is used to describe the activity of the legendary bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (aka Quan Yin or Kannon). The Bodhisattva of Compassion, she observes all of the world’s sorrows, and radiates compassion to all sentient beings. As an archetype for unconditional compassion (realizing that Avalokiteshvara doesn’t first ask ‘well, did you deserve to suffer? Do you deserve my compassion?’), she sets the tone for how we likewise should radiate compassion for all beings and make it our default response, prior to and separate from any judgments of good or bad or otherwise.
Musically, this is the only track to omit piano and utilize more than just 1 solo cello, using a cello quartet with solo trumpet.
In The Shade of Shadowless Trees
This is a reference to koan #85 in the Book of Serenity titled "The National Teacher's Gravestone.” In that story, Nanyang (a dharma heir of the 6th Patriarch mentioned above) is asked by the Emperor how he should be remembered when he dies. Nanyang says “build me a seamless tomb.” When the Emperor asks how that is possible, Nanyang stays silent for a long time and then asks “do you understand?” When the Emperor says he does not, Nanyang refers him to his own disciple Danyuan, who will be able to answer. After Nanyang’s death, the Emperor inquires of Danyuan, who responds:
The south of the river, north of the lake:
In between there's gold, which fills the whole land.
In the shade of shadowless trees all people are in one boat;
In the crystal palace there is no one who knows.
All people in one boat moored under a shadowless tree, nothing is hidden, nothing is secret, everything is out in the open, everything is connected.
This is the least-structured composition on the album, as well, consisting only of two harmonic/melodic themes in the piano with trumpet improvisation above.
To close the album, I decided to do what I normally do, which is add a “coda” that is a bit unlike what comes before. In this case, I chose to close out with something reminiscent of the “gospel hymns” I grew up with in the Assemblies of God churches I was raised in as a preacher’s kid, that my mother would play on the piano or organ as my father was doing the altar call and dismissing the congregation. But in keeping with the overall theme of the album, the idea here is still that every ending is still a beginning, and every beginning leads to an eventual ending.
released September 22, 2021
all compositions and arrangements by James M. Gregg
James M. Gregg - piano, trumpet, electronics & field recordings
Skip VonKuske - cello
recorded by Mike Moore at Dead Aunt Thelma's, Portland OR on January 20 2021
mixed, mastered and manufactured by Kevin Nettleingham at Nettleingham Audio
photos by Jason Quigley
West Riding (aka James M Gregg) is a multi-instrumentalist and composer who produces ambient, experimental, and modern
classical music inspired by quiet mountains, Zen koans, Arve Henriksen, Brian Eno, Erik Satie, Arvo Part, Deaf Center, Olafur Arnalds, and Phillip Glass....more