'The Way of the Seeker' -
'... an outstanding artistic achievement ...'
First, it must be said outright that I am not an innocent bystander with this CD. Many years ago, I suggested to the composer Larry Sitsky that he might find the poem The Way of the Seeker, by Sufi author Hakim Sanai, to be a fruitful source of inspiration. In fact, I asked him for a major work for solo piano. He obliged in spades, creating a fifty-five minute long phantasmagoria that I turned into a typeset score and which I had the honour of premièring in 2006.
During the process of preparing the score and performance, the pianist Michael Kieran Harvey graciously helped with the proof-reading for the 106 pages of music. Then he gave the Australian première in 2006 which has been released on CD by Move Records.
There, my connections with the piece, the composer and the pianist are wide open. That might mean that what I say hereafter is tainted and lacking in objectivity.
That may be true concerning Larry Sitsky, who I admire very highly. So, if I tell you that his composition is powerful and impressive, the reader may consider that as he/she wishes.
I have also been in contact with the pianist, he helped the score preparations and so my gratitude might blind me. Again, if I say that Michael Kieran Harvey is an excellent pianist and musician, the reader might simply dismiss what I say.
However, I will provide two mitigating factors which must be seriously considered in evaluating this review. I will come to them in a moment.
But first, I must praise Larry Sitsky and his interpreter. Sitsky is one of Australia's leading musicians and if his name is not well-enough known in say, London or New York, that's because people there have not heard the news that we live in a global village. Larry Sitsky is an important composer no matter where he, or the listener lives. A piano student of the legendary Egon Petri and himself an excellent pianist, Larry Sitsky has also produced a vast range of compositions in all genres and forms. Many of them are inspired by occult and mystical ideas and literature and The Way of the Seeker is a further example.
Sanai's poem (available in translation by David Pendlebury, and published by Octagon Press in Four Sufi Classics, edited by Idries Shah) is one of the most intense and frightening poetic utterances ever produced by the human mind. It makes the somewhat mundane sufferings and terrors of Dante's Inferno seem pale in comparison. Moreover, the philosophical content is much more profound and striking, far exceeding the simplistic reward and punishment notions of Dante. This poem is not for the faint of heart.
The composition is for the brave and hardy as well.
Sitsky has followed Pendlebury's divisions of the text, giving a title, a short line from the text for suggestion, and a general dynamic level for each movement. The Prologue is a haze of deep bass sounds out of which a Sufi chant is barely heard.
Listen -- Larry Sitsky: Prologue
(track 1, 0:00-1:17) © 2006 Move Records
Birth begins with a lone melody which develops into complex figurations which change rapidly, evolve and evaporate at a giddy pace.
Listen -- Larry Sitsky: Birth
(track 2, 2:17-2:49) © 2006 Move Records
The Guide again begins with a single melody (lost, perhaps) but which finds its way to a section which is an hommage to Ferruccio Busoni, Sitsky's inspirational mentor-at-a-distance.
Listen -- Larry Sitsky: The Guide
(track 3, 1:49-2:54) © 2006 Move Records
The Journey begins with a powerful chant, and roars across the length and breadth of the piano.
Listen -- Larry Sitsky: The Journey
(track 4, 3:25-4:02) © 2006 Move Records
The cataclysmic movement Beyond Time (given a double forte dynamic) is a deluge of sound and ideas. Images of heaven as all sweetness and light are trashed in this movement (and the poem, of course) where the intensity and hazard (to use a term by J G Bennett) of transcendental existence are relentlessly exposed. And we believe life on Earth is dangerous!
The Epilogue, subtitled The Man of Light, is a reflection on a crucial aspect of Sufi mysticism, the Perfected Human. This is music of the most occult kind, vague and shimmering like the mystical experience itself -- especially when an attempt is made to translate it into terms not designed for its expression (even sound). No mere sample can give an idea of this music nor adequately demonstrate Michael Kieran Harvey's ravishing and sympathetic interpretation.
The Way of the Seeker is a journey that is extremely demanding for the listener and yet deeply moving. I know this because, when I premièred it, I had a chance afterwards to speak to every member of the small audience. Many were not musically erudite, and most were not modern musical aficionados. But the impact was evident for each one and they had no trouble following Sitsky's path. To a one, they 'got it'.
To those who believe that modern music is impenetrable and offensive, this might seem implausible. Well, think what you will. That's what I heard from the audience and I can assure you, it was no mere politeness. I've been at concerts where audience members struggle hard in finding something -- anything -- good to say.
I mentioned two mitigating factors in how my review should be read. I have just praised Larry Sitsky's composition and noted its effect on the audience. You may doubt me. But for the first factor, I will tell you that in the course of preparing the score, studying every single note as I created the engraved version and then spending the months practising the virtuosic piano writing and spending hours getting my hands and fingers able to circumnavigate the notes, I was stymied, mystified and deeply troubled in not being able to understand the music. I simply did not get it. For one thing, I am myself no mystic. To say I was in a panic is to barely describe my state.
Then, fearing the worst and expecting catastrophe due to my own ineptitude, I simply walked on stage and hoped for a quick end to my suffering (and that of the listeners). The audience's enthusiastic reaction was amazing, it made me realise that Sitsky's composition was a masterwork that hardly required any mere pianist to 'get it' for it to succeed.
Keep this in consideration when I praise Sitsky and his creation.
Now, for Michael Kieran Harvey. He is a super-virtuoso and musician of great verve and power. But also, he understands sound in a deep and meaningful way. Listen again to the samples here for the rhythmic life of his playing, the care and sensitivity to the very quality of the sound as well as the shape and direction of phrases. Yes, he can execute a startling number of notes in a very short space of time, evenly and accurately (I know the score), but always in the service of the music -- and here most crucially -- its inner meaning. His performance of The Way of the Seeker reveals him in total command and filled with creative fire. This is an outstanding artistic achievement for he indeed 'gets it' and his understanding adds significantly to the potency of the composition.
Briefly, for the second mitigating factor. Consider what I have just said about Michael Kieran Harvey. I am a pianist. I commissioned the work, performed it and then Mr Harvey came along, performed it and recorded it. Need I remind the reader how rather competitive we pianists are? When I tell you that Michael Kieran Harvey played this work stupendously well, remember that I was trumped (as in 'to outdo or surpass', and I am happy to be surpassed by such a superior artist) and left far back in the dust. Think about that. And then get the recording.
Copyright © 30 May 2009
CD INFORMATION: LARRY SITSKY: THE WAY OF THE SEEKER
MICHAEL KIERAN HARVEY