The American composer talks about a welcome revival of his 1991 monodrama/opera King Gesar in New York
King Gesar is performed at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York on 20 and 21 November. So, how do we pronounce it? Geezer? Gazer?
If it were ‘Geezer’ it would be like an old man, wouldn’t it? In Tibetan, it’s pronounced ‘Gay-Sar’. I think the name derives from the same origin as Caesar.
How did you come across the legend of King Gesar?
I’ve been a practising Tibetan Buddhist since 1974 and there’s a lot of lore about Gesar. He’s almost mythological, and people regard him as a guru, as a protector, as a force in the world to overcome obstacles. In Tibet in particular there’s an enormous amount of literature about Gesar and his exploits. Explorer Alexandra David-Néel went to Tibet (in 1924) and wrote a book about Gesar, a lot of which Douglas Penick, who wrote the libretto for King Gesar, adapted.
How is the work structured?
It’s hard to define. There’s a narrator, who’s narrating almost non-stop through the piece, and taking on various characters. The only time when the narrator sings is when he becomes Gesar himself. A lot of the narration is very clipped – very fast, asymmetrically notated rhythms. You come up with very odd metres, which is very challenging for the narrator.
What does the narrative involve?
The piece begins with his birth, and as he grows up he has to go into the desert because his uncle is trying to kill him – he’s heard that someone will come and usurp, or rather regain, the throne. Gesar grows into manhood then wins a horse race that the uncle has set up to determine who’s going to be king. The race is rigged, but Gesar is on a magical horse so wins it.
And what’s Gesar like as a character?
He’s unpredictable. He’s a trickster, who plays with the energy of the phenomenal world and the neuroses of those around him in order to expose them. He’s not a character you want to take lightly!
So, does the music itself incorporate Tibetan elements and instruments?
No, not really! I’ve never really been interested in doing that kind of thing. King Gesar has two pianos, a little array of wind instruments and percussion. It’s all pretty non-stop. In terms of character, it’s very much like my other music.
For many, you’re best known for beautiful, contemplative vocal music such as your Neruda Songs. We take it that King Gesar is written in a different style?
I went through a phase after I met Lorraine Hunt (the late mezzo-soprano, whom Lieberson married in 1999), in which a whole series of vocal pieces came about. That phase seems to have passed – I'm currently writing a percussion concerto that goes back more to pieces like Drala (1986) or Red Garuda (1999). King Gesar, from before that phase, has its moments where it incorporates certain amounts of folksiness in the tunes, but is very energetic.
Interview by Jeremy Pound
Main photo: Matthieu Ricard