Four Contemplations: A Composition Commemorating the Restored Dainichi Buddha

In March 2015, Community MusicWorks performed Four Contemplations in RISD Museum’s Asian galleries. The piece, written by composer and musician Ken Ueno, was commissioned by Community MusicWorks with generous support from the MAP Fund to commemorate the restoration and rededication of the museum’s 10-foot Dainichi Buddha.

Four Contemplations was performed at two distinct but complementary events. In the first, 11 string players, with Ken Ueno on vocals, performed from various spaces in the Asian galleries and the open stairwell. Museum visitors were free to wander throughout the spaces, experiencing a “sound environment” meant to support contemplative viewing of the gallery objects. The final movement of the piece, written for a throat-singer, was executed by Ueno through a megaphone in the stark reverberations of the gallery stairwell. The overall experience captured an atmosphere of meditation and the calm presence of the Buddha statue that inspired Ueno’s piece.

The second performance of Four Contemplations, an hour-long concert, took place in RISD Museum’s Metcalf Auditorium before a traditional seated audience. It incorporated recordings made during the gallery performance, documenting the sounds of the audience as they moved throughout the exhibition space.

Ueno says about Four Contemplations:
The commission coincided with the rededication of the museum’s Dainichi Buddha, which made me think of the practice of mindfulness and how it relates to my practice as a vocalist. Breathing is not only central to singing and meditation, but also to life itself. Four Contemplations is an instrumental meditation on breath. Much of what I composed for the string instruments involves techniques that evoke different kinds of breath.

In regard to the form of the piece, the different constraints suggested by the ensemble and the museum were challenging. When I was in a quandary composing, I thought of the old parable of the blind men describing an elephant, which has often been used to describe Buddhism itself. Alas, the different aspects are like the different parts of the elephant.

The sound world of the piece and the pacing were inspired by the four fundamental meditations in Buddhist practice. They form the titles of the four movements:
Contemplation on Feelings A (solo violin) and B
Contemplation on Thoughts
Contemplation on the Body
Contemplation on Dhammas

It has been my mission in music for some time to create a democratic sonic landscape, in which heavy-metal sub-tone singing, Tuvan-inspired throat singing, European avant-garde instrumental techniques, American just intonation, and traditional Japanese music are integrated into a single fabric of sound.

Ken Ueno’s Four Contemplations was born of Community MusicWorks’s commitment to embody its social-justice mission through thoughtful performance projects. CMW creates pathways for people from all walks of life to experience challenging concert music by bringing that music to places where they congregate (from community-center gyms to art museums), by making music in a range of cultural traditions, and by involving visiting artists and composers who bring expertise in musical forms that complement CMW’s classical music work.

Sebastian Ruth
Community MusicWorks