Lois V Vierk

 for Gagaku ensemble


Over the 12 years I actively studied Gagaku I discovered many things about sound. It wasn't, to my thinking, "Japanese sound" in particular -- but sound. I learned how nuances of sound, such as articulations, dynamic shapes, and pitch bends are not just ornaments but all can serve to move a musical phrase forward. I learned how a number of the same instruments sounding together can make a "wall" of sound that can be at once powerful as well as graceful, with a transparency of texture that allows the subtleties of each instrument to come through. And I experienced music unfolding slowly over a long period of time, unhurried, with elegance.

Many of my early compositions, like more than a few Gagaku pieces, have slow beginnings and gradually gather speed and momentum. Although much of my current work uses other approaches to form, I have returned to this idea in Silversword. It seemed the most natural way to let the musical materials develop. But I have not tried to write Gagaku here. The way that I blend instruments and seek new colors from the blendings is not traditional to Gagaku. And the work's high energy climax built on increasingly dense textures, more and more volume, and repetition of ever-shortening phrases, has more to do with my own sensibilities as a Western composer than with anything in Gagaku.

This piece is named after the Hawaiian silversword plant. On the island of Maui you can ascend 10,000 feet to reach the peak of mount Haleakala. From that precipice you look down into a vast crater ("big enough to hold Manhattan") at an ancient desert strewn with volcanic cinder cones. Volcanic ash has been windswept over the centuries into spectacular stripes and swatches of color -- bright white, brilliant orange, shining black. If you then descend 3,000 feet into the bowl of the crater, you will see magnificent plants scattered like jewels on the ashscape. These are silverswords. Their leaves are like silvery quills that grow out of the arid soil in spherical crowns to catch water from the evening fog. Their bloom spikes rise up to five feet with hundreds of tiny white flowers forming rosettes.

Silversword is dedicated very respectfully to my Gagaku teacher in Tokyo, Mr. Sukeyasu Shiba, and to Reigakusha, the Gagaku ensemble that he founded.

Special thanks especially to Mari Ono and Naoyuki Miura and their organization, Music From Japan (New York City).

Special thanks also to Bob Cummins, David Behrman, Yuji Takahashi, Akemi Naito, Donel Young, Bruce Ide and Karen Pearlman.

Silversword was premiered on July 28, 1996 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center Festival 1996, New York City.

Audio is an informal recording made in a rehearsal space in Tokyo in June 1996.  There were changes to the score made after this rehearsal and before the premiere in July 1996, most notably to the biwa parts.


Recording by Reigakusha - gagaku ensemble in Tokyo, Artistic Director Sukeyasu Shiba.

Click here to view the score.