No Hero in Your Tragedy: the Making of “Like a Riven Cloud”

Two years ago, a friend of mine committed suicide at the age of 43. When I found out, I knew at once that I would have to deal with the shock by shaping it into music.

Shock was far from being my only response to this disaster. Grief – of course, for this was a friend, someone who was a lot of fun to hang out with. He had turned away from his spiritual path to drugs, without seeking help from any of us friends.

Then there was the deed itself; this is where the anger comes in. He did it in his home – a bloody mess. He was married with two young children. Guess who found the body.

There was a savage irony, too. He saved me from drowning years ago, at the cost of nearly going down himself.

Someone set a bad example
Made surrender seem all right
The act of a noble warrior
Who lost the will to fight

from Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, FranceHow did all of this translate into music? It was obvious that the piece would be a requiem, in feeling at least. Unusually, I had the title in advance, a phrase from Bhagavad-gita, which provided a focus and suggested the windscape which underlies the entire piece. I recorded that on the back stairs one dark, blustery afternoon in early September.

The piece coalesced into a graveside vigil, with instrumental flashbacks in moods ranging from grief to denial to anger to wistful melancholy to anguished hope.

Now you’re trembling on a rocky ledge
Staring down into a heartless sea
Can’t face life on a razor’s edge
Nothing’s what you thought it would be

Suicide is always viewed as a solution to their misery by those contemplating it. This idea couldn’t be more wrong. It springs from the notion that the person is the physical body and that when the body dies, life is all over. This is madness – ignorance of the true nature of the eternal spirit soul, the person who is temporarily inhabiting the body. Life never dies, it just relocates.

Like a Riven Cloud is utterly unlike any other music I’ve recorded. For one thing, it was all improvised. It stubbornly resisted composition. About three-fourths of the music I recorded for it (including layers of singing bowls, and 12-string guitar harmonics) ended up being discarded, as its stark, minimal nature asserted itself. In the end, it was assembled from a few spontaneous elements. Like a shattered life being pieced back together.

I started working in summer 2010, recording clips of solo piano, and of strings, a few of which made the cut. Then, in one live session, I recorded the booming bells bed track, all based on one struck singing bowl sample mapped across my MIDI keyboard.

My wife Dasi had to be alone in the studio while she recorded her part: two lines from an ancient Sanskrit prayer, which recur between the instrumental episodes. Listen and you’ll know why. She sang, intoned, spoke, whispered – and nailed the range of intense moods the piece required. Again, I had the luxury of choosing the best of many takes.

No hero in your tragedy
No daring in your escape
No salutes for your surrender
Nothing noble in your fate
Christ, what have you done?

Dead tree in High Park, TorontoTo those who appreciate how rare and irreplaceable the human form of life is, throwing it away is unthinkable, because no matter what one must endure, the consequences of suicide are much worse. Suicide is not just killing the body – it’s severely damaging spiritually. Rejecting the human body means you don’t get another one for a long time.

The piece was almost done, but still needed a crescendo, a point of critical mass, where the feelings just boil over. Enter Ezra Azmon, an outstanding classical violinist whom we found busking on the street in Toronto.

Ezra played for 12 minutes – way more than was needed. So I used the best part (the last five minutes) for his solo, then stacked and melted down the other three sections to create the ghostly choir-like ambiance which pervades the piece thereafter. (That’s a small preview of our duo album-in-progress.)

Like a Riven Cloud was finished in early October 2010, clocking in at over 21 minutes. Many thanks to Har, host of Nightscaping on StillStream, who premiered the piece the following night! Har had also been the first to play Knife of Karma in full, another piece from my forthcoming album The Separate Ones.

The album is nearly finished and I expect to release it this year. You’ll hear about it here as well as on my website. Stay tuned!

Church and Moon
All of us get lost in the darkness
Dreamers learn to steer by the stars
All of us do time in the gutter
Dreamers turn to look at the cars
Turn around and turn around and turn around
Turn around and walk the razor’s edge
Don’t turn your back
And slam the door on me

***

(I’ve long admired Neil Peart of Rush as one of the best lyricists around. Quotes are from The Pass, a gut-wrenching song from the album Presto.)

P.S. the album was released in February 2013. All is revealed here.

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