Twelve flowers 2009
1 mvt | 15 min
Japanese and English
a cappella

single print license


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Premiered by

The Boston Choral Ensemble
Singapore Youth Choir Ensemble Singers
The Esoterics

commissoned by

Miguel Felipe
and the Boston Choral Ensemble

About this Piece

Yosa Buson (1716-1783) is considered to be one of the masters of the Japanese haiku. Buson, who was also a painter, was among the best known and most talented artists of his time, in both genres. Out of his complete poetic output, 2,852 haiku still exist today. In addition to this impressive number of haiku, Buson also penned several longer prose works, including a collection of personal tales entitled New flower picking (1777). Among Buson’s greatest influences were the artists and philosophers of ancient China, as well as his predecessor, the celebrated haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). For Buson, the quiet simplicity he found in the Taoist and Buddhist spiritual traditions resonated most deeply. He spent about five years living in Buddhist temples in and around his native city of Kyoto, and was appointed lay priest of the “Pure Land” sect of Buddhism. (According to the tenets of this tradition, lay priests were not separated from the common people, but lived among them in the same manner.) The historical record of the Edo period shows Buson to be a sophisticated artist, who was able to support himself solely as a painter. Never a wealthy man, Buson composed poetry as a form of meditation and to gain personal solace, and chose to not accept the work of editing haiku by others in his community, a job that he loathed. In his painting as well as his poetry, Buson strove to depict the beauty that he found in commonplace subjects, and to capture the essence of their beauty. In his work, one can sense his realization of each moment, as well as his appreciation of his own place in it. Due to the meditative nature of his work, Buson’s haiku are particularly keen to depict natural scenes, and especially those with flowers. To Buson, flowers were not only individual meditations on fragrance, color, texture, and symmetry, but they were also nature’s way of marking the subtle change of season at predetermined times of each year. In the mind of this haiku master, a flower could serve as a simple mandala, as well as proof of nature’s stable cycle in times of great human upheaval.

Since Buson’s composed so many haiku about them, I chose flowers to be the theme for my choral meditation. As well, since Buson organized his haiku according to the changing of the seasons, I chose twelve of his haiku, and aligned them with the twelve months of the calendar year. In the order that they are presented, Buson’s “bouquet” begins with the dawn of the morning glory and ends with the image of the patient peony. Of the eight choral parts in my piece, four are always scored to sing the 17 syllables of each Japanese haiku. These syllables are scored using a pentatonic set of pitches, and are to be sung in canon – giving the effect of a lingering fragrance. The duration and speed of these syllabic canons in Japanese have been determined by the comparative size and number of petals in each flower. So, the filigree of cherry and apricot petals flutter more quickly by than the aforementioned morning glory and peony, whose broad petals take time to blossom. In order to represent the subtle changes of climate from month to month, I have set each ensuing haiku in adjacent keys of the circle-of-fifths. The modulation from one flower to the next is quite subtle, for the Japanese syllables are set pentatonically, using only five of the seven diatonic pitches. The English translation of each haiku, however, is set with the full diatonic compliment (all seven pitches), and with a bit more “madrigalistic” flourish. I prefer to compose pieces that are macaronic (in both languages) because I believe that there is a certain power in intoning a text in its original language; however, I also appreciate the benefit in hearing its meaning in translation. In Twelve flowers, the Japanese syllables should always be sung at a dynamic that is lower than that of the English translation. To this end, the Japanese canons should first be rehearsed separately from the English text. This will not only facilitate the correct mastery of interval, rhythm, and text – but will also make it possible for each semi-chorus to function independently before the languages are integrated into a cohesive whole. [This is but a humble composer’s suggestion. 🙂 ]

A brief performance note about the two aleatoric sections in this piece: At the top system of page 13 and the bottom system of page 25, the “boxed” melodic motives are to be sung by each singer in the choral section THREE times, starting after conductor’s cue. Each singer should sing at his or her own pace, and the singers in each section should strive to sing NOT in unison. These motives should be sung quietly and confidently, as in a meditation. Before the first box in the system, at the midpoint bar line, and at the end of the system – at each of these points, the sustained “drone” should be able to resound briefly, without any lingering sound from the “boxed” motives. Each of these systems should last about one minute in duration.

The translations of Buson’s Japanese haiku into English are my own, and are tailored for the specific roles they play in Twelve flowers.

Text Credit

Yosa Buson

Sample Text

This solitary morning glory
shares the same color
as the deepest pool.

Patrinia, or golden lace:
its stalk and crown are both
as simple as they seem.

At night, the orchid hides
its palest blossom
behind its own fragrance.

The feathery sphere
of a forgotten dandelion
lingers along a frosty path.

Apricot blossoms
burst forth in wintertime
like fiery sparks from iron.

Winter chrysanthemums
remain in a cluster of buds:
when will their time come?

Wisteria blooms
like cloud bridges
that span the sky.

A flurry of cherry petals
fills the air around us
and blankets our downhill path.