The Great Sage Equalling Heaven
for woodwind quintet with piano
This title is a quote of the way Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) wishes to be addressed in the epic Chinese story Journey to the West (by Wu Chung-en, ca. 1500-82). At one point, after wreaking havoc in heaven and on earth, the naively arrogant Monkey King feels invincible and demands that even the gods refer to him as "The Great Sage Equaling Heaven". The absurdity of this demand seems lovable and comical to me, so I wrote this piece in a decidedly lighthearted style. Each movement focuses on a different episode or aspect of the story as follows:
This movement is a portrait of the monkey as he was born: a rambunctious, mischievous and energetic little animal. In the story, he springs forth from a magical stone egg. So the beginning of this movement begins in anticipation of that moment. After bursting free, I imagine him tentatively stalking before discovering his abilities to climb, scamper, swing, screech and shake the treetops.
This episode of the story takes place after the monkey has developed many special powers and decides that he should be addressed as "The Great Sage Equaling Heaven". As he has also been causing trouble for the gods, he is sent to the Buddha for straightening out. Foolishly, Monkey wagers (and loses) a bet with the Buddha that he can't leap out of the Buddha's open palm and ends up being punished for 500 years. At the fateful moment, Monkey leaps thousands of miles using special powers, lands next to five great pillars, urinates on one and then returns only to find that he has wetted one of the Buddha's fingers. Therefore, in this movement you will hear ideas that represent the Buddha, his five fingers (and/or pillars), the overly proud monkey and the gigantic leap that takes him back to where he started.
The Golden Band
Eventually, Monkey is converted to Buddhism and is recruited to assist a monk as he travels to India to collect Buddhist scriptures. The monk, however, is upset because Monkey keeps getting into trouble and unnecessarily kills their rivals. Seeing this, the Bodhisattva devises a golden band that is to be placed on the monkey's head. Once in place, it cannot be removed and, furthermore, will tighten down on the monkey's skull when the monk recites a quiet spell. This allows the monk to control Monkey and keep him on the straight and narrow. In this movement you will hear the magic spell and the monkey's painful cries alternating with episodes of the monkey's mischief.
Throughout the story, Monkey as well as the various gods and demons ride on special clouds that carry them thousands of miles in only a few moments. Often, Monkey is described as somersaulting up onto his cloud in order to escape trouble, to rush in for a rescue, or to chase after evil-doers. Therefore, this movement includes places where I imagine Monkey somersaulting up onto his cloud, floating high and far away, and somersaulting back down to earth for more adventure.
(performance time ca. 20 minutes)