A Sketch of "the Festival"
My Untitled Work in Progress "Cycle of Epicycles"

Introductory Essay by the Composer, Christopher Fulkerson
CF's Composition Desk

CF Conducting
The Waterfront Theater, San Francisco

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It is a commonplace of artistic creation that the material has a life of its own.   In my case, it became clear to me that several of my pieces wanted to be part of a music festival.  

I knew when I wrote the short fanfare A SCREAMING COMES ACROSS THE SKY in 1985 that I had made an important step toward my idiom.   And it was clear this was a fragment from something much larger.   Before long I  realized that a number of the works I had written were fitting together into groups with similar themes.    I discovered that without planning to do so I was working on a series of interconnecting cycles of pieces that has as their theme a journey through death and purgation to eventual Enlightenment, which at the same time gives the gist of the Twentieth Century (and now beyond), as well as a course through a human life.   At least these three levels of meaning were apparent to me from the earliest stages of the work.

At first I could not imagine how these pieces would be done unless as some sort of grand plan, encompassing about a week of time, a preset music festival of all kinds of pieces, which people would attend while doing nothing else, rather like Wagner’s Ring, but made of much more varied elements, and with the usual approach to programming.   The likelihood of this happening seemed pretty remote, but I couldn’t let that stop me from creating what it seemed was developing.  As I composed each piece I would revise the grand plan; soon I realized that this indicated some kind of problem in my thinking or planning.   Before long I realized that although the conventional format of a series of preset programs would certainly work (and a fully ordered music festival is one desirable goal for this project) the deliberate connectivity I was building into the scores would allow for other possibilities.    I saw that if just two or three pieces were taken from each of the collections that were appearing, some  discernable aspect of the festival could be given.    As long as two or three basic elements of the festival were present, it would be possible to suggest the three-tiered meanings.  

So, before the term “interactive” had its present meaning for us, I was writing pieces that were meant to be interactive, and to be interactive in different ways, through different means, and toward different ends.    In short, the festival I am composing is an “interactive” one.    The pieces are in different ways, and to varying degrees, “magnetic,” and “talk to each other.”    They are meant to suggest different things, and through their interaction different possibilities.   It isn’t necessary to do the whole festival to present one or more aspects of the themes it attempts to treat.    A well-balanced handful of pieces will do.    Half a program can get a point across, and suggest the whole panoply. 

I have provisionally decided that perhaps the minimum number of pieces necessary to capture the expressive modes or perceptual states of the festival is probably three: something ceremonial, something meditative, and something dramatic, not necessarily in that order.   The pieces can fit together according to literary theme or performing ensemble, or according to any patterning that seems to make sense.    But sometimes only a couple of pieces are needed; it looks as though several cycles will be of just two pieces.   

Some of the relationships between the pieces are literary; some are musical, having to do with the ideas themselves, or perhaps genre or nomenclature.    The pieces frequently refer to one another, sometimes quite specifically, as when a character of A MIRACLE OF RARE DEVICE quotes from my setting of KUBLA KHAN.

So far, cycles that are complete, and probably have their eventual titles are:

The Michelangelo Fantasies: DUO NEVI; L’ALTRUI MAN VESTE; DOMES;

These Cycles, discussed below, don't seem to me to demand further balancing with more pieces, though I will certainly add to pieces to some them (especially Song Cycles and Miraculous Domains):

Miraculous Domains
Dramatic Recitals
Song Cycles
Sacred Music

So far, then, there are twelve groups of aesthetically, programmatically, or, in terms of musical forces, interactive groups of pieces, cycles Of these, I have in mind that dramatic recitals and theater pieces would work best for, dare I think it, eventual performances of my Festival that occur several within a short space of time. These are not necessary and have never been more than one aspect of the projected Festival. I did not conceive the Festival as something that bears overmuch comparison with a certain existing and certainly excellent known cycle of music dramas. But I would like to have perhaps one recital, opera or oratorio for each day of the Festival, which I have always thought projected to about one week in duration.

It is intended, in fact the nature of the festival is that some pieces can function in more than one cycle; for example, THE CHILDERMASS is both a Sacred Concerto, and and key to the Miraculous Domains. A possible Wizard Cycle could include the Leonardo- and Michelangelo-inspired pieces, as well as others.

And as a category of work, one without reference to specific pieces in the festival, some piece of absolute music are in fact part of it, for example, the SUITE for Solo Cello.

I find there are gaps in the project in desperate need of support, and my own preoccupations and I don't mind saying life experience don't get me going well enough to at least two necessary categories which have no substantial pieces in them yet:


In terms of my life experience, I feel I can write about Enlightenment, since the Dalai Lama and some of his co-religionists, especially Sogyal Rinpoche, seem to have covered the Enlightenment aspect by offering teachings on Dzogchen and other Tibetan Buddhist philosophies and practices, things of which I have availed myself. There are developments on Enlightenment in some of the pieces in the Festival, notably CELESTIAL SIXTIES, A Symphony of Men's Voices, and a few related small pieces, but I don't feel I've made a sufficient and straightforward presentation of Enlightenment yet. Indirectly, the Path is perhaps evident enough; but the state of Enlightenment is not among my pieces yet - as a stated and deliberate theme. Of course, I would not be writing the way I do if I had not evidently been on the Path for some while, and eventually had the (so far) two Samadhi experiences. You may read about them in my essay MY TWO ENLIGHTENMENTS, which can perhaps help the reader's and the listener's understanding of what I am doing and talking about. Certainly, most of the pieces are meant as part of a meditation practice of listening and concert attendance. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS not about self-realization specifically, and though some of the ideas in it are, I feel, if only by a long shot, compatible with Buddhists beliefs (as well as to other modes of thought, religious or not, as suggested in the title of the prayer Oh King to Whom All Things Do Live), Enlightenment is not clearly enough one of them. Because I have myself experienced Enlightenment, technically the form called Samadhi, I feel I can write about it, but that aspect of life experience which actually results in new pieces has not done so yet. I admit that if my Festival has too little about Enlightenment yet I have only myself to blame, and this gap in the cycles is just something I have to hunker down and correct. Just what I need, one more project. I have looked into setting all or parts of certain Sutras, notably the Flower Ornament Sutra. I would be looking for something fairly universal, not too specifically Buddhist.

On the score of a lack of representations of Paradise in the Festival I don't feel very much as though this is my "fault," since, aside from the usual petty point of view that life in these United States is supposedly so fine, it has not in my case led to a conspicuous state of Paradise, and claiming your homeland is paradise is comparative paradise at best, and far from being something I want to create the impression I am involved with in the Festival. Paradise is in my case rather harshly mitigated by lack of interest, especially financial support, of my work that would free me of material concern. Yes, there is increasing interest in my work, but never once for years enough interest to actually result in a performance of a piece of mine. So I have a long way to go to get to Paradise. Instead I live very much like an "artist in a garret," and my life course has gotten me, after various meanderings, to a position of a life style with no free time, a severely hand-to-mouth existence, and not much more solace than a recondite life-style of being a working man by night at the cab company, and a recognizably "graduate student" life style by day.

Specific to the issue of Paradisical representation, there is a slight problem that my concessions to old-fashioned, generally irrelevant styles may be perceived as "paradisical," so, despite my lack of experience with Paradise, I might have to hazard something... though I say this humorously, it is a real artistic concern. "Ever onward and upward," I suppose. I strongly believe than Paradise shold not be backward-looking in terms either style or human experience. It is completely consistent with my ideas about these things that the effort to make the Soviet Union into a Paradise failed, which happened because it was a backward-looking society - perhaps it was more its backwardness than its economy that was the problem. Thoughts of this kind are very much the sort of thing I want to encourage in the Festival, though writing about that is something I have even less time than all the things that go into creating the Festival.

Several of the cycles have an Italian bias only because they were begun during the earliest era of the work, when I was reading Dante.    And the earlier the piece, the more likely its cycle is to have been completed.    Most of the words I have set since the 1980s have been in English. I often consider German and French texts.

Besides the ones that are complete, or seem to work on their own, several cycles are well underway but need to be expanded or developed.   Sometimes the position and nature of a piece is known, but not its musical nature (for example, I want to write a piece that acts as the portal to Purgatory, but lacking a text or an idea, I don’t even know whether this piece will be vocal or instrumental.  The portal piece for Paradise, a piece for chamber orchestra, is planned and named, and I have known its form in some detail for many years, but I haven’t written it yet.)   Some cycles just represent types of pieces that can be written as needed: the Ceremonials do not need to be limited in number; perhaps neither the absolute music nor the religious music has to be a quantifiable “cycle.”   

The Dramatic Recitals: A MIRACLE OF RARE DEVICE; several companion pieces are planned
The Screaming Cycle: A SCREAMING COMES ACROSS THE SKY; THE SCREAM THAT PEAKS PAST FEAR; one large companion piece (the main piece in the cycle) planned
The Portals Cycle: E IO ETTERNO DURO (other pieces planned: see previous paragraph)
The Sacred Music: Two Masses; Buddhist Settings; Hebrew Settings; Motets, etc.: certainly
more Buddhist and Hebrew Music is needed, perhaps others
The Wizard Cycle: WIZARD; SCRITTI DI LEONARDO; The Michelangelo Fantasies; others planned
The Litanies (these are not planned to be sacred music): NIGHT LITANY; at least one other planned
The Miraculous Domains: A MIRACLE OF RARE DEVICE; KUBLA KHAN; THE CHILDERMASS; THE CAVERNS OF THE SACRED RIVER; REMEMBER THE STARS; FANTASTICAL DOMAINS; at least some of the SONGS in Books One and Book Two; no others planned, but this seems to be a recurring theme, and I’m not sure there’s a satisfactory thread here yet
The Magic Cycle: SHEER MAGIC MUSIC; MEDIUM MAGIC MUSIC; one piece needed is underway

Some pieces are clearly part of the festival but are the only one of their type or their relation to the rest has yet to be found: all the song cycles and collections are expected to fit, also AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS; probably some of the HYMNS; and AVE.   At least two “absolute” pieces are planned to work within the festival, perhaps others: the SUITE for Solo Cello, and the SONATA for Solo Oboe.   

Events of the Twentieth Century that are apparent in the festival include the wars, in the Screaming cycle; the Holocaust, in the Childermass; and of course the 1960s, in the Celestial Sixties.    And perhaps the whole festival is a development of the new ways of thinking typical of the computer age, and what I seem to be saying is the Interactive Age.    However, direct reference to things political is not usually something I prefer (for example, I think it is pretty evil to write an opera about a U.S. President while he is still alive, and if you have no sense of this, you too could be evil), so this aspect of the original conception of the festival has been one I have not tried to make too clear.  My ideas about the Cold War, which I do not agree is over, since we have not won the cultural peace, are perhaps better given in Wendy Walker’s fictional masterpiece THE SECRET SERVICE, than any overt texts I might assemble.  When censorship threatens open communication, it is correct to challenge censorship.   But in a world where everybody can say anything they want at any time, the artist must be enough self-censoring that his methods are still artistic, and not actually political, or he loses his standing as an artist.   Art consists of concealing art; and those who do not want to accept your message must be able to opt out from that aspect of your work.   Why else did Jesus speak in parables?   History is fair game; politics, less certainly so.

The further I myself get from anybody’s spiritual orthodoxy, the more I think absolute instrumental music may have a very important place in the festival.    So there could be much of this music yet to be composed.    Or I might use instrumental music as the eventual way to keep from painting myself into a corner that always needs painting.     Not all of the music I want to write is part of the festival.

Depending on how you count them, there are just under 50 pieces completed, and at least fifteen more needed.   But I think something like 25 more will be needed for the inferential possibilities to reach a level of reliable sense.    Some of the ones needed will do the most to give shape to the festival: two or three more dramatic recitals similar to A MIRACLE OF RARE DEVICE, especially THE SECRET SERVICE; the planned oratorio that will complete the Screaming cycle; major pieces on the Paradise and Enlightenment themes; and the completion of the Portals cycle.

Updated January 6, 2013.