A Composer’s Journey from Concept to Experience

Peter Lieberson describes his creative journey from the high intellectualism of twelve-tone theory to a trust in the play between spontaneity and technique.

Peter Lieberson
1 May 1997
Photo by Dayne Topkin

Just before Prince Siddhartha sat down to his final meditation session, after which he would be known as the Buddha, or Awakened One, he had an interesting realization. Ascetic practices of mortifying the body and attempting to control the mind did not work. As the prince was contemplating this insight a young girl tending her cow passed and offered him some milk. Then a farmer gave him a seat of kusha grass. The prince accepted these gifts, and, after months of denying himself the basic necessities of life in his search for enlightenment, he ate the food and sat down on the mat of grass, comfortably arranged himself, and simply opened his mind.

In that moment the Buddha solved a spiritual conundrum: he realized enlightenment only when he finally stopped struggling to become enlightened. He discovered that the essential nature of his mind was primordially free and that the obscurations of neurosis and habitual patterns of all kinds were temporary.

The Buddha let go of his struggle because he saw through all the techniques he had been faithfully practicing for years. He understood that the intrinsic wakefulness of his basic being was beyond any concept of enlightenment.

At the same time, he discovered that freedom paradoxically came about through those very disciplines that were artificial, gradual in application, and, ultimately, constricting. So for those inspired to follow the Buddha’s example, a path developed based on the skillful methods of the Buddha himself and of realized teachers in the lineages that followed.

From the very beginning of the Buddhist path simple techniques are presented to the student that encourage a state of wakefulness; in a sense one is deliberately playing a trick on oneself. Still, because one is trying to let go, there are nine yanks, or vehicles, in the Buddhist path that present ever more subtle and powerful techniques, each wearing out the previous ones. From this perspective, it might be said that enlightenment is a kind of transcendental exhaustion.

In the early 1970’s, Buddhism’s initial appeal to me was that it was not a religion in the conventional Western sense. Buddhism did not posit the existence of any external deity or savior or, for that matter, an individual personal ego. Although there were religious trappings in the form of rituals and observances, the great Buddhist masters seemed to be very eccentric and unpredictable. Their basic message was: be brave enough to experience existence without dogma or beliefs of any kind.

At that particular stage of my life, after much self-analysis, I was, finally, bored. I felt I was carrying an enormous conceptual superstructure in my head to get through situations. Fundamentally everything, especially myself, remained an enigma. Buddhism seemed to address this dilemma by removing the ground on which I thought I had been standing.

Among the books I first read was the popular Be Here Now (1971) by Ram Dass (Richard Alpert). He was entertaining and ridiculous. Vicariously enjoying his experiences, I felt I was slumming from my intellectual heritage. I loved the story of his Hindu teacher taking a fistful of LSD and remaining blandly serene while an agitated Ram Dass anticipated a crack-up. I began practicing meditation on my own, relying on The Secrets of Chinese Meditation (1972) by Charles Luk. It was a far more substantial book than the supermarket title suggests. I followed instructions for self-cultivation according to the Tian Tai school.

I discovered that Buddhism placed a tremendous importance on the role of the teacher, an accomplished fellow human being able to guide students on their path. I read stories of Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen masters. They were fiercer, more humorous, and more pointed than the Hindu masters; I preferred them.

Trying to find such a teacher, however, was another story. I attended a lecture given by a semi-certified American roshi at the New School. His brand of enlightenment was a huge guffaw and a few anecdotes about the ego as a swinging door. The analogy seemed fine, but he didn’t. I wandered from bookstore to bookstore.

One day a friend introduced me to a book by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973). This book tossed me through my world into an uncertain space. I was instantly aware that someone was speaking to me from the other side, so to speak. From that moment on, I never had any doubt that Chögyam Trungpa was an enlightened person, and whatever the many things that could have meant at the time, it certainly meant that he saw reality in a way I had never seen it. I was inspired and terrified.

Chögyam Trungpa was former supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet. He was recognized at the age of thirteen months as the eleventh incarnation of the Trungpa line. He was known by numerous titles, but in the early days of his residence in the United States he was known simply as “Rinpoche,” an honorific given to teachers that literally means “Precious One.” But Rinpoche’s students used the term more as an endearment than as an expression of guru worship. Worshipping the teacher as a way of elevating oneself was a form of insincerity that Chögyam Trungpa regarded with lethal cynicism.

Finally I met him. The occasion was a seminar. The place was a seedy loft in downtown Manhattan. The students consisted of hippies, intellectuals and a few people with full-time jobs. A number of women in the audience moaned, “Oh, Rinpoche,” in theatrical distress when Chögyam Trungpa lit up a cigarette. I was thrilled.

He was brilliant. He drank sake and smoked cigarettes, great pluses as far as I was concerned. He dressed quite elegantly, too. He seemed to be one of us and yet not one of us. I could not quite make the whole thing out. To this day I remember one of his sentences: “Fear of losing ground causes a screen: aggression and tightness operate.” Here was my own language being used in a way I had never heard it used before, skirting on psychological jargon but free of it, penetrating and accurate, right to the heart of everyone’s squirming, nonexistent ego.

My friend introduced me to Chögyam Trungpa at the end of the talk. As we exchanged hellos, I had the distinct impression of encountering an energy that spun me like a top down the street and into the night.

“As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me.”
—Igor Stravinsky: Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, 1970

During this period I had nearly completed a master’s degree in musical composition from Columbia University. My principal teachers were Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, both brilliant men and composers.

I learned many secrets of musical composition from them. These I practiced diligently, living a Spartan life and seeing hardly anyone. The musical world I inhabited was hermetic—sealed and self-secret. This was the era of twelve-tone music and, especially, twelve-tone theory.

Theory to me meant the mysteries of a new musical universe locked up in the relationship between numbers, their inversions and retrogrades, their multiplicative transformations. These investigations were carried on in the famous journal Perspectives of New Music. Therein, the terrain Arnold Schoenberg had discovered by intuitive leaps of genius was methodically mapped out for the next generation. Not all composers were suited to this kind of thinking, but those who were not were made to feel irrelevant. For the rest of us, this was clearly the path of the future.

What was daunting, however, was the complexity of method. I would erect theoretical edifices capable of housing multiples of the twelve-minute piece I was working on. The possibilities were endless: the relationships within one set of notes could be extended to aggregates of sets and further expanded to multiple arrays of sets. Then one had to realize all this stuff as music, for performers who needed time to breathe or draw a bow across a string.

Curiously, after each piece was finished I would forget what I had done. Beginning a new piece involved the formulation of yet another set of theoretical concepts. I found these experiences to be true for other composers as well. Individually we all understood what we were doing, but each piece required its own particular explanation. There seemed to be no common ground other than an underlying theoretical method.

Justifying a piece by means of the theory behind it was solipsistic, the first symptom of disease. I became immensely dissatisfied with the musical results and not too sure about the ideas behind them either. I needed to rest and rethink what I was doing. This discontent combined with the politics of musical life—the intense competition for very few rewards—to provoke a sense of revulsion. I was fed up.

As time went on I was drawn out of my city hermitage into the world of the sangha, the community of Buddhist practitioners. I met Chögyam Trungpa again, this time in Boulder, Colorado, and asked to be accepted as his student. He said, “Sure,” further throwing me off: didn’t such a portentous move on my part require a like response? Little did I know.

When asked by a famous sitar player how he should meditate, the Buddha said that he should work with his mind the same way he would string his instrument: not too tight, not too loose.

In 1976, I moved to Boulder. I had enjoyed considerable success for a young composer. My music had been played by Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic; I had a publisher and a number of grants, awards and commissions. But to the despair of my loved ones, I seemed to be throwing all this away. I was—or secretly hoping to. I would become a Buddhist teacher and leave the emotionally conflicting world of music behind. When I told this to Chögyam Trungpa, he said, “I think you should do more music.”

That fall and winter I attended a three-month seminary, in which Trungpa Rinpoche taught the practice and doctrines of hinayana, mahayana and vajrayana Buddhism. There were 125 of us. We practiced sitting meditation for a ten-day period, and then for a similar period practiced sitting meditation alternating with classes taught by senior students and evening talks with Trungpa Rinpoche himself. At the end of seminary Trungpa Rinpoche gave us the special transmission that he received from his teacher on the nature of mind, formally empowering us as vajrayana students. It was what I had left home for, and it was also a return home.

To a certain extent I had learned how to meditate; I began to trust myself more. With some trepidation I returned to New York City, and, alone in my parents’ apartment, I began work on a new piece.

I had not composed anything for nearly a year and started with a simple solo line. I recognized when I would begin to get tight and irritable, and I would let go, just what I had been doing on the meditation cushion for the previous three months. Some ventilation was taking place in my system. I began to feel I was understanding the principle of “not too tight, not too loose.” I wrote the rest of the piece, a quartet for the group Tashi, with the simple command from my teacher in my ears: “Good in the beginning, good in the middle, good at the end.”

In 1981 I was accepted to teach at that year’s seminary. I had been teaching Buddhism and Shambhala Training for three years in Boston at our local center. I was married and the father of an eighteen-month-old daughter. I had just been commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to write a piano concerto for my friend Peter Serkin. This was my first orchestral commission by one of the country’s most distinguished orchestras. I still felt I had not come to terms with how I wrote music, however, even as I embarked on what I envisioned as a grand scale work embodying the principles of Heaven, Earth and Man.

By the time I got to seminary I had completed the short score for the first movement, based on the Earth principle. I taught for the three-month program and had occasional meetings with Chogyam Trungpa about the courses. One day I met with him with two of my teaching colleagues.

The day before he had “received” a text. Trungpa Rinpoche was famous as a terton, someone who discovers spiritual teachings that are appropriate for their particular age. In Tibet, tertons were of many varieties: some would discover sacred objects that had been hidden away by teachers long since passed away; the location of these objects would come in visions. Some tertons would see texts in the mirror surface of a lake or in the sky. Other tertons would reveal a text from their own mind stream. Trungpa Rinpoche received texts in this latter way, and he simply wrote them down, often in one long, uninterrupted sitting.

At our meeting, I joked that “receiving” texts would be a great way to compose music, thinking of Mozart, who undoubtedly composed in a similar fashion. Rinpoche laughed and agreed, commenting that it actually felt somewhat like a headache. I presented my own particular dilemma, saying something like, “These days there is no common language, and such an overdeveloped intellectual approach. It feels as if I am only dealing with concepts and not spontaneous creation.” Rinpoche looked at me and said, “Concept becomes experience.” Suddenly tears came to my eyes. Then our meeting continued and moved on to other topics.

It is difficult to convey the significance a remark by one’s teacher can have. Those whom we trust reflect back to us as a kind of mirror. Particularly with a genuine spiritual teacher, an ordinary exchange can have tremendous potency. A humorous remark or gesture by the teacher in that moment is known, technically, as a meeting of minds, but it is often so ordinary as to be uneventful. Still, for a moment, the world of confusion collapses in the sharing of a joke.

That one remark by my teacher seemed to turn my world right-side up. I began to regard techniques not as concepts that prevent genuine musical expression but as passports to different worlds of experience. I began to play with the techniques my musical teachers had shown me. I threw them around and threw them out, and like boomerangs they would return. I used them in different ways, looking at them from inside and outside. They became like putty, reshaping and reforming for each new piece, even if I still could not remember from one piece to the next what I had actually done or what I had spent so much time trying to understand.

The creative process is fundamentally a process of visualization: in the case of composing music, you see what you hear. Out of the space of mind something flashes—a first thought—that has potential. Further ideas occur as offshoots or main limbs through paying attention and through coincidence. Soon a form is before you that takes on a particular authority. Then sidetracks are out of the question.

Yet if you investigate what this music is made of, you find nothing more than bits of sound that have no inherent meaning whatsoever. Somehow, notes have been endowed with such passion that they magnetize further notes until, magically, a world is born that makes us cry and laugh. A Buddhist would say that is the true nature of our entire world: empty, devoid of any inherent existence, and yet luminous, vivid with the play of apparent phenomena.

Chögyam Trungpa used to say, “First thought, best thought,” referring to a state of mind that is fresh, open, responsive. The awake mind can never be hampered by concepts but uses their energy for whatever purpose is beneficial. It is very interesting to work with whatever comes up in the mind and to have no plan other than trust in the process itself. This approach is completely different from “anything goes.” I think such trust is possible only when a certain level of confidence has been attained.

One day, in the middle of a piece I was composing, all those techniques left me. Really, it felt more like a collapse. Lately, I have noticed that whatever technique a piece requires is suggested, even dictated, by the piece itself. Sometimes I am slow to catch on, but eventually I get it.

I would like to illustrate the message of the Buddha’s enlightenment with a little story about Igor Stravinsky. My parents and the Stravinskys were friends. I had met Stravinsky when I was a child, but the occasion had no significance to me; he was simply another old person, though a charming one.

Then, when I was about twenty-two and had begun composing, I was invited to join my parents for a visit at the Stravinskys’ hotel in New York City. Stravinsky was very old and frail. He sat on a couch in the living room with a blanket draped over his legs, drinking milk laced with scotch. Still, he looked quite fierce, and I was intimidated. My father said to him, “Peter wants to be a composer.” I was embarrassed but nodded in agreement. Stravinsky said, “It is not enough to want…you must be!”

Peter Lieberson

Peter Lieberson’s compositions have been performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among others. He is the winner of the 2008 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for his piece “Neruda Songs.”