Lives Lived: A Composer’s Journey

In this autobiographical essay, Peter Lieberson explained how his music and Buddhist practice deeply influenced one another.

By Peter Lieberson

Photo by Chris Drumm

In the early 1970s, 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.

One day a friend introduced me to a book by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. 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.

Finally I met him. The occasion was a seminar. The place was a seedy loft in downtown Manhattan. 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 psychological jargon but free of it, penetrating and accurate, right to the heart of everyone’s squirming, nonexistent ego.

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.

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 saw Chögyam Trungpa again, this time in Boulder, Colorado, and asked to be accepted as his student. “Sure,” he said, 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 Trungpa Rinpoche, 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. At the end of seminary, he 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.”

In 1981, I was accepted to teach at that year’s seminary. One day during seminary two of my teaching colleagues and I met with Trungpa Rinpoche. He was famous as a terton, someone who discovers spiritual teachings that are appropriate for their particular age, and the day before he had “received” a text. 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.

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. 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. Later, I noticed that whatever technique a piece requires is suggested, even dictated, by the piece itself.

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, and 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. 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.”