Commissioned by CHROMA Ensemble.
First performance Park Lane Chapel, Norwich, 8 June 2008
The title refers to one of the simple components of a Taiji Quan martial arts routine. Taiji Quan, ironically meaning ‘ultimate fist’, has attained unparalleled popularity today as an exercise which links health and meditation to traditional unarmed combat techniques to bring focus and spiritual relaxation to the practitioner. Lao Tzu, in his philosophical classic, The Tao Te Ching, wrote ‘the soft and flexible will defeat the hard and the strong’; and in just such a way, Taiji Quan negates the notion of force conquering force. Instead, students are trained to meet force with softness, thereby victorious through the attainment of balance.
The origins of Taiji Quan are obscure, though some sources cite a Daoist of either the twelfth or fifteenth century, Zhang San-feng, who created the art after watching a crane and a snake fighting. The styles of Taiji Quan in favour today can be traced back to a general from the last days of the Ming Dynasty, Chen Wang-ting, who, when the Ming fell in 1644, retired to his village and created seven sets of styles, of which only two survive today.
Correct motion can only be born of absolute stillness. Thus, this piece opens with four very smooth chords that blur into one another, ending with a surprisingly euphonious one. Now focused, the music can move. A single movement would be learned and repeated until perfected; and only then could one proceed to the next. In the music, a lengthy passage ensues of single notes in differing textures and registers that soon streamline, glide into motion and attain a strong yet smooth line, unencumbered by harmony. The aim of Taiji Quan: to generate power using the whole body, is suggested by the piano entering with a rustling harmonic idea, supported by the ensemble, which builds into a powerful sequence. A fleeting moment of angular conflict passes back to the opening smooth chords, after which the single note passage is repeated, but with increasing agility and drama. An intensified return of the piano sequence idea suggests real menace and builds to an ominous climax. The piece concludes with the initial four chords, though not so formally presented. The next to last word is had by the euphonious fourth chord, here presented as a sharp blow of a fist, followed by a dying flute trill, suggesting the possibility of a return to equilibrium.