Marion von Tilzer composes Ten Songs of Change: ‘We are a drop in an immense ocean’

Recently Ten Songs of Change by composer-pianist Marion von Tilzer appeared on CD and LP. She composed this I Ching-inspired cycle of poetry and music for and with cellist Maya Fridman; author Lulu Wang selected the poems. Von Tilzer: ‘In China the I Ching (The Book of Changes) has the status of our Bible’.

‘Maya and I met in the winter of 2018 and immediately got into a conversation about mysticism,’ Marion von Tilzer (1968) explains enthusiastically. Shortly after, Fridman suggested devoting a composition for cello, piano and voice to The Book of Changes. She wanted to collaborate with the Chinese author Lulu Wang, who lives in the Netherlands.

Marion von Tilzer (c) Marco Borggreve

This idea immediately struck a chord with Von Tilzer: ‘I thought it was a wonderful prospect to be able to work with two such extraordinary artists, and fortunately Wang was willing to participate. Then Maya and I started brainstorming.’

Chinese Bible

Both had to acknowledge not to have an in-depth understanding of the Chinese book of proverbs. Von Tilzer: ‘Although I regularly read a translation that I had acquired in 1992, the book remained cryptic to me. Through the project I learned to understand it better, partly thanks to the insights and ideas of Lulu Wang. We often think of The Book of Changes as an oracle book, but it is a classic literary work that in China has the status of our Bible. Philosophical movements like Taoism and Confucianism converge in it.’

In the end, Von Tilzer decided to take the eight trigrams that form the basis of The Book of Changes as a starting point. These are Heaven; Lake; Fire; Thunder; Wind; Water; Mountain and Earth, concepts with which she feels a connection: ‘Each trigram has its own atmosphere and also refers to seasons, parts of the day, emotions and even sounds. In those underlying stories I heard music.’

Marion von Tilzer: ‘Ten Songs of Change is a fabric of experiences and moods that reflect the constant changes in nature.’

She gives some examples: ‘The spiritual association of “Mountain” is silence, which manifests positively as introspection and negatively as stagnation. The time experience involves the early morning and the sound suggests deep, subdued tones. My music here is hushed, with a great emphasis on the low C in cello and piano.’

‘The trigram “Wind” stands for gentleness, among other things, and is set for solo cello. It is very peaceful, as if a gentle breeze is rustling through the strings. “Lake” is associated with evening, innocence and reflection and, in terms of sound, with splashing and murmuring. I taped the piano strings to shorten the tone. Combined with pizzicati from the cello, this creates a light-hearted atmosphere.’

From morning song to lullaby

The eight trigrams are arranged so that the cycle runs through the complete twenty four hours of day and night. Von Tilzer added a prologue and an epilogue: ‘It begins with a morning song and ends with a lullaby. In the prologue, Maya, improvising on her cello and with her voice, responds to a tape recording of a love song sung by a young woman of the Mosuo tribe. In the epilogue, Maya sings a poem by Li Shangyin (813-858) in Chinese, while simultaneously performing a written-out cello part.’

Six poems are woven through the cycle, hence the description ‘poetry concerto’. Contrary to expectation, these are not verses from The Book of Changes: ‘Lulu Wang intended to make a text selection to match my music, but gradually felt that poems would be a better fit. She chose poetry from the Tang and Song Dynasties (618-1279), a period that is considered the golden age of Chinese culture. ‘The poems are close to the emotions of the trigrams and the music, it is a fabric of experiences and moods that reflect the constant changes in nature.’


Von Tilzer is convinced text and music together tell one story: ‘During rehearsal, Lulu suggested poems, and Maya and I chose which one best suited the mood. Her selection is recited on the album by Lei Qiu, in Mandarin. Maybe a shame if you don’t know Chinese, but the language is so musical and fits the composition so well that it shouldn’t be a problem. Moreover, there are English translations in the booklet.’

Has the project brought her new insights herself? ‘Definitely! I have realized that we are guided by our constantly changing thoughts, which continue day and night and determine from moment to moment how we experience life. Moreover, it have come to understand that not everything can be fathomed with our intellect; there is also a deeper, intuitive truth.’

‘All 7 billion people, while different as individuals, are also connected to the energy of the earth itself, in essence we are all equal. Each of us is but a drop in an immense ocean, a soothing thought.’

This article first appeared in Dutch in the music journal Luister.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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