For a few years I was the tenor section leader of a choir in Washington, and in singing with and composing for them I’d become more and more interested in the quasi-instrumental vocal gesture. Stephen Mitchell’s pellucid translation of this verse of the Tao te Ching—a series of moral challenges all beginning with the words “Can you?”—spurred me to explore this idea at length. The singers, divided into two SATB choirs, intone the first question in a dusky C-minor against a sighing backdrop of wind sounds: then, as the first choir utters the text’s first challenge, the second choir refracts their words into marimba-like repeated notes, as if the long lines of the first choir were subjected to a kind of aural strobe.
As the questions become tougher, so do the sounds: tenors and altos stab into the texture with horn-like interruptions, and the phrase “Can you?” disrupts the unwavering four-four pulse with insistent threes and twos. At a peak of intensity, a looping soprano-alto line spirits us away from pulse and chord, leading first to a melodic meditation based on the vowels of “Can you?” and then to a cadenza, in which chords appear and vanish into a shimmering, ever-present curtain of sound. A vision of equanimity is intoned in the open fifths of (both Western and Eastern) chant: then, as if elated by its discovery (“This is the supreme virtue”) the chorus reworks its “Can you?” motive: a nudging half-step expands to a whole step, the harmony brightens to B-flat, and, in rhythms now more jubilant than insistent, the score spins to closure.
from the Tao te Ching of Lao-tsu; translated by Stephen Mitchell
Can you coax your mind from its wanderings
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?
Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing;
acting with no expectation,
leading without trying to control;
This is the supreme virtue.