Vikram Seth is a writer who loves music, so perhaps it was inevitable that some of his words would eventually be sung. Even Seth seems surprised, however, that his credits as librettist include a full-length opera and the four expansive concert works he has come to Ottawa to introduce at the Music and Beyond festival.
The Rivered Earth, part of which was performed at two concerts Wednesday, with the remaining two concerts on Thursday, consists of Seth's original poems and his translations from half a dozen languages, set in a variety of forms by English composer Alec Roth. It was Roth, a tonal composer with an exotic streak, who pulled the author of the best-selling Indian novel A Suitable Boy into the libretto business, first by asking for permission to set some pre-existing poems, then by floating the idea of writing an opera together.
"My first reaction was to say, 'No, I don't really like opera very much,'" Seth recalled of that conversation two decades ago. After a visit to some opera houses in Germany and Austria, however, he decided to try writing for the stage, in part because of how bad he found the libretti of some famous operas. Another reason was to evade working on A Suitable Boy, which was then still growing to its final length of over half a million words.
"My writing originally was also an evasion, from my economics dissertation," he says, referring to his first book, the 1986 verse novel The Golden Gate. "I think evasion is fine, as long as you're serious about it."
Another evasion – or maybe it was more recreation – took the form of learning to sing Schubert lieder, for which Seth has "an obsession." He was trained as an Indian classical singer, but couldn't sing or listen to Indian music in off-hours without being pulled back into his novel. An Austrian pianist friend advised him how to learn Schubert without much fluency in reading Western notation.
"He said, 'Do it in the Indian style. Listen to the CD, imitate, follow the line of the music with your eyes, and then invest your own feelings into it.' So that's what we did.… For me, Schubert is the guy. If someone can play halfway decently the songs that I like, I'll drop whatever I'm doing [to sing them]."
A Suitable Boy came out in 1993, and the opera written under its wing, Arion and the Dolphin, was produced by English National Opera the following year (and subsequently in Rotterdam, Singapore and Nottingham). Soon afterwards, Roth, Seth and the violinist Philippe Honoré (who was Seth's partner at the time), approached three English festivals with a proposal to write four works, to be delivered once a year and performed at all three events. The new works would all feature violin and tenor, and each would have a different geographic or thematic character.
The festivals bought the idea, but with so little time to prepare that for the intimate first work, Songs in Time of War, Seth reused his translations of verses by the eighth-century Chinese poet Du Fu. The second, Shared Ground, was also linked to a great poet of the past: 17th-century writer George Herbert, who spent the last three years of his life in a Salisbury rectory that Seth had bought. "Though far in time and faith, I share his tears, / His hearth, his ground, his mud," Seth writes in one poem. Another takes the hour-glass shape on the page of Herbert's poem, Easter -Wings.
"At first I could hardly believe I was there," Seth recalls of the house where he did most of his work on The Rivered Earth. "Not an hour passed without my thinking about it."
Shared Ground was the English component of the set, and for Seth the most personal, in part because his relationship with Honoré ended during its writing. He skipped the premiere in 1997, at which Roth's choral settings of the poems were performed alongside a suite of his solo violin pieces.
The third work, The Traveller, is a gathering of Indian metaphysical writings in six languages about the four stages of life, in Seth's translations and with some original verses. Roth set them as an hour-long oratorio with two choirs and string orchestra, before scaling down to a trio for The Seven Elements, the concluding work about the basic stuff of the universe.
All of the pieces were two to three times longer than the commissioned length of 20 minutes, but Seth says that after the first was well received, the festivals stopped worrying about length. Writing in The Times, Geoff Brown said of The Traveller: "We seemed to be hearing music that always existed."
Seth counts himself lucky to be present for the first complete performance over two days, of pieces that were first done separately over four years. The texts were all brought together in a published edition last year, along with Seth's introductions and commentaries.
The Ottawa shows also allow him to evade a bit of work on the long-awaited successor to his best-known book: A Suitable Girl, about which he would say only: "I'm well in." No more music projects till that's done, he adds. We'll see about that.
Music and Beyond presents The Rivered Earth in two concerts Wednesday and two Thursday at Dominion-Chalmers United Church in Ottawa, with Philippe Honoré as violin soloist. All programs introduced by Vikram Seth, who also reads from his 1999 novel An Equal Music at the same venue on July 14, with live performances of music mentioned in the book.