Sacred sounds

The monks of Tashi Lhunpo preserve Tibet's ancient culture in exile

The notation looks like billowing clouds with swirling trails. The voice of the chant leader Kachen Lobsang traces the notation from left to right. The small letters form the words and then the vowels, in red, are surrounded by bulbous lines that represent the swelling of the chant. The squiggles are imitated in the intensity of the note. This is a prayer to Mahakali, one of the terrifying Buddhist gods who protect Tibet's Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.

Lobsang is actually singing from a laptop printout. The original "manuscript" of the chant was brought out from Tibet after the Chinese _annexed the country in 1959, and is kept in exile at the Tashi Lhunpo Monas tery, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. "I'm not an expert," says Lobsang, at reading the notation. "It's something they do in the Tantric College." It was Kachen Lhakdor, a monk now about 100 years old, who brought the manuscripts from the original Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse, Tibet's second city. It is unlikely that anything like this survives there.

The Tashi Lhunpo ("heap of glory") Monastery in Tibet was founded in 1447 as the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. The identity of the current Panchen Lama is one of many disputes between Tibetan religious leaders and the Chinese authorities. The Chinese seized the six-year-old boy declared to be the reincarnated Panchen Lama in 1995 and nominated their own replacement candidate; the boy's present whereabouts are unknown.

The Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in exile was founded close to several other Tibetan monasteries in south India in 1972. There are about 300 monks in residence. As well as bringing the old chant notations, Kachen Lhakdor also memorised the monastic dances performed in Tibet and has re-created them in exile. Led by Kelkhang Rinpoche, the monks from Tashi Lhunpo whom I met are a group of eight taking their traditions on tour. "First, we have to preserve our Tibetan culture and religion," explains Rinpoche. "Second, we want to show them to the world."

This tour is well timed, coinciding as it does with all the publicity the situation in Tibet has had since the protests in Lhasa and the demonstrations surrounding the Olympic torch. But in fact, this is the third UK tour by the Tashi Lhunpo monks in three years. They made sand mandalas at the House of Commons in London and in Nottingham to mark the Dalai Lama's recent visit. The mandala is an intricate cosmic diagram, made over several days out of millions of grains of coloured marble. "It represents impermanence," explains Rinpoche. "It is very beautiful and very hard to make, but then we destroy it and throw it into the water."

The monks are performing in venues from Cam bridge and Gateshead to Portland Prison and Womad, and have released a CD of chants, Dawn Till Dusk. "We don't feel this is a show," insists Rinpoche. "What we do in the mon ast ery, we are doing here." One of their chants is a tantric ritual called Kunrik ("all-knowing"). Five monks with long, dark fringes and ceremonial headdresses start to chant and move their hands in a meticulous sequence of hand gestures that represent 37 deities. The goddess Green Tara, for instance, is represented by three fingers of the right hand raised upwards and the third finger and thumb touching as if holding a flower.

As the mantras to the deities are spoken, fing ers are raised, palms are opened, hands cupped; it looks like sign language in slow motion. It takes 12 minutes on stage, but more than five hours in the monastery. So what are we missing? On tour they simply do the hand gestures, but in the monastery they invite each of the deities to come. They converse with them and make them offerings. "It's like inviting somebody into your house," explains Rinpoche. "All our music is offered to the gods and goddesses. But we don't invite them when we're here, to make it shorter, but also because they might come."

The monks include in their performance a pair of the three-metre-long dung chen trumpets, the sound of which seems to come from the depths of the earth itself. They perform dances such as Dur-dak Gar-cham ("lords of the cemetery"), in which two skeletons remind you that, however rich and important you may be, you can take nothing with you when you die. Another message of impermanence.

The monks-in-exile feel that spiritual teaching is lacking in Tibet, which is why they want to re-create it outside the country. Rinpoche has visited the original Tashi Lhunpo, but could not risk saying anything that connected him to the monastery in exile. He believes he is the reincarnation of a Tashi Lhunpo abbot who died in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. "When I went back there, I felt very strongly I'd been there before." The rituals and the dances may seem esoteric, but for him and the other monks, their preservation and demonstration has become a mission. "We are all hoping to go back to Tibet one day and when we do we can transplant very quickly because we have preserved our culture. None of us knows when that will be, but if I can't go in this life, I will go in the next."

For details of the Tashi Lhunpo monks' tour see:

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis