The Rivered Earth contains four libretti written by Vikram Seth, a celebrated Indian novelist and poet, designed to be set to music by Alec Roth. The final libretti is called ‘Seven Elements’. It is a song cycle that includes seven poems – Earth, Air, Wood, Fire, Metal, Water and Space.
‘Seven Elements’ draws on the other three libretti in The Rivered Earth, which take us from China, to India and then to Europe. Why seven elements? Vikram Seth notes that apart from the four elements in the European tradition – earth, air, fire and water – in India there is a fifth element – space. And, he goes onto say, the five classical Chinese elements overlap with these – fire, water, earth, metal and wood. Taken together, these add up to seven elements.
As readers of this blog would appreciate, I believe that the elemental story is broader, deeper and more complex than Vikram describes. It is true though that these seven elements receive the most attention, mostly grouped as four of five elements as he notes. Vikram has been inclusive writing poems about them as a group, capturing the cultural zones he had written about in his other libretti.
As an example of what Vikram Seth wrote in ‘Seven Elements’, here is the first section of his first poem in the series, Earth.
Here in this pot lies soil,
In which all things take birth.
The blind roots curve and coil
White in the sunless earth.
The soil slips over fire.
The great land cracks apart
And lava, pulsing higher,
Springs from earth’s molten heart.
Alec Roth has done his part and written music for the song cycle of the seven elements. A snippet from a review of one of the performances – conducted in voice (in this instance James Gilchrist, a tenor), piano and violin – follows:
“Seven Elements is a mystic work that aspires to provide a coherent vision of a unified cosmos by examining its constituent parts and forging from them a sense of totality . . . The song cycle deals with how each element impinges on human experience. Fire has Gilchrist gasping through a riotous celebration of heat as the driving force of existence”.
Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 23 June 2009
Expressing the elements in music and voice has universal appeal and application. From this and other reviews it sounds like the music composed by Alec Roth for ‘Fire’ was something out of the ordinary. As well as Tim Ashley calling it a riotous celebration, another reviewer described it as an ‘uproarious scherzo’. Vikram said that Alec set the poem to some of his craziest music. I’d like to experience it some time!
In the title of this post I referred to seven elements, plus one. The eighth element is consciousness. It is an integral part of the Six Great-Element teaching (Rokudai) of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. The other five elements in this system are fire, water, earth, wind and void/space. These fit neatly into Vikram’s seven. The founder of the Shingon, Kobo Daishi (Kukai), is buried at Koyosan – a remarkable mountain temple and cemetery complex. It is well worth visiting.
The list of elements grows! I suspect that the range of elements ‘chosen’ by each cultural group reflect what is important to them, thus here in the West we focus on the four that we can ‘see’. The more elements acknowledged, the more complex the cultural legacy. Very interesting!
That’s an excellent observation about the elements reflecting what is important to a culture and how this reflects on the Western view. In recent centuries it does seem to have narrowed to the physical nature of fire, water, air and earth. Overall, the spiritual/energetic aspects appear to have been lost in this culture, unless they are imported from the East or people uphold/return to the beliefs that abounded in the West before the scientific revolution.