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The Rain Bird
The King of Fire & His Steed
The Satyrs
The Double
The Sirens
Amphisbaena Retroversa

From the CRI CD:

Just as imaginary beings are, almost by definition, symbols of inner reality, the eight pieces that constitute THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS are expressions of elusive, vague, mysterious and occasionally mystical states of feeling evoked by associative imagery. Its literary source is the book of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges -- a compendium, really, of the more illustrious creatures of the mind. Here are the superscriptions to the several movements, (and occasional bracketed remarks by the composer) adapted from Borges's bestiary:

I. AMPHISBAENA. "The amphisbaena is a serpent having two heads, the one in its proper place and the other in its tail; and it can bite with both... Amphisbaena, in Greek, means 'goes both ways.'" [The ferocious amphisbaena's end is not really its beginning: its shape is a line, not a circle. But since this opening movement reappears in retrograde as No. 8, it is a musical palindrome as well as a bestial one, which is, after all, a very good reason for being an imaginary being.]

II. THE RAIN BIRD. "When rain is needed, Chinese farmers have at their disposal...the bird called the 'shang yang'... The tradition runs that the bird drew water from the rivers with its beak and blew it out as rain on the thirsting field."

III. A KING OF FIRE AND HIS STEED. "This almost unimaginable fancy was attempted by William Morris in the tale 'The Ring Given to Venus'...

As a white flame his visage shown,
Sharp, clear-cut as a face of stone;
But flickering flame, not flesh it was;
And over it such looks did pass
Of wild desire, and pain, and fear,
As in his people's faces were,
But tenfold fiercer..."

IV. A BAO A QU. "There has lived since the beginning of time a being sensitive to the many shades of the human soul. It lies dormant...until at the approach of a person some secret life is touched off in it, and deep within the creature an inner light begins to glow." [The poetical source for the almost constant drumbeat lies in the inanimate being brought to life-its heart made to pulsate. The more prosaic source was the beating in my clogged ears during a bad cold.]

V. THE SATYRS. "Satyrs were thickly covered with hair and had short horns, pointed ears, active eyes, and hooked noses. They were lascivious and fond of their wine. They set ambushes for nymphs...and their instrument was the flute."

VI. THE DOUBLE. "The ancient Egyptians believed that the Double, the 'ka,' was a man's exact counterpart, having his same walk and his same dress. Not only men, but gods and beasts...had their 'ka.' In Yeats's poems the Double is...the one who complements us, the one we are not nor will ever become." [This piece is a gloss on a pretty piece by Saint-Sa'ns: his music represents the bird's superficial beauty; mine, its latent inner ferocity, both aspects in collage. The white swan and the black swan, as it were.]

VII. SIRENS. "The Odyssey tells that the Sirens attract and shipwreck seamen, and that Ulysses, in order to hear their song and yet remain alive, plugged the ears of his oarsmen...and had himself lashed to the mast...In the sixth century, a Siren was caught and baptized in northern Wales..."


The Book of Imaginary Beings was written in 1971–72 for the players who are heard on this recording, and who gave the first performance on May 7, 1972 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. during the American Music Festival under the direction of Richard Bales.

Ensemble Type: 

mixed instrumental ens 6 to 15 players

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