Opus 27 (2016) – The Mystery of the Dao

Recorded on 11/04/2016 at Theon Studio in Hong Kong. Travis Mallett (piano) and Caroline Nan (guzheng).

Program Notes

Lao Tzu opens the Tao Te Ching with the famous statement “The Dao that we can comprehend is not the eternal and infinite Dao.” The philosophical underpinnings of Taoism, said to be codified by the 6th century BC Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, casts the essence of the deity, or the Dao, as infinite, unknowable, and undefinable. The Dao is utterly mysterious, incomprehensible, and impenetrable. While these tenets of Taoism resonate with other religions and philosophies, the parallels with the vast and infinite God of Christianity are particularly striking. The grand opening to Genesis, “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” implies God’s infinite and eternal attributes. That is, God must exist outside space and time in order to create both space and time, a conclusion that is confirmed by many other biblical passages (e.g., Isaiah 40:28, Revelation 1:8). Logic dictates that finite time-bound beings necessarily cannot fully comprehend such a God.

That Taoism has nearly an identical view of the eternal and infinite attributes of God as Christianity is not surprising to the biblical authors. In fact, Paul explicitly recognizes these are universal truths available to all people in Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (NIV 1984)

It is understood from this passage that people from all religions, worldviews, philosophies, and walks of life may recognize the same attributes of God. And it is because of the magnificence of creation that people learn and understand these truths.

This piece is a Christian response to philosophical Taoism. It affirms the common truths, but presents a dialog for the differences. Where philosophical Taoism leaves the religious student with ambiguity regarding the deity, Christianity presents additional specific revelation. This work is primarily about a particular piece of revelation, namely, the Trinity. As Scripture unfolds, the eternal and infinite God of Genesis is revealed to be three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The number 3 is embedded in the piece in a plethora of ways: it consists of three movements, there are 27 or 3X3X 3 = 33 repetitions of the piano part in the second movement, the primary motive consists of three notes, and there are three sections of tonality (allusions to E-minor, B-minor, and a return to E-minor). The work is composed using graphic notation, not only as a tool for composition and notation but also as a reflection on the nebulousness of the Dao.

The piece contains several sections that evoke a sense of mystery but this culminates with a flourish of divine revelation in the third movement. The listener is encouraged to understand the emotive qualities of the piece relate to the theology just as much as the analytic elements.