Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind

For the last Showcase, LSO Soundhub Phase I composer Ben Gaunt composed a piece for karate practitioner and two musicians. In this blog he explains how and why he went about this unusual task.

In karate (and other traditional Japanese martial arts), a kata is a choreographed sequence of moves used to develop technique, strength, and speed. In essence, they are kinetic databases of punches, blocks, kicks, and throws; regularly practising katas will help the karateka (karate practitioner) deal with real-life violent situations.

In competition, martial artists will perform kata, often accompanied by non-live music. The chosen music tends to be bland, unadventurous, and does not resemble or reflect the meaning or movements of the kata. Consequently, the martial artist has to accept that the kata and music will not synchronise or the martial artist has to change and adapt the kata to fit the music (both unsatisfactory compromises, in my opinion).

In Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind I attempt to remedy this by presenting five traditional kata, accompanied by music that has been specifically written to fit each kata. The karateka essentially acts as a conductor, directing the musicians.

Performed live at LSO St Luke's, Sunday 19 June 2016
Viola: Anna Bastow
Bass Clarinet: Ausiàs Garrigós Morant 
Karateka: Simon Keegan

The katas are ordered in such a way that the first (‘Meikyo’) features a 1:1 relationship between movement and music; that is, each action is accompanied by a sound (a technique often referred to as ‘Mickey Mousing’!). As the piece progresses, the music and movement become less connected; there exists almost no synchronisation in the fifth kata (‘Hangetsu’). The final kata, Jo-ha-kyū, operates differently; here the musicians perform music derived from all the previous katas and the karateka improvises in response.

Aside from ‘Meikyo’ and ‘Jo-ha-kyū’, each kata ends with an instrumental postlude – this gives both the audience and the karateka time to reflect, and enables me to explore musical ideas that are not directly connected to physical action.

I have a black belt in karate and have studied and performed most of these katas myself. I wanted to evoke, through music, the physical sensation of practising karate; however, I also aimed to communicate the myths associated with each kata:

‘Meikyo’ was chosen as the first kata for two reasons. Firstly, its name translates as ‘bright mirror’, and this felt appropriate; the musicians reflect the actions of the karateka (and the mirror symbolism also influenced the way in which I devised the harmonic language). Secondly, the kata has become associated with the legend of the sun goddess Amaterasu. I liked the idea of beginning with the sun and ending with the moon (Hangetsu).

Tekki Shodan
This is my favourite kata to perform – it feels very powerful. The fact ‘Tekki Shodan’ moves from side-to-side (never forwards or backwards) has led some to assume this kata is for fighting in small spaces, perhaps on board a ship. Thus, the postlude to Tekki Shodan is a simple, slow barcarolle. 

Heian Sandan
There are five different Heian katas. They are usually the first katas a student learns, and they impart upon the karateka a number of basic skills and principles. (The name ‘Heian’ means ‘peaceful mind’; karate translates as ‘empty hand’, hence the name of the overall work.) I have always considered this kata to have a mischievous quality, and I have responded with appropriately quirky music. Hidden within it, however, the kata possesses some devastatingly powerful techniques (as indicated by the brutality of the postlude).

Bassai Dai
One interpretation of the title of this kata is to ‘break an enemy’s fortress’. I imagined a solid music, which gradually crumbles and disintegrates with each of the karateka’s punches and kicks. The postlude combines broken textures with wailing laments.

‘Hangetsu’ translates as “half-moon”. Tension builds during the opening, before exploding into celestial textures that gradually subside.

‘Jo-ha-kyū’ roughly translates as ‘beginning, break, rapid’ and is a Japanese aesthetic concept that indicates that actions should begin slowly and speed up. During the composition of the first five kata, I noticed that it had taken less and less time to write each one. The first kata I wrote (‘Tekki Shodan’) took a couple of months, the last (‘Meikyo’) only a few days. I decided, then, that the final movement should be named to reflect this, should begin slowly and end quickly, and should be written as rapidly as possible. Ordinarily, my music is composed using maths and systems and lots and lots of planning. In order to capture a sense of spontaneity, however, Jo-ha-kyū is written freely.

bengaunt karate3


The next LSO Soundhub Showcase on Saturday 11 February 2017 features the work of Phase II Members Oliver Leith and Lee Westwood, who will present their works to industry professionals, colleagues and members of the public. The concert will also include works which formed part of a unique residency at the National Trust property 575 Wandsworth Road by Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian.