Forest Threnody

Baram Dam Protests by Dayak villagers, near Miri, on the Baram River, 2015

Dayak villagers protesting the planned building of hydroelectric dams that would have flooded their riverbank villages.

Composer: Yii Kah Hoe

Dedicated to EnviroLab Asia, The Claremont Colleges.

Premiered Fall 2015, Scripps College.

Recorded for Volume 2, Voices of the Pearl.

“Forest Threnody” is a major work for mixed choirs and soprano soloists. The premiere was accompanied by pre-recorded synthesized soundtrack and video montage. The creation was an international collaboration between composer Yii Kah Hoe (Malaysia), Steve Rowell, Charles W. Kamm, and Anne Harley.

The libretto was selected from both holy scriptures found in the public domain, and from scientific data, and was  sung in several languages (English, Pali, Bahasa Malaysia ). Yii’s composition also incorporates frog calls from the last remaining primary forest of Borneo, collected by Prof. Jennifer Sheridan (Yale–NUS), where the forest is disappearing due to mining and pollution.

The composition is intended to draw attention to the tragedy of environmental destruction, particularly in and around Borneo, the home of composer Yii Kah Hoe (Malaysia).


Texts and Translations

Gagak Parit (in Malay)
Dilihatnya gagak yang lara
kini kejang di parit
antara pejabat pos dan pangsapuri.
Disaksinya cungapan seorang
pesara, sawan seorang bayi
di klinik sesak sepagi,
semakin kurang dimengerti
inti kemakmuran jasmani.
Kerana di sini hanya kawasan
bersih bagi kehidupan cicitnya,
dituntutnya usah
dungu mencemari rimba
yang tak akan dapat lagi
subur menyegari buminya
tanpa sedia bermaruah,
beratus tahun, merancangnya.
— A. Samad Said

Chant, from Sumangalamatta’s verses in the Therīgāthā:
Rāgañca ahaṃ dosañca, cicciṭi cicciṭīti vihanāmi;
Rukkhamūlam upagamma, aho sukhanti sukhato jhāyāmī’’ti.
Therīgāthā, 3, verse 24

The Dead Crow
He saw a dead crow
in a drain
near the post office.
He saw an old man
gasping for air
and a baby
barely able to breathe
in a crowded morning clinic.
This land is so rich.
Why should we suffer like this?
I want clean air for my grandchildren.
I want the damned fools to leave the forest alone.
I want the trees to grow,
the rivers run free,
and the earth covered with grass.
Let the politicians plan
how we may live with dignity,
now and always.

I destroy desire and hatred with a sizzling sound.
I, going up to the foot of a tree (thinking)
“O the happiness,” meditate upon it as happiness.
— translated by Harry Aveling

Frog Calls from Borneo Primary Rainforest:
The frog calls were recorded in Danum Valley in eastern Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. Currently, Danum is one of the last remaining lowland forest patches in Sabah, as all of Borneo is rapidly being developed for oil palm plantations. Organisms of all kinds are being squeezed into increasingly smaller areas as oil palm plantations expand, and Danum provides an invaluable opportunity to learn as much as possible about tropical biodiversity in its natural state before it’s wiped out. These two frogs are especially interesting for their unique behavior and morphology. Rhacophorus appendiculatus has what appears to be aggressive territorial behavior, uncommon among amphibians, which it displays during calling. Rhacophorus dulitensis has transparent green skin that makes its veins appear turquoise, as well as extensive webbing and skin flaps along its limbs that help it glide. If we don’t stop rainforest destruction, there are countless fascinating species that will go extinct before they’re even known to science.
— Jennifer A. Sheridan, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Yale-New University of Singapore College,
an Envirolab Asia partner institution.


Short Program Note

This Pali verses come to us from a collection of early Buddhist scriptures left by female monastics, entitled Therīgāthā, collected over 2000 years ago. This particular pair of lines in ‘old āryā’ or ‘musical metre’ is attributed variously to ‘a certain unknown bhikkunī’ or to Sumaṅgalamātā (literally “Mother of the Auspicious One”). The composer and I chose this verse to end Forest Threnody because it distills a very old connection between the spiritual formation and nature, in the symbol of a cherished tree. The verse also prompts us to consider the human relationship with the environment over 2000 years ago, at a time when humans had not yet created the catastrophic change in the world around us that we now confronting. The poet hints at the false dichotomy of self and environment: the ascetic loses herself in the bliss of meditation. In fact, although this text issues from early Buddhism, in many world traditions, one sign of a successful contemplative practice involves dissolving this duality: the self relinquishes normalized boundaries with surroundings. This core of Buddhist teaching, anatta (in Sanskrit: anātman), means literally ‘not self’ and its realization is a key goal for practioners. Time and time again, when beings reach this kind of enlightenment, this achievement has deep repercussions for society. Furthermore, for those who achieve anatta, environmentalist goals reflect selfless activity for the benefit of all beings.