81 Tao Songs is a musical setting of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. In this piece, I set each of the book’s eighty one verses to music as their own movement/song. I encountered the Tao Te Ching when on a music tour in China with poet, Wang Ping, where we travelled from Shanghai to the Tibet over the course of one month. She introduced me to the book during the trip and has since encouraged and guided me in this project.
Setting the Tao Te Ching to melody and intoned speech has been a personal practice as a way to better remember the text and think through the meaning of the verses. The music has also been a way for me to try to model certain concepts and themes found in the book.
One recurring theme in the Tao Te Ching is hsiang sheng; the mutual arising or inseparability of contrasting features of the universe (Watts et al., 1975). Verse twenty six exemplifies this: “Heavy is the root of light, stillness is the master of moving.” That is, movement cannot exist except in relation to stillness. The balancing of such forces was a central aspect of ancient Chinese music. P’ing, or level unchanging pitch, with attributes of smoothness and repose, was contrasted with tsê, sudden or contrary motion, with attributes of activity and assertiveness (Levis, 1963). This concept is an influential factor in many of the forms of the individual songs and in the contrasting sound worlds, instrument choices, and recording techniques contained in this song cycle.
The 81 Tao Songs website/songbook is an invitation to participate in the singing, playing, and arrangement of these songs. The recordings and notation are open-ended and may be updated/augmented over the course of time as collaborators or myself contribute new versions of the pieces. Many of the songs have folk-like melodies that should be accessible for both musicians and non-musicians. If you’d like to create a new version of any of the songs, email me a recording and I’ll add it to the site. Thanks for supporting and participating!
Levis, John Hazedel. 1963. Foundations of Chinese Musical Art. 2nd ed. Paragon 7. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp. p. 239.
Watts, Alan, Al Chung-liang Huang, and Lee Chih-chang. 1975. Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books. p. 22.
Below is an ongoing list of all the performers and collaborators who have contributed their talent and creativity to this project thus far. In addition, each song has a tab that indicates performer information. If collaborator info is not indicated in this section, it means that I performed, recorded, mixed, and mastered the track. I’d especially like to acknowledge the members of Desert Magic (Logan Hone, Steven Van Betten, Luke Williams), who performed and arranged eleven of these songs (which can also be heard on our album “In The Universe”), and Michelle Lou and Ben Leeds Carson for their thoughtful feedback and compositional advice. Thank you, collaborators!
Logan Hone – sax, drums, synth, bass, voice, arranging (20, 21, 26, 27, 32, 34, 40, 43, 46, 52, 53, 58, 63, 66)
Steven Van Betten – electric guitar, voice, arranging (20, 21, 27, 32, 34, 40, 43, 46, 52, 53, 58, 63)
Luke Williams – bass, synth, voice, video, arranging (20, 21, 32, 34, 40, 43, 46, 52, 53, 58, 63)
Heather Lockie – voice, piano, violette, arranging (17, 44)
John Schneider – adapted guitar I, voice (2, 19)
Laura Steenberge – viola da gamba, voice (44)
Linnea Sablosky – voice (34, 52, 63)
Jessica Hemingway – dance (20, 26)
Vanessa Ruotolo – cello (48)
Kyle Bruckmann – oboe (16)
Archie Carey - bassoon, arranging (7)
Kathryn Shuman - voice, arranging (7)
Mustafa Walker – bass (44)
Michelle Lou – banjo, arranging (50)
Odeya Nini - voice, arranging (7)
Katie Porter – clarinet (16)
Meghann Welsh – voice (50)
Booker Stardrum – drums (79)
Christopher Froh – marimba (48)
Stephanie Layton – graphic design
James Sullivan – videographer (20)
Ed Garcia – timpani, crotales (16)
Stuart Wheeler – voice, domra, arranging (42)
Jessica Li – video director (20, 40, 52)
Emma Rae Bruml Norton – web development
Ben Leeds Carson – guitar, voice, keys, clarinet, arranging (13, 36)
Louis Lopez – mixing (20, 21, 32, 34, 40, 43, 46, 52, 53, 58, 63)
Daniel Eaton – mastering (20, 21, 32, 34, 40, 43, 46, 52, 53, 58, 63)
The instruments used in each recording are also indicated in the tab to the right of the song titles. I found myself recording much of this song cycle with my ‘optimal’ well-tempered classical guitar (OWT), a re-fretted guitar whose tuning I designed using Larry Polansky’s OWT tuning software. I also wrote for Harry Partch’s gourd tree and several of his adapted guitars. The León, a Mexican folk bass guitar that Sabina Arias gave me, and the viola da gamba, an Early Music bowed instrument, have also made it into many of these recordings. While I have often written the songs with these specific instruments in mind, much of the music works for open instrumentation as well.
The lyrics of these songs come from translations/versions of the Tao Te Ching by Ursula K. Le Guin, Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English, and William Martin (see below for publisher info). The translations vary significantly in terms of how they interpret the meaning of the original Chinese text. In addition, I often omit and/or repeat certain parts of the translations for musical reasons and take a few linguistic liberties such as rendering the character of the “the sage” with different pronouns (he, she, they) depending on the song. Hence, the songs present the verses in an impressionistic way through the lens of the chosen translations and my own musical inclinations. Hopefully they can be jumping points that invite a curiosity for further study, contemplation, and singing.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, Translated to English by Ursula K. Le Guin, Used by permission of Curtus Brown, Ltd. Copyright 1998, All Rights reserved.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, Translated to English by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. Copyright 2011. Used by permission of Jane English, eheart.com.
The Activist’s Tao Te Ching. Copyright 2016 by William Martin. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. newworldlibrary.com.
This piece is a modular set of songs that can be listened to in various ways. The determined listener might go through all 81 songs in one sitting (~3 hours of music). Another way that could be just as interesting would be to listen to one song per day, perhaps in the morning. This is akin to how I wrote the music and how I consult the Tao Te Ching in general. I like being able to stay with just one verse and think about its meaning throughout the day. Whatever way you engage with the music, thanks so much for listening!
If you would like to make a contribution to this project, you can support here. All contributors receive a digital download of the music and a PDF of the songbook. Physical copies of the songbook are available through Frog Peak Music. Thanks for listening!
1. Darkness Within Darkness
2. Voice and Sound
4. Empty Vessel
5. Heaven and Earth Are Impartial
6. The Valley Spirit
7. Heaven Will Last Forever
8. The Highest Good Is Like Water
9. A House Full of Gold And Jade
10. Can You Be Like A Bird?
11. Thirty Spokes
12. The Five Colors
13. Accepting Disgrace
14. Unbroken Thread
15. The Ancient Masters
16. Returning to the Source Is Stillness
17. Sun Up, We Rise
18. Not Forcing
19. Give Up Sainthood
20. A Restless Wind
21. The Greatest Virtue
22. The Road Our World Is Traveling
24. You Can't Keep Standing (On Tiptoes)
25. The Cosmos (In All Its Fiery Wonder)
26. Heavy Is the Root of Light
27. Good Walkers Leave No Track
28. Valley Of The World
29. No Objectives
30. We Will Overcome
32. No Thing Exists In and Of Itself
33. The Only True Freedom
34. The Great Tao
35. Hold Fast to the Great Thought
36. The Small Dark Light
37. Formless Substance
38. Individual Heart
39. The Strength of the Spirit
40. Turning Is the Motion of the Tao
41. The Way Is Hidden
42. The Tao Bears One
43. The Softest Thing
44. Gain or Loss
45. True Power
46. Enough Is Enough
47. Without Going Outside
49. The Sage Has No Mind
50. Why Death Enters Us
51. Nature, Nurture
52. The Mother
53. The Mind Is the Source of Oppression
54. Body As Body
55. What Is Allowed to Arise
56. Dust of the Earth
57. Being Simple
58. The Sage
59. Staying on the Way
60. Keeping Control
61. Lying Low
62. The Way Is the Hearth and Home
63. In the Universe
64. The Tree You Can't Reach Your Arms Around
65. Primal Virtue
66. Lakes And Rivers
67. Three Treasures
68. Heaven's Lead
69. Marching Without Appearing to Move
70. Change Arises From the Universe
71. Knowing Ignorance
72. A Sense of Awe
73. The Path Is Hidden
74. Freedom Comes Into Being
75. Why Are the People Starving?
76. The Soft and Weak
77. Bending of a Bow
78. Fluid Power
79. The Tao of Heaven Is Impartial
80. Let There Be A Little Country
81. Telling It True