Coming Down to Earth

For Improvisation Ensemble


Robert Morris

Coming Down to Earth (written in 2002) is the second in a projected series of musical works that are to be played outdoors in the midst of natural surroundings such as forests, fields, hills and canyons. The first work, called Playing Outside, is scored for about 65 musicians (chorus, orchestra, and four improvisers) and a Balinese gamelan playing solo and concerted music in ten locations in Webster Park near Rochester, New York. The audience and musicians move among different areas in the park. The piece is 100 minutes long and was performed twice on September 30, 2001. The conception of Playing Outside is so completely wedded to the geographic features of Webster Park that it cannot be performed anywhere else.1

Coming Down to Earth is a more modest composition. It may be played in any appropriate location—and even, under special conditions, indoors—and does not ask the audience or performers to move about. The performance requirements are also less demanding: no gamelan is required; the number of parts is fewer; and some of the sounds are played from CDs over loudspeakers. The performers are asked to improvise to some extent. In addition to music sound, various texts are recited, sung or heard over loudspeakers.

This performance takes place in a beautiful pine grove in the middle of Webster Park near the Cattaraugus cabin. The audience sits among the musicians for the entire duration of the piece, 50 minutes.2

Coming Down to Earth was inspired in part by ancient Chinese Taoist philosophy, which recommends a life lived in harmony with the flow of natural events without much concern for institutional social structures.3 Taoist influence is found in the classical arts of China, Korea, and Japan--poetry, painting, calligraphy, and music. The emphasis is on attending to change and process, in which each object has maximum presence, or what the Buddhists call 'suchness.' The texts sung or spoken in the piece are taken from Chinese and Japanese sources in translation.

In many ways, Coming Down to Earth resembles a Japanese or Chinese garden. In such a garden, natural objects such as rocks, plants, soil, conifers are shaped and arranged to produce an inviting atmosphere to be explored by visitors. There are many paths and views, and the garden’s boundaries are unclear. My piece was designed to have many of these features. The sounds are often like those found outdoors, slowly evolving, or having the characteristics of animal cries and bird calls. (Some bird songs are included among the prerecorded sounds that are played during the piece.) The sonic processes are often complex, so there are many different ways to hear them. Yet in other ways, the composition is more like uncultivated natural surroundings, which are more difficult to reach. In such places boundaries cannot be located, as if the environment spreads out forever without end. Here the music will perhaps seem very removed from concert or folk music with its social settings and range of expressive meanings.

But despite the emphasis upon process, Coming Down to Earth has a simple, and perhaps arbitrary musical form. The piece is divided into fifty sections, each lasting exactly one minute. Each section has a name that suggests its character. (A list of the section names is printed below.) Both flow and juxtaposition characterize the sections; some sections are continuous and homogeneous; others are divided into clear and contrasting subsections. Some sections are full and complex, others are sparse and simple. Each section has a unique orchestration and music process. In short, each section is a musical moment that is self contained and may or may not relate to other sections. There are some factors, however, that hold the composition together. Perhaps the most important of these is that each section is based on a six-note chord that changes by only one note from one section to the next. In fact, the entire work can be heard as a very slow chord progression, each section presenting one of the fifty types of six-tone chords available in the equal tempered tuning underlying Western music for the last 200 years. Thus, over the entire piece, the listener gets to hear all the types of chords possible, from the most diatonic to the most chromatic.

The experience of the music is like watching sunsets, clouds passing, or sea changes. Sometimes there are abrupt changes, like a sudden gust of wind or a startling animal sound. Musical attention is akin to noticing and enjoying the subtle differences among flowers, leaves, plant morphology, birds, animals and insects and their sounds.

Shunryn Suzuki roshi, a Soto Zen master, beautifully encapsulates the nature of this music in the following quotation. "Whatever we see is changing, losing its balance. The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony."(Suzuki S., 1970. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Weatherhill, New York. 142pp. (reprinted 1986), p. 32)


1 A documentation of the performance of Playing Outside may be found at this web address:
2 The third work in the series is conceived for an orchestra to be scattered over a large area with the audience free to explore the performance space as the piece progresses.
3 In the West, however, things were not so simple and direct. There has been a dialectic between nature and human affairs, and in the arts, between “nature” and “art.” Up to the beginning of the nineteenth-century, art was something constructed according to principles that did not need to be natural or intuitive. However, creators such as Wordsworth and Beethoven developed a new approach to poetry and music, soon labeled “Romanticism,” that relied on deep connections with nature. Propriety and decorum gave way to a more mundane conception that was at the same time transcendental—art was not made only to entertain or edify the “cultured” elite, but to provide deep experience for anyone who cared to participate in it. In this way, art could speak to all people, even across social and geographic boundaries and other segregations. Unfortunately, in the hands of less gifted creators this noble conception of art’s purpose soon decayed and Romanticism became characterized by artistic caprice or sentimentality, or both.

Names of the sections of Coming Down to Earth.

Each section lasts one minute.

1. A start
2. Presage
3. Gaku
4. Wake
5. Rhizome
6. Hex
7. Meteors
8. Currently
9. Just the Same
10. Thrown Bell
11. Overheard
12. Visiting the Graves
13. A Tree
14. Yin Yang
15. Another Tree
16. Coming To
17. Green Islet
18. Here and There
19. Reservoir
20. Murmurs
21. A Darker Path
22. Mossy Rock
23. Common Tones
24. Ten-Thousand Dusts
25. Out of Line
26. More
27. Leads the Way
28. Close Quarters
29. From the North
30. Constellation
31. K’un and P’eng
32. Shall I light the Lamp?
33. Chirps and Pebbles
34. A Narrow Pass
35. Far
36. Rife
37. Tag
38. Follow Me
39. River Wind
40. Heel and Toe
41. Awl
42. Five Shrubs
43. Dark Row
44. Whorls
45. Moth
46. Taking Wing
47. Carrying On
48. Clamor
49. Autumn Gusts
50. End Notes

Webpage design by Christopher D. Brakel