“…but the rain…” was written for Seizan Sakata and Reiko Kimura and commissioned by the Orchestra Asia-Japan.
“…but the rain…” for shakuhachi and 21-string koto was inspired by the misty beauty of Koke`e on the Hawaiian island of Kaua`i. The cold rain, the hollow wind and the encroaching shadows at sunset there suggested an aloneness that was profound and almost physical in its palpability.
The title is taken from a sonnet by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, “What lips my lips have kissed.” The poem talks of a melancholy lover, now alone, who hears the sounds of half-forgotten loves in the barrenness of the winter night. These “ghosts” of past loves seem to hover like Koke’e’s fine mist, all-encompassing but elusive to the touch. The cragged silhouette of the Hawaiian Ohia tree recalls St. Vincent Millay’s “lonely tree”: abandoned, mournful and desolate. For me, the fragile and sometimes harsh beauty of the shakuhachi and koto perfectly captures the sorrow and ephemeral nature of both the Koke’e sunset and the poem.
The music itself goes beyond the poem, inexorably gathering momentum and breaking into a driving, tumultuous, rhythmic section. The calm, melancholic introspection of the opening transmutes into an intense, emotional storm.
The rhythmic drive explodes suddenly, splintering and crashing to a climactic halt. Everything is stripped away, and only the wailing shakuhachi remains, howling like an angry wind, like the voices of the ghosts across an abandoned landscape: intensely human, intensely alone.
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
– Edna St. Vincent Millay