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The Rivered Earth by Vikram Seth
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The Rivered Earth

by Vikram Seth

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Every now and then in a life of reading one strikes a vein of delight. So it was this week, when I discovered Vikram Seth's Rivered Earth, four libretti for song cycles set to music by Alec Roth which were presented in English performance over the four years between 2006-2009. In sequence the four libretti are: 1. Songs in Time of War comprising Seth's translations from the 8th century Chinese poet Du Fu; 2. Shared Ground, six poems inspired by the 17th century poet priest, George Herbert rector of the parish of Bemerton near Salisbury, who lived during his last and most productive years in the house occupied by Vikram Seth when he composed this homage to Herbert; 3. The Traveller, a meditation on life and death, based on Indian sources and 4. Seven Elements, in which the diverse cultural strands of the preceding cycles are brought into confluence in seven poems and a coda that extend the four familiar elements of western classical tradition to include Earth, Air, Wood, Fire, Metal, Water and Space.
Most of the poems and translations are rhymed and many of Seth's original poems, owe much to Herbert, in their complex metrics and syllable counts. This is a poetry in which appreciation of Vikram Seth's practice of the craft of composition is always an evident and a pleasurable element of reading what he has written. His craft, lightness of touch, wit and intelligence contain the public and private sense of loss and despair so evident in the opening translations from Du Fu and the Herbert poems. There are other and more subtle pleasures in Vikram Seth's richly allusive cultural sampling. Rivered Earth invites a renewed encounter with George Herbert, the English translations of the poetry of the T'ang dynasty and the immense wealth of Indian literature.

In an earlier review Librarything member edwinbcn provides helpful information about the available recordings of two of the four song cycles. ( )
  LeaderElliott | May 10, 2013 |
The rivered earth is a volume of poetry which brings together many facets of the rich experience of its author, Vikram Seth. It is the textual companion to four literary festivals, held in four subsequent years, from 2006 to 2009. These four, interdisciplinary festivals were organized as a project, named Confluences, and aimed to bring together the poetry of Vikram Seth (author), the music of Alec Roth (composer), and the virtuoso of Philippe Honoré (violinist). The project brings together various other strands of interconnection between participants, their work, their lives, and their interests.

Aim of the project was for Vikram Seth to write the lyrics, which would be set to music by Alec Roth, and performed by orchestra, soloists and choir, with a prominent role on the violin for Philippe Honoré. This way of working led to the joke among the artists, recorded in this volume as: Seth wrote, and Roth set.

The book consists of four parts: a longish introduction, and four cycles of poetry, each preceded by a short introduction. The long introduction describes the background to Project Confluences, and reproduces two interviews recording their ideas between Seth and Roth, and between Seth and Honoré.

In the first cycle, entitled Songs in Time of War, the libretto consists of 12 poems by the Chinese Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu. The translations are from Vikram Seth's volume Three Chinese Poets, originally published in 1992. The title of the libretto for the second cycle is Shared Ground, which consists of six poems inspired by the early Seventeenth century British poet, George Herbert. For the third libretto, The Traveller, Seth selected and translated 25 classical Indian poems, interspersed by seven verses from the Rig Veda Creation Hymn, from the Indian poetic tradition. The fourth cycle aims to bring all threads together in seven poems under the title for the libretto Seven Elements. This cycle is closed with a poetic coda:

I felt that the first, third and especially the fourth cycle of poetry seemed lacking in inspiration, possible as the texts separated from the full experience of the performances is somewhat clinical. A redeeming quality of Seth's translations of Du Fu is that they are set to rhyme, which I have not seen in any other translations.

In my opinion, the warmest and best poetry, are the poems of the second cycle. They are inspired by the immediate surroundings of Seth's house in Salisbury, the old rectory which was once the home to George Herbert, which Seth at first shared with his lover at the time, Philippe Honoré.

For a richer experience of The rivered earth and Confluences, signumrecords will bring out the music performances on CD. So far the following CDs have come out:
Songs in Time of War SIGCD124 & Shared Ground SIGCD270.

Note: According to page 6 Shared Ground is brought out as SIGCD127; this is clearly an error, and should be SIGCD270. ( )
  edwinbcn | Feb 27, 2012 |
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The Rivered Earth contains four libretti written by Vikram Seth to be set to music by Alec Roth - together with an account of the pleasures and pains of working with a composer. They take us all over the world - from Chinese and Indian poetry to the beauty and quietness of the Salisbury house where the poet George Herbert lived and died. Spanning centuries of creativity and humanity, these poems pulse with life, energy and inspired brilliance.They are accompanied by four pieces of calligraphy by the author.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0241144914, 0141047593

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