The Book of the Dead ostensibly depicts the path of a soul through the Egyptian afterlife. Each movement is representative of one of the “spells” contained within the ancient Book of the Dead. “All the evil upon me has been removed” represents the cleansing power of death and the moment of passing into the afterlife. “Guarding against the loss of heart” captures the struggle to maintain self-identity amongst the confusion and terror of the afterlife. “Protecting against being devoured by servants of Osiris” represents the physical manifestation of terror and struggle. “The Weighing of the Heart” is the final judgment. Was the life lived worthy of eternal rest and comfort?
The narrative structure of the piece follows this closely and can be heard as somewhat programmatic; the saxophonist is the lost soul, struggling to overcome the forces that seek to devour, dement and consume.
As a young composer, the idea of being overwhelmed by the constant inundation of sound, and by the pressures of being a professional, is quite terrifying. What does it mean to be me? This piece, in a big way, is about that. “Guarding against the loss of heart” is a collection of quotations (there are dozens of quotations in movement two alone – from both the classical and “pop” traditions – see if you can identify them all!) and is representative of this very thing. I imagine myself as the lost soul stepping into the new, terrifying world, being pulled at in each direction by forces (in this case, musical quotations), trying to sway me from my path. The aggregate is chaotic, confusing, quirky, disturbing. It is hard to keep focus and direction.
Moonlight Sonata continually returns across all four movements at moments of repose. It serves to unify the entire composition, while also giving the soloist a place of solace and rest. One of my earliest musical memories is of this piece. To me it is music and emotion at a very fundamental level and still is a place of comfort and stability in my life.
Book of the Dead: Concerto for Soprano Saxophone, Winds and Percussion