A Game of Go, Part 2 of 2




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Published on Feb 10, 2009

The game of Go is an ancient Asian board game involving the placing of stones on the intersections of lines on a board, with the object of surrounding more territory or capturing more of the opponents stones. With elegantly simple rules, it has a depth and a multi-layered fascination which surpasses even that of Chess. My composition, A Game of Go, is a move-by-move musical setting for 2 pianos of a classic game, the sixth game of the 30 game match between Ota Yuzo and Honinbo Shusaku played in 1853 in Japan. For more information about Go, contact the American Go Assocition at http://usgo.org/

For more information about Haskell Small, go to his website at http://www.haskellsmall.com/

I believe that Go is not just a sport or pastime, but an art of equal status to the art of music. Both Go and music are enwrapped with mystery, subtlety, and the beauty of an inevitable, ineluctable truth. Furthermore, like music, I contend that Go is capable of the expression of human emotions- Go moves can be found that exude joy, despair, even humor. It is in this spirit that I have found the major interests of my life crossing paths.

As a professional musician (pianist, composer, and teacher) who also suffers from an addiction to Go, I had for some time wanted to find a way to combine these interests. This came to fruition in 1987 when I conceived of the idea to compose a piece of music based on a game of Go. I decided to employ 2 pianos, one representing black, the other white, to set each move or sequence of moves of a classic game, the sixth game of the sanjubango (30 game match) between Ota Yuzo and Honinbo Shusaku played in 1853. I chose this game for its balance of expanding moyos (large framework) versus territory, an ongoing protracted race to capture, as well as several exciting ko (a recapture of a single stone after playing elsewhere) battles.

To write this piece I had to sit in four different chairs. I started at the Go board, playing through the opening moves of the game, cerebrating on their meaning, then moved to an armchair where I attempted to imagine a musical rendering of these moves. Although if observed I would seem to be napping, I consider this the hardest step- mentally grappling with the given materials to create from whole cloth a gratifying musical design. Then I would go to the piano to confirm and sketch out the ideas, and improvise possible continuations. Then back to the Go board to try to discern a feeling or direction for how the music would continue to best serve the flow of the game. Then back to the armchair or piano, etc. With this process I eventually completed a rough draft, then to the next chair- at a writing table to produce the manuscript (or these days on computer of course). During this last stage, often I would retreat to one of the other chairs again for final revisions. Miraculously, after a number of months of hard labor, my baby was born.

The piece naturally partitioned itself into three sections analogous with the opening of the game (placid, spacious, much thinking time), middle game (signaled by the first contact play- faster paced, intense), and finally the relatively calm unwinding of the endgame. The several ko fights that erupted during the game afforded me the opportunity to help unite the work with a recurring ko theme, which punctuated the exchanges of ko threats between the players/pianos. Another feature of the music is a choral idea (that eventually culminates in a fugue), used to suggest the rich subtleties of the aji (latent potential) remaining in the evolving race to capture. The climax of the piece (and I believe of the game) is the resolution of the ko at moves 185 and 186. The race to capture is now resolved, and both players probably knew at this point that their mutual struggle for victory produced the ultimate result- jigo (tie game).

A Game of Go was premiered at the third U.S. Go Congress in Amherst, MA, in the summer of 1987. A colleague and I played the piano parts while Marvin Wolfthal, also a Go player and a pianist, performed the video part by pressing return on a computer in time to each move as indicated in my score. It has since enjoyed a number of performances, both with and without the video component, including performances at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and was also featured on NPR's "All Things Considered" on Mar. 6, 1988. Two recordings have been released, one by the 2-piano team Quattro Mani, who titled their CD A Game of Go (Klavier 11106).


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