Robert Parris:
The Book of Imaginary Beings


Based on The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerro, this chamber work is a suite of seven musical portraits and a final reprise.

Book of Imaginary Beings (1972) 23:26
For flute, violin, cello, piano, celesta, and percussion.

As I was listening to this CD, my beloved -- a fan of Italian opera as well as Shostakovich, so one familiar with the many vagarities of tonal composition -- walked into the room and laughed. "This is crazy music," she said. A little while later: "This is beautiful. It's not the same work, is it?"
Yes, it was the same work; and I have half a mind to just let her assessment stand. This is crazy music, and also beautiful music -- and occasionally both at once. Parris has selected seven creatures from Borges' work, each one inspiring its own musical exposition, and the results are as imaginative and inventive as Borges' own.
Wisely, Parris treats his beings as "symbols of inner reality." This approach allows Parris to musically explore states of mental being rather than simply crafting a series of clever soundtrack cues. Which is not to say that the pieces lack animation; Parris is a skilled instrumentalist, and each portrait is a gem of balance and color. He combines his chosen instruments marvelously, whether working together as an ensemble or matched up for more intimate pairings. The violin -- the composer's favorite instrument -- is especially remarkable. Rarely absent, it moves fluidly through the pieces like a unifying narrative, always ready to take up a duet with another instrument.
The Amphisbaena, the two-headed snake from Greek antiquity, serves an appropriate double-duty in both opening and closing the suite. Its music is explosive and kinetic, every instrument coming to life in a flickering maze of sound, bringing to mind the orchestrated chaos of Varèse or even Zappa. And best of all, we hear it again at the end of the work -- but now reversed, a "musical palindrome" reflecting the twists and turns of this surely perpetually confused serpent. "The Rain Bird" picks up immediately on this energy, the violin and flute whirling together in a frenetic dance that calls down a final rain of chiming notes. Next is "A King of Fire and his Steed," the longest piece and also the most mysterious. The main melodic line is carried by the violin, picked up by the flute, and then woven together. Evoking the ghostly king and his steed, they wind through a subdued but martial field of percussion like cold, spectral flames. The overall effect is to create an eerie sense of presence -- otherworldly, but also strangely beautiful. In "A Bao a Qu" the violin again floats above a subdued drum, a steady pulse that cushions the hazy meanderings of the celesta. It is perfect example of Parris forgoing the flashier aspects of his chosen subject to explore a more subtle side -- this A Boa A Qu is still on the tower steps, dreaming of enlightenment. "The Satyrs" begins with a gong and is carried by the flute, the satyrs' Asiatic melody spooling out over the percussive bursts of primitive hooves and rapine intentions. "The Double" is perhaps my favorite. A gentle melody from Saint-Saëns is allowed to unfold on the cello and piano, but it is relentlessly pummeled by the violin and percussion. In the end, neither are triumphant, and the dark and light sides must remain in uneasy coexistence. The penultimate portrait -- before the retrograde finale -- is also the most lovely. "The Sirens" glows with a seductive, haunting beauty, each instrument wandering in and out of a floating world of music where time stands still. Rather than lure the listener to the rocks with a single melodic intensity, Parris has wisely captured a feeling of dreamy paralysis. It brings to my mind images of Ulysses, ears blocked by wax, watching his sailors drift off into a fatal illusion.

The Book of Imaginary Beings

I. Amphisbaena (1:18)
II. The Rain Bird (2:34)
III. A King of Fire and His Steed (4:59)
IV. A Bao a Qu (3:22)
V. The Satyrs (3:53)
VI. The Double (2:29)
VII. Sirens (3:25)
VIII. Amphisbaena Retroversa (1:21)


Dorothy Skidmore -- Flute
Joel Berman -- Violin
William Skidmore -- Cello
Evelyn Garvey -- Piano and Celesta
Ronald Barnett, Thomas Jones -- Percussion

Notes from the CRI CD:

Just as imaginary beings are, almost by definition, symbols of inner reality, the eight pieces that constitute THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS are expressions of elusive, vague, mysterious and occasionally mystical states of feeling evoked by associative imagery. Its literary source is the book of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges -- a compendium, really, of the more illustrious creatures of the mind. Here are the superscriptions to the several movements, (and occasional bracketed remarks by the composer) adapted from Borges's bestiary:

I. AMPHISBAENA. "The amphisbaena is a serpent having two heads, the one in its proper place and the other in its tail; and it can bite with both... Amphisbaena, in Greek, means 'goes both ways.'" [The ferocious amphisbaena's end is not really its beginning: its shape is a line, not a circle. But since this opening movement reappears in retrograde as No. 8, it is a musical palindrome as well as a bestial one, which is, after all, a very good reason for being an imaginary being.]

II. THE RAIN BIRD. "When rain is needed, Chinese farmers have at their disposal...the bird called the 'shang yang'... The tradition runs that the bird drew water from the rivers with its beak and blew it out as rain on the thirsting field."

III. A KING OF FIRE AND HIS STEED. "This almost unimaginable fancy was attempted by William Morris in the tale 'The Ring Given to Venus'...

As a white flame his visage shown,
Sharp, clear-cut as a face of stone;
But flickering flame, not flesh it was;
And over it such looks did pass
Of wild desire, and pain, and fear,
As in his people's faces were,
But tenfold fiercer..."

IV. A BAO A QU. "There has lived since the beginning of time a being sensitive to the many shades of the human soul. It lies dormant...until at the approach of a person some secret life is touched off in it, and deep within the creature an inner light begins to glow." [The poetical source for the almost constant drumbeat lies in the inanimate being brought to life-its heart made to pulsate. The more prosaic source was the beating in my clogged ears during a bad cold.]

V. THE SATYRS. "Satyrs were thickly covered with hair and had short horns, pointed ears, active eyes, and hooked noses. They were lascivious and fond of their wine. They set ambushes for nymphs...and their instrument was the flute."

VI. THE DOUBLE. "The ancient Egyptians believed that the Double, the 'ka,' was a man's exact counterpart, having his same walk and his same dress. Not only men, but gods and beasts...had their 'ka.' In Yeats's poems the Double is...the one who complements us, the one we are not nor will ever become." [This piece is a gloss on a pretty piece by Saint-Sa'ns: his music represents the bird's superficial beauty; mine, its latent inner ferocity, both aspects in collage. The white swan and the black swan, as it were.]

VII. SIRENS. "The Odyssey tells that the Sirens attract and shipwreck seamen, and that Ulysses, in order to hear their song and yet remain alive, plugged the ears of his oarsmen...and had himself lashed to the mast...In the sixth century, a Siren was caught and baptized in northern Wales..."


The Book of Imaginary Beings was written in 1971–72 for the players who are heard on this recording, and who gave the first performance on May 7, 1972 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. during the American Music Festival under the direction of Richard Bales.

CD Information

The Book of Imaginary Beings may be found on CRI CD 792. You may purchase it directly below:

American Masters - Robert Parris: Trombone Concerto, etc ~ Usually ships in 2-3 days
Robert Parris(Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1999
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--A. Ruch
21 May 2000