Gilgamesh is the result of a collaboration between the composer Barry Truax and Vancouver writer William Maranda who wrote the libretto. It was a youthful work for the composer who created the 12 tapes for the piece while a post-graduate student at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, Netherlands in 1972-73, and completed the score on his return to Vancouver in 1973-74. However, he regards the work as pivotal to his development because it involves all of the materials, voice and performers combined with electronic and computer tapes, that he has pursued in the years since.
The work is based on the legend of the Sumerian god-king, as told in the Epic of Gilgamesh which dates from the 3rd millennium, B.C., 1500 years before Homer. In the epic, Gilgamesh is part god, part man, who is responsible for the building of the first walled city, Uruk, and other feats of technology. He has become close friends with Enkidu, a "wild man" reared by animals but then tamed and civilized to become Gilgamesh's heroic companion. However, Gilgamesh taunts the gods who declare that one of them must die, and here the story of the musical work begins, with the death of Enkidu. Gilgamesh reacts with anger, nostalgia for the glorious past, a prayer to the gods, and finally he commands them as King to reverse the death, all to no avail. At the end of the first half of the work, a supernatural "God voice" heard through the loudspeakers challenges Gilgamesh to come on a journey of quest for the secret of immortality. The second half begins with a tone poem (tape 7) called The Journey to the Gods (the composer's first computer music composition), following which Gilgamesh is engaged in an inner journey of fantasy, totally removed from his people.
Meanwhile, a subplot has been developing: a pair of lovers, generically called He and She by the librettist, have promised to meet one night, but each is lured away from their commitment by an Old Woman, a widow of many years, who promises them someone even better. The chorus prepares them for this encounter with a chorus extolling the virtues of love, oblivious to Gilgamesh's own estranged quest. The Love Procession brings the lovers together, only for them to discover that the new object of their desire is their original love after all. Gilgamesh too has completed his heroic quest by discovering the plant that bestows Eternal Youth. In the original epic he loses it on the way home but in this version he returns with it only to have his people not recognize him - they want a King, not a madman with a strange flower. Another electronic tone poem (tape 10) follows, called The Dawning of Irreversible Action, after which Gilgamesh, requiring the love and acceptance of his people, submits to taking on the mantle of Kingship. He thus renounces the quest, and enshrines a statue of Enkidu in the city instead.
The librettist describes the work as a "tragedy of mortality"; the ancient epic is even simpler - it says of Gilgamesh:"He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went a long journey, was weary, worn out with labour, and returning engraved on a stone the whole story."Tape VII: The Journey to the Gods is the centrepiece of the work Gilgamesh. It refers to the epic journey that Gilgamesh sets out on in search of the secret to eternal life and the reversal of the death of his friend Enkidu. He undergoes many hardships and braves many dangers, and at last finds himself in a distant land beside a great water where the secret is found. This work creates a soundscape within which the listener is moving. Three regions, in particular, are experienced, each employing different timbral resources and each associated with a different bodily function. First is the sensory, tactile world of the epidermis; then the region of organic processes and the digestive system; finally, the ethereal, spiritual world of the respiratory system. At the conclusion, the perceived space expands and many distant arcs of sound are heard, supported by plodding, weary footsteps and breathing. The opening sequence, the only part not computer-generated, is composed of transformed vocal material carried over from the previous section in which a god-like voice calls Gilgamesh on the journey.
"The Journey to the Gods" was the composer's first computer-composed and synthesized composition, and was realized in 1973 at the Institute of Sonology, Utrecht, the last of the 12 Gilgamesh tapes created there, and the first to implement and utilize in real-time the frequency modulation timbral synthesis approach of John Chowning. The work was composed with the composer's POD5 and POD6 programs for sound synthesis and interactive composition, and was mixed in four channels in the mixing studio at Utrecht.
The 12 Tapes from Gilgamesh were realized at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, Netherlands. Tapes 1, 3, 4a, 7, 8 & 10 have been performed as solo works in concert.