douglas j cuomo
Sounds & Images

Synopsis, essay, and composer's statement


arjuna's dilemma: SYNOPSIS

Thousands of years ago on a battlefield in India, Arjuna, the young warrior prince of the Pandavas, is leading his army in a great civil war against those who have unjustly usurped his kingdom. As the forces gather on the eve of the ultimate battle, he rides out with his charioteer, the god Krishna, to survey the enemy. There in the middle of the battlefield he sees that the Kauravas army arrayed against him includes his own relatives, teachers, friends, and loved ones. Suddenly overcome with self-doubt and confusion, he calls out to Krishna to stop his chariot, saying he is unable to fight.

Emotionally paralyzed, Arjuna sings that he does not want to go on. “My limbs fail and my mouth becomes dry... the bow slips from my hand.” He then turns to Krishna for guidance as the chorus voices his thoughts. “O Krishna, this is a great sin to kill our own people.” 

Krishna exhorts, Arjuna resists
Krishna implores Arjuna to take up the battle and fight, but haunted by a litany of those he must kill (the chorus intoning “Teachers, uncles, sons, and grandfathers”), Arjuna realizes he cannot. “I do not wish to kill them who are about to kill us. How can we be happy after killing our kinsmen, O Krishna?” Krishna, using all of his wiles, tries to convince Arjuna that powers beyond his comprehension have put him in this position and given him this duty he must fulfill. In this section he sings songs of Kabir to show that mortal life is impermanent and that death is nothing to fear. The Chorus, in this case singing for Krishna, remains unconvinced.

Using all of his wiles, Krishna tries to convince Arjuna that powers beyond his comprehension have put him in this position and given him a duty he must fulfill. He sings to Arjuna with joy and exuberance, telling him that mortal life is impermanent, death is nothing to fear, and the soul lives on and is reborn. “People live a lie, they think their house is their own and what’s theirs is theirs.”

Before Arjuna has time to respond, Krishna takes another tack, calmly reassuring him that he will not lead him astray and will help him keep his honor. 

Despite these entreaties Arjuna remains unconvinced. Still searching to settle his troubled mind, he sings again, through the voice of the chorus, “My head turns, I am unable to stand. I see no use killing my kinsmen in battle.”

A Breakthrough
The warrior and the deity then engage in an animated dialogue, both using syllables that are pure sound and without specific meaning. The tabla player joins the conversation as well; this non-verbal discussion takes place at a level that is higher than the purely rational. Arjuna begins to be swayed but he is a rigorous questioner and asks for more evidence still, saying “O Lord, explain to me again in detail your yogic power and glory because I am not satiated by hearing your nectar-like words.” Krishna, in the voice of the chorus, responds with a long list that begins to reveal the full depth of his powers, telling Arjuna that not only is he the essence of all things, “I am the beginning, the middle, the end of all being... Among the alphabet I am the letter A,” but that everything exists only through his grace. “There is nothing that can exist without me.”

Arjuna is almost satisfied, but he is a man of action who needs to see as well as be told. He begs to be shown everything—the true nature of reality—and hopes that he is prepared for such a revelation. “Oh Lord, you are as you have said, yet I wish to see your divine cosmic form. If you think it is possible for me to see this then show me your immutable Self.” Krishna at last consents and turns himself into a vision of magnificence and power beyond imagining.

Arjuna stands transfixed, relating all that he sees. The vision first reveals the indescribable and sublime beauty of the universe, but gradually transforms, laying bare its unfathomable horrors. As Arjuna trembles in terror, Krishna displays his most fearsome powers, declaring, “I am death the destroyer, the mighty destroyer of the world... All these warriors have already been destroyed by Me. You are only an instrument.”

Overwhelmed, Arjuna pleads with Krishna to stop the vision and return to his normal four-armed form.

Finally, Arjuna understands the challenge that has been put in front of him. His newfound insight allows him to see that he must not fear death, nor shrink from his duty. This duty is not only the literal battle in front of him but, more importantly, the battle for ultimate wisdom. With new resolve, Arjuna picks up his bow and heads off to fight.

Arjuna’s Dilemma is based on the story of the Bhagavad Gita (“The Song Divine”), a sacred Sanskrit text that is part of the Mahabharata. One of the most profound of all philosophical and spiritual works of Indian origin, it has been embraced as an indispensable source of wisdom by great thinkers from around the world, from Gandhi and Tagore to Thoreau, Emerson, Believed to date from around 500 BCE, this allegorical work portrays the ascension of consciousness from the temporal to the eternal, and focuses on understanding one’s experiences and one’s own place in the state of things. Its complex, nuanced text has been the source of endless commentary and interpretation.

The characters within the Bhagavad Gita can be seen to represent different aspects of the human condition. From this perspective, Arjuna’s challenge is to transcend (or “kill”) his psychological attachments (represented by his loved ones) in order to find out who he really By saying to Krishna at the end of the Gita, “ fight,” Arjuna affirms his quest for self-knowledge and right action, beyond the influences of his family and teachers, his desires and fears.  


On May 6, 2006, New York's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts hosted workshop versions of four operas. Of course, that's "opera" in the post-Einstein On The Beach sense of the word, so while the audience might have been slightly bemused, it certainly couldn't have been shocked to see an opera with skateboarding characters, or another that delivered a physics lecture. But there was a genuine surprise that evening: the first glimpse at Douglas Cuomo's work, Arjuna's Dilemma.

True, we've come to expect composers in the 21st century to be familiar and perhaps even fluent with a variety of sounds, from electronics to world music traditions like the Indonesian gamelan. So perhaps seeing a leading role played by a singer from the Indian classical tradition wasn't really all that surprising. And we've learned that the centuries-wide gap between early music and contemporary composition is actually bridged quite easily, so the sight of half of the acclaimed early music quartet Anonymous 4 in Cuomo's small chorus, while a hopeful sign, wasn't necessarily a surprising one either. But to be perfectly honest, the many and varied attempts at fusing contemporary music with world traditions, early music, popular music and jazz have been a decidedly mixed bag. So the surprise of Arjuna's Dilemma was the organic and convincing way Cuomo blended all of the above. In fact, there was no sense of "blending." The music, even in this early, largely-unstaged form, seemed to occupy a space that was not bound by geography or chronology.

This may be the secret of Cuomo's success: the story of Arjuna's Dilemma may unfold on a grand, mythic stage; it may encompass grand concepts of faith, duty, and the nature of the universe; but it is essentially an internal story – a story about, and taking place in, a single consciousness. Looked at on paper, with its dual armies arrayed across the vast plains of Hindu legend, and a god hidden in plain sight, Arjuna's Dilemma is opera at its grandest. Even if Cuomo hedges his bets by referring to it as a "staged oratorio," opera has traditionally been the repository of composer's biggest ideas and most iconic characters, and this piece fits the bill. Looked at on stage, with its small (but oddly colorful) instrumental ensemble and even smaller chorus, Arjuna's Dilemma might be the prototypical chamber opera. But a closer look reveals that Arjuna's Dilemma isn't even a chamber opera – it's more a solo, a monodrama. All of the voices, despite the characters they're associated with and the very different styles used, are ultimately within Arjuna's own mind as he fights for understanding in difficult circumstances. Cuomo uses the four female voices in an especially noteworthy way: as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the situation and recounting the facts of the story like a mind obsessively going over the same details.

It is not much of a stretch, then, to compare Arjuna's search for a way forward, leaving behind the traditions and ideas of the past that hold him back, with the composer's own search for a musical language that reflects his own life and career. (And this might have been the second surprise of Cuomo's work that May evening in 2006 – that this hybrid musical language was coming from a composer best known for the Sex And The City theme and other works for television.) With Arjuna's Dilemma, Cuomo fashions a musical vocabulary out of disparate traditions, but they are all traditions that Cuomo has a strong personal connection to. A professional jazz musician from an early age, a student of ethnomusicology, and a composer grounded in the Western tradition, Cuomo understands that, while we may hate to admit it, music is not the international language. Or if it is, it is spoken in regional dialects so different from each other that they might as well be different languages. What Cuomo does is what the most successful professionals of any age have done (think of the merchants and traders of medieval Europe), and what the best of today's composers, from the late Lou Harrison to Osvaldo Golijov, have done: he's developed a lingua franca that is international enough to allow the speakers of those different languages to communicate.

In this case, the languages of Indian classical and Western classical music are bound together by their tendency towards long-form structures. Arjuna's Dilemma is cast in a familiar Western form – three acts, each with an instrumental overture of sorts. But the opening of the piece is an alap, the slow unfolding of the musical material in an Indian raga performance. The work ends with a recasting of the opening material, an invocation of the many names of Krishna, this time with tabla. The effect is not unlike that of the Sufi ritual known as the dhikr, the ritual chanting of the names of God. The common ground between the Indian classical tradition and Cuomo's own jazz background is improvisation, and while the two traditions use markedly different approaches, Cuomo didn't have to reinvent the wheel here – the spirit of making music in the moment, of taking fixed musical material and exploring it extemporaneously, has brought jazz and Indian musicians together for almost half a century. A jazz sax player will take a melody as a point of departure; an Indian singer will present a gat, or a fixed song, and then leave the words behind and take flight – and both happen here. Arjuna and Krishna have moments where they leave language behind, where the thoughts they're trying to express cannot be bound by words.

Ultimately, Arjuna's Dilemma cannot be bound by the usual words either. This elusive yet personal piece just might turn out to be a harbinger of the new possibilities of music-theater (as good a term as any) in the early 21st century.

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The writing of Arjuna's Dilemma has brought with it a number of unexpected gifts. It has allowed me to spend a lot of time thinking about profound philosophical questions, and to consider how to express these questions musically. It has allowed me to set beautiful text and have it sung by glorious voices. It has allowed me to work closely with a number of wonderful people, and to create music with them that has great meaning for me, and I hope for others as well. Arjuna's quest for knowledge – how to live, what a human being should fight for – is reflected for me personally not on the battlefield, but in daily, often mundane seeming life. On my best days I'm able to think about what it means to aspire to the divine nature that is in each of us. At such times I struggle with the most basic questions of how one should be a human being in the world, and how to seek to lead a good life.

For me, being in the world includes writing music, and so one of the questions I face is how to write music that reflects these aspirations and struggles. I think that beauty and art can reference the unknowable; what is seen and felt but often beyond expression. The Bhagavad Gita holds many moments in which one experiences this ineffable sense of the world, and of an individual's place in things. My desire in writing Arjuna's Dilemma has been to convey some sense of that wonder, fear, vastness and hope. —Douglas J. Cuomo

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cd cover

CD to be released July 1, 2008 on Innova

For information on presenting Arjuna's Dilemma, contact Music-Theatre Group