Ben Gaunt: Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind


Ben Gaunt studied at the Royal Northern College of Music for a BMus degree, to which he then stayed on and studied Composition for his Master’s degree. Gaunt has recently completed his PhD in Composition at The University of Sheffield, whilst studying under Dr Dorothy Ker and Professor George Nicholson. For both his Master’s and PhD, Gaunt was funded by The Countess of Munster Musical Trust and The Gladys Hall Scholarship respectively. During his time at The University of Sheffield, Gaunt also won the ‘A Boy Was Born’ Britten Festival Composition competition.

Throughout his fruitful career thus far, Gaunt has studied under the likes of Adam Gorb, Paul Patterson, Dorothy Ker, Harrison Birtwhistle and Alwynne Pritchard. He has developed as a composer of the years by teaching, especially after he gained his PGCE in teaching from Manchester Metropolitan University. He, at this point in time, was a visiting music teacher, specialising in keyboard, composition and music theory. Whilst undergoing his PhD, Gaunt also gave harmony, theory and composition seminars, to which he was shortlisted for Postgraduate Teacher of the Year. Currently, Gaunt is a senior lecturer at Leeds College of Music.

In terms of composition, Gaunt has written and worked with an impressive amount of professional ensembles such as the Icarus Ensemble, London Symphony Orchestra and Britten Sinfonia. As well as this, Gaunt’s compositions have been played around the UK and Europe at festivals and concerts such as Sonic Arts Festival, Sheffield Lyric Festival and also at The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, UK.


Influences on the Music

Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind was written for musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra as part of Gaunt’s participation in the LSO Soundhub project.. He describes his compositional style as multi-faceted and eclectic, which can certainly be seen in the inspirations for his compositions. He has also said that his music usually incorporates maths, which adds a new dimension to the music on the page.

As aforementioned, Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind is composed for karateka and two musicians. The genesis for this composition came from Gaunt’s participation in karate and other different traditional Japanese martial arts. The composition is based various kata, which is a choreographed sequence of movements, which is used to develop technique, dexterity and strength. Typically, kata are used to grade karate students and push them onto the next belt within the discipline. Regularly ‘performing’ kata will enable you to transfer the new-found strength into real-life situations. Kata are built upon kinetic movements such as kicks, punches and blocks, which emphasise the defence element of the discipline.

Gaunt has extensively researched many movements within a vast range of kata, as each one possess different rhythmic structures that are intriguingly quite musical. The amalgamation of larger moves, smaller more intricate moves, vocal shouts and extreme movements such as leaps are combined together by Gaunt to create an incredibly exciting musical reaction to this traditional practice.

There is a common issue where the music for a kata does not synchronise with the karateka, and performers will even have to adapt their routines to fit music, which is quite counter-productive at times. To synchronise the karateka and the music, Gaunt has created a work where the ‘conductor’ role is passed to the karateka, and his/her movements act as cues for the musicians. Gaunt has claimed that the work attempts to reflect both the internal and external feelings one would feel when performing different kata. By also having an awareness of the history and language of different kata, Gaunt has been able to bring together many different aspects of this traditional practice and offer a new, rejuvenated dimension with the addition of his music.


The Music

Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind presents six different kata, which are accompanied by Gaunt’s musical response to the kata, as well as the karateka’s (Simon Keegan), response to the music at the end of the composition. He has scored for viola and bass clarinet (performed by Anna Bastow and Ausiàs Garrigós Morant respectively). Below are the five kata that Gaunt has chosen for this composition:

  1. Meikyo (‘Bright Mirror’)
  2. Tekki Shodan (‘Iron Horse Riding’)
  3. Heian Sandan (‘Peaceful Mind’)
  4. Bassai Dai (‘Break an Enemy’s Fortress’)
  5. Hangetsu (‘Half-Moon’)
  6. Jo-ha-kyū (‘Beginning, Break, Rapid’)


Meikyo (‘Bright Mirror’)

The first kata was chosen to begin this composition due to its language translation into ‘bright mirror’, which foreshadows how Gaunt has mirrored the movements (starting with the sun, and ending with the moon in the Hangetsu movement). Gaunt notes that this particular kata is associated with the legend of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, which perfectly fits into the mirror effect that he has created.

The quiet trills from the clarinet and the harmonics played by the viola at the beginning of this kata blend together to create a shimmering effect, which develops into a faster-paced sequence of notes, which are played in unison with the karateka. The growth of the notes synchronise with the length of punches, kicks and blocks from the leader. The movement heads towards an explosive climax at the end with vocal shouts from the karateka and a synchronised pattern of notes from the instruments.


Tekki Shodan (‘Iron Horse Riding’)

The second kata is a favourite of the composer and he notes that interestingly it only incorporates movements going from side-to-side instead of forward and backwards. Gaunt describes the music as a simple, slow barcarolle. Unlike Meikyo, Tekki Shodan differs as the music does not always replicate what the karateka is doing, but instead plays a reaction to the kata, its myths and its meanings within karate. This movement is reflective and although not kinetically connected, the movements from the karateka and the musicians is still very much present. The musicians continue playing even after the karateka has finished, which adds to this mythological veil that Gaunt is creating around these kata.


Heian Sandan (‘Peaceful Mind’)

This particular kata is one that beginners may learn when they take up karate, as it imparts basic skills and principles of the tradition. Gaunt notes for us that ‘Heian’ means ‘Peaceful Mind’ and ‘Karate’ means ‘Empty Hand’ – which is where the inspiration for the title has come from. This kata is full of fast movements, which are represented by the fast-moving clarinet part and the pizzicato viola. The music here is quirky, light and playful. However, this all changes by the postlude at the end of this kata where the musicians begins playing in very harsh octaves with extremities in dynamic. This is to represent the effects of the Heian Sandan and how powerful it really is under it’s visibly playful manner.


Bassai Dai (‘Break an Enemy’s Fortress’)

After the turmoil from the end of the previous kata, Bassai Dai begins with a pulsating accompaniment from the instruments which highlight the synchronised movements performed by the karataka. The music starts strongly, but soon begins to dissolve before the viola slides us back into a familiar realm, before taking us away again. The postlude to this movement is perhaps my personal favourite as I really enjoy the extended techniques that Gaunt has used. The viola, for example, leads us into this section by gently tapping on the main body of her viola, creating a deep, woody sound. This is followed by both instruments playing various pitch bends in their higher registers, creating a whirlwind of sound.

The use of clarinet key clicks is also an important aspect of this postlude, as it leads into the next part of this instrumental section. Then, both the viola tapping and the clarinet key clicks come together to emphasise the end of the Bassai Dai journey.


Hangetsu (‘Half Moon’)

Translating as ‘half-moon’, this movement begins with slowly, with tension being built from both the movements of the karateka and the musicians. The tension reaches a climax with the leader turning and standing firmly, whilst the musicians play a chaotic sequence of flourishing notes, which the karateka moves calmly, strongly and with intention. Gaunt describes parts of this movement as celestial in sound, and after the storm there is a more static feeling, which really hones in on the reflective stages of this kata.


Jo-ha-kyū (‘Beginning, Break, Rapid’)

The final movement of this composition encompasses a concept that movements begin slowly and gradually speed up. To fit in with his mirror theme, Gaunt notes that to capture a sense of spontaneity, Jo-ha-kyū is written freely. He also notes that he began writing his movements over long periods of time, which incorporated his love for maths and sequences, whereas the final movements were written a shorter burst of creativity, which alleviate some of the systems that were previously used. Therefore, the musicians here are performing music that is derived from the previous movements, whilst the karateka is improvising responses to this musical dialogue.

A very pertinent and effective way to complete this incredibly exciting composition. Jo-ha-kyū is the longest movement, for obvious reasons, and should be watched in its full entirety, with the utmost concentration.


Final Thoughts

Empty Hand, Peaceful Mind is a very unique composition that builds relationships between movement, music and Japanese practices. By incorporating mythology, language and music to the mix, this composition is exciting, reflective and respectful to all disciplines involved. Gaunt’s use of harmonic language, extended techniques and rhythmic structures creates a new sound world, which can be appreciated by many. His use of textures in the postludes also feed in to the idea of reflective art, which I find pertinent throughout the whole work.

I would like to express my thanks to Ben for his help with this blog, as well as him letting me write about his work.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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Link to LSO Sounhub Project and the exciting musical activities they showcase:

Simon Keegan’s teaching blog (a must see!):


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