Sun Wukong, aka Monkey King, is a leading character in the ancient Chinese novel “Journey to the West”. In the book he was a loyal entourage of Master Monk Tang Sanzang on a journey to ancient India to acquire valuable Buddhist Sutras back to ancient China. Along the journey they had to pass 81 tasks that the Buddha had set up for them to test their sincerity and will power.
Sun Wukong is a superhero, he masters many special weapons and is capable of 72 transformations into just any person or object. On top of that, he has this charming, mischievous, kind and cool personality. He is every child’s hero in China and certainly in other cultures – He is the original of Goku, the main character of Japanese manga book Dragonball. I still remember when I was a kid, I would practice the guitar hard for many hours so my mom would reward me with the latest issue of the Dragonball manga book.
Over the years of playing the guitar, I have always been amazed by its beauty, its colors and the infinite possibilities of the instrument – the guitar is capable of playing so many different styles of music from all over the world! In this way, I find the guitar similar to the Monkey King, it can do 72 transformations, too! And I’m so happy and honored that another childhood hero of mine – Sergio Assad would write a piece about the Monkey King on the guitar!
Sun Wukong’s Toccata was generously commissioned by San Francisco Performances for its PIVOT New Music Concert Series in 2016. The piece was premiered by myself in San Francisco in October 2016.
The first part, Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, is a representation of the Monkey King’s birthplace and his kingdom before the journey. The short yet epic theme of Sun Wukong appears here several times.
The second part of the piece is a demonstration of three weapons Sun Wukong acquired, among others.
-The Phoenix Feather Cap. The first measure of if keeps coming back with different harmonies representing the eternal return of the bird Phoenix that always return from its ashes.
-The Cloud Walking Boots. This part is written in Chinese pentatonic scales with an added 6th note. It contains lots of sliding of the left hand for a cloudy effect. These boots enable Sun Wukong to fly on a piece of cloud to anywhere within seconds.
-The Golden Banded Stuff. It is a retractable stick that can go as long as needed to fight demons or as short as he could store it in one of his ears. It should sound very heavy and dramatic. Go with the feeling, as the notation here is just an approximation.
The third part begins as a modified recap of the beginning but soon changes into the Journey to the west. In the book Journey to the West Sun Wukong goes to India on 81 adventures with two other entourage, Pigsy and Sandy. After their return Sun Wukong is granted Buddhahood – his desired immortality.
To describe all of this the composer wrote this section in 81 measures representing the 81 tasks. The other characters are presented here as well: Pigsy with a quite heavy pig oink produced by the tapping of the left hand. Sandy is known as the water master so his section has a very fluid characteristic to represent him.
A regular diapason (tuning fork) is needed to play the last few measures of the piece. Using friction of the diapason on the bass strings (fast in-and-out motion towards the soundhole) to produce a zen and long-lasting sound. With this sound we quote Sun Wukong’s theme again.
Hit the diapason over the top edge of the fingerboard or other hard surface to make the diapason sound. Following that rest it on the soundboard of the guitar. The diapason is a way to represent Buddhahood/immortality, it creates a long-lasting sound with a purity once is deprived of harmonics.