Yearning for the Bell, Vol 6
$23 (Australian dollars)
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|Riley Lee continues his survey of the Japanese meditation melodies, or honkyoku, for shakuhachi. These were recorded in the sumptuous acoustic of the Australian National Acoustics Laboratory reverberation room. Riley sounds like he's floating! This CD includes Riley Lee playing both parts of the famous duet "Nesting of the Cranes".|
|Chôshi / Searching |
Tsuru no sugomori / Nesting of the Cranes (Chikuho lineage)
Futaiken reibo / Yearning for the Bell (Futai Temple version)
Echigo san’ya Three Valleys (Echigo district version)
Sukaku / Cranes Nesting (old version) (Chikuho lineage)
Hokyo kokû / Phoenix Crying in the Empty Sky
|"The temple bell stops|
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers"
Haiku by Basho (quoted in booklet for Arvo Pärt's Arbos)
The Shakuhachi was introduced to Japan from China in the 8th century but these pieces have their origins in the Edo period (1600-1868) and have mainly been passed down via an oral/aural tradition to the present day. Some of the pieces included are more modern arrangements of traditional pieces (early 20th century).
These two exemplary discs complete a seven disc series which represents a long-standing labour of love for the increasingly essential Tall Poppies label. The shakuhachi is not an instrument I can even begin to claim a great knowledge of but my earliest conscious exposure to it was probably its use in Ry Cooder's atmospheric soundtrack to Walter Hill's seminal Southern Comfort. This was a setting somewhat removed from its original context, as was, although to a lesser extent, the Japanese flute's next incursion into my listening, jazz legend Tony Scott's masterpiece Music for Zen Meditation. The title here gave some indication of the context in which much of this music is grounded, although I was more aware of Zen Buddhism through the beautiful Haiku of the poet Basho at that stage (see example above).
When hearing this pair of discs it was no surprise then that my thoughts turned to the most celebrated of 20th century Japanese composers - the late Toru Takemitsu. A large proportion of his output has a Zen aspect to it and especially chamber scale pieces like the delicate Bryce came to mind. Less predictably, I was also prompted to remember Edmund Rubbra's immortal Jade Mountain sequence, especially the final song, dedicated to a Buddhist priest returning home to Japan from China, but in its essence rather than its substance, given that Rubbra used harp rather than wind accompaniment. The music recorded by Riley Lee, astonishingly almost all of it in two consecutive afternoons, is by necessity, of a purer, more traditional form than any of the musics mentioned above, as it originated with Zen Buddhist priests. The series title "Yearning for the Bell"/"Reibo" provides a common, often revisited thread, and is synonymous with a "yearning for enlightenment". Other recurring themes are references in the titles of pieces to the crane, a bird held sacred to the Japanese, and to the biosphere in general - valleys, sky, pines, boulders…..
If I have given the impression of oriental muzak then nothing could be further from the truth, there is just a single bamboo flute at work here (except in one case there is a multitracked duet), beautifully captured by the recording, meditative in the main but also quite austere - very much in keeping with the "more is less" Zen philosophy. There are even some more abrasive, abstract elemental sounds, especially on the aforementioned duet (Nesting of the cranes/Tsuru no sugomori) on Volume 6, although there is nothing on either disc which could be classed as music for people in a hurry - barring one, all pieces top five minutes and many exceed ten. Time is needed to get inside this music but once there it is quite a magical world, albeit something of an acquired taste. Analysis of individual tracks appears somewhat pointless when the whole project, let alone the individual volumes, seems like a self-contained entity, with Riley Lee, despite his Texan origins, living, breathing and believing totally in his art.
Tall Poppies is a visionary label and this enterprise is in many ways typical (even though the music is not) but it is also a key player, along with New Zealand's Rattle, ABC Classics and even Naxos, in raising the highly deserving profile of music from the orient and Australasia into the global consciousness.
This is something special. Riley Lee was the first non-Japanese person to become a grand master on the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute used by Zen Buddhist monks (priests of nothingness).
The instrument has beautiful simplicity - a piece of bamboo with five holes - and the sound is as it comes: breathy, piercing, heavy, intense, agitated, joyous; like listening to the breathing of a sleeping partner dreaming. This is the sixth of seven discs by Lee of meditative Buddhist pieces or honkyoku, all built from long, haunting notes that echo and ruminate. The quivering around these notes includes exquisitely subtle pulsations of vibrato and remarkable slides between notes that sound as though the music is pure breath and spirit unmediated by the fixed place of finger holes.
The first track, Nesting of the Cranes, mixes this lonely meditative sound with agitated flutterings. Yearning for the Bell starts with a focus on deep notes, almost as though inside some cosmic vibration - a metaphor for enlightenment. Three Valleys of Echo also explores low pitches, like wind blowing around lonely chasms. Cranes Nesting is initially quiet and sad, becoming increasingly light and excited as a young crane takes flight.
Haunting subtlety from a grand master of nothingness.
November 6, 2004, Sydney Morning Herald
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