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Empty Sky: Yearning for the Bell, Volume 3.
TRADITIONAL Daha [6’17]. Yamagoe [4’42]. Honte Chôshi [4’45]. Tehodoki Reihô [4’27]. Matsu Reibo [11’47]. Nesasa Kokû [11’47].
SAKAI CHIKUHO I Ryûmei Chô [7’42].
Riley Lee (shakuhachi).
Rec. National Acoustics Laboratory, Sydney, Australia, 24-26 July 1996 DDD.
TALL POPPIES TP118 [58’03]


Of all traditional Japanese instruments, it is probably the bamboo flute known as the shakuhachi that is the best known (see http://www.shakuhachi.com/ ). The reason for this probably rests with its uniquely haunting, somewhat breathy tone. Instantly calming, its traditional melodies speak of large time-scales, even of meditation.

The first eye-catching aspect of this disc is the performer. Riley Lee is clearly not a Japanese name, and indeed Mr Lee was born in Texas of Chinese/Caucasian parentage. However he was resident in Japan for a period and it was there in 1980 that he discovered his instrument. He was the first ever non-Japanese to attain the rank of dai shihan (Grand Master) in the shakuhachi tradition. He is eminently qualified to present this music, having completed his ethnomusicological PhD at the University of Hawaii on the Zen Buddhist shakuhachi repertoire. see Riley Lee website

The disc takes its title from the last track (’Nesasa Kokû’: ‘Empty Sky’ of the Bamboo Grass Sect), a work that utilises the kominuki (‘crowded breath’) technique, a pulsating method intended to focus concentration and energy. ‘Empty’ is a close translation but not accurate, as it implies something which is neither ‘empty’ nor ‘the opposite of full’, rather an absolute, non-rational realm. Whether or not one subscribes to zen, or any form of meditation, for that matter, it remains absolutely mesmeric. Being the longest piece on the disc the phrases have real space within which to breathe. There is no sense of hurry whatsoever.

The first work, ‘Daha’, (‘Pounding Wave’), a prayer for the Will to achieve high aspirations, reflecting both Yin and Yang, might need two starts. The recording level is rather high, so you might need to twiddle the knob a little. Once this is achieved, this aching lament with its airy sound makes a powerful effect. If you listen to much Western music, it may take some time to adjust – of course, the traditional Western ‘expectation/realisation’ construct (to use Western musicologist Leonard B. Meyer’s pet phrase) is not present, as harmonic gravitation fields are different, co-existing rather than pulling one another in a linear way.

This work and the next, ‘Yamagoe’ (‘Crossing the Mountain’) are from the Watazumi Dô (‘The Way of the Ocean Crossing’) tradition, transmitted to Lee by his teacher, Katsuya Yokoyama. The Mountain of the title is most probably the mountain of strong meditation. The next three tracks are from Chikuho Ryû (‘Preserving the Bamboo Lineage’) tradition, received by Lee from Chikuho Sakai II. ‘Honte Chôshi’ (original searching) is the ‘original’ piece among many ‘warm-ups’. The intent is to seal the relationship between player and instrument that is most conductive to meditative practice.

Tehodoki Reihô (‘Initiation into the Dharma of the Bell’) refers to the bell of Fuke, a 9th-century Chinese leader who rang a bell instead of playing shakuhachi. His bell came to symbolise enlightenment. The lonely nature of this piece presumably reflects the endless searching as one walks down the path towards enlightenment.

The 1934 piece Ryûmei Chô (‘Cry of the Dragon’) was composed in January 1934. Slow, stealthy and very breathy to begin with, it invokes the impressive power of the dragon in the same way that the long silences between phrases in Matsu Reibo (‘Yearning for the Bell’) invokes the work’s stated subject. The music carries hauntingly across these silent spaces. When a rare fortissimo is achieved (around 7’20), it carries unexpected power.

A wonderful disc that transports the listener to worlds that seem far removed from hectic Western life.

Colin Clarke



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