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
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
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.
(‘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