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Yearning For The Bell, Volume One: Breath-Sight
Sakkaan [7’34]; San An [7’34]; Nesasaha Shirabe [5’49]; Nesasaha Tôri [5’41]; Ajikan [9’54]; Shingetsu [7’10]; Nesasaha Sagari Ha [5’52]; Reibo [17’22]; Tamuka [5’51].
Riley Lee (shakuhachi)
Rec. Chapel of St Patrick’s College, Manly, Sydney, May 31st, 1992. DDD
TALL POPPIES TP015 [74’02]

This is part of a series of discs by shakuhachi player Riley Lee. Continued thanks are due to Tall Poppies for this attractive live recording. Please see my review of ‘Empty Sky’ for weblinks to the instrument and the performer.

Of all music, this is surely the most suited to live performance, where some sort of collective meditation can be detected. Of course a reverberant church acoustic suits the haunting sound of the shakuhachi. As the booklet notes point out, any extraneous sounds become part of the experience, sensations to be observe with an inner eye.

All the works on the present CD are traditional, dating (perhaps) from around the fourteenth century, and transmitted from teacher to pupil over the years.

Lee understands the vital part of the breath in this music, how the inhalation determines and colours the succeeding phrase. All works are in free rhythm, a fact that gives them their timeless feel.

The first piece, Sakkan (‘Breath-Sight’) is fascinating firstly because it is performed on a very long (and therefore lower and timbrally deeper) instrument, over 90 cm long. Lee’s sense of timing is magnificent - everything just falls beautifully and inevitably into place. The difference between the various instruments can be immediately heard by comparing this to the succeeding work, San An (‘safe Delivery’), a prayer from the Echigo district of Northern Japan for safe delivery during childbirth. This instrument is about a third shorter than the first, yet still projects the prayer-like basis of the conception.

Nesasaha Shirabe (‘Original Tuning of the Nesasa Sect’ is actually a warm-up piece, acting as a ‘renewal of the relationship between the bamboo and the performer’. As is often the case with works from this region, a technique known as ‘komibuki’ is used, a sort of pulsating breath. It is a lovely effect. The music itself (of course) meanders ... but how!

The same pulsating technique recurs in Nesasaha Tôri (from the same area), traditionally played by komusô (priests) while begging for alms while on pilgrimage. Lee’s control is astonishing (try the diminuendo around 3’40).

Lee has a chance to dwell on the lower parts of the shakuhachi’s register in Ajikan (‘Seeing the letter Ah’) - and how loud he can play it!

The austerity of Shingetsu paves the way to the shorter but memorable Nesasaha Sagri Ha (‘Falling Leaf’). Reflecting the slow falling of a leaf, some of the melodic figures so indeed seem to aurally trace the downward movement …

Reibo (‘Yearning for the Bell’) contains a passage that is effectively a ripple on an otherwise still pond (around 5’50-6’00). As the longest item on the disc (17’22), it is the best track for fully entering into the meditative state that belongs with this music. Finally, a slow prayer (Tamuke, or ‘Prayer for Safe Passage’) is a delicate and melancholy was to end.

Very, very beautiful indeed.

Colin Clarke

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