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Tall Poppies

Yearning For The Bell: Volumes 6 and 7
Volume 6: Phoenix Crying

Tsuru no sugomori
Futaiken reibo
Echigo san'ya
Hokyo kokû

Volume 7: Searching

Yamato Chôshi
Murasakino reibo
Shôganken reibo

Riley Lee, shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute)
Recorded on the 24th and 26th July 1996 in the reverberation room of the National Acoustics Laboratory, Sydney.
TALL POPPIES TP167 [57.13]
TALL POPPIES TP168 [60.00]


"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.

Neil Horner


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