Tall Poppies


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Deep Night

Yearning for the Bell, Vol. 5

$23   (Australian dollars)


buy at: AMC - Buywell - iTunes

Riley Lee: shakuhachi

The fifth in the series of seven CDs containing the complete lineage of 13th century Japanese 'honkyoku', or meditation pieces, played by Riley Lee, who was the first non-Japanese to attain grand mastery of the instrument. Sumptuosly recorded in the Australian National Acoustics Laboratory, this is the first time anyone has recorded such a complete overview of this music, and it is quite beautiful and calming.

Kyorei (Spirit of Nothingness)

Suzuru (Nesting Cranes)

Shôganken reibo (Yearning for the Bell of Pine Boulder Temple)

Shin'ya no kyoku (Deep Night)

Kokû (Empty Sky)


It is hard to avoid the myths surrounding the shakuhachi. The Japanese bamboo flute may have been used as a defensive weapon by 17th century samurai, and is associated with the Zen Buddhist 'priests of nothingness' that emerged from this tradition. Recent stories include a master player who. after 'feeling he underperformed' in a cold hall in Devon (UK), was found practising in the snow the next morning in order to harness his skills for such circumstances.

A number of westerners have embarked on mastering this seemingly inaccessible tradition. Australia-based Riley Lee is probably the most renowned, with some 30 commercial recordings to his name, as well as the title of Grand Master, conferred in 19S0. Since then, Lee has performed extensively across Australia, in traditional and contemporary solo performances, as well as in various ensemble settings, including Karak Percussion.

For Tall Poppies, Lee recorded a series of 7 CDs with honkyoku, solo repertoire from the two major shakuhachi traditions, which is considered the core of the canon. The list of titles is a work of poetry in itself. including Empty Sky, Autumn Field, and Searching. Volumes 2-7 are first takes: six hours of music recorded in two consecutive afternoon sessions in a single space. That gives the recordings the intensity of a live performance, and is a tribute to the mastery of Lee, whose fabulous control of the instrument and the subtle repertoire lifts these recordings beyond the ordinary

This sense of a landmark recording is reflected in Lee's own account of the recordings: "Towards the second afternoon of recording, in the middle of playing a piece, ! suddenly started crying. Not sobbing; I didn't stop playing, and the piece was recorded successfully. Just tears. This had never happened to me before. I still can't explain why this occurred. I wasn't sad; I wasn't thinking of anything in particular other than the performing the piece. It was a good feeling, a bit like, I imagine, the tired, yet excited contentment of having reached the top of a very challenging mountain. That moment seemed to make the years of practice. and the hours playing in that cold concrete box all worth it."

Descriptions of shakuhachi music often seem to resort to new age terminology: meditative. peaceful, uplifting. That may be true, but hardly does justice to these recordings. While the New Age aesthetic tends to build on facile, harmonious chord progressions, this rendering of honkyoku pieces is an impressive and consistent array of artistic gems, constantly engaging in an abstract but clear sense of direction, controlled expression of intimacy, and infinitely refined sculpting of sound and silence.

Huib Schippers
Music Forum Feb-April 2005

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 TP (1-901)



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