Category Archives: Silent Sound

Stories of extended music and listening

Tanso Afternoon

I sit playing my tanso, small thin hard hollow bamboo, with a small notch on the end to blow into. A clear sound is produced with care. With time an ephemeral complexity of small notes flit around the melody. At first it seems to have a light expression, but I sense something deep here. This is a modern instrument that has more holes to play more notes. Yet it awakens something ancient, timeless.

My breath must be precise as the notch is small; a miniscule change produces something unexpected. I strive to perceive the imperceptible, to embrace the microscopic in my expression.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The high tones cry, the lower tones sigh. A murmur appears. Another voice arises between notes. An inner landscape of peaks and valleys, irregular surfaces, twists and turns – all within a nuance. A pitch drops slightly with a forgotten despair, and then rises with a fragile hope.

My soul rises from my lips and fingers, as my mind is helpless but to just listen. So much pain, so much joy, so much life. Then a train in the distance answers, and my soul responds unhindered. A crow comments as the wind in the trees and my breath ebb in unison. My soul and the world around me interconnect in the music. My mind is quiet.

The notes disappear yet my lips and fingers continue to move. The sounds outside disappear yet nothing has changed. All that is left is a vast yet intimate connectedness…an infinite oneness. I am playing, listening, being and not being, all at the same time. This depth of being and not being is both peaceful yet unnerving. It is so powerful that I stop.

My mind returns, objects in the room reappear; the sounds outside have names again. I am holding my flute. I am still feeling the connectedness, but am now in the world again as well. The wind and crows are calling for me to return. I want to feel this world some more before I go back into infinite oneness. I make some tea.

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Leaves Budding

Many years ago I met an amazing visual artist named En Burk, who at the time worked with leaves, branches and other natural objects. She patiently waited for them to fall from their respective trees or plants, and then fashioned them into stunningly beautiful sculptures, sometimes quickly shaping them before they dried and hardened. She knew the flora of the city as if it were her garden, and often went to visit a certain tree on a certain day, talking to it, as she harvested it’s gifts. She used her whole apartment as her gallery, and to enter it was like entering a temple devoted to life and nature. Visiting En was always the most peaceful and grounding experience.

Inspired by her art, one day I decided to take her a copy of my score Leaves (1) which I had written for the Japanese ichigenkin. We sat drinking tea as she quietly read the score. After reading it, she sat for a long time in silence, and then looked at me and asked, “How did you do this?” “How did I do what “, I replied. “I just heard this!” she exclaimed, “I’ve just heard leaves budding! And wilting! And … and I just heard shadows of leaves! I’ve always known what they look like, and felt like…. but now I know what they sound like!” “How did you do this?”

A year later, I showed the same score to a number of musicians at the prestigious if sometimes stuffy Banff Centre for Fine Arts, in Alberta, Canada. One of them asked mockingly, “How can you hear leaves budding?”

I replied “You could try listening slower, perhaps you listen too quickly.”

leaves

Listening Beyond Boundaries

I just finished playing my xiao again and am still listening.

Before I play my Chinese xiao, I stand and listen, I open myself wide, so that all sounds close and far away, inside of me and outside, obvious and barely perceived enter. I don’t try to label them as a car or a bird, I don’t try to categorize them, or sort them as good or bad. It becomes a strange sensation, as it is like I have to stretch part of myself out to as far as the sounds come from.

Yet there is a timelessness to this, as I listen, time stops, as past, present, and future blend. So the beginning and ending of a sound blur. Yet I am still aware of normal time. It feels like I am listening in more than one manner, or dimension at the same time. The sensation of listening is not just from my ears, it is from my whole body. As I expand my listening all my body feels like it extends, not just my skin but even deep inside of me. This sense of listening in another dimension is intensified by my body’s sensations, as is the timelessness of it. It is as if time and space no longer apply.

Then I play. This also is a strange practice, as I add the sound of my playing to the other sounds on an equal basis. I don’t try to play, to match the sounds, to choose a note or to guide my playing in any way. Instead I just let go. I somehow let the music out. Often a long sustained note happens first but sometimes it is a number of short notes. The structure of the sounds that come out is often very unlike the way I normally play, sometimes it is very orderly, sometimes not at all, long and short sounds, fast runs, and wild intervals. I can observe the interaction of what I play and what I hear, as I am both inside the music and yet outside at the same time. What I play melds with all the rest of the sounds that I sense as it all becomes music.

What happens is amazing to me, every time I do this. Everything works as if I composed all the sounds to be played together. black and blueThere is an order and even a harmony. I will play and stop just as a car door closes, and start to play on the same pitch as a car going by even changing tones to match the shifting Doppler effect unconsciously. The note I play will anticipate an environmental sound. I will play a note and the environment matches it or plays something that is in perfect harmony with it. I will play a rhythm the environment matches and then it shifts exactly as I shift. Somehow I sense what is going to happen, I can sense large and small patterns in the environment and start to play them even before they appear. Even a person walking by talking has been incorporated within the sounds my flute makes and is integrated. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is random.

The more I listen and play like this, the more the environment around me seems to start to work together with itself. Maybe this is my mind trying to find order in chaos, but it feels more like the chaos is not chaos but instead part of a much more expansive order that only very large wide extensive listening can perceive.

I find myself playing more in extremely noisy environments and still finding a harmony in them. This intrigues me. After playing I feel like I am still very big, like there is a large space within me, like I still have no time, like air is moving through my being, like my skin and cells are sparkling. Like I am many places at the same time, and all of them are connected and working together. These feelings sometimes well up in my daily life, while I am at the computer, or while at the store. They are beautiful yet, a bit unsettling as they are redefining what reality is. I am not sure if this is a real experience or a quirk of brain function, but either way I will explore it more.

Waikiki, Ichigenkin and Yamada-sensei

In 1992, I studied ichigenkin with Chie Yamada, who had achieved a master status in a number of Japanese traditional music styles, and was not only an adept musician, but a masterful teacher. I had first taken some lessons with her a few years earlier, but this was the first time I could spend an extended period in Hawaii just to study ichigenkin. On my arrival her husband was not supportive of my lessons, as Yamada-sensei (sensei means professor/instructor in Japanese) was in therapy for cancer and some days the medicine made her quite ill. However, Yamada-sensei insisted I come every day to study, and her husband acquiesced.

Yamada-sensei playing ichigenkinThe ichigenkin is a rare one-string Japanese zither that some believe may have come from the Chinese seven-string qin. Both instruments were played by philosopher-musicians who would sit in front of their instruments without striking a string, believing that if a musician and an instrument are in the same room, then music is also present, no action is necessary to produce the music. “The music can be heard,” they would say, “if you know how to listen.” Before beginning my lessons, Yamada-sensei described this philosophy to me and added, “Sometimes I just look at an instrument and I hear it play, the music is instantly born inside me.”

This strong sense of philosophy is inherent in the ichigenkin, and Yamada-sensei would often explain: “The ichigenkin must be part of your body. It has only one string and no place for the sound to resonate; it cannot produce a strong sound by itself. The sound must resonate from your body.”

“You can not hide the sound with other notes,” she would say, “the ichigenkin has a pure sound. It can only be played as part of you, and the music should come as naturally as any movement.”

Studying daily with Yamada-sensei was challenging and rewarding. I worked hard to understand and apply the philosophy of the ichigenkin while I developed my finger and picking techniques and memorized each piece. It was only through listening and feeling her play and trying to copy it as well as I could that I made any progress. This was not music that you could learn from reading notes off a piece of paper; this was music you had to experience. She often remarked, “You can either read music or play it. You can’t do both at the same time.”

One day after I played a piece, Yamada-sensei sat quietly for a minute and then nodded saying “With the ichigenkin, every note must come from deep inside you. You must play from your center, deep in your body, because this is where the real sound is. But when you play you must also bring the sound out of your body into the air. Today I can feel the music come from you, this is the sign of a good player.” She then would regularly tell me if my focus on my centre (hara) was too high, too low, too forward or too back. She knew the instant it was not correct.

In the last days of my lessons Yamada-sensei would often look at me and scowl, “You are so relaxed on the instrument that it resonates inside you. You play like you are Japanese, yet you are not. You must have Japanese blood.” Then she would shake her head and in a sad voice ask “Why aren’t you Japanese…you should be Japanese?!”

On the day of my last lesson her husband thanked me for studying with her and being very patient with the occasional repetition of lessons (the medicine made her forgetful). He said that I had given her a lot of energy and made her days meaningful. He said that I was her best student and gave me the contacts for the Ichigenkin school in Tokyo, asking me to be in touch with them.

I was Chie Yamada’s last ichigenkin student. She died of stomach cancer a few months later. Her husband gave me the instrument that she taught me on. yamada1

She was the best teacher that I had ever had. She could see things that were inside of me and guide me to use them, sensing things about me that no other teacher ever had. I could sense hundreds of years of knowledge being passed to me; lessons that she had learned from her teacher before her, and likewise for centuries. When she taught, every note sang, as she would place it deep inside of me. I was taught to play each note as if it contained the whole piece of music. The piece should be as complete playing only one note as it was playing all of the notes. She taught me to feel the rightness of every note, to give each note time to exist and resonate in my body. She somehow had a deep understanding of the music that I always had felt inside of me, but never knew how to release. She nurtured my internal music, gave it life, and brought the deepest parts of me alive with it.

While I studied with Yamada-sensei, I stayed in a dorm room with 6 people, so to practice I would go and sit on a bench at Waikiki beach for hours every night. This was actually quite dangerous because the beach was where drug dealers, pimps and other underworld folks did business at night. They each had their spot, and any intruders were not welcome. However they fully accepted me. I had a spot I could practice, and many times a bunch of very scary looking people would come and listen. They asked me questions about the music, and myself, and we developed quite a personal relationship. They were totally fascinated with the ichigenkin and its philosophy, sometimes sat for hours just staring at the dark ocean and listening to me play. The only time somebody started to be aggressive to me, a number of big guys came up and told him that I was their friend and anyone wanting to mess with me had to mess with them first.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Pauline Oliveros

Sometime in the 1980s, composer/performer Pauline Oliveros and I had overlapping residencies at Art Park, in upstate New York. Although mainly designed to assist and showcase visual artists and their work, Art Park also has a couple of small performance spaces and occasionally presents music as well.

Pauline’s stage was a small concrete platform at the end of a meandering path in the woods, and she was joined in her performance by a dancer as well as a visual artist drawing throughout the performance.

Pauline started the performance by simply lifting her accordion to her lap, tilting her head to her side and listening.

r3poAfter about five minutes she started to play one very high note, held it for a long time, and then slowly added another, then another. As the music progressed, Pauline began punctuating the these long tones by ever increasing short rapid passages of flurried notes.

Listening carefully, I was gently being lulled into the music, when suddenly something changed. It was as if someone had just focused my ears. Everything that I was hearing was interacting in a clearly organized manner. I don’t just mean Pauline’s music, but all the sounds: the wind in the trees, the birds, peoples voices in the distance, everything made musically sense! When the birds sang, they sang in perfect tune with Pauline, entering at exactly the right moment, and sometimes paralleling Pauline in long intricate passages. In the same manner, the wind in the trees would shift and rustle, dogs would bark, squirrels would chatter, all in perfect time to Pauline’s music!

I was shocked, I couldn’t believe it. Somehow whatever Pauline was doing had such a perfect foundation, that every other sound fit together with it as if finely orchestrated by a master composer. Even the cars passing by sounded like finely tuned instruments rather than their usual obnoxious clamor.

I was so stunned that I held my breath, fearing that this would be only a momentary occurrence, but it wasn’t. It lasted for the twenty or thirty minutes that Pauline played. I had plenty of time to revel in this amazing experience. I had of course philosophically believed that “all sounds are part of the symphony of life”, but this was the first time that I was actually experiencing it! Every time I started to doubt the experience another group of random sounds would occur in perfect order! It was like a dream come true, I was filled with a an overwhelming sense of the order of life.

As the piece came to a close, the sounds of the birds and wind progressively became more random again. I tried to hold on to the experience, to somehow keep this way of hearing, but the more I tried, the faster it slipped away. It was replaced instead by the excited sounds of the audience: “Did you hear that?”, “That was amazing!”, “Everything was in tune!”, “Was that real?”, “Amazing how everything was in synch, what do you want for lunch?”

Amazed and excited by this experience, I went up to the stage as Pauline was packing up to leave, and told her of my experience. She listened politely, smiled and then said “Good…it worked……that’s the way it should be”.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014