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.

Face of Alzheimer’s

My mother has Alzheimer’s. At writing this, she is a month short of her 91st birthday and is in relatively good health otherwise. She is in a full care facility and is comfortable there. Visiting her is both difficult and fascinating. Her mind is slowly failing, but the decline is in waves, as is common with this disease. At times she seems clear and interacts easily. However, the majority of the time, she doesn’t remember anyone except me. I can see that it takes her longer and longer to recognize me, and some days not at all. She responds to questions with answers that are not connected to the inquiry and usually with only a couple of words seldom speaking in sentences.

Although most of my mum’s memory is gone, music, especially that of her youth, is still very deep in her. She remembers the words to many songs, and can sing them at the mere mention of the song title. It seems that music is stored in another part of her brain, which the disease has not reached fully.

smileyaugust54Humour is similar. I always tell her jokes, so she can laugh. As my mum was born in Scotland, puns along with playfully insulting the English, the Irish and most often the Scottish, all said in a Scottish brogue are the best way to make her laugh. She can even follow a series of jokes on the same subject, even though the logic of puns is usually quite complex and divergent.

I find most interesting is how social behaviour seems to be deeply situated in her brain. My mum has always been reactionary, responding to a question with an answer that seems to fit, until you probe further. She has always saved face. When I was young, everyone outside of my house loved my parents. My parents were considered to be kind, funny and generous. They volunteered for a number of organizations and were well known in the community. At home was a different story. My parents battled constantly with all the rage, vitriol, hostility, and loathing that anyone could possibly manifest. Often it was thrown at my sister and myself as well. Their transition from Jekyll to Hyde was the most difficult, as it could happen in less time than it took to close a door. No one outside of the house knew who my parents truly were.

Having an outside face was important for my mother, although she was probably never consciously aware of it. Throughout her life she would greet someone with a big smile and a wonderful compliment, yet the moment their back was turned she would make a hate-filled remark about them. Still with her advancing Alzheimer’s, she will put on a front for people but scowl or grumble when they are gone.

Having this “face” is probably the deepest thing in her psyche. Somehow even in the depths of this disease her psyche constantly develops new face saving devices. Last year, when I asked my name, she would respond correctly. Six months ago she answered by jokingly saying three Scottish names: MacTavish, McNab, and McKay. Now she responds with “Same name as I have.” She has a number of these face saving phrases, and they come out immediately, whereas a full sentence is difficult in any other conversations.

Keeping her laughing
Keeping her laughing

There probably is good reason for all what I have observed in my mother’s daily life. As learning social behaviour and putting on a “face,” is one of the first things we do as a child. We make faces for our parents, and we mimic and respond to theirs. We respond to foolish things our parents do and our laugh always gets a warm response from our caregivers. Music is often used as a comfort for babies, and we often start to sing well before we use words. Social behaviour, humour and music were the first to be formed in our psyche and the last to go.

I will continue to tell my mum jokes and keep her laughing and when she can’t sing anymore, I will sing for her. Even though my mum terrorized me, and I still am in pain from my childhood. Coming home from visiting her, I am so extremely tired that I often sleep deeply for a couple of hours. It takes a toll. Yet, I have a deep sense of compassion. I will continue to take care of her until she passes. Is this me putting on a “face”?

Thanks to Kia Ull for this link:

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Bali Bamboo Music

When in Bali in 1984, I was walking home one night sometime past midnight. In the distant I heard a deep percussive sound that led me behind a few buildings to a covered performance area. It was a full performance of Jegog Bumbung, a dance drama where a cocky young man chased a single woman dancer. She coyly flirted with him until he caught her and then submitted to his charms. After an intermission there was a scream and the man flew out behind the screen in fear chased by his newly married wife who is now obviously in the dominant role. The music was performed by an orchestra of struck bamboo tubes open on one end with a large tongues carved on one side, suspended in frames. The largest of these instruments had pipes at least three metres long. They were accompanied by a number of sets of progressively smaller instruments playing the characteristic Balinese interlocking rhythms. This ensemble of instruments is called Gamelan Grantang. The sound of the big instruments was very round and deep and traveled well in the night air. This performance went on for hours and although I was the only non-Balinese there I sat listening and watching to almost dawn.

Tingklik
Tingklik

A few weeks later, I ran into another version of a bamboo gamelan in a small village close to where I had found a small cabin to rent on the beach (see Bali Night). One morning I again followed music in the air and came upon two men sitting on their porch playing a matched pair of bamboo instruments called tingklik, which looked identical to the smallest of the instruments played in the Gamelan Grantang. Although they played very fast interlocking parts, they didn’t seem to tire as they played for almost an hour.

The older man invited me to sit down, served me tea and they continued to play. After playing for a while, he asked me if I would like to try the instrument, and handed me the mallets. Although the tingklik is about a dozen hollow tuned bamboo tubes suspended from a small frame the technique for playing it is quite complex. The left hand plays a rather simple melody on the lower tubes, while the right hand plays the rapid intricate patterns following the melody while interlocking with the second instrument.

On just hearing the piece, I was only able to remember a few notes on the right hand before making a mistake at which point my impromptu teacher, took the mallets from my hand and played the piece again, all fifteen minutes of it! He then calmly handed the mallets back to me and asked me to try again. I only managed to play a few more notes correctly before running into problems, and again the mallets were politely taken from my hands, and the full fifteen-minute piece was played again. This process continued well into the afternoon, with my teacher patiently playing the full piece again and again as I muddled my way through it.

Obviously this was a normal for my teacher, and he seemed to have all the time and patience in the world. After many hours, I was exhausted and somewhat frustrated, and we sat for a while to talk and drink tea. While we talked his five year-old son picked up a mallet and slowly but accurately played the whole piece. I realized that I had the wrong teacher, as it would have been easier for me to learn from the five year-old! When I asked how long my teacher had been teaching his son, he replied “Oh I haven’t taught him anything, he has just heard me play so much, He knows all the pieces by heart.”

Our modern world doesn’t allow us to have the time or patience for this type of musical transmission, and I didn’t have the time to stay and study this amazing instrument, although I really wanted to. I imagine that growing up from birth hearing these sounds would implant the music far deeper in your psyche than any other form of learning. Maybe I was born in the wrong time.

I was so intrigued by these instrumental discoveries that I explored more and found that there were pockets of unique music and instruments everywhere in Bali. The two tingklik played together is often referred to as Gamelan Rindik, although a full Rindik often uses a suling, and there is also another large bamboo ensemble called Gamelan Jegog that uses a four-note scale. I have recently learned that there are versions in Java as well. (see: Aural Archipelago)

Mystery gamelan
Mystery gamelan

A month after my impromptu lesson, I traveled to a small village in northern Bali to discover a single bamboo xylophone that was quite different in shape than any other that I had seen on the island. It had bamboo slats of different sizes for keys and bamboo tube resonators. I asked some local people where the instrument was from. “From here,” they replied, “it’s native to our village.” “Do you know anybody who can play it?” I asked. “There is no-one left who knows how to play it,” they replied, “the last person died a year ago.” “Are there any recordings or books on how to play it?” I asked. “No,” was the reply, “nothing at all. The music is lost.” Hearing this was a shock and it deeply saddened me. Since then I have given a good portion of my life to support and preserve traditional instruments and music wherever I could.

Jogeg Bambung with the  Gamelan Grantang:

Gamelan Rindik:

The four note scale Gamelan Jegog:

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Rubber Time in Java

Indonesia was my first experience immersing myself in a new culture, and it opened my mind to a world of thousands of different musical perspectives. This is where my musical education kicked into high gear.java rebab

I arrived in Java in time to attend a performance of an ancient court gamelan at the old palace in Jogjakarta on Eid, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The courtyard was filled with big crowd eating and socializing. I was not surprised by the casualness of the event, as I had attended other events in Bali that were also a combination of ritual ceremony, formal concert, and casual social gathering.

This balance of formal and casual was also present in the music. Gamelans are performed in interlocking parts at a slow to moderate speed in Java and at a lightening speed in Bali. Yet, that day I heard an old piece that was far slower than I had ever heard before. So slow in fact that there was a repeating section where a number of musicians that in theory should hit a note at the same time, but in practices they all hit the note at a slightly different time, creating a sort of haphazard staggered effect. This was a shock to my organized western mind and I initially thought they were a bit sloppy. But as they continued to play, I began to hear the beauty in this effect as it sounded very much like rainfall.

The gamelan orchestra was split into two parts on either side of the courtyard, and would play sometimes separately and sometimes together. After going back and forth between them for a while I decided to just sit on one side and listen. I sat in the shade very close to the gong player, and had a good view of the orchestra. In some pieces the gong is played quite often, while in others the gong cycle is very long and the gong is seldom heard. I was watching the gong player during one of the latter pieces, where the time between gong strikes was almost ten minutes. The player struck the gong, and then casually turned around to his friend behind him and started a conversation, he then lit a cigarette, talked for a while longer and then got up and walked off. I saw him occasionally walking through the crowd stopping to talk for a while and then disappearing again. Hearing the gong cycle coming to an end I noticed him casually return and sit down, but with his back turned to the gong. He started talking passionately to his friends while pulling out his lunch and beginning to eat. He seemed to be oblivious to his rapidly approaching cue, as he became further involved with his conversation and meal. I became quite anxious at his apparent lack of concern and wondered if he knew how close his cue was, and there it was, and he hadn’t heard it! I was surprised no-one called to him to quickly hit the gong when he stuffed some food in his mouth to empty his hand, reached for the mallet, and casually leaned over and hit the gong over his shoulder at the exact “right” late moment. The mother gong is often played after the end of the rhythmic cycle, which in the west we would consider late. Sometimes in Indonesian music such a musical marker might be far later than a western musical mind would ever expect, and in this piece it was even later still.

There is an expression in Indonesia called “rubber time” as time is a very relative concept there, stretching like rubber, and this certainly applies to music there. That day I realized that the strict adherence to time so important in the western world was not always necessary for music.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Gamelan Stream – Environment in Bali

My first trip overseas to research music in 1984 included two months on the Indonesian island of Bali, and then another month in Java. At the time Bali was a cultural goldmine. From the very first day, I was surrounded by an array of amazing styles of traditional music. I heard gamelan classes at the nearby gamelan school during the day and gamelan performances at every night, punctuated by street processions, and impromptu performances even in the middle of the night. Throughout the island there were regular ketchak monkey chants, dance dramas, and local ceremonies. In fact at times there was so many performances of traditional music that it was hard to escape it.

bali log drumOn one very hot day, I decided to get away from the heat of Ubud and followed a small stream up into the trees a few kilometres from the town. I eventually came to a few small pools of water situated by a small temple. It was such a picturesque spot that I spent most of the day lounging by these pools. I was pleased to finally get away from the insistent sounds of the Ubud gamelans. Sporadically throughout the day I thought I heard a short melody of a popular gamelan piece being repeated over and over again in the distance. Thinking it strange that someone would be practicing gamelan so far from town, I decided to investigate. I walked all around the area trying to find where the sound was coming from, but music was elusive, it would fade in and out. If I thought I had traced it in one direction, then it would seem to come from another. Finally after about an hour of searching I found the source. It was not a gamelan; it was the stream! The water falling over small rocks sounded exactly like the short gamelan melody I had been hearing, and in combination with the rhythmic chorus of afternoon insects mimicked a full small ensemble!

Back in Ubud I started to listen to the local sounds in a new way. I found that the rhythms and melodies in the music often mirrored the sounds of the environment, especially the insects. This became even more obvious in Java, where I found different insect sounds and local traditional music again structurally reflected aspects of the environmental sounds. I thought this was fascinating. I also found that the sounds of Bali and Java are similar but different. An example is the small lizards found in almost every Indonesian house climbing the walls eating insects are called geckos in Bali, and named for the sound they make “ge-ko.” In Java they are called tokay, for their call “to-kay.”

Another new sound in Bali I encountered when I was talking with a friend. I heard a loud buzzing sound approaching. I turned and saw a very large fist-sized beetle slowly flying through the air. Its body was too large for it’s inefficient wings, so once it is airborne, it cannot turn quickly. If you are in its way, it will hit you. Fortunately it makes so much noise with its efforts to fly that anyone in its path is startled by its approaching roar, and has plenty of time to gauge its flight path and step out of the way. In fact the beetle flies so slowly that it is easy to observe it in detail, if you could stand the noise enough to get close to it!

Walking along the beach one day I came upon long bamboo poles holding up fishnets, each pole had a small section shaved to create a small rectangular hole with sharp edges that acted like reeds. When the wind blew the poles produced a flute-like timbre, beautiful but also somewhat eerie. Longer versions of these poles with red banners were placed around graveyards to keep away spirits. Yet when the wind blew through the poles sounding more like the voices of the spirits themselves.

This awakening to sound in Indonesia was exciting. I found that the environment, sound, music and culture there were quite different from anything else I had experienced before.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Studying With Intangible Cultural Asset #23 Park Gui Hee 박귀희

In 1987 I had the great fortune to be a student with Park Gui Hee 박귀희, the first person to hold ​the position as Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 23 for kayageum sanjo and byeongchang. Kayageum is a long zither with twelve silk strings and movable bridges. Traditionally, the instrument is plucked with the fingers of the right hand while the sound is manipulated by pressing the strings to the left of the bridges with the left hand. Sanjo is a solo improvisational form, while byeongchang is a vocal form accompanied by kayageum.

As I explained in my previous blog on Korean shijo, Kim Duk Soo, the leader of Samul Nori introduced me to Park Gui Hee while I was in Korea between concerts on an Asian tour. I was already playing the Chinese zheng, the parent of the Asian long zithers, so Duk Soo thought this would be a good fit.

Park Gui HeeThe daily routine at Park Gui Hee’s studio was for the students to start practicing well before she arrived. Once there she would spend one on one time with selected students working on the details of the piece they were learning. This was the traditional method of aural/oral transmission, there was no written music used. The teacher played, the students copied and memorized. Learning a piece with this method takes time. Rather than just learning what note to play, every aspect of each note is learned all at once, including its timbre, timing, expression, dynamic, and inner motivation. The students have to listen with every aspect of their being to understand the depth and meaning of the music, and to fully commit to its expression. This was very challenging.

On my first day as a junior student I was introduced to Park Gui Hee, and then explained who I was and what I wanted to achieve. After some discussion I was introduced to a senior student who was to teach me the fundamentals. I was shown the basic right hand picking techniques, which were not that different from what I knew on the zheng. Next came the most idiosyncratic right hand technique for the kayageum. The index finger plucks a note and then the same string is flicked with the nail of the middle finger and index finger in rapid succession. This is accomplished by tucking the index finger behind the thumb as if to flick a piece of dust, and then the middle tucked behind the index in the same manner. Performed properly this technique creates a roll or type of tremolo that can vary in speed and dynamic.

My instructor demonstrated this technique to me and then went through it slowly so I understood it. It was very challenging, as I had never used my fingers in that way before. I fumbled terribly. After a while of my struggle to get a handle on this technique, my instructor stopped me and said, “This is an essential technique for the kayageum and it takes well over a year to learn. Without it, we cannot teach you more. So I will teach you a basic piece for the rest of today, but your lessons are finished. You are welcome to return to listen at any time.” That was on a Friday.

I decided that I didn’t want my lessons to end, so I spent every waking moment of the weekend practicing this essential right hand technique. That meant I ate with my left hand while practicing the technique, a somewhat messy affair at first that got better. I practiced while reading; I practiced while taking buses, grocery shopping, and even visiting friends, pretended I had some kind of nervous tick. Gradually, I began to conquer the technique and by Sunday night could perform it on the kayageum. Monday morning I arrived back at the studio and sat down in front of my student teacher. She looked at me questioningly and I put a kayageum in my lap and demonstrated my newly mastered technique. Her jaw dropped and she screamed! All the other students came rushing over and saw my doing the technique and were as equally shocked, “That’s not possible!” they remarked. “How did you do that? It took me two years to learn that.” I explained that I was a professional musician and practiced non-stop.

Hearing of this Park Gui Hee reconvened my lessons, and I was then taken through the left hand techniques. Korean music utilizes a wide variety of vibrato, many of which are not mere ornamentation but fundamental notes in constant motion. Korean folk music uses a modal structure called tori, which designates the five main tones of the scale. Often one or two of these is always played with a moderate or very deep vibrato. Then another note in the mode will be a falling note that descends from the original pitch, and is always played as such. These moving pitches all have an emotional characteristic that is must be expressed properly and is often the subject of work with the teacher.

I met with Park Gui Hee once a week to demonstrate my progress and she would correct some things and then give my student teacher detailed instructions in what to do for my next lessons. The learning curve was very high and the schedule grueling. I remember Park Gui Hee working with one student for a number of hours on just two lyrics of a piece, both of which were “sarang,” meaning love. The first rose slightly expressing the joy of love, while the second descended with a complex convoluted vibrato, voicing the pain of lost love. The student could easily reproduce the first lyric, but the second the teacher was very fussy about, with the student copying the teacher’s example repeatedly for hours on end. This student worked only on these two sung words for months, which was the level of commitment to detail demanded in the studio.

Park Gui Hee lived close to the studio in an old Korean courtyard Manor. She lived in a large multi-storied house in the middle of the square courtyard surrounded by a wall on all four sides, with a large gate on the southeast corner. The inside of the walls were lined with small sleeping rooms on three sides, and the kitchen and bathing rooms on the south end. Except for the house, the rest of the compound was turned into a yogwan, a Korean traditional style B&B. I lived in one of the rooms. The rooms lining the wall varied in size, but the majority of rooms were only large enough for two people to sleep on the multi-layered varnished paper floor. Each had sliding paper doors with a small entrance way. There were no chairs only cushions on the floor, the bedding was laid out at night and rolled up in the morning. The rooms were breezy, which was a good thing as they were heated with coal fired hot water heaters in the floor, and many people died each year from coal gas seeping into the rooms. Although the grounds were totally surrounded by city buildings the walls blocked a large amount of city sounds, and so the yogwan was a very peaceful place to stay.

Park Gui Hee gave private lessons in her house so every evening the courtyard was filled with the sounds of kayageum byeongchang. I spent from six to eight hours a day taking lessons and practicing in the studio, then came back to my small room to practice a few more hours, while listening to the lessons coming through the walls every evening. This constant exposure felt like a total immersion in the genre, cementing the music deep into my soul. Listening constantly to soaring voices sitting on the razor’s edge between a cry of pain and a cry of joy, performed with such commitment and passion, was an education unlike any I had ever experienced before. It was like being in a constant state of ecstasy, so much so that I often had to improvise quietly along with the lessons next door to give voice to my own ecstatic expression.

I felt like I was in two worlds. I would walk out the gate into the modern chaos of Seoul. This was the time a student unrest, so there was often a lot of tear gas in the air, and I learned to avoid approaching student riots by ducking into a subway station and taking the train back behind the riot, to find shopkeepers opening their shops and sweeping bricks and stones away from their doors. I would return to my yogwan and enter old Korea again, sit on the floor of my room listening to the lesson next door while eating an evening meal of rice, vegetable and kimchi, and a few hours of practice before sleep.

My time in Korea was too short, as I would have needed years to live and study all that I wanted to on the kayageum, and life didn’t take me in that direction. However, what I did learn was profound. Korean music is a balance of opposites and extremes: heaven and earth, male and female, joy and pain, tradition and innovation, silence and sound, Confucianism and shamanism, composition and improvisation, order and chaos. Park Gui Hee’s lessons pushed me deeper into my musical soul, freeing me to create with all of my being at every moment. As I continued to study Korean music I have found a deeper balance within myself, allowing me to express my wildest passions while maintaining a calm still centre.

Korean traditional music is in my opinion one of the world’s richest musical treasures, and essential study for anyone forging new directions in creative music and self-expression. I highly recommend it. It can change your life.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014