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December 19, 2013

New Favorite Blog - Stack o' Sides

Ok folks, so I don't get much time on the internet these days, what with living off-grid and all. But I just discovered that one of my favorite musicians, Kit "Stymee" Stovepipe, has started a blog and begun offering up his collection of old jug band 78s for download. It has quickly become my favorite place on the internet. Check out Stack O' Sides!

June 5, 2013

The Great Cascadian Jug Band Revival

Hi Folks,
It's been a year since my last post. I'm not dead, just busy in the real world. Busy making music!

As you may know, I love the shit out of jug band music. I was born and bred on the stuff. And there have been so many bad jug bands because folks see a washboard or a washtub bass and think to themselves "hey, I could do that", that it's sometimes hard to find the good ones, or believe that it didn't die off decades ago. But dear listeners, let me make you aware of one thing:

Jug band music is not dead.

Jug band music is not only alive and well, it is stomping along mightily and has numerous glorious bastard children. If you are not aware of this, it may be because you are not living in Cascadia, also known as the pacific northwest, the new epicenter of this music, after New Orleans. You also may not know about it because true to their street-performing ancestors, most of these bands have a scarce presence on the internet. They're too busy rattlin' the dimes out of people's pockets and shakin' the geebies out of people's pants to bother with streamlined websites and self-indulgent twitterisms.

But in the span of two weeks there have been 3 great gatherings of kitchenophonic music.
The first and oldest of these is Seattle's Northwest Folklife Festival. While it embraces all manner of folk music, including world music of many varieties, on every corner of sidewalk you can find folks busking, and it seems to be a beacon for street performers from all over the country. They gather to busk at the nation's biggest free music festival, and make sure that any high-falutin' folk snobs are brought back down home with some toe-tappin tunes.
This year also featured the first annual Cascadia Ragtime Rendezvous Jug Band Jubilee in Portland, OR. Boasting 26 bands, it was surely one of the best gatherings of its kind. I wish I could have gone, but instead I went to the preview event, a gathering of six bands in an old speak-easy and naughty-film-screening-secret-theater. Most of these bands are described below:

Baby Gramps

The old king of hokum and amalgamation of all things "old weird america" is Baby Gramps. He is Harry Smith's anthology of American Folk Music compressed into a single person. He has been at times the single champion of the bizarre, with his wild ragtime-rockabilly, throat-singing, mad-talking-foot-stomping, hokum falokum idiosyncratic palindromatic amusing musical musings. He was old before it was cool. And will be old after it's cool too. He has inspired countless others to cast off their chains of sex-appeal and charm and invite the demons of strangeness and syncopation to become their new spirit guides. Check out his website.

The Crow Quill Night Owls

Among those who was taken aback and then taken aforwards by Gramps was a young Kit "Stymee" Stovepipe. He has since locked himself in numerous metaphorical and probably literal closets with nothing but a gramophone, some old jug band records, and an instrument. By so-doing, he's mastered the resonator guitar, washboard, harmonica, and blows a mean jug besides. Syncopation pervades his entire being. Upon emergence from his musical cocoon, he started two fantastically good jug bands. The first, The Inkwell Rhythm Makers, in Eugene, OR, was probably the best thing to come along in jug band world since the Cheap Suit Serenaders. The second, The Crow Quill Night Owls, is the best thing since the Inkwell Rhythm Makers. They're probably the best jug band in the world, at once fully classic and traditional-sounding, and also unique and fresh. In the Crow Quill Night Owls, Kit Stovepipe is joined by Windy City Alex on tenor banjo and kazoo, and Baylin Adaheer on washtub bass and kazoo. When Maria Muldaur wanted to make a jug band album a couple years ago, she thought it would be impossible because no one is playing that music anymore. Then she discovered the Crow Quill Night Owls, and took 'em on board to record the only Jug Band album ever nominated for a grammy. Check out their Facebook and Bandcamp sites. They just came out with a new album, a week ago. I bought it the first night it was on sale.

The Gallus Brothers

Joining Maria Muldaur on her album (and tour, and subsequent kids album), are The Gallus Brothers, who also fill out the Crow Quill Night Owls quite often (making the band an unstoppable 5-piece to be reckoned with). The Gallus Brothers have two things that turn heads immediately when they start playing: suspenders and circus tricks! Well, that may have been what first drew folks to the band 10 years ago, but it's the impeccably great fingerpicking guitar of Devin Champlin and the ohmygodwhatthehellisthatthing irresistably infectious suitcase percussion kit of Lucas Hicks that keep folks comin back to boogie until they fall over and get the boogie cramps. Trust me, once you hear the combination of suitcase, low-hat, bones, spoons, washboard, and things that rattle and ding, you will understand why I don't hesitate to call Lucas the most inventive percussionist this side of Moondog. And somehow, though he's the only one doing what he does, it sounds as if all these old good time country blues songs were written with his playing implicit in their rhythm. And whatever the style of the song, Devin plays it perfectly, with just the right bit of bounce to keep your toes attentive.
Check out their bandcamp and website.

Sour Mash Hug Band

And there are a few contemporary bands for whom jug band music is just one of many influences. These are some of the best indefinable bands out there, fully of roots and original vigor too. Jug band music takes a turn to the east with the Sour Mash Hug Band and their beguiling combination of vaudeville, klezmer, gypsy swing, and some good olefashioned trombone, accordion, and banjolele downhome new orleans shakers. They're like the 1934 world's fair condensed into a band. Curtains, please! They're running a Kickstarter campaign right now to raise the funds to press their next album. Really. RIGHT NOW. They've got about 24 hours left to meet their goal. Go check it out!

Hot Damn Scandal

And lastly, there is the band that's been primarily responsible for my absence from the blogging world.
While I can't pretend to be unbiased about Hot Damn Scandal, I can say that even if I weren't personally involved in the band, I would still drink up the music like hot chili whiskey and dance my earballs off at all their shows. Imagine a post-apocalyptic jug band with Tom Waits on lead vocals, Django Reinhardt on slide guitar, and Mississippi John Hurt standing behind the musicians on-stage, beaming his sly, self-contented smile at those young folks who took his way of pickin' and brought it so many different places. If those three legendary musicians had a child together, and it dropped out of school, thumbed a ride across the country and ended up in New Orleans, it might sound something like Hot Damn Scandal. The repertoire of songs consists of everything from outlaw ballads to dirty jazz, gypsy blues, circus freakouts, ragtime sea shanties, string band funk, lonesome heart breakers, and the occasional tender love song. The singing sounds like a street singer who took one lesson from Paul Robeson, another from Tom Waits, and a third from the bottom of the bottle of life. The music sticks in your head like dirty bubble gum on your soul, and shakes the hips of even the devout seatbound folks, but there are just enough moments of unexpected tuneful dissonance and dueling syncopated solos to keep even the most diehard avant-jazz-head coming back for more.
As Scott Casey put it,
“Hot Damn scandal performs music that seems to be carved out of the broken heart of the American dream… you feel like you have heard these songs all your life. These are your favorite boots, your lucky hat, your Saturday night shirt, Your old dog that disappeared after the rain”
Hot Damn Scandal is doing a Kickstarter campaign right now to raise the funds to press their upcoming album. If they make it to their ultimate goal, they'll release it on vinyl. How cool would that be, guys & gals? Check it out. Really! There's only one week left to make the goal.
And if you happen to live in or want to visit Northwest Washington in August, you can catch most of these folks and more at the Subdued Stringband Jamboree, one of my favorite little festivals.

January 24, 2013

The Pipering of Willie Clancy Vol.2

Willie Clancy: 1918-1973
Willie Clancy was an iconic figure in the revival of the uillinn pipes and traditional music from the 1960s onwards. His father Gilbert played flute and concertina and had known and listened to legendary blind travelling Clare piper Garrett Barry. Willie played his first tin whistle at five years. He was also influenced by his grandmother, who had a keen ear for music. Like his good friend Junior Crehan, he was also influenced by the west Clare style of fiddler Scully Casey from nearby Annagh.

"Willie Clancy possessed amazing talents -whistle player, flute player, singer , storyteller, philosopher and wit. He was particularly known for his mastery of that most complex of wind instruments - the Uilleann Pipes.

Born on Christmas Eve, 1918, Willie grew up in an atmosphere of music, singing and storytelling. Both his parents, Ellen and Gilbert, sang and played instruments. Willie started playing the whistle at the age of five. He was greatly influenced by his grandmother, by his father and by Garrett Barry, the legendary blind piper from Inagh. Garrett Barry died in the workhouse in Ennistymon at the close of the nineteenth century. His piping style was passed on to Willie by his father Gilbert. Willie was aware that Garrett Barry possessed a heritage of music unique to himself. The music of Garrett Barry is known and cherished today because of Willies determination to pass on this treasure. (See image below.)

Willie was seventeen years old when he encountered the great travelling piper, Johnny Doran. By the early Forties Willie had mastered the basic piping techniques and in 1947 he won first prize at the Oireachtas competition.

Unfortunately, he could not make a living from his music and he was forced to emigrate to London, where he worked as a carpenter. While there, he continued with his music and made contact with other notable players, including Seamus Ennis. With the death of his father in 1957, he returned to Miltown Malbay and married Doirin Healy. He developed a highly distinctive and individual style of piping. From 1957 until 1972 the Summer music sessions in the West Clare town became widely renowned, with Willie Clancy as one of the main attractions. Pipe-making, reed-making and all things connected with the instrument were explored and advanced by the Clancy influence. He gave many performances on both radio and television as well as live sessions in his local area.

His sudden death in January 1973 at the age of fifty-five was widely mourned among friends and musicians alike. He is buried in Ballard Cemetary just outside the town of Miltown Malbay.

As a tribute to this extraordinary man and gifted musician, it was decided to set up an annual Summer music school in Willies home town. The school quickly established a name for good music and high standards in tuition, a fitting tribute to a fine musician." -- from County Clare Library

Willie Clancy - The Pipering of Willie Clancy Vol.2
Year: 1958-73 (recorded); 1994 (released)
Label: Claddagh

December 20, 2012

Happy Solstice & Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

On Darkness:
The child is born in the darkness of the womb; the chicken hatched after incubation. Birth begins in darkness, as dawn follows the long night, and spring springs from winter. We must not interrupt the incubation period within us, or force it to bear fruit before its time. To pull a seed out of the earth before it sprouts, to open a chrysalis before the emerging butterfly forms its wings may prevent new life from awakening.
- Torrey Philemon

"You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

But the darkness pulls in everything;
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them!—
powers and people—
and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.
I have faith in nights."
- Rainer Maria Rilke, On Darkness

Out of darkness, light: Solstice and the lunar eclipse
by Starhawk, 10-20-2010

Winter Solstice--the shortest day and longest night of the year. For Pagans, Wiccans and Goddess worshippers, this is one of our most sacred holidays. As winter closes in, the darkness grows and the light recedes. For Pagans, darkness is the necessary balance to light. We don't conceive of the dark as evil, but as a place of potential, of gestation--the black, fertile soil where the seed puts forth roots and shoots, the dark womb where new life is nurtured. But being humans, we also have a natural affinity for the light, the time of growth and new beginnings, of warmth and color and bright new hopes. Solstice reminds us that no darkness, no loss, no grief or disappointment is final. Out of darkness, light is born. Every ending gives rise to a new beginning. Out of disappointment and despair comes new courage, new hope.

This year, Solstice coincides with a total lunar eclipse. The last time this happened was in 1544. The earth aligns directly with the sun and the moon, casting a shadow on the moon's face. The moon is a Super Moon, at its closest to the earth. And, so my astrologer friends tell me, we are also directly aligned with our Milky Way's Galactic Center, where the galaxy gives birth to stars. We are in a great birth canal, on the night when mythically Mother Night gives birth to the Sun Child of the New Year.
What does this all mean? For those of you who like to align your meditations and your magic with the movements of the stars, we stand tonight between the past and the future. For the first hour and a quarter of the eclipse, (starting at 1:30 am East Coast Standard Time), it's as if we step out of time. We are free of the past, and we can consciously create the future, for ourselves, for our communities, for the earth.

It's a night to take a good look at what you want to shed. What are the behaviors, the beliefs, the patterns that no longer serve? Let them go. Make the commitment to change.

And it's a night to envision the future you want to create. What world do we want to see? How will we step up to face the huge challenges of healing our communities, our economies, our climate and our environment? What risks will we need to take? What will we need to let go of, and what will we need to embrace?

And hey, even if you think all astrology is bunkum, take a moment tonight to go out, to marvel at the moon with the mark of the earth written across her face, to let go of what you no longer need and call in what you want. And if you can do this with friends, and family, in community, with good food and a warm fire and a few candles, and raise a cup of gratitude for all we have and all we share, you may find that the courage, the support, the power, the love and luck you need for this New Year are born in the depths of the night, and awaken at dawn with the rising sun.

A blessed solstice to you all!

And with that in mind I'd like to share with you this special mysterious ancient solstice tradition that was still being performed the last time there was a full-eclipse on a winter solstice, some hundreds of years ago. I'd like to specially dedicate this post to Joski at Merlin's New Rags and Gadaya at the Old Weird America, for their superb scholarly posts and special collections of different versions of ancient folk tunes.

"Besides for solace of our people, and allurement of the savages, we were provided of Musike in good variety not omitting the least toyes, as Morris dancers, Hobby horses, and Maylike conceits to delight the Savage people, whom we intended to winne by all faire means possible."
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is the oldest surviving ritual dance in the northern hemisphere. The dance dates back at least to the early medieval period. The first written record of its performance is from the Barthelmy fair in 1226. Historians have suggested that it celebrates the purchase of hunting rights in Needwood Forest from the Abbot of Bromley, restoring previous Saxon privileges. It is performed every year on Wakes Monday in the village of Abbots Bromley, in the English Midlands. At 8:00 a.m. the horns are taken from the church, where they are kept during the year, and the dancers make their rounds, stopping at various locations throughout the village and its surrounding farms and pubs, a distance of about ten miles. After dancing all day, the horns are returned to the church in the evening.

The Horn Dance team consists of six Deer-men, a Fool, a Hobby Horse, Maid Marion (a man dressed as a woman), a Bowman (Robin Hood or Boy Cupid), and two musicians. The horns are a mystery. They are large reindeer horns mounted on wooden effigies of stags' heads, with the largest pair weighing about 25 pounds. Chemical dating places them at around 1000 years old. Since there are no records of reindeer living in Britain since Neolithic times, there is speculation that these may have been imported especially for the dance. Three of them are painted black, and three brown. Once they were red and white, said to represent the battle between winter and spring, darkness and light.

Does the dance represent a ritual combat between the forces of light and darkness? Or does it reenact a stylized hunt? In primitive societies, the miming of a successful hunt is often used as 'sympathetic magic' to give power over real quarry. The famous wall paintings at Les Trois Frères, France, known as "The Sorcerer" show a naked man dancing in antlers and a deer mask. A carving found at Pin Hole Cave, Creswell Crags, Derbyshire, (known to have been used by Neolithic hunters) portrays a man in an animal headdress. Both suggest that pre-historic shaman used animal disguises in their rituals.

According to the locals, the dance is supposed to bring good fortune to the people and fertility to the crops. In its slow and serpentine windings, is it stirring some ritual magic from a long-forgotten past? There is no way of knowing, and that is part of the enigma of the horn dance.

Although traditionally performed on Wakes Monday, the dance was also performed on other special occasions. For over 400 years now, the leadership of the horn dance has remained in the Bentley family. Although generally performed only by the men, in the 2000 dance Robin Hood was played by a young girl. The mysterious tune generally associated with the dance was first written down in 1857.

There are several theories concerning the roots of this peculiar festival. It may well have begun as a Winter Solstice ritual, but it has also been suggested that it was born when King Henry I (1100-1135 AD) granted hunting rights to the people of the area. The dance was supposed to have been created as a mark of gratitude.

The hunting rights theory is suspect, however, because the Horn Dance shows signs of having had a much earlier, pre-Christian beginning when magic and fertility ceremonies were very much aspects of the lives of ordinary people. It's interesting to note that some of the figures to be seen in the world-famous cave paintings at Lascaux look very like the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers. These figures are over 20,000 years old, so perhaps the true origins of the dance you can see today at Abbots Bromley are far more ancient than most people realize.

The Abbots Bromley Variations

1. Tony Hall - The Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance
2. Martin & Jessica Simpson & Lisa Ekstrom - Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance/In Winter's Shadow
3. Andrew Cronshaw - Wheelwright Robinson's tune for the Abbots Bromley horn dance
4. Trotto - Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance
5. Leif Alpsjö - The Abbots Bromley
6. Richard Greene & Beryll Mariott - Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance

Tony Hall's and Trotto's versions are probably the most traditional forms of the tune, though one with just tin whistle and drum would be even moreso. And yes, I do realize that Jessica Simpson's voice on "In Winter's Shadow" is totally annoying. But it's a fine poem, and a damn good tune. Richard Greene's version is, unsurprisingly, totally gorgeous.

So. Turn off your lights. Go outside. Look at the moon. Then come in, light a candle, and put the tune on, and drift off into the otherworld. And at the high point of each musical phrase, imagine antlered men clashing heads, locked in a stately, solemn dance.

And, as an extra wintery bonus, some poems:

from FOUR QUARTETS: East Coker by T.S. Eliot
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.
The vacant interstellar spaces......
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

HAIKU by Basho
Turn this way,
I also am lonely
This evening of winter.

from OUR QUIET TIME by Nancy Wood
In our quiet time
We do not speak, because the voices are within us.
It is our quiet time.
We do not walk, because the earth is all within us.
It is our quiet time....
We rest with all of nature....

A Cheyenne Poem
I am singing the cold rain
I am singing the winter dawn
I am turning in the gray morning
Of my life
Toward home.

FIRST SNOW by mary oliver

the snow 
began here

this morning and all day

its white

rhetoric everywhere

calling us back to why,

whence such beauty and what

the meaning;

an oracular fever!
past windows,
an energy it seemed

would never ebb,
never settle

less than lovely!
and only now,

deep into night,

it has finally ended.
the silence

is immense,

and the heavens still hold

a million candles;
the familiar things:

stars, the moon, 
the darkness
we expect

and nightly turn from.
glitter like castles

of ribbons, the broad fields

smolder with light, a passing

creekbed lies

heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions

that have assailed us all day

remain--not a single

answer has been found--
walking out now

into the silence and the light

under the trees,

and through the fields,

feels like one.

- from new and selected poems.

May 15, 2012

Derek Gripper - One Night on Earth: Music from the Strings of Mali

This is totally sweet. A must-listen. Mustmustmustmustmust. Really. I can just put this album on repeat and not get tired of it. In fact, it just gets better.

From a comment left on my blog:

Toumani’s music is certainly a life changer! I went as far as actually learning to play his particular arrangements of Manding kora music on the guitar. Perhaps you’d like to take a listen:
The full album is due for release under the name “One Night on Earth: Music from the Strings of Mali” from after the 12th of May. Yours, Derek Gripper (South African Guitarist)

Check out the album page on Derek Gripper's site here:
Which contains download links and some great writing about the guitar and the kora music of Malian griots.


March 24, 2012

Béla Bartók on the Banjo

I just realized that though I don't have the bandwidth to upload anything currently, or the time to write reviews, every once in a while I come across something that would be easy to share with you all. This is one such instance.

Enjoy this and grab it quick! It's free only this weekend. And the music is very very fine as well. Jake Schepps is a really skilled and exploratory banjo player, and the album also features the absolutely incredible young guitarist Grant Gordy (perhaps my favorite living guitarist, and a really nice guy too), and a crop of talented Colorado-based acoustic musicians. I saw them play these tunes live last summer, in an old schoolhouse in the mountains… maybe 30 people in the audience. Just incredible music.

John Fahey attempted to fuse the ideas of Béla Bartók with the "primitive" music of the United States. Jake Schepps' project is another take on the same. Except instead of using American melodies and Bartókian harmonies, he uses Bartók's melodies and an American string band arrangement. And I think you'll find, that like most classical music that was inspired by folk music, it sounds better on folk instruments than on grand pianos.


Hello Friends,

A short reminder that right now you can download the critically acclaimed album "An Evening in the Village: the Music of Bela Bartok" for FREE.  Please spread the word and let any and all know that for the next two days (March 24, & 25) you can download the entire album with bonus tracks for the big fat price of $0.00.  Bandcamp does offer the option to pay something if you are so inclined, and you can buy a physical copy for only $10.  And as always, if you buy two Bartok CD's you get a free Ten Thousand Leaves.
Facebook info hereTweet this to your followers by clicking here, and then head straight to Bandcamp to get your copy.


Jake and all the Expedition Quartet
Website | Facebook |Twitter | YouTube

March 21, 2012

A little update

Hello, to all readers who haven't given up on this blog for the lack of updates. It's ok, you can give up now!

It's been almost a year since my last post, and I'm not any closer to having either the time or the consistent internet connection to maintain it. I live off-grid, in what looks at night to be a great wooden spaceship. I have to travel to use the internet, and so my time on it is strictly reserved for business. And, to make matters worse, most of the files have expired in some form or other, and I certainly don't have the time or bandwidth to re-upload them.

I have not abandoned music of course. Far from it! I now have a gaggle of instruments that I'm in some stage of learning (guitar, banjo, washboard, bones, bouzouki, baglama, pipa, slide guitar, drum, cavaquinho, etc…). I also host a regular celtic session, play in a Tom Waitsy jug band, perform as a storyteller, and I'm the music director of a local community radio station (leave it to a pirate to be on the radio…). I continue to listen to new music with wide ears an spread its wonder and beauty to those I know. I continue studying the world around me, celebrating the seasons and learning to live a regenerative life. If anything, the major difference in my activity is that it now takes place principally in the material world rather than the cyber world. And I am happy for that.

There were hundreds of albums I still wanted to share. Half of them were uploaded and I never found the time to write about them. Ah well. There are always things left undone. Maybe someday I'll get back to it, if my life goes in that direction. But I do not see that life before me right now, so I am not expecting it.

So, I hope you can all accept the sweet death of this blog, and my activities in updating it. I'll leave all the posts, though there's scarcely any music to be found there anymore. But hopefully what I've shared, both in sound and in words, has helped to open a few doors, and I hope that wherever those doors lead you, you follow them into the beautiful unknown.

Happy equinox, and may all of your plantings grow in good time.

With Irascible Love,
The Irate Pirate

April 30, 2011

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams

So. I've been gone a while and you oughtn't expect much from me in the coming month, as I'll be in a cabin away from electricity for most of it. I wanted to start sharing some film on this blog, starting with the old crazy visionaries of the 1900s and working forwards, but this film is just so timely it has to be shared now. It's also, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made. 

I really don't have much time to write, but I can say this:
This film is a complete art. It is perfect. It is the essence of cinema.
This film is life. It is dreams. It is the shadow at the corners of your eyes, come to full focus in front of you.
This film destroys time. Or at least, radically disfigures it and rebuilds it from the ground up, in a more fluid, effervescent manner.

This film is a flower in a factory, a golden cow in a field of white teeth.

Let it look through your eyes to the dark grey matter that lurks behind. Let it plant puddles in your eyes.

As people in Japan begin to put their lives back together, people in the States are discovering high levels of radiation in their foods. We all see the causes. We accept them. And the machine grinds on, because we are not willing to leave it.

Enjoy the coming month, dancing in the spring showers, planting a garden, getting up early to embrace the day. Nourish your dreams. And if you have some time, give these ones a look as well. 

The Skinny:
Eight short films with overlapping themes and characters based on the actual dreams of director Akira Kurosawa.

"From just a cinematographic point of view, Kurosawa's mastery of colour is unrivaled, and a sound reason to watch this film, yet not the only one by far. The true value of "Yume", in my opinion, is the use of the parabolas presented disguised as dreams to teach us a way of life. The absurdity of war. The beauty of nature. The need to preserve our environment. In summary: a praise to life. And yet, Kurosawa being old himself when he filmed his "Dreams", looks at death and presents it as the last station of a wonderful journey. Carpe diem, yes, but not to the point of being scared. Life will follow its course as does the river at the end of the movie, with or without us being here to enjoy it. Just be thankful for the small things in life; they are the most important. Enjoy them while you can and you will leave this existence in peace with yourself."

Review by Magicvoice:
Akira Kurosawa's Dreams is comprised of eight short films, each featuring a character named "I," who we are to assume is Kurosawa himself. The film begins with two dreams from Kurosawa's childhood and eventually move into adulthood. One tale, "Crows," expresses Kurosawa's love for the artist Vincent Van Gogh, and is the most questionable of the eight tales. An art student enters the paintings of Van Gogh and meets Van Gogh, played here by American director Martin Scorcese. It's interesting that Kurosawa cast Scorsese to play Van Gogh—perhaps he felt that only another auteur could fully grasp the creative compulsion of Van Gogh. That point is not lost on the viewer, but it still would have been preferable to cast a real actor in the part. Scorsese's New York accent just doesn't fit the film.
     The best segment of Dreams is "The Tunnel," which is directed by an uncredited Ishiro Honda (Godzilla). It tells the tale of a military officer who is confronted by the spirits of his dead platoon. Heartbreakingly, the officer apologizes for his actions, which led to the death of his men. He takes responsiblity instead of simply blaming the stupidity of war—a universal theme that people today could perhaps learn from.
     "Mt. Fuji in Red" and "The Weeping Demon" both deal with nuclear disaster and a post-apocalyptic world. They pretty much hit the viewer over the head with Kurosawa's (and Honda's) views on the destruction of nature and the stupidity of mankind. Since we currently live in an era where world leaders propose to cut down trees in order to avoid forest fires, some people may still need that point to be drilled into them. The last segment shows what would happen if we did things Kurosawa's way. The people in "Village of the Watermills" live at one with nature and are rewarded with health, happiness and long lives that are celebrated upon conclusion. It's the most beautiful dream of all, and a perfect ending to a great film.
     Visually, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams is a masterpiece. The sets, composition and use of color are all breathtaking. The pace of some of the stories is a bit slow, but this is still a great and very underrated film. Dreams is Kurosawa's most personal work, and when it's over the viewer might feel like they've just met the man who delivered this work of art, much like "I" was somehow able to meet Van Gogh in one of his paintings. (Magicvoice 2003)


The film consists of several dreams based on Kurosawa's own, throughout his life. The dreams are eight separate segments in the following order:

Sunshine Through The Rain
There is an old legend in Japan that states that when the sun is shining through the rain, the kitsune (foxes) have their weddings. In this first dream, a boy defies the wish of a woman, possibly his mother, to remain at home during a day with such weather. From behind a large tree in the nearby forest, he witnesses the slow wedding procession of the kitsune. Unfortunately, he is spotted by the foxes and runs. When he tries to return home, the same woman says that a fox had come by the house, leaving behind a tantō knife. The woman gives the knife to the boy, implying that he must commit suicide. The woman asks the boy to go and beg forgiveness from the foxes, although they are known to be unforgiving, refusing to let him in unless he does so. The boy sets off into the mountains, towards the place under the rainbow in search for the kitsune's home.

The Peach Orchard
Hina Matsuri, the Doll Festival, traditionally takes place in spring when the peach blossoms are in full bloom. The dolls that go on display at this time, they say, are representative of the peach trees and their pink blossoms. One boy's family, however, has chopped down their peach orchard, so the boy feels a sense of loss during this year's festival. After being scolded by his older sister the boy spots a small girl running out the front door. He follows her to the now-treeless orchard, where the dolls from his sister's collection have come to life and are standing before him on the slopes of the orchard. The living dolls, revealing themselves to be the spirits of the peach trees, berate the boy about chopping down the precious trees. But after realizing how much he loved the blossoms, they agree to give him one last glance at the peach trees by way of a slow and beautiful dance to Etenraku. After they disappear the boy finds the small girl walking among the treeless orchard before seeing a single peach tree sprouting in her place.

The Blizzard
A group of four mountaineers struggle up a mountain path during a horrendous blizzard. It has been snowing for three days and the men are dispirited and ready to give up. One by one they stop walking, giving into the snow and sure death. The leader endeavors to push on, but he too, stops in the snow. A strange woman (possibly the Yuki-onna of Japanese myth) appears out of nowhere and attempts to lure the last conscious man to his death - give into the snow and the storm, she urges him on, into reverie, into sleep, into certain death. But finding some heart, deep within, he shakes off his stupor and her entreaties, to discover that the storm has abated, and that their camp is only a few feet away.

The Tunnel
A Japanese army officer is traveling down a deserted road at dusk, on his way back home from fighting in the Second World War. He comes to a large concrete pedestrian tunnel that seems to go on forever into the darkness. Suddenly, an angry, almost demonic-looking anti-tank dog (strapped with explosives) runs out of the tunnel and snarls deeply at him. He proceeds with his walk, afraid, into the tunnel. He comes out the other side, but then witnesses something horrific — the yūrei of one of the soldiers (Private Noguchi) whom he had charge over in the war comes out of the tunnel behind him, his face a light blue, signifying that he is dead.

The soldier seems not to believe he's dead, but the officer convinces him and the soldier returns into the darkness of the tunnel. Just when he thinks he's seen the worst, the officer sees his entire third platoon marching out of the tunnel. They too are dead, with light blue faces. He tries to convince them that they're dead, and he expresses his deep-seated guilt about letting them all die in the war. They stand mute, in reply to his words. He then orders them to about face, and then march back into the tunnel. Lastly, we see a second appearance of the hellish dog, from the beginning of this dream.
This is one of three "nightmares" featured in the film.

Akira Kurosawa's long time friend Ishirō Honda may have helped to direct, or have directed this piece entirely. The two always spoke of filming a story of a dead soldier returning from war.

A brilliantly-colored vignette featuring director Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh. An art student (a character wearing Kurosawa's trademark hat who provides the POV for the rest of the film) finds himself inside the vibrant and sometimes chaotic world inside Van Gogh's artwork, where he meets the artist in a field and converses with him. The student loses track of the artist (who is missing an ear and nearing the end of his life) and travels through other works trying to find him. Van Gogh's painting Wheat Field with Crows is an important element in this dream. This Segment features Prelude No. 15 in D-flat major ("Raindrop") by Chopin. The visual effects for this particular segment were provided by George Lucas and his special effects group Industrial Light and Magic.[citation needed]

Mount Fuji in Red
The film's second nightmare sequence. A large nuclear power plant near Mount Fuji has begun to melt down, painting the sky a horrendous red and sending the millions of Japanese citizens desperately fleeing into the ocean. Three adults and two children are left behind on land, but they soon realize that the radiation will kill them anyway.

The Weeping Demon
A man (possibly Kurosawa himself) finds himself wandering around a misty, bleak mountainous terrain. He meets a strange oni-like man, who is actually a mutated human with one horn. The "demon" explains that there had been a nuclear holocaust which resulted in the loss of nature and animals, enormous dandelions and humans sprouting horns, which cause them so much agony that you can hear them howling during the night, but, according to the demon, they can't die, which makes their agony even worse. The last of the three "nightmare" sequences. This is actually a post-apocalyptic retelling of a classic Buddhist fable of the same name.

Village of the Watermills
A young man finds himself entering a peaceful, stream-laden village. The traveller meets an old, wise man who is fixing a broken watermill wheel. The elder explains that the people of his village decided long ago to forsake the polluting influence of modern technology and return to a happier, cleaner era of society. They have chosen spiritual health over convenience, and the traveller is surprised but intrigued by this notion.

At the end of the sequence (and the film), a funeral procession for an old woman takes place in the village, which instead of mourning, the people celebrate joyfully as the proper end to a good life. This segment was filmed at the Daio Wasabi farm in the Nagano Prefecture. The film ends with a haunting yet melancholic melody from the excerpts of "In the Village" , part of the Caucasian Sketches, Suite No. 1 by the Russian composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov.

Year: 1990
Director: Akira Kurosawa, Ishiro Honda

Time: 120min
Released by: Warner Bros.

I originally made a compressed version of this. But after returning the film, I realized that I'd forgotten to include subtitles, making it that much more opaque to Gaijins like you. So I've just uploaded the entire DVD file for your watching enjoyment. I know, it's big, but you've got a month…

get it here or here.

April 2, 2011

Lo Ka Ping - Lost Sounds of the Tao

Continuing along with our exploration of East Asian music, here is a totally unique and revelatory album from China. This guy is as iconoclastic as Joseph Spence, Robbie Basho, Harry Partch, or Washington Phillips. He learned by himself, and plays for his own satisfaction. This is a music of presence, of truth and healing, not a music of glamour and show. Comparisons to Blind Willie Johnson are easy to find in the heart-turning perfection of his slides, and comparisons to Lenny Breau would not be farfetched either, for he has an equal capacity to leap into extra-dimensional territory when making melodies built of pure harmonics. But none of them sound like Lo Ka Ping. And, oddly enough, I have yet to hear any other Chinese musician who sounds at all like him either, even when playing the same instrument. The slow, entrancing music of Z.M. Dagar, the great Indian veena player (and mentor to Jody Stecher among others) would perhaps be the closest to the music that comes out of Lo Ka Ping's 7 heavenly strings. It is deliberate, suffused with microtones, and subservient to the great muse who lives in the center of the blackest part of the night sky and is the source of all dreams.

I cannot recommend this album highly enough. But be forewarned. This does not make background music. You must be ready to listen, ready to be shaken, when you play it, or all its magic will fall on deaf ears.

An album of qin music collected from archives and attics alike, comprising the whole of the known recordings of Lo Ka Ping, a lost qin master privately active before his passing in 1980. A small number of other surviving recordings were unusable due to the poor sound quality. What we have here are a number of traditional works for the qin, as well as a number of original compositions by the performer himself. Also included are two performances taken from Chinese radio around the time of the second World War and delivered to American archives by a Chinese fighter pilot. The ability displayed here by Ping is something quite worth hearing. While the recording quality tends to ebb and flow, the technique remains at a high constant level. There are other recorded qin masters available, and one should certainly avail themselves of any opportunity to pick up a number of them. Ping places himself firmly in their company with these recordings. Pick it up alongside the Hugo masters recordings, and some of the old albums on Ocora and Koch. ~ Adam Greenberg, All Music Guide


An album of qin music collected from archives and attics alike, comprising the whole of the known recordings of Lo Ka Ping, a lost qin master privately active before his passing in 1980. A small number of other surviving recordings were unusable due to the poor sound quality. What we have here are a number of traditional works for the qin, as well as a number of original compositions by the performer himself. Also included are two performances taken from Chinese radio around the time of the second World War and delivered to American archives by a Chinese fighter pilot. The ability displayed here by Ping is something quite worth hearing. While the recording quality tends to ebb and flow, the technique remains at a high constant level. There are other recorded qin masters available, and one should certainly avail themselves of any opportunity to pick up a number of them. Ping places himself firmly in their company with these recordings. Pick it up alongside the Hugo masters recordings, and some of the old albums on Ocora and Koch. ~ Adam GreenbergThe Wire (8/02, p.60) -

 "...Lo Ka Ping was perhaps the greatest exponent of the guqin, a zither strung with seven silk chords....Lo Ka Ping's touch was deft, not a little bluesy and enormously subtle..."


This CD is extraordinary. Played on the guqin (an older form of the zither in China), the music is contemplative and calm and yet vigorous and austere in a subtle way...and almost indescribably beautiful and pure. By the end of the album I really did feel spiritually refreshed, baptized by sound, and I won't make this claim for even some of my favorite CDs. This quiet little album doesn't brag, but does in spades what dozens of "new age" type albums claim to do. Nothing against them, but this is the real deal when it comes to pure moods.

Lo Ka Ping, the performer (and composer of several of the tracks) was a Taoist priest as well as an English teacher in Hong Kong, and music was clearly a religious practice and exercise in self-cultivation for him, in the best tradition of the amateur literati artist. My guess is that this is what infuses the music with such a deep and mature spirituality. And in line with this tradition, he rarely performed in public as a professional would, making these recordings that much more precious.

These recordings were found in storage boxes and in attics, and the sound quality thus varies widely and, as you can well imagine, is never top notch. While a real rescue operation was performed on them sound-wise, there's only so much you can do under such circumstances. Still, this didn't distract me much, and the rarity and archival value of the recordings, along with their beauty, more than makes up for some of the fuzz and hum. The liner notes tell the whole interesting story behind this recovery as well as reprinting an article about the performer, his life and his music by Professor Dale Craig (1971) and an essay on the value of Chinese music by Lo Ka Ping himself (1920).

So if you like traditional Chinese music or are interested in Taoism and literati culture (or both, as the case may be), I can't recommend this CD highly enough. And if you're looking for a little bit of spiritual peace on a disc, I reckon you won't do much better than this.

Booklet notes from:

Lo Ka Ping
Lost Sounds of the Tao

Accidents and chance may open doors to remarkable experiences and lost legacies. How Lo Ka Ping's recordings came to survive is one such caprice of fate. The late Teresa Sterne, who commandeered Nonesuch Records for over a decade, was a dear friend, colleague and a guiding light behind the scenes at Arbiter up until her tragic passing in 2000. She had invented and brought to fruition the idea of World Music in the late 1960's, as it then languished in a genre known as "International", a fate to which it slowly sinks once again. Those who knew Tracey were stunned by the breadth and length of her erudition: she had much to say and she said it, all! In her home, many enigmatic boxes and copious files lay about which she intended to evaluate in creating a memoir of the artists she had guided. This was not be, as illness destroyed her resilience and remarkable stamina. After she came to rest, I closely examined and prepared her archive for the various destinations specified in her testament. Her testament overlooked the fate of several tiny boxes of reel-to-reel tapes sent long ago by those hopeful of having their projects realized. Tracey once recalled a test recording made by the senior Dagar Brothers (Indian dhrupad singers) whose legacy is as small as it is of utmost significance: "They were just warming up and sang a little, not enough to publish. Too bad sweetie, I would have given it to you had I known." One palm-sized cardboard box contained music from Crete, marred by a raucous vocalizer. Another had arrived from Hong Kong, sent over by an American professor at Chung Chi College of the Chinese University. I brought these enigmatic tapes home for exploration.

China's profound musical culture is often emarginated, as the well-known Beijing Opera presents its public side, light popular music serves as a background for daily activities. and the 'true' tradition, when offered, lacks spontaneity, the spark of life. This box contained the photo of an elderly man seated outdoors behind incense pots amidst a flurry of geometric shapes, about to caress sounds out of the qin, a rarely heard instrument (reproduced on our cover). Beneath the tiny reel of tape lay an aerogram, which read:

May 31, 1970:
Dear Miss Sterne,
In your letter of March 2 you said you might welcome an attractive program of traditional ch'in [qin] music for your "Explorer" series. I have been working on this since then and now have something tangible to present to you.
I have a tape ready of four traditional pieces (Side I) and four original pieces (Side II) for ch'in, played by an old master who lives in a country home in the New Territories. For the 'audition tape' I am sending you two of each, without documentation, romanized Chinese, or characters, all of which can be given to you later.
Included with the tape is a picture of Mr. Lo which you may want to consider for the record jacket. Photographs of his large collection of T'ang and Ming Dynasty ch'in's can also be provided (color).
My liner note information can be as lengthy (or as brief) as you like, since I am now doing research on the ch'in: notation, transcription, and analysis.
Your release of this recording would be a valuable service to the international musical community and help to broaden the range, and therefore the appeal, of your catalog offerings. Good performances on the ch'in are extremely rare at this time.
If you decide you wish to proceed with this recording, we can discuss our terms of agreement. If, however, you do not wish to go ahead with the project, I shall appreciate your returning the tape and picture to me as soon as possible.
With all best wishes -
Dale A. Craig.

We cannot know why Tracey abandoned the project, or her reasons for holding on to the tape, as she was a meticulous correspondent.How did this obscure cipher from the past play? The tape seemed able to survive a playback, so the computer was readied to digitally copy its sounds.

There emerged a vibrant expressive art, its first impression the forthright spirituality of a Blind Willie Johnson (yes, some scales have the blue note intonation!) who made his Ming Dynasty qin state and moan out visions, as panoramas of ancient brush paintings danced before my eyes, attaining life in sound, all their varied densities in depicting nature now breathing amidst sonic rainbows unleashed through the qin's harmonics. The scratching of the silk strings as one changes the finger positions is referred to as the instrument's respiration. Lo's non-thematic use of the fundamental tones in the beginning of the first piece were akin to a veena beginning a raga, causing one to wonder if this manner had become embedded in his music from the early visits by Indian Buddhists, who had brought their own instruments to China. Van Gulik [The Lore of the Chinese Lute, Tokyo, 1969, p.51] writes:

"The lute [qin] underwent Buddhist influences directly. There were many lute players among famous monks, such as, during the T'ang period, Master Ying, and, during the Sung dynasty, I-hai and Liang-y¸. When some Indian priests came to China they also brought lute-like instruments with them, and Chinese scholars studied these foreign instruments in connection with the Chinese lute. We find, e.g., that Ou-yang Hsiu, famous poet and scholar of the Sung period, praised in a poem the performance of the monk Ho-pai on an Indian stringed instrument (probably the vina).[This occurred between 1007-1072]."

Gulik elaborates in his text the ritual and self-purification involved in playing this rare instrument: "That thus playing the lute became a magical act, a ritual for communicating with mysterious powers, is, in my opinion, doubtless due to this indirect Mantrayanic influence.

"A curious result of this direct Buddhist influence is the fact that among the better known qin tunes there is one entitled Shih-t'an 'Buddhist Words', which is nothing but a Mantrayanic magic formula, a dharani. The music of this tune is decidedly Indian, vibratos and glissandos reproducing the frequent melismas used in Buddhist polyphonic chant in China and Japan up to this day. The words are also given, for the greater part in transcribed bastard Sanskrit, the usual language of dharani, and starting with the stereotyped opening formula 'Hail to the Buddha! Hail to the Law! Hail to the Community!"

Sterne's neglect in returning the recording inadvertently led to its survival, and the date of Dr. Craig's letter caused worry, as thirty-one years had elapsed and only eighteen minutes survived of a rare artist who illuminated China's musical spirit in sound.

Was there more of Lo? Where was Professor Craig? Repeated calls to his college proved fruitless, as the faculty members offered vague surmisals, that Craig had moved on nearly 30 years ago, perhaps to Western Australia. The search led onward to the remarkable ethnomusicologist Robert Garfias, based in California, who provided a lead to a former pupil now based in Taiwan, who suggested contacting Professor Kin Woon Tong in Hong Kong, one of the qin's leading experts, and to John Thompson, qin player, scholar, and researcher who created a website housing an invaluable bibliography and discography of this rare instrument, favored by Confucius.

A few phone numbers turned up and one voice reluctantly promised to contact Craig on behalf of the research. Craig phoned from California at daybreak the following day: he feared that no other recordings of Lo might have survived. Many conversations ensued and Craig mentioned the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco, where Craig's transcriptions and written memorabilia relating to Lo were housed. After finding their archivist, a search was made but the manuscripts deposited by Craig some eight years back seem to have been misplaced or discarded.

After listening to these 1970 recordings once again, Craig wrote: "Now I can re-affirm that he was a master who was achieving perfection in almost total isolation. After 30 years, I can take the broader view and hear how this music is related to the sitar music of India in its ornamentations and expressiveness. It is a highly-refined music and gives formal and expressive satisfaction. Aren't the "bell tones" (harmonics) wonderful?

"I found a list of the recordings I made of Lo: Returning Home, Teals Descending on the Level Sand, Phoenix on the Red Mountain, The Monk's Prayer (traditional). Composing Poems Underneath the Moonlight, The Lonely Teal, Wandering at Ease, and Meditation in the Dead of the Night (Lo's originals). They were all made in March, April and May, 1970. Four of these were on the tape I sent to your friend. Now I wonder where the other four are. I guess my wife didn't move them back to L.A. from Australia. What a loss."

Craig happened upon a forgotten 3-inch reel containing Sea Fairy and Murmuring in the Boudoir. Thompson possessed a cassette in poor audio quality made at Lo's home in 1971, with several compositions, including the Shih-t'an referred to by Gulik: only two were possible to restore, as the other pieces were sonically hopeless.

What so casually endows Lo's playing with profundity and depth is the philosophy behind the music, entering the sound through the Tao rather than displaying the fruits of a learned craft, for he was completely self-taught and thus freed from any burden of tradition. As the qin's music is notated without rhythm, he aided Craig in studying the poems and their metrics in order to decipher the music in relation to the texts on which it is based. His performances, compared to most other players, brim with vitality and spirit, like found objects emerging forth into independent existences, unlike the imposed rhythmic regularity and extremely slow tempi the works are often given by scholars. Lo was alive until 1980 (age 84): according to Tong, his family settled "either in Canada or the United States after his passing." One hopes that this disc will somehow lead to them and uncover more recordings which may survive in their private collections. Tong recalls an LP anthology of qin music on which Lo might be present, but cannot trace the disc. A group recital given at Hong Kong's City Hall in 1971 had been recorded and placed with the Chinese University' s archive of traditional music, founded by Dr. Craig:, yet they were unable to locate this document. Fortunately Dr. Craig checked his attic once again and located the taped perfomance. Craig believes it is the one time in Lo's life that he performed in public, included amidst a stream of artists who each played for a few minutes. Did Lo ever mention how he came to play the qin? Craig pondered: "No, he never mentioned why he chose the ch'in. But I think it came naturally, as a wisdom and virtue discipline, as a part of his Chinese culture. At one point I asked myself an important question: Did I choose the way of the ch'in, or did the ch'in choose me? That was probably what happened to him. I doubt that he performed publicly except in that one concert. I think he did it because of my enthusiasm and as part of our friendship, but also because he was an accomplished musician who was aging, and wanted to finally give something to a wider audience."

The following portrait written by Dr. Craig, Lo's pupil, now serves as both a memorial to his master and a grand introduction for those interested in this unique instrument whose role is bringing forth the philosophy of the Tao through sound.

In addition to Lo's surviving legacy are rare examples of scholar-performers, such as Zheng Ying Sun, and Xu Yuan Bay, all heard on restored lacquer transcription disc recordings from the mid-1940s. Zha Fuxi, a noted master, was the source of these unique examples. He had been in the United States as a high-ranking Chinese air force pilot between 1946-48: the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger arranged to record him in Washington. The other two masters are heard thanks to discs brought over to the United States by Zha Fuxi, being transcriptions of broadcasts from Chinese radio (announced). We are aware that Zha Fuxi had been asked by Chiang Kai-Shek to become a leader in the Taiwanese air force, an offer he rejected. In gratitude, he was granted privileges by Mao Tse-Tung for his refusal: access to ancient and unique qin manuscripts, recordings, and published studies of this music were the fruit of his privileges. Fortunately, he died before the Cultural Revolution consumed China's intellectual elite and destroyed so many cultural treasures, such as these early broadcasts.. -- Allan Evans ©2001.

Lo Ka Ping: Cantonese Musician [from, Arts of Asia, Nov./Dec. 1971]

As one negotiates the curves of the narrow, treacherous highway from Kowloon through the mountains and farmlands of the New Territories in Hong Kong, it seems an unlikely route to a musical experience of the first order. Small herds of cows defiantly wander at leisure across the road, everywhere farmers labor in the fields, and tiny (but very tough) Hakka women in their funereal black-bordered straw hats and black pajamas carry heavy loads which dangle from both ends of their bamboo shoulder-poles.

After passing by the walled village at Kam Tin (where descendants of the original Sung dynasty villagers still live) and through Yuen Long, the most prosperous town in the New Territories, the pathway to our destination is reached. A half mile walk through sugar cane fields, and we come to a gateway with the characters for "Mr. Lo's English Academy".

We ring the bell, and soon Lo himself, a gentleman in his seventies, comes to welcome us. We stroll past barking dogs, roosters perpetually announcing dawn, and a scampering pet monkey; then we pass one or two miniature rock gardens built by Mr. Lo himself and enter the living room, where Chinese folk instruments such as the san syan three-stringed banjo, ban hu and ye hu, coconut-shell violins, and chin chin, middle-range guitar, hang from the walls.

Upon finishing some earthy lok-on tea we are escorted through a large classroom lined with zoological specimens such as cats, frogs, and snakes preserved in jars. In the old-style dining room with its marble table and large carved chairs, there are many paintings and fine examples of calligraphy scrolls, and a valuable gu qin (qin or ancient zither), the first of many to be found in Lo's home.

Upstairs we are shown the Taoist meeting-hall. Lo is not only a qin player and composer, teacher of English, school administrator, and village government official; he is a devout Taoist, an author of several tracts, and leads his own sect. As we observe the altar with its smouldering incense and offerings of oranges and bananas, we remember the many testimonials to Lo's healing powers, still in his possession, from his followers (both European and Chinese) in Canton. He believes that Heaven has granted him the power to learn anything he wishes, and, since he taught himself the extremely difficult art of playing the qin, we come to understand his faith.

Now we are admitted into the inner sanctum: Lo's studio. T'ang, Sung, and Ming qin's all in excellent condition since they are played almost every day, are all around us. I note that a favorite, named "Jade tinkling in high heaven", rests on the playing table. A little jade box containing Lo's complete repertoire- each title on a separate cardboard disc- sits behind the qin, along with an incense pot and a few green plants. At one time he knew fifty traditional pieces, now can still play fifteen from memory. In addition he remembers fifteen of his original compositions.

Before he plays for us he invariably closes his eyes (gaining composure and perhaps uttering a short silent prayer) and clears his throat. As he begins the traditional piece "Returning Home", one is struck by the character and virility in his playing. Rather than finesse and elegance, such as a master from Soochow might display, his playing has more of Cantonese soulfulness and forthrighness. He is capable of continuing for as long as one cares to listen and obviously takes an intense delight in performing.

The sound of the qin, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is, by comparison with most other instruments, muted and grey. This austere quality is perfect for its use as a conveyor of quiet, introspective moods. It probably has the softest tone of any instrument in existence, and it takes some time for one's ear to adjust to its level of sound and begin to enjoy it on its own terms. Its subdued sound makes it suitable for intimate and private performances-like the Western clavichord. Once one has entered its sound-world, however, one begins to distinguish between the various subtle and very special fingerstrokes and ornaments, all of which are fixed by convention and precisely described in handbooks. The frequently-heard harmonics (made by touching the string lightly with the left hand rather than pressing down firmly) are particularly beautiful; they ring like tiny, unearthly bells.

As we listen to this quiet music, we try to achieve a state of serene contemplation such as all the qin masters advocated. We might, as a help, remember the beginning of the Poetical Essay on the Lute, written by Hsi K'ang, who lived from 223 to 262 A.D.: "From the days of my youth I loved music, and I have practised it ever since. For it appears to me that while things have their rise and decay, only music never changes; and while in the end one is satiated by all flavors, one is never tired of music. It is a means for guiding and nurturing the spirit, and for elevating and harmonizing the emotions. . ."

After Lo has played, he chats with us about the centers of fine qin performance in China, speculating that even in contemporary China areas of such intense, specialized, and renowned musical activity perhaps still produce expert qin players. They are Peking in Hopei province; Nanking, Soochow, and Yangchow in Kiangsu province; Taiyuan in Shansi province; Changsha in Hunan province; Canton in Kwangtung province; and Taiwan. Musical societies in each of these centers issued important publications and helped maintain high musical standards.

The experience of visiting a musician such as Lo and hearing him play is an extremely valuable, because so rare, in present-day Hong Kong. He is one of the very few qin players of any skill in the colony, and in addition is an authentic representative of a very special type which is almost extinct outside China (and, after the Cultural Revolution, perhaps inside China as well): the gentleman-scholar who is also an excellent amateur musician, so evocatively described in R.H. van Gulik's The Lore of the Chinese Lute. Originally published by Sophia University in Tokyo in 1940, this masterpiece of scholarship has ben recently been re-issued by Charles E. Tuttle Co. in a new edition [sadly out of print soon after its reprinting in 1968- ed.].

Lo never depended on playing or teaching music for his livelihood, as do virtually all other musicians in Hong Kong where the present situation of Chinese music is disastrous. Most of the better musicians have to play dinner music in the large hotels by evening or teach in the middle school and privately by day, or both. The purely commercial society of Hong Kong only seems to have a place for diluted Chinese "classical" music and semi-popular or outrightly commercial new compositions and arrangements. The government has taken no steps to preserve genuine Chinese cultivated music, and it is in danger of disappearing entirely.

Lo Ka Ping's career is deceptively prosaic, when we consider that he was born during the Ch'ing dynasty and lived through all the cataclysmic events of twentieth - century China. And his present life-style is a tribute to the tenacity of the Confucian tradition in the modern Chinese mind. Born in Canton on February 22, 1896, he graduated from the Ling Nam University when he was 22. He was an early spokesman for the value of Chinese music as part of a modern education, The title of one of his lectures, "Should Chinese Music be Taught in Christian Schools" (1920, reproduced following this essay), is indicative of the condescension of his listeners at that time.

From 1917-24 he taught English in several Kwantung middle schools, and in the following years was first an Inspector of Schools and then the Head of the Education Department of a district. He served for two years in the Militia Council of the Nationalist Government as a Major, and was on the teaching staff of the Sun Yat Sen University. 1929-35 was spent as Headmaster of several middle schools, in Singapore as well as Canton.

Lo passed the [Second World War] years in Macao, where he taught English and authored a textbook, and when the war was over he came to Hong Kong. He held teaching posts in government schools in Yuen Long and was Headmaster of two other schools in the New Territories and in 1964 he became the Principal of his own school where he now lives. In 1969, when he was 73, he retired from teaching, after a trip to the United States, though in the world of music he is still very active both as a player and collector of the qin.

The story of the qin is nearly as old as that of China itself. The earliest definite references appear in the Book of Odes during the Western Chou period (1122-770 B.C.). At that time the qin already had seven strings, and was frequently used in combination with the se, a larger instrument of 25-30 strings.

Both the qin and the se are in long zither shape, but their construction is completely different. The se, from which the later instrument chang was derived, is a psaltery. That is, the strings have bridges and are plucked. The body of the se is hollow and gently convex. It was a good orchestral instrument because of its large volume of tone.

The qin is made from an upper convex board of ting wood and a lower flat board of tzu wood. In the middle of the back is a sound hole traditionally called the dragon pond; closer to the player's left is another resonance hole known as the phoenix pool. Two anchor knobs are used to secure the silk or nylon strings. The strings are wound around the anchor knobs, the tuned exactly with the tuning pegs from which hang tassels.

The qin and se were used in Confucian ceremonial orchestras to accompany singers and as solo instruments. Throughout its history the qin has been associated with nobility and refinement, and an ability to play it, or at least deeply appreciate its music, was considered indispensable for any scholar or cultured person. It is frequently referred to in literature as the most poetic and subtle of all instruments. Confucius was one of the most famous players and composers for the solo instrument.

It is indigenous to China, and is perhaps the most peculiarly Chinese of all Chinese instruments. An ideology grew up around the qin as the dynasties passed, eventually encompassing, in addition to many other rules, the circumstances in which it should be played: there should be fine scenery, one should ideally have bathed before playing the qin, one should play under pines with cranes stalking nearby if possible, and so on. Qin music is full of references to nature, and ideally a fine player should conjure up images of nature in a sympathetic listener's mind.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the qin is its elaborate and difficult notation, which goes a long way toward conveying the complexity of the music itself. This notation is in special Chinese characters which are a kind of tablature, i.e. only the finger positions, type of stroke, which string to be played, and the ornamentation are shown. Pitch is not shown directly, and rhythm is not shown at all, since ideally each player is to create his own rhythmic values! (In practice, meter, tempo and rhythm are usually learned from one's teacher by rote).
Just as the repertoire of a pianist or violinist tells everything about his musical taste, so it is for a qin performer. Lo's favorite pieces are usually quite difficult and lengthy and invariably express a lofty sentiment. A representative sampling would include: Conversation between the Fisherman and the Woodcutter, Phoenix on the Red Mountain, The Monk's Prayer, Teals Flying Over Heng Yang, Sea Fairy, The Mongolian Trumpet composed by Tung T'ing-lan of the T'ang dynasty and Clouds over the Hsiao and Hsiang rivers composed by Kuo Mien of the Sung dynasty.

Like many Western composers, Lo claims he composes best late at night, in the clarity of solitude. He has never dared to drive an automobile, because when a melody comes to him, it possesses him and he can think of nothing else. Some of his longest works were composed only in two or three days. His compositions are technically advanced, show strength and individuality, and demonstrate a capacity for extended structures which is, of course, largely intuitive. Some of his favorite original compositions are: The Lonely Teal, Composing Poems Underneath the Moonlight, The Dream of the Maid in the Distant Tower, Meditation in the Dead of the Night and Wandering at Ease.

Several of these compositions were heard in Lo's solo performance and in orchestral arrangement in the recent symposium "Chinese Music: Past, Present, and Future" presented in Hong Kong City Hall on October 5th, 6th, and 7th [1971] by the Music Department of Chung Chi College in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. These performances confirmed our opinion that his entire output should be carefully studied and preserved.

After examining the milieu and life-style of this English teacher from Canton whose outward career has appeared so ordinary, one comes to appreciate his astonishing consistency and unity of purpose. Every object, painting, book, carving, or instrument in his home complements every other and bears witness to his integrity and high ideals. His Taoism makes his music possible, and music is indispensable in his Taoist ceremonies. His is a home in which music naturally flourishes. That it has flourished is evident in his poised and subtle compositions and his skillful and inspired performances. -- Dr. Dale Allan Craig, Hong Kong, 1970.

Should Chinese Music Be Taught In Christian Schools?

by Philip Lo [Lo Ka Ping], 1920

It is with very profound pleasure that I meet you all here to-night. I have been an interested listener to the various speeches that have been delivered by musicians on this auspicious occasion and I assure you that I have derived very material assistance from the suggestions advocated. But, in particular, I am requested to make a few remarks on a special phase of the subject. I feel very incompetent, however, to speak clearly on such an intricate and perplexing topic as that on which I am asked to speak. When I consider the qualifications of my audience, I can hardly have enough nerve to get up to this platform. Not having learned the art systematically, I can scarcely add any embellishments to the discussion. Indeed the few pieces that I am able to play have been learned at random and only by blind imitation. But since I am given the honor to speak, I feel it a duty to lay bare my few scanty thoughts on Chinese music.

Before answering the questions - "Should Chinese music be taught in Christian Schools?, it is well, I think, to examine into the cardinal purposes of Chinese music as conceived and practised by the fathers of the art. The chief of these was the purification of the sensual impulses. Our fathers believed that music had the power to rouse the beast-like emotions and thereby drive them away, thus purifying the heart. This, it is to be noted, is in facsimile with the Aristotelian conception of the purpose of music, a conception which led him to advocate that music be incorporated into the school curriculum. Secondly, they intended and actually used music for the psychological examination of human nature. They recognized over two thousand years ago that the native constitutions of human beings possessed both good and bad traits. By the proper exercise of the one and judicious suppression of the other, the child could be moulded to be a good citizen. They claimed that by playing a certain kind of music in the presence of a child, he would invariably respond in a certain way as indicated by his facial expressions. This experiment could be carried out, of course, only by expert musicians. Last, but by no means least, our fathers believed that the person playing music at a particular time indicated his state of mind at that time, such as fear, anger, or happiness. Numerous instances can be cited from our history as illustrations of this point. One of these, I suppose, would suffice. Those of you who are acquainted with the history of ancient China know the great general and far-sighted statesman Hung-ming. Once he planned a defensive attack, but through sheer insanity and total lack of common sense of the man he placed in charge of the scheme, his forces were annihilated. The enemies drew near the city. He realized his danger of being captured unless some ingenious plan be instantaneously devised. This he did by getting up to the top of the highest building and there concealed his fear of the approaching by playing a Chinese Seven-stringed Harp, from the sound of which it seemed that he was very joyful and contented.. The adviser of the enemy listening carefully to the songs, detected that it was a fake, but the generalissimo refused to take the advice and withdrew his forces immediately. Thus Hung-ming was saved.

From this brief enumeration we indubitably see that morally, psychologic[ally], Chinese music is an art. That this is so was upheld by our greatest sage Confucius. He believed that no man's education could be considered complete without a sound knowledge of music. That is why he included it among the six fundamental branches of study. The character of its inventors seems to substantiate this dignified appraisal, being invented by men of high intellectual calibre, among whom were philosophers, prophets, kings and emperors. Specifically the Seven-stringed harp, the most beautiful of all our musical instruments, was invented by Fu-hie, who was our emperor. Of course I do not assume that all emperors had inventive ability. But in this particular case, noble rank was coupled with exceptional ability.

Just as its inventors were men of high intelligence, so too, were the men who practiced it. In olden times no ordinary man dared to practice this noble art. We are bewildered to find that this is the exact reverse today. But the cause is not to [. . .]. As with everything else, glory is always followed by decline. When music had reached its peak, of glory, it began to deteriorate. Soon, men [from all] scales of social and intellectual development tried to master the essentials which made music what it was at first, its true beauty was gradually lost. In turn this is due to the lack of [a] universal system of instruction. At the beginning and for a long time afterwards, the musicians had a great deal of leisure, as they were mostly men who lived in retirement. These men had plenty of time to improve the instruments and composed songs for themselves. But they left behind no records of their methods.

This long decay through promiscuous practice and lack of instruction makes music appear today very different from what it was. We now find an enormous [. . .] of musical instruments, a great many of which [are] being played by persons way down in the social scale. This does not mean, however, that the instruments themselves are inherently bad. Nay, their ignoble appearance has been given them temporarily by their unworthy practitioners. This fact clearly points to the pressing necessity of thorough reformation and judicious selection. To this end I have formed an association of Chinese musicians, which meets regularly once a week. In endeavoring to bring about this reorganization, we are trying at the same time to work our a scientific method of teaching. With all the intricacies involved, such a work cannot be accomplished all at once. But although it is still in process of discussion, yet our efforts thus far have been amply gratified by discovering many instruments that deserve to rank among the highest of musical instruments. A few of these I have roughly sketched and, if you are interested to know what they are, I shall be very glad to show them to you at the conclusion of the meeting.

I have given you the facts and opinions of Chinese music and I shall be very glad if a step be taken to make it part of the curricula of Christian schools. If it could purify the heart by arousing and driving away the sensual impulses; if it could detect the weak points in this active constitution of the child; if it could show the state of a person's mind at any time; then it would accomplish a great part of what morality, psychology, and education strive to accomplish in concurrence. As such, it should be made part and parcel of all school curricula.

All notes and translations © Allan Evans.

Lo Ka Ping - Lost Sounds of the Tao

Label: World Arbiter #2004
Year: 2002

Lo Ka Ping, guqin. recorded 1970, 1971

1. Teals Descending on the Level Sand
2. Returning Home
3. Composing Poems Beneath the Moonlight
4. Lonely Teal
5. Water Spirit
6. Murmuring in the Boudoir
7. Water Spirit
8. Buddhist (Shih-T'An) Stanza
9. Teals Descending on the Level Sand
10. Meditation in the Dead of the Night
11. Empress' Lament
12. Conversation Between a Fisherman and A Woodcutter 
* there is an unfortunate digital skip towards the end of track 11, and track 12 is missing. If you want a clean version, please buy the CD from World Arbiter.

stars alight upon night puddles. or alternate link.
mp3 192kbps | w/ booklet scans

I believe I have this album thanks to Lemmy Caution. Thanks Lemmy!