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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!

March 25, 2011

Végh Quartet - Bartók: The Complete String Quartets

In honor of his 130th birthday, I thought we ought to pay some heed to the music of Béla Bartók. Now for those of you who like bluegrass and John Fahey and don't think you like modern classical music, consider this:
  1. John Fahey's compositional sense was guided by the desire to try to do with American folk music what Bartók did with Hungarian folk music. Bartók was as great an influence on Fahey as was Charley Patton.
  2. Béla Fleck was named after Béla Bartók.
  3. This is damn good music, whatever the genre.
Now, secondly, I want you to look at this photo of our man. Look at his eyes. Tell me, does he not burn with the fires of inspiration? Does he not look as crazy, intense, and twisted as Skip James?

I thought so.

Just remember. As the magic of the blues, Celtic music, and Indian Classical music relies on being in neither a major or minor scale, the music of Bartók derives its particular magic from being both harmonious and discordant, at the same time. If his music was a church (and in some ways it is), half the choir would be singing hallelujah together, while the other half shouted "I AM THE GOAT-HORNED DANCING BOY!"


Autobiography written by Béla Bartók in 1921.

I was born on March 25, 1881, in a small place called Nagyszentmiklós, which now, together with the whole county of Torontal, belongs to Rumania. My mother gave me my first piano lessons when I was six years old. My father, who was the head of an agricultural school, was gifted musically and active in many directions. He played the piano, organized an amateur orchestra, learned the cello in order to play that instrument in his orchestra, and composed some dance music. I was eight years old when I lost him. After his death my mother had to work as a schoolmistress and struggle hard for our daily bread. We first went to live at Nagyszöllõs (at present Czechoslovak territory), then to Beszterce in Transylvania (at present Rumanian territory) and in 1893 to Pozsony (Bratislava, at present Czechoslovak territory). I began writing piano music when I was nine years old and made my first public appearance as a “composer” and pianist at Nagyszöllõs in 1891 ; it was therefore a matter of some importance for us to settle at last in a biggish town. Among Hungarian country towns at that time it was Pozsony that had the most vigorous musical life, and by moving there I was given the possibility of having lessons in piano and composition with László Erkel (Ferenc Erkel’s son) and also of hearing a few operas, more or less well performed, and orchestral concerts. I had the opportunity, too, of playing chamber-music, and before I was eighteen I had acquired a fairly thorough knowledge of music from Bach to Brahms (though in Wagner’s work I did not get further than Tannhäuser). All this time I was also busy composing and was under the strong influence of Brahms and Dohnányi (who was four years my senior). Especially Dohnányi’s youthful Opus I influenced me deeply.

When my education at the Gymnasium (high school) was concluded the question arose at which musical academy I should continue my studies. In Pozsony, at that time, the Vienna Conservatorium was considered the sole bastion of serious musical education, but I took Dohnányi’s advice and came to Budapest and became a pupil of István Thomán (in piano) and of Hans Koessler (in composition). I stayed here from 1899 till 1903. I started studying with great enthusiasm Wagner’s work, till then unknown to me – The Ring, Tristan, The Mastersingers – and Liszt’s orchestral compositions. I got rid of the Brahmsian style, but did not succeed via Wagner and Liszt, in finding the new way so ardently desired. (I did not at that time grasp Liszt’s true significance for the development of modern music and only saw the technical brilliance of his compositions.) I did no independent work for two years, and at the Academy of Music was considered only as a first-class pianist.

From this stagnation I was roused as by a lightning stroke by the first performance in Budapest of Thus Spake Zarathustra, in 1902. The work was received with real abhorrence in musical circles here, but it filled me with the greatest enthusiasm. At last there was a way of composing which seemed to hold the seeds of a new life. At once I threw myself into the study of all Strauss’s score and began again to write music myself. Other circumstances entered my life at the same time which proved a decisive influence on my development. It was the time of a new national movement in Hungary, which also took hold of art and music. In music, too, the aim was set to create something specifically Hungarian. When this movement reached me, it drew my attention to studying Hungarian folk music, or, to be more exact, what at that time was considered Hungarian folk music.

Under these diverse influences I composed in 1903 a symphonic poem entitled Kossuth, which was at once accepted for performance by János Richter, and was performed in Manchester in February 1904. Other compositions of the same period are a Violin Sonata and a piano Quintet. The former was performed by Rudolf Fitzner in Vienna, the latter by the Prill Quartet. These three works remain unpublished. In 1904 I composed my Rhapsody for piano and Orchestra (Opus I), which I entered for the Rubinstein competition in Paris but without success. In 1905 I wrote my first Suite for Large Orchestra.

Meanwhile the magic of Richard Strauss had evaporated. A really thorough study of Liszt’s --uvre, especially of some of his less well known works, like Années de Pélerinage, Harmonies Poétiques et religieuses, the Faust Symphony, Totentanz, and others had after being stripped of their mere external brilliance which I did not like, revealed to me the true essence of composing. I began to understand the significance of the composer’s work. For the future development of music his --uvre seemed to me of far greater importance than that of Strauss or even Wagner.

In my studies of folk music I discovered that what we had known as Hungarian folk songs till then were more or less trivial songs by popular composers and did not contain much that was valuable. I felt an urge to go deeper into this question and set out in 1905 to collect and study Hungarian peasant music unknown until then. It was my great good luck to find a helpmate for this work in Zoltán Kodály, who, owing to his deep insight and sound judgment in all spheres of music, could give me many a hint and much advice that proved of immense value. I started these investigations on entirely musical grounds and pursued them in areas which linguistically were purely Hungarian. Later on I became fascinated by the scientific implications of my musical material and extended my work over territories which were linguistically Slovakian and Rumanian.

The outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work, because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys. The greater part of the collected treasure, and the more valuable part, was in old ecclesiastical or old Greek modes, or based on more primitive (pentatonic) scales, and the melodies were full of most free and varied rhythmic phrases and changes of tempi, played both rubato and giusto. It became clear to me that the old modes, which had been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigour. Their new employment made new rhythmic combinations possible. This new way of using the diatonic scale brought freedom from the rigid use of the major and minor keys, and eventually led to a new conception of the chromatic scale, every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could be used freely and independently.

When an appointment to the chair of piano teaching at the Academy of Music in Budapest was offered to me in 1907 I considered this a happy event because it enabled me to settle in Hungary and to continue my studies in musical folklore. In 1907, at the instigation of Kodály, I became acquainted with Debussy’s work, studied it through thoroughly and was greatly surprised to find in his work “pentatonic phrases” similar in character to those contained in our peasant music. I was sure these could be attributed to influences of folk music from Eastern Europe, very likely from Russia. Similar influences can be traced in Igor Stravinsky’s work. It seems therefore that, in our age, modern music has developed along similar lines in countries geographically far away from each other. It has become rejuvenated under the influence of kind of peasant music that has remained untouched by the musical creations of the last centuries. My works which, from Opus 4 onward, tried to convey something of the development just described were received in Budapest with animosity.

This lack of understanding had many reasons, one of which was the inadequacy of the performances in which our new orchestral works were heard. We could find neither a conductor who would understand our works nor an orchestra able to perform them. In 1911, when these controversies became very heated, a number of young musicians, Kodály and myself among them, tried hard to found a New Hungarian Musical Society. The chief aim of the new organization would have been to form an orchestra able to perform old, new and recent music in a proper way. But we strove in vain, we could not achieve our aim.

Other more personal disappointments were added to this broken plan and in 1912 I retired completely from public life. With more enthusiasm than ever I devoted myself to studies in musical folklore. More than one daring journey to faraway countries was planned in my head, out of which, as a modest beginning, one only was carried out. In 1913 I travelled to Biskra [Algeria] and the surrounding countryside, collecting Arabic folk music. Then came the outbreak of the war, which - apart from general human considerations - hit me very hard because it put an end to my work. Only a small part of Hungary remained open to my studies and I worked there under hampered conditions till 1918.
The years 1917 marked a turning point in Budapest’s audience attitude about my works. I had the chance to hear my ballet The Wooden Prince, brilliantly performed by the master Egisto Tango who, in 1918, conducted also the performance of my opera in one act, written in 1911 : The Bluebeard’s Castle

This auspicious turning point was unfortunately followed by the political and economical collapse of 1918 autumn. The period of unrest that followed and lasted about 18 months didn’t allows to work seriously.

Even the current situation doesn’t allow to think about the resumption of the works related to folk music. We can’t afford this luxury ; on the other hand, the scientific exploration of territory detached from Hungary is almost impossible for political reasons and because of mutual hostility. As for to visit faraway countries, it’s an unrealisable dream.

Besides, no real interest appears in the world for this branch of musicology. Who know ? Maybe it hasn’t the importance that these fanatics assign to it.

Béla Bartók - Biography
by Michael Rodman
Through his far-reaching endeavors as composer, performer, educator, and ethnomusicolgist, Béla Bartók emerged as one of the most forceful and influential musical personalities of the twentieth century. Born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Romania), on March 25, 1881, Bartók began his musical training with piano studies at the age of five, foreshadowing his lifelong affinity for the instrument. Following his graduation from the Royal Academy of Music in 1901 and the composition of his first mature works -- most notably, the symphonic poem Kossuth (1903) -- Bartók embarked on one of the classic field studies in the history of ethnomusicology. With fellow countryman and composer Zoltán Kodály, he traveled throughout Hungary and neighboring countries, collecting thousands of authentic folk songs. Bartók's immersion in this music lasted for decades, and the intricacies he discovered therein, from plangent modality to fiercely aggressive rhythms, exerted a potent influence on his own musical language.

In addition to his compositional activities and folk music research, Bartók's career unfolded amid a bustling schedule of teaching and performing. The great success he enjoyed as a concert artist in the 1920s was offset somewhat by difficulties that arose from the tenuous political atmosphere in Hungary, a situation exacerbated by the composer's frank manner. As the specter of fascism in Europe in the 1930s grew ever more sinister, he refused to play in Germany and banned radio broadcasts of his music there and in Italy. A concert in Budapest on October 8, 1940, was the composer's farewell to the country which had provided him so much inspiration and yet caused him so much grief. Days later, Bartók and his wife set sail for America.

In his final years Bartók was beleaguered by poor health. Though his prospects seemed sunnier in the final year of his life, his last great hope -- to return to Hungary -- was dashed in the aftermath of World War II. He died of leukemia in New York on September 26, 1945. The composer's legacy included a number of ambitious but unrealized projects, including a Seventh String Quartet; two major works, the Viola Concerto and the Piano Concerto No. 3, were completed from Bartók's in-progress scores and sketches by his pupil, Tibor Serly.

From its roots in the music he performed as a pianist -- Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms -- Bartók's own style evolved through several stages into one of the most distinctive and influential musical idioms of the first half of the twentieth century. The complete assimilation of elements from varied sources -- the Classical masters, contemporaries like Debussy, folk songs -- is one of the signal traits of Bartók's music. The polychromatic orchestral textures of Richard Strauss had an immediate and long-lasting effect upon Bartók's own instrumental sense, evidenced in masterpieces such as Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936) and the Concerto for Orchestra (1945). Bartók demonstrated an especial concern with form in his exploitation and refinement of devices like palindromes, arches, and proportions based on the "golden section." Perhaps above all other elements, though, it is the ingenious application of rhythm that gives Bartók's music its keen edge. Inspired by the folk music he loved, Bartók infused his works with asymmetrical, sometimes driving, often savage, rhythms, which supply violent propulsion to works such as Allegro barbaro (1911) and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). If a single example from Bartók's catalogue can be regarded as representative, it is certainly the piano collection Mikrokosmos (1926-1939), originally intended as a progressive keyboard primer for the composer's son, Peter. These six volumes, comprising 153 pieces, remain valuable not only as a pedagogical tool but as an exhaustive glossary of the techniques -- melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, formal -- that provided a vessel for Bartók's extraordinary musical personality.

Végh Quartet - Biography
by Robert Cummings
The Végh Quartet was not only one of the finest string quartets from mid-twentieth century Europe, but its style was never subjected to radical change over the years from personnel changes because the four original players remained members for 38 of the 40 years of the ensemble's existence. Its style evolved in subtle ways, of course, but its essential character endured until 1978: the quartet was Central European in its sound, with a bit more prominence given to the cello in order to build tonal qualities from the bottom upward. The Végh Quartet was best known for its cycles -- two each -- of the Beethoven and Bartók quartets. It also performed and recorded many of the Haydn quartets, as well as numerous other staples of the repertory by Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, and Debussy. For a group that disbanded in 1980, its recordings are still quite popular, with major efforts available in varied reissues from Music & Arts, Archipel, Naïve, and Orfeo.

The Végh Quartet was founded in 1940 by its eponymic first violinist Sándor Végh. The other original members were Sándor Zöldy (second violin), Georges Janzer (viola), and Paul Szabó (cello). The war years were hardly productive for the group, but in 1946 the Végh players settled in France and launched their international career. Soon they were making regular concert tours across the globe with great critical acclaim, and their first major recordings appeared in the early '50s: six quartets by Mozart (K. 387, 421, 458, 464, 575, and 590) in 1951-1952 on the André Charlin label and the complete Beethoven quartets in 1952 on the Les Discophiles Français label. The complete Bartók quartets came in 1954 on EMI and met with the same critical success.

The ensemble's reputation flourished in the 1960s and '70s, even though Sándor Végh had developed a parallel conducting career and had always been active as a music teacher, first in Switzerland, then in Germany and Austria. The group continued making international tours and issued numerous successful recordings during this period, including remakes of the Beethoven quartets (1972-1974, on Auvidis/Valois) and the Bartók six (1972, on Astrée). In 1978 Zöldy and Janzer left the group and were replaced by violinist Philipp Naegele and violist Bruno Giuranna. Végh himself took up a conducting post that same year in Salzburg with the Salzburg Camerata Academica. The group disbanded two years later.

Végh Quartet - Bartók: Complete String Quartets

Year: 1997 (released); 1972 (recorded)
Label: Valois

Disc: 1
1. String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Sz. 40, BB 52 (Op. 7)
2. String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Sz. 67, BB 75 (Op. 17): I. Moderato
3. String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Sz. 67, BB 75 (Op. 17): II. Allegro molto capriccioso
4. String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Sz. 67, BB 75 (Op. 17): III. Lento

Disc: 2
1. String Quartet No. 3 in C sharp major, Sz. 85, BB 93
2. String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95: I. Allegro
3. String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95: II. Prestissimo, con sordino
4. String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95: III. Non troppo lento
5. String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95: IV. Allegretto pizzicato
6. String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95: V. Allegro molto

Disc: 3
1. String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110: I. Allegro
2. String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110: II. Adagio molto
3. String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110: III. Scherzo
4. String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110: IV. Andante
5. String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110: V. Finale
6. String Quartet No. 6 in D major, Sz. 114, BB 119: I. Mesto - Piu mosso, pesante - Vivace
7. String Quartet No. 6 in D major, Sz. 114, BB 119: II. Mesto - Marcia
8. String Quartet No. 6 in D major, Sz. 114, BB 119: III. Mesto - Burletta
9. String Quartet No. 6 in D major, Sz. 114, BB 119: IV. Mesto

a family of flowers, under the sheltering sun. or alternate link.

* out-of-print (new for $149 at Amazon! used for $99!)

You can also get some free downloads from banjoist Jake Schepps' upcoming Bartók album here:

March 21, 2011

Gideon Freudmann & Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin - Sound of Distant Deer

Some more shaking shakuhachi brilliance here. This time the coldness of the flute is met by the warmth of a cello, albeit a cello that commonly masquerades as a flute. There is so little I can say about this album. It is incredible. You will never hear cello played like this any other time. There are no words for this music.

Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin studied Shakuhachi in Kyoto, Japan with Kurahashi Yodo Sensei, who was a disciple of Jin Nyodo. There in 1975, he received the name Nyogetsu and a teaching certificate at the level of Jun Shihan in the Kinko school of shakuhachi.

After his return to New York, Nyogetsu was awarded the rank of Shi-han (Master) in 1978, as a result of his efforts to spread the teaching of this instrument in America.

In 1980, he received his Dai-Shihan, or Grand Master's license. In April 2001, Nyogetsu received a Koku-An Dai-Shihan (Grand Master's license at the level of Kyu-Dan, or 9th level) from Japan's Living National Treasure in shakuhachi, Aoki Reibo. He was also given the name Reishin (Heart/Mind of the Bell) to go along with it. Nyogetsu is the first non-Japanese to receive this high award.

Nyogetsu has performed in numerous concerts, lectures and demonstrations in the metropolitan area and around the United States as well as Canada, Mexico, Scotland, and Argentina. Not only has he toured Japan many times, he has also been interviewed on radio and television both here and in Japan, and has performed on the soundtracks of several documentary films including the Academy Award nominated documentary "A Family Gathering" (1989) for which he also co-composed the sound track. Nyogetsu's playing also appears on the GRAMMY-nominated "The Planet Sleeps" (SONY).

Ronnie Nyogetsu has released several recordings of shakuhachi music including cassettes, LPs and CDs. Mr. Seldin is the founder of Ki-sui-an shakuhachi dojo with branches in Manhattan, Rochester/Syracuse, Philadelphia, and Baltimore/Wash.D.C. In addition to teaching privately, Mr. Seldin is also part of the Japanese Music Program at the graduate Center of the City University of New York where he gives lectures on and demonstrations of the shakuhachi. He is also on faculty at New York University (NYU). His shakuhachi school - KiSuiAn Shakuhachi Dojo - has been the largest and most active in the World outside of Japan for the past three decades. 

"I never knew anyone could play so many instruments on the cello!"

Gideon Freudmann, a cello innovator, has created his own style of music called CelloBop - a fusion of blues, jazz, folk and much more. He has performed at The Montreal International Jazz Festival, The Prague Swing Jazz Festival and throughout the US. His music is also frequently heard on NPR's All Things Considered and on the TV show, Weeds. His creative workshops at schools, colleges and music camps, as well as his tunebook, New Music For Cello has inspired cello and violin students and teachers from coast to coast to perform his music by their own cello choirs and string ensembles. Gideon's original composed music has been commissioned for film, theatre and dance. His recent project has been performing live soundtracks for classic silent films. Gideon has 12 original CDs to his credit and has performed on dozens of albums by other musicians.

A classical musician by training, Freudmann earned a Fine Arts degree in Cello Performance from the University of Connecticut. Since that time, Freudmann has distinguished himself as one of the finest solo cross-genre cellists, performing in literally hundreds of venues throughout the United States, including a featured performance at the New Directions Cello Festival in New York. His solo CDs featuring exclusively original songs and lyrics have received international distribution, extensive national and international airplay and glowing critical reviews.

Freudmann has held several artistic residencies including the University of Connecticut, James Madison University, Ithaca Violoncello Institute and others, and has performed in dozens of colleges and universities in the country. Freudmann has been featured as a guest musician on an eclectic array of folk and rock CDs, and his innovative sounds have been commissioned for video, film and dance soundtracks. Among his non-classical influences, Freudmann cites the Kronos Quartet, Turtle Island String Quartet, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Leo Kottke, Mose Allison, and The Beatles.

Gideon Freudmann & Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin - Sound of Distant Deer

Label: (Gadfly 506)
Year: 1998

" This CD is a collection of songs combining shakuhachi and cello, in solos and duets, both traditional and modern. Nyogetsu plays shakuhachi with cellist Gideon Freudmann. There are four pieces composed for this CD using duets of these two instruments. There are also 3 improvisations between the two performers that they call "Cellohachi"."

"Sound of Distant Deer," the first ever cello-shakuhachi duet CD ever released, features traditional and original music performed by two masters of their respective instruments.

Gideon Freudmann, recognized as one of the most unique and original cellists in the country, teams up with Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin, the leading shakuhachi (the japanese flute) instructor in the U.S., for this one-of-a-kind album. Sounding at times meditative, reflective, bizarre, and odd, this first-ever musical combination has yielded a result that is, quite simply, greater than the sum of its parts.

The music on "Sound of Distant Deer" includes two ancient Japanese pieces, contemporary works written for these two instruments (though never recorded), and music specifically written and improvised for the album by Freudmann and Seldin.

Gideon Freudmann, with three previous CDs (Banking Left, Cellobotomy, and Adobe Dog House), has long been recognized for pushing the envelope with his unique use of the cello. In addition, his odd and quirky songwriting has made him a staple of the up-and-coming singer/songwriter circuit.

Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin -- the foremost shakuhachi instructor in the U.S. -- first learned and studied the Japanese flute with his Japanese Grand Master instructor from 1973 to 1980. In addition to teaching students and giving concerts around the world, he runs the largest shakuhachi dojo in the world outside of Japan.


1 Shika no Tone (Kinko Ryu) 鹿の遠音 10'50
This is perhaps the most famous of all the Honkyoku (Zen Buddhist original music for Shakuhachi). The time is Autumn, it is the mating season, and from two different mountain tops in the ancient city of Nara, a male and female deer are calling to each other.

2 Slippery Lettuce 04'46

During the recording session, when we took a dinner break, Ronnie attempted to pour some dressing on his salad. The dressing slid off a big leaf of lettuce and onto the table He said, "that's some slippery lettuce," which inspired Gideon to create this funky, bluesy morsel of aural ruffage.

3 Psalm of the Phoenix 10'52
Composed by Edward Smaldone I.

The indomitable spirit of the Phoenix is portrayed in a wide-ranging series of scenes that are alternately dramatic, prayerful, ecstatic, bluesy, and Zen influenced. Edward Smaidone (b f956) received the 1993 Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is an Assistant Professor at the Aaron Copeland School of Music at Queens College, CUNY.

4 Cellohachi - Part 1 04'04
Gideon and Ronnie intended to play an improvisational number together from the outset. They recorded three short pieces and decided to keep them all as a suite. See if you can hear the nod to the tune "Summertime."

5 Cellohachi - Part 2 03'35

6 Cellohachi - Part 3 02'04

7 Ajikan (Itchoken) 阿字観 06'51
This honkyoku is supposed to represent the Zen concept of "seeing with the heart”. It is about "seeing the original sound", a special sort of vision that is associated with enlightenment.

8 Scivias 07'25
This melody draws on a chant by the 12th century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, and borrows its title from her "Book of Mysteries". Jeffrey Lependorf (b 1962), best known as a composer of operas, is also a master of the shakuhachi and has composed extensively for the instrument.

9 Lost Together 07'03
Composed by new music composer Murray Hidary of New York City.

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