Tall Poppies


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Riley Lee: Breath sight

Yearning for the Bell, vol. 1
Riley Lee (shakuhachi)

$23   (Australian dollars)


buy at: AMC - Buywell - iTunes

The first in a six-CD set containing all the music in the medieval lineage of shakuhachi meditational melody known as 'honkyoku'. This is the first time that such a complete set of this music has ever been recorded. Riley's playing is exceptional.

Further volumes are TP102, 118, 138, 151, 167, 168.

Traditional Sokkan
San an
Nesasaha Shirabe
Nesasaha Tori
Nesasaha Sagarai Ha


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

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

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

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

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

Huib Schippers
Music Forum Feb-April 2005

This is part of a series of discs by shakuhachi player Riley Lee. Continued thanks are due to Tall Poppies for this attractive live recording.

Of all music, this is surely the most suited to live performance, where some sort of collective meditation can be detected. Of course a reverberant church acoustic suits the haunting sound of the shakuhachi. As the booklet notes point out, any extraneous sounds become part of the experience, sensations to be observe with an inner eye.

All the works on the present CD are traditional, dating (perhaps) from around the fourteenth century, and transmitted from teacher to pupil over the years.

Lee understands the vital part of the breath in this music, how the inhalation determines and colours the succeeding phrase. All works are in free rhythm, a fact that gives them their timeless feel.

The first piece, Sakkan (Breath-Sight) is fascinating firstly because it is performed on a very long (and therefore lower and timbrally deeper) instrument, over 90 cm long. Lee’s sense of timing is magnificent - everything just falls beautifully and inevitably into place. The difference between the various instruments can be immediately heard by comparing this to the succeeding work, San An (Safe Delivery), a prayer from the Echigo district of Northern Japan for safe delivery during childbirth. This instrument is about a third shorter than the first, yet still projects the prayer-like basis of the conception.

Nesasaha Shirabe (Original Tuning of the Nesasa Sect) is actually a warm-up piece, acting as a “renewal of the relationship between the bamboo and the performer”. As is often the case with works from this region, a technique known as “komibuki” is used, a sort of pulsating breath. It is a lovely effect. The music itself (of course) meanders ... but how!

The same pulsating technique recurs in Nesasaha Tôri (from the same area), traditionally played by komusô (priests) while begging for alms while on pilgrimage. Lee’s control is astonishing (try the diminuendo around 3’40).

Lee has a chance to dwell on the lower parts of the shakuhachi’s register in Ajikan (Seeing the letter Ah) - and how loud he can play it!

The austerity of Shingetsu paves the way to the shorter but memorable Nesasaha Sagri Ha (Falling Leaf). Reflecting the slow falling of a leaf, some of the melodic figures so indeed seem to aurally trace the downward movement.

Reibo (Yearning for the Bell) contains a passage that is effectively a ripple on an otherwise still pond (around 5’50-6’00). As the longest item on the disc (17’22), it is the best track for fully entering into the meditative state that belongs with this music. Finally, a slow prayer (Tamuke, or Prayer for Safe Passage) is a delicate and melancholy way to end.

Very, very beautiful indeed.

Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International

"The playing is consistently beautiful and the recording quality excellent…It is very intimate, and at times quite dramatic; nothing sounds like a 'flute exercise', yet Riley Lee's tonal control is inescapably uncanny."
Doug Spencer 24 Hours April 1993

"…nine honkyoku, pieces of extraordinary beauty where the shakuhachi seems to float through the air… hauntingly beautiful music."
Bruce Elder Nature & Health Vol 15/1

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