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John Cage: Ryoanji

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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In the vivid imagination of John Cage, a perfect storm of ideas was always at work. And when the composer's mind opened up to the exactitude of spatial geometry and the asymmetrical balance of nature, magical things happened in the world of music. One of these was Ryoanji, a singularly beautiful work inspired by a visit to a 15th Century, eponymous Zen garden. Cage visited Ryoanji (Peaceful Dragon) in 1962, and the garden had a profound and transformative effect on him: the minimalist art of the garden caught Cage's attention; he noted the beauty of fifteen stones placed in seemingly random clusters of two twos, threes and one fine stone cluster atop carefully raked gravel; and he prepared pencil tracings of the position of these stones, capturing, it might seem, the unbridled natural energy conveyed by their positioning. He then juxtaposed these with elements of the I Ching, creating a spectacular rhythm for his patterns, naming his drawing Where R = Ryoanji, and this beautiful composition was born.

In Ryoanji the natural energy of the earth appears to meet with the energy of its celestial canopy. In Cage's mind, the music of the energy of the stones seems to have taken birth in the rectangles of his score, where the profound elements of spatial geometry meets nature's swirling asymmetry. Cage's composition evolved from one written for solo instruments, to one for an unspecified number of instruments to one for 20 percussionists. The version on this album is for five instruments, with the human voice making the sixth instrument. The graphic elements of the composition demanded that instruments play in short and long lines (hexagrammatic elements of the I Ching) traced from the flowing lines of the fifteen stones, outlining a glissandi within a given pitch range. The lonesome yowl of the oboe is eternally entwined with the flutter of the flute and the svelte tenor of the trombone or the gravelly growl of the contrabass.

The resultant music is just as Cage had ordered. In this majestic reading of the maestro's musical script, the soloists play glissandi smoothly as if they were painting the score in brushstrokes. Thus the swish of instrumentation, rather than the sound of notes—almost as if in the softness of what is heard, the beauty of the Ryonji of Kyoto, Japan—has been recreated. This is as much a triumph for the solo instruments as much as it is for Cage, who dreamed of creating a space for the seemingly eternal peace of Ryoanji wherever the heart desired. Now, it seems, the musicians of this version of Cage's masterwork have made that happen on an album that will surely be remembered for its magical recreation of the fabled Zen garden by which Cage was so bewitched.

Track Listing: Ryoanji.

Personnel: Personnel: Robert Black: contrabass; Eberhard Blum: flute; Iven Hausmann: trombone; Gudrun Reschke: oboe; John Patrick Thomas: voice; Jan Williams: percussion.

Title: Ryoanji | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Hat Hut Records

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