Koan

John Palmer (harpsichord), ComeT Ensemble Tokyo, Teruhisa Fukuda (shakuhachi), Kunitaka Kokaji (conductor), Das Neue Kammer Trio

Listen & Purchase CD or downloads
Includes: KoanSatoristill
label: Sargasso
SCD 28049

The three acoustic works presented on this album all reflect John Palmer‘s profound engagement with Japanese spiritual and aesthetic tradition. Koan is a rare encounter between shakuhachi and chamber orchestra. In Still bass flute, viola and guitar create a meditative mood before the solo harpsichord of Satori brings the journey to an end. All this picturesque ‘Japaneseness’ might make it sound as though the listener to this album is in for a comfortable session of ‘new-age’ easy listening. But be warned: someone who submits himself to the ascetic severities of Zen monastery life could hardly be expected to opt for facile and superficial artistic solutions, and the musical language of John Palmer’s work is uncompromisingly Western and modernist. It demands of its listener, no less than of its creator, an attitude of disciplined seriousness. Deeply rewarding listening.

Credits:
John PalmerComeT, Teruhisa Fukuda (shakuhachi), Kunitaka Kokaji (conductor) – Das Neue Kammer Trio
Recorded at Minato-Mirai Concert Hall, Yokohama, Japan – Bad Brukenau, Germany (by the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Germany) – The Old Castle, Stuttgart, Germany.

TRACK LIST:

1. KOAN (24:00)
for shakuhachi and chamber ensemble

2. STILL (21:52) for bass flute, viola and 6- & 12-string guitar

3. SATORI (9:41)
for solo harpsichord


Reviews

The music is wonderful. I have been listening with intensity and delight at all levels, enjoying the rich sonorities, structures, intricacies, inventions and insights. I guess being a Buddhist as well as having some background in Japanese music helps, but I am sure the appeal must be immediate to most listeners, and in any case there’s so much to gain from repeated hearings!

Michael Barrett, OBE, Sasakawa Foundation, London, October 2003

The inventiveness of the CD is extraordinary…so many twists and turns and such constant fluidity – very buddhist! The atmosphere of quiet is very striking at times too. But I have to remember it isn’t the exotic quality that’s important, however beautiful, but the deep underlying power of the philosophy, which is really universal. I think it’s that that gives the exoticism the patina of genuine mystery – that’s what it’s all about on this little planet of ours.

Jonathan Harvey, September 2003

Dramatic and compelling in its flowing timbral changes, John Palmer’s music for instrumental ensemble projects an interesting and original musical personality. The three works on this CD reflect Palmer’s interest in Japan and Japanese culture. koan (1999), performed by the ComeT Ensemble Tokyo with solo shakuhachi performed by Teruhisa Fukuda, brings east and west sounds together in a striking mix. ‘Still’ (2001), for bass flute, viola and guitar, is spare and meditative. ‘Satori’ (1999), for harpsichord performed by the composer, is about the sudden shapes of plucked strings, bold and theatrical.

CDE Music, 2004

I love the CD. I have not heard contemporary music which is that much alive in a long long time. Struggling with the fact, especially as a performer, that many compositions nowadays seem to have lost any sense for the up and down of tension which could be translated into a physical experience during the time of a performance, I feel that John Palmer’s music comes out not only of an intellectual state, but has a very close connection to the body. This shows how he deals with form, rhythm, and especially sound. It is all very complex (good music has to be!) but it can all be felt. John Palmer’s music shows so much capacity of liveliness that there will always be something to take over into one’s personal life.

Katharina Olivia Brand, pianist and Music Lecturer at the University of Heidelberg, October 2003

The louring drones at the start of John Palmer’s koan are deceptive. Like somnolent tigers in the zoo, a bad tempered cello prowls around sullen viola, cor anglais snarls at the flutes. But it turns out that the natural mood of koan is high tension expressed in violent action. Four minutes in, shakuhachi soloist Teruhisa Fukuda is fighting his way through a dense, demanding solo passage with impressive virtuosity. Like Alice’s White Rabbit, Fukuda hasn’t a second to lose. Later the eight piece chamber ensemble returns, weaving thickets of woodwind around the soloist. Alto flute borrows classical shakuhachi techniques in gusts of breath and sirling harmonics. Piano and percussion do battle like a good old fashioned free improvisation night.

Tokyo’s ComeT Ensemble emerge from this hectic 24 minutes melee with considerable credit. But it’s strange that an instrument like the shakuhachi, which presumably attracts composers like John Palmer because of certain non-Western qualities – its relation to empty space, its poise – should then be subjected to pushy post-serialism, the most Western and hyperactive of modernist idioms. The incongruous effect is like watching a samurai warrior rushing to enter a crowded subway carriage.

Palmer is a British composer currently based in Germany, with a professorship in Stuttgart. Well established in the world of contemporary composition, he was a friend of John Cage, and is currently drawn to Japanese Buddhism and culture. On the second piece, still, the oriental references are more oblique. Das Neue KammerTrio present the dark breathiness of bass flute, viola like a keening voice, and deadened, biwa-like notes from 12 string guitar. The players are keenly aware of the space and silence around their meditative phrases. The writing is still firm and disciplined, but this piece is far more beautiful than the scrum of koan. Palmer’s vision is most clearly realised in the final piece satori, a ten minutes composition for solo harpsichord, performed by Palmer himself. The harpsichord is a stiff, unforgiving machine – no note-bending or half-holing here – but Palmer’s incisive, ringing phrases have the ascetic purity of a martial art. Strokes and gestures cut through the air with such a lack of hurry that it seems time has been abolished.

Clive Bell, The Wire, November 2003

Die traditionelle Musik asiatischer Länder ist eine der reichsten Quellen, aus denen Komponisten der Gegenwart und jüngeren Vergangenheit schöpfen, um das Vokabular der Musiksprache zu erweitern und zu erneuern. Eine nicht unwesentliche Rolle spielt dabei der spirituelle Hintergrund: Meditative Bewusstseinsvertiefung, die Suche nach dem Unverändlichen im Strom stetiger Veränderung, das Fassen der Welt als Ganzes sind auch bei uns seit jeher Zielsetzungen der Kunst, insbesondere der Musik.

Der britische Komponist John Palmer ist ein Japan-Begeisterter. Aus seiner intensiven Beschäftigung mit der Kultur und Philosophie des Landes sind unter anderem die drei Kompositionen dieser bei Sargasso erschienenen CD hervorgegangen. Satori aus dem Jahr 1999 ist ein Solowerk für Cembalo, gespielt vom Palmer selbst. Nur wenigen Tönen wird so lange nachgehört, bis sie verklungen sind und darüber hinaus – der Umgang mit Stille ist aber ein ganz anderer als z.B. bei John Cage; es geht hier nicht um Geräusche, die erst durch Ruhe hörbar werden. Das Klangereignis wird durch eine Lupe betrachtet: der Moment, in dem es in die Stille einbricht, seine Entwicklung und das Wiedereingehen in die Stille. Ist diese Anlage typische östliche Philosophie, so verleugnet sich Palmer doch nicht als europäischer Komponist: der Klang eines Cembalos ist eindeutig in unserer Musikgeschichte verankert.

Den Unterschied bzw. die Schnittmenge bei der Kulturkreise arbeitet Palmer in koan, ebenfalls 1999 entstanden, gerade mithilfe der Instrumentalfarben heraus. Zu einem Kammerensemble gesellt sich als quasi-solisticher Gegenpol die japanische Bambusflöte Shakuhachi. Faszinierend, wie Holzblasinstrumente, Streicher und sogar das Klavier diesen spezifischen Klang übernehmen, nachahmen, erkunden. Von kontemplativer Stimmung ist hier wenig zu spüren: Koan ist ein bewegtes und virtuoses Stück – furios gespielt von Teruhisa Fukuda und dem Contemporary Music Ensemble Tokyo (ComeT), eine Liveaufnahme vom Abschlusskonzert der ISCM 2001 World Music Days in Tokyo. Bestechend die Vertrautheit des japanischen Ensembles mit dieser Musik, wodurch eine energiegeladene rhythmische und klangliche Homogenität entsteht.

Dies geht leider dem Neuen KammerTrio ab. Als Auftragswerk der Gruppe speziell für die Besetzung Bassflöte, Viola und Gitarre geschrieben, verarbeitet still (2000/2001) auf ähnliche Weise Elemente japanischen Musizierens, ist ingesamt aber ruhiger und sensibler. Das intuitive Verständnis fehlt den Musikern, sie konzentrieren sich im Mitschnitt der Uraufführung vor allem auf das Auskosten der breit angelegten instrumentalen Farbpalette.

Detlef Krenge, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 2, März/April 2004

The traditional music of Asian countries is one of the richest sources of inspiration from which composers of the present day and recent past draw to broaden and renew the vocabulary of musical language. A not inconsiderable role in this plays the spiritual background: the meditative deepening of consciousness, the search for the unchangeable in the current of constant change, the comprehension of the world as a whole have been here also aspirations and aims of all art, especially music.

The British composer John Palmer is a Japan enthusiast. From his intensive engagement with the culture and philosophy of this country have sprung, among others, the three compositions on this CD recently released by Sargasso.

Satori, from the year 1999, is a solo work for harpsichord played by Palmer himself. Only a few notes are allowed to echo and resonate until they are no longer to be heard, and beyond. Here the treatment of silence is quite different than, for example, that of John Cage. It is not about noises which are only heard in moments of quiet. The sound experience is observed through a magnifying glass: the moment in which the sound disturbs the silence, its development and the return to silence. Though this construction is typical of Eastern philosophy, Palmer does not attempt to disguise his european-ness and the sound of the harpsichord is clearly rooted in our music history.

The difference and contact points of both cultural circles are worked out by Palmer in koan, also written in 1999, exactly with the help of instrumental colours. As a kind of counter pole (half-solistic) the japanese bamboo flute, the shakuhachi, is added to a chamber ensemble. Fascinating how woodwins, strings and even the piano take over, imitate and explore this very characteristic sound.

There is little of a contemplative atmosphere to be found here. Koan is a paced and virtuoso piece furiously played by Teruhisa Fukuda and the Contemporary Music EnsembleTokyo, ComeT, on a live recording from the ISCM 2001 World Music Days in Yokohama. Fascinating is also the familiarity of the Japanese ensemble with this music, through which an energy-packed rhythmic and tonal homogeneity is created.

Unfortunately, this is absent in the interpretation of still by Das Neue Kammertrio. This work was commissioned by and written for this ensemble consisting of bass flute, viola and guitar. Still (2000-2001) adapts elements of Japanese music making in a similar manner, but it is overall more sensitive and quieter. Yet, the intuitive understanding of the three musicians is missing. In this recording of the world premiere, they rather seem to focus above all on the savouring of the broadly laid out instrumental palette.

Detlef Krenge, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. March 2004 (translation by Roger Barrett)

The opening of koan exposes some beautifully delicate passages centred around the lower harmonic series; however, as the listener becomes accustomed to this fragile soundworld, the music rapidly moves off into more dense, wandering textures. The shakuhachi (played convincingly by Teruhisa Fukuda throughout) performs a focal declamatory role, with a combined flavour of Western modernism and the Japanese aesthetic tradition which is so obviously an enormous influence on the composer’s outlook. The varied layering of textures is well-balanced, although the intimate delicacy of the opening is never reiterated or implied, leaving one somewhat overloaded by the complexity of the polyphonic textures later on in the piece.

In still, the traditional concept of ‘ma’ centred around the empty areas in artistic composition is exploited successfully, where miniscule sounds reverberate in the silences which surround them. The constant iteration of single guitar tones provide a platform around which other heavier sounds to form a web, while being continually placed within the framework of silences. The certain melancholy created from the dichotomy of the two states is sustained persuasively throughout the piece.

Satori, the spiritual awakening during Zen meditation, forms the final piece on the CD and is for solo harpsichord performed by the composer. Again there is a vacuous spaciousness in the music, which sometimes threatens to engulf the thin sound of the harpsichord’s higher tones, but also allows the listener to indulge in the rich sonorities which emanate from the instrument. The dyads towards the end of the piece evoke meditative states of being, and although perhaps contrary to the essence of Satori, the piece satisfyingly raises more questions than it answers.

Richard Glover, new notes reviews, SPNM music journal, 28.09.2006

Si chiama esotismo. Tra le possibili, è la manifestazione più soft dell’incontro tra culture differenti. Certo non meno terribile di quando l’incontro genera uno scontro. Perché in definitiva si tratta sempre di una cultura che ne assoggetta un’altra, anche se solo per metterla in vetrina per questioni di gusto. Anche se solo per un vezzo. Nessun esotismo, qui. John Palmer non è uno di quei compositori che guarda a Oriente perché a Occidente s’è già detto molto, troppo o abbastanza. Non è in cerca di suoni lontani, da imitare per offrire sollievo a un ascolto e a una scrittura riarsi. Basta ascoltare koan per rendersi conto che non abbiamo a che fare con un occidentale che compone in un’altra lingua. Palmer compone semplicemente secondo il proprio sentire. La particolarità (ma è poi rilevante?) è che tale sentire non è quello che ci attenderemmo dai suoi natali londinesi e dalla sua formazione europea.

Del lontano Oriente, koan riverbera il respiro, l’evoluzione organica di una trama musicale agitata da richiami sonori evanescenti. L’inconfondibile voce dello shakuhachi sfida l’ascoltatore a seguirne il cammino inquieto e sospettoso lungo piani strumentali che scivolano senza posa l’uno sull’altro: ombre che si dileguano o s’addensano per semplice sovrapposizione in uno spazio sonoro saturato dalla liquida ineffabilità di fiati e archi, fugaci tessitori di dialoghi il cui senso può solo essere intuito di sfuggita.

In still il disegno si fa ancor più imperscrutabile, con gli strumenti – alienati ed errabondi su una scena densa di attesa – che sembrano incrociare i propri percorsi in maniera quasi accidentale, creando, nell’incontro, microeventi di grande tensione che si allenta poi conseguentemente al loro successivo abbandonarsi, in un movimento sghembo che pare oscillare precariamente attorno a un fulcro inesistente. Eppure, la logica sottostante appare sempre pregnante, sebbene celata: non lasciandosi dominare, questa musica non cessa mai di rivolgere interrogativi al nostro indirizzo.
Chiude satori, una lunga aperta coda che termina il ciclo così come lo si potrebbe iniziare. È il compositore stesso a farsi interprete di questa composizione, che porta all’estremo uno dei caratteri essenziali della sua poetica: l’indagine degli interstizi, di quegli spazi nascosti tra i suoni, tra le note, tra le tessiture che Palmer sa far cantare come fossero protagonisti della scena.
E protagonista in questo caso è il silenzio. Denso, profondo e prolungato. Solo accidentalmente punteggiato da note – singole o a piccoli grappoli, irrilevante il loro legame: conta più la forma complessiva – che emergono da esso solo per sottolinearne la trama, come i punti luminosi che nel cielo notturno delimitano settori di ignoto, anziché delineare figure riconoscibili.
Palmer gioca con le nostre aspettative musicali, facendosene beffe. Non a caso ha scelto per questo brano uno strumento come il clavicembalo, semanticamente associato a una ridondanza di materiale, a uno sfruttamento estensivo dello spazio sonoro. Basta poco, insomma, un accorto spostamento degli equilibri, per proiettare in nuovi fecondi scenari.

Emiliano Neri, www.allaboutjazz.com/italy, April 2004